Tame Your Overflowing Inbox

Category: Email

Is your email inbox overflowing? Are you spending more time than you should managing your inbox? If so, it's likely you're not using filters to direct the flow of incoming emails. Learn how to automatically file messages in folders, forward them to someone else, or dump them straight into the trash. Oh, and if your Spam folder is gobbling up messages that don't belong there, I'll also show you how to solve that problem...

Create Your Own Email Rules and Filters

If your inbox typically has hundreds (or thousands) of unread messages, you may feel anxious just thinking about what you might have missed. And your family or friends may be wondering why you haven't replied to them.

A lot of time is spent sorting, moving, forwarding and deleting email instead of reading and acting upon it. Email filters, also called rules, relieve users of some of this administrative burden. Today I'll explain how they work, and how they can work for you!

Read on for help using filters or rules to automatically direct your incoming email messages in a way that makes sense for you. The goal is to decrease the amount of time you spend managing your inbox, and increase the time you spend actually reading and replying to your emails. Below you'll find instructions for how to do that with several of the most popular email services.

Creating Email Filters

To create a filter in GMail, log in to your account and click the down-arrow inside the search box at the top of the page. (See image below) A window displaying search options appears. Parts of a message that can be searched include the From, To, and Subject fields, and the message body. You can optionally select messages that have attachments, or are part of chat sessions. You can also filter based on the size or date of the message.

To find all mail from a specific contact, start typing his/her name or email address in the “From” field. Select the desired contact from those that appear .

Some actions that can be applied to matching messages are obvious: Skip the Inbox (archive), delete (move to trash), and forward to another address. One action that I find very useful is "Never send to Spam." I subscribe to a few newsletters that would occasionally end up in the Spam bucket, so this ensures they always make it to my inbox. When you've entered all your criteria, click the “create filter with this search” link in the bottom-right corner of the window.

Creating a Gmail Filter

Gmail does not have user-defined folders; instead, “labels” can be created and attached to messages. You can think of them as folders, because they work in much the same way. With a filter, you can funnel all messages that match your criteria into a label. Combining this with "Skip the Inbox" is a useful trick.

IMPORTANT: If you check the box "Also apply filter to matching conversations" your new filter will be applied to existing messages, as well as new messages as they arrive. This lets you apply your filter retroactively, which can help to organize the messages you've already accumulated.

Outlook.com (formerly called Hotmail, and not to be confused with the Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express desktop email programs) calls its filters “rules.” To create a custom rule, start by clicking the gear icon near the top right on Outlook.com’s main menu; then select “Options” in the dropdown window. Click the "Inbox and sweep rules" link on the left-hand navigation column, then click the "+" icon to begin creating a rule.

You can filter messages based on the sender’s name or email address, words in the message’s subject or body, message size, whether it has attachments or not, and who the message was sent to. Matched messages can be moved to another folder, marked as junk mail, labeled with a category name, deleted immediately, flagged for followup later, or forwarded to another email address.

Outlook.com lets you create rules to automatically handle email as it comes in, but doesn't give you the option to apply your new rule to messages that have already arrived.

Yahoo! Mail’s filtering procedure is similar to Outlook.com. Start at the main menu and select the gear icon found at the top right of the window, then Settings. Click the Filters link and then click “Add” to create a new filter.

Areas you can search include From, To/CC, and Subject fields, and the body of messages. Operators that can be applied to the target text (search keywords) include Contains, Does Not Contain, Begins With, and Ends With. You can specify whether the filter should be case-sensitive or not. For example, if you specify "banana" as a word to look for in the Body, and you check the "Match case" box, then messages containing "banana" will match, but those with "Banana" or "BANANA" will not.

Options are somewhat limited here. You can move messages that match filter criteria to other folders (including Trash, Spam, or a filter you create), but you cannot forward a message to another email address, or apply your filter to existing messages.

To create filters in Apple’s iCloud Mail, log in to your iCloud.com account and select the Mail app. Click the gear icon at the bottom-left corner and select “Rules” from the pop-up menu. Select “Add a Rule” to get started.

iCloud Mail’s filtering options are limited compared to those in the OS X desktop Mail client. (So are Outlook.com’s compared to the MS Office Outlook client.) But creating a filter is dead easy. Using drop-down menus, select a condition to be met, i.e., “If a message is from…” Second, complete the condition statement by entering text, i.e., “me@mymail.com.” Third, specify the action to be taken, i.e., “Move it to…” trash, spam, some other folder, etc.

AOL Mail filters can divert incoming messages to specified folders or send an alert to your AIM or mobile phone (not the whole message, just an alert that you have an email from so-and-so waiting).

To create a filter in AOL Mail, start by clicking the down-arrow next to your Username in the upper-right corner of the AOL Mail screen. Click Mail Settings and then select “Filters and Alerts.” Name the new rule, then set up the condition(s) and action to be performed on messages that meet the condition(s) Check the AIM or mobile phone alert box if desired.

Are you still using a desktop email client such as Windows Live Mail, Outlook or Thunderbird? If so, a bit of Googling (or the Help screens in those programs) will point you to the instructions for creating filters there. The concepts should be very similar to what I've discussed above. I've been using Gmail since 2004, and I can't imagine being tied to a single desktop for my email. Webmail services such as Gmail, Yahoo and Outlook.com allow you to manage your email from any computer (or mobile device) with an Internet connection.

It's worthwhile learning the capabilities of the filters or rules in your email client. Doing so will keep your inbox tidy and organized, and will save you time and tedium. GMail has the most flexible and powerful filtering options of all the ones I've worked with, which is one of the reasons I use it manage my inbox.

Here's one final tip: If your email doesn't have the type of filtering you want, create a free GMail account and forward all your messages to that address, where they can be filtered according to your needs. You can even configure Gmail to send outgoing messages with your old address in the "From" line, so your friends will never know the difference.

Do you use email filters or rules to tame your inbox? If so, how? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Tame Your Overflowing Inbox"

Posted by:

22 Sep 2017

Hi Bob, thanks for those suggestions. Unfortunately they do not cover (unless I have misread your article) the case where gmail randomly selects perfectly good emails and rams them in my spam box.
These can sometimes be spam, but usually are from addresses I have previously received unmolested emails from.
The annoyance is that, although I use Thunderbird to manage my several email addresses, I have to continually go into the online gmail account to see what errors gmail has made. If I do not do this, gmail takes it upon itself to delete all emails they consider spam after one month.
More annoying is the flood of emails coming through gmail from morons claiming to owe me millions of dollars and just need my bank details to make the payment. Do they pick those up as spam? Guess.

Posted by:

Kenneth Heikkila
22 Sep 2017

Thanks Bob, I also have been using Gmail for many years and can't imagine going back to a desktop email program. I still occasionally run across some site I am registered on that is very difficult to convince I no longer have that old email account. I have used filters for many things, but didn't realize all the things you could do with them, particularly the retroactive labeling.
I wonder if there is a way to strip all or some labels from everything without losing the email, then apply different labels?

Posted by:

22 Sep 2017

We use a combination of web based e-mail and Thunderbird. Messages can be downloaded AND still be left on the web based server. Hopefully this method will save us when/if the web mail server deletes everything, which did happen to us when we moved, even though we kept, and used, the email address during the move.

We never open TB until we are sure there are no issues with the web mail, then just use TB to download the messages to our hard drive and then close TB as changes made on TB will change the server also.

We use throwaway e-mail addresses and sort incoming messages by them. As we use a different e-mail address for all sign ups, this keeps it simple, and if one of the addresses was ever compromised or is no longer needed it can be deleted without affecting any other messages.

These methods work for us as we found when we used text to sort it didn't always work correctly, but using the addresses seems to work well.

Posted by:

22 Sep 2017

You must not be "training" the gmail filters.
Use the web interface and mark the spam that gets through and the false positives. Do that for a bit and their spam filter will rarely get it wrong.
You can also set up filters via the web interface to sort mail, delete it, and mark it in various ways.
I use a purchased domain for my email and do not use my true gmail address. I have a filter that moves anything that comes there directly to trash. You can use sources, destinations, included words, etc. in the filters.

Posted by:

22 Sep 2017

Jonathan, is there an issue with Thunderbird? I just started using it, so don't know much about the history.

Thanks, Bob for the tips. I'm going to set up filters today.

Posted by:

22 Sep 2017


We like Thunderbird and have had no issues with it the way we use it, which is just to download the messages from our web based e-mail provider to our hard drive, leaving them on the mail server also... it is just a back up for ourselves, having had our messages all go "poof" in the past.

As Bob noted in his article web based is convenient as you can access anywhere, and we use it for actually sending and receiving mail. You cannot download the messages to your own computer... for that you need TB or something similar.

Posted by:

John Stolte
22 Sep 2017

RE: Your comment "I can't imagine being tied to a single desktop for my email".

Just FYI (I'm sure you know) that if you have your own domain (or your employer does) AND the email is hosted on an Exchange Server or is in Office365 (which is Exchange) you have the best of all worlds, you can use Outlook Desktop, as I do on Windows 10, and use OWA (Outlook Web Access) and my smart phone, and Apple Mail on my Mac all concurrently with zero problems.

Posted by:

Mac 'n' Cheese
22 Sep 2017

Kenneth, here are the steps. First, click on the label that contains the messages you want to change. Second, add the new label to all the messages, or just the ones you want to relabel. Third, delete the old label. This will not delete the messages.

If you want, try the process on some messages you don't care about, even if you have to send some messages to yourself to get some guinea pigs to work on.

Posted by:

22 Sep 2017

Hi, Bob, thanks as always for the good info. But one of your statements has me totally miff'd: "Outlook.Com (formerly called Hotmail, and not to be confused with the Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express desktop email programs)..."
I've been using whatever "Outlook" came with Windows, not knowing there were 3 different ones (or WHY?), and it works just fine for my .MSN email that I've had for many, many years. What's the difference, and why does Microsoft have 3 different "Outlook" programs? Thanks, HMB

Posted by:

23 Sep 2017

Same here, Henry.

Posted by:

Sam Scrutchins
23 Sep 2017

I would like to see a list of recent articles. There was one sent out the other day about settings on iPhones and iPads after the most recent IOS update. I cannot find the article and would like to send it to my children.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You can find the recent articles listed on the askbobrankin.com home page. The one you're after is here: https://askbobrankin.com/is_this_iphone_madness.html

Posted by:

24 Sep 2017

I'm guessing you're talking about cell phones. I use AOL mail and my username does not appear in the upper right of my desktop mail window, with or without arrows. As far as I know it never has.

Posted by:

26 Sep 2017

I've used Outlook.com on my Win 7 (for years)...primarily because of its "Sweep" function that removes/controls emails from specified senders.

I just recently got a Win 10 laptop. It's "built-in" email client APPEARS to be Outlook. BUT...I can NOT find the "Sweep" function on it??!!??

Posted by:

08 Oct 2017

You missed some features of AOL mail (which has long overdue improved it's spam handling in recent months).

It has a "Spam settings" section, separate from the filters section. And here you can add words/phrases that will send am email to spam. BUT you can also add email addresses that are spam. The latter is where AOL has recently improved, and ultimately made more powerful, as it allows wildcards in email addresses. For example, I get a lot of spam from address domains that are "@ something DOT something DOT us", never valid emails. So adding "@*.*.us" blocks all of that format. Can also block standard foreign spammers by wildcarding just for the TLD last part (eg @*.cn).

Admittedly AOL is a long way behind Gmail, whose spam filtering is excellent straight out of the box, but the above makes it far more powerful than just your stated AOL filtering method.

Posted by:

09 Oct 2017

You wrie: "Gmail does not have user-defined folders; instead, “labels” can be created and attached to messages. You can think of them as folders, because they work in much the same way."
I once spent a whole afternoon explaining to another instructor that this WASN'T true. Danger is if you delete an email that has several labels it is (being stored in only ONE place) DELETED - and disappears from any other label you have it. (The other instructor was getting his student to add a label to an email and then delete the email from the inbox (which is, of course, only a label). He then showed the student where the email was... except it wasn't there! Luckily I knew there was a hidden label BIN from where the email could be recovered. NB emails labelled BIN are deleted (as with those labelled SPAM) after 30 days.

Posted by:

23 Dec 2017

I've noticed that AOL recently changed filters and it no longer give the option of getting alerts. Am I missing an update? Did they move that option somewhere else/

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