Essential Gmail Filters to Unclutter Your Inbox

One of the problems with opening your inbox and finding 20 new messages is that it can be overwhelming. The work required to sort through it all, delete unwanted messages, skip over unimportant ones, and finally get to the urgent ones, can be very daunting.

You don’t have time to do that every day. Let Gmail do it for you.

Of course, you can actually adapt these for the the “rules” of whatever email program you prefer, but the language I use is specific to Gmail filters. It shouldn’t be hard to adapt it to other programs such as Outlook or Hotmail or Yahoo.

The process of setting these filters up will actually take a couple of days (not the entire two days), as you add names and words to the filters to make sure they catch everything you need. But once you’ve set them up, your inbox will be what you need it to be: just the need-to-see stuff.

Gmail Filter Assistant. If you use Firefox (and you probably should be), use the Gmail Filter Assistant script for Greasemonkey (you’ll have to install the Greasemonkey extension first if you haven’t yet). It’ll make the whole process easier — you can create a filter from an email in seconds.

Filter 1: killfile. This is the first process of weeding unwanted emails from your inbox. Gmail should already be catching almost all of your spam (I think I get one spam in my inbox a week). So now you want to delete those emails that you know you never read and that just waste your time. Create a filter with the email addresses or subject lines of common emails you get that you don’t need to read, and make the action of the filter be “delete it”. Here are some common ones:

  • Newsletters or mailing lists.
  • Emails from companies letting you know about sales or deals.
  • People who only forward you chain mail or joke emails. Yes, this would include your Aunt Edna, if that’s all she sends you.
  • Notifications that you don’t need to read. For example, I have Google Calendar email me my agenda each day, but if it says “No scheduled items” then I have Gmail delete it. Similarly, I don’t need to read notifications of pingbacks to my blog.

Filter 2: urgent. You probably know the people whose emails you need to read right away. Create a filter with their email addresses, with the action “Apply the label: Urgent”. You can add other things to the filter, in the “Has the words” field, such as words in the subject line or body of the email that you need to see right away. Examples might include “payment” or “invoice”, but which words you need to see right away depend on you.

In addition, you can tell people that if they want you to respond to an email right away, to put the word “urgent” in the subject line.

The “urgent” emails will be left in your inbox, but it’s important to label them “urgent” because of the next filter.

Filter 3: low-priority. Create another filter with the word “urgent” in the “doesn’t have” field, and give the filter two actions: “Apply the label: Low-priority” and “Skip the inbox”. This will get all your non-urgent emails out of your inbox. You may need to tinker with these filters a little to ensure that the right emails are being filtered out of your inbox. For example, if someone always puts the word “urgent” in their emails, but you don’t consider them urgent, you’ll need to create a second “low-priority” filter with their email address in the “Has the words” field.

Now all of your low-priority emails — the ones you don’t want to delete but don’t need to read right away — are out of the inbox and in a separate folder called “low-priority”. I suggest you go through this folder only once a day or every other day (or even once a week). Going through it throughout the day defeats the purpose of getting the non-urgent emails out of your inbox.

Getting your filters right. Now, there will be some emails, especially in the beginning, that get put in the wrong place. For the first couple of days, you’ll probably need to adjust all three filters to ensure that things work right. Look through your Trash folder, and your low-priority folder, to see if emails are being put their when they shouldn’t be.

But once you finish the tinkering process, your inbox should be a place of heaven.

Bonus filter: Spam. This doesn’t really concern your inbox, but if you go through your spam folder and empty it out every day, just so you don’t have the “unread” count next to the spam label, try this filter: “Has the words: is:spam” with the action “Delete it”. Now your spam folder should be emptied automatically.

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