How to set up and use email filters for your work email

I’m working on a short series here on doing email better. In this lesson, we’re going to learn how to put our email software to work.

I’m talking about using email filters.

There’s an old rule with paper – only touch each piece of paper once, right? When it’s in your hand you need to decide to file it, delegate it, or throw it away.

Why can’t we do that with email? You can — use email filters.

Filters are your friend

Computers are great at doing repetitive tasks that humans are pretty bad at. So, as much as possible use the computers to do those repetitive tasks. One thing that email programs are generally good at is filtering email and automatically filing it. When you have set up good email filters, it can really clean up your inbox leaving you with fewer messages to process on a daily basis.

Fewer messages to process = more less time staring at email, which means you get more done and get on with your life.

Sound good?

All modern email clients have filters. To figure out how to make them in the client, you can Google “creating filters [Name of your mail client]”. There will be lots of useful tutorials, and likely a video too!

Here are some filters that I found most useful.

1. Move all newsletters to a sub-folder.

Newsletters are one of the things that most frequently clutter up your inbox and are most easily recognized by your email program and processed into another folder. I have a folder called “lists” that I automatically have my email program send all the newsletters into. It it’s easy to recognize newsletters because they usually contain the name of the newsletter sender (like Constant Contact, MailChimp, Infusionsoft, or aWeber) I do have one friend who just filters any email that has the word unsubscribe and puts all those in the list folder.

To do this you would create a filter like:

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It goes without saying (or does it?) that if you really don’t want to read the material in the newsletter then you should just unsubscribe from it. But if you want to read it (just not right now) then filter it out and read it later.

One “newsletter” that I can’t unsubscribe from, but that doesn’t require immediate attention is messages from LinkedIn. Most of these are of low value, but every now and then there’s a gem I don’t want to miss. So I filter them into their own folder that I check once a week or so. LinkedIn sends from a wide range of addresses so I have to get them all!

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2. Organize meeting requests.

The second thing that junks up my inbox are meeting requests. For some reason if I schedule a meeting, and I’m an attendee it sends me a copy of the meeting request. Then I get an acceptance from every person who replies. I don’t need to know who’s accepting; I just need to know who’s declining (I can see the status in my calendar if I need to know who’s coming). I filter the initial requests into a folder called meetings like this.

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Then I file the acceptances into that same folder with another filter. There is more than one format for acceptances (some say accept, others say accepted) so I filter them both!

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3. Deal with those darn CCs!

If someone isn’t sending a message to me directly, then it can wait to be read until later. So I filter out any emails on which I’m carbon copied or CC’ed into a folder called “To Read”. This is easily done by setting up a filter that sends any email for which your email address is not in the to field to a folder called “to read”.

No fair if you never go in and read that stuff, but if you scan it once a day that’s most likely often enough.

4. Banish annoying emails.

Lastly, there are a few pesky messages that get into my inbox that I never want to see again. Either mailing lists that won’t let me off, or annoying people or promotions that keep showing up. I create a special SPAM filter to take care of those. My copy of filter is very long so I’ll only show you the first few entries (and I blotted out the guilty parties) but it’s a list I add to over and over again!

5. Automate your automated billing messages.

Every time I sign up for a service with recurring billing, I get a monthly email showing that my credit card was billed. This is useful, but again I don’t need to look at them right now. I can file them and look at them all at once. For this, I create an alias. An alias is an email address that simply forwards to your regular email address. So in my case billings@my-domain.com forwards to my regular email. Then I filter everything to billings@my-domain.com into a folder called “receipts”.

6. Bonus: Server side filtering.

The absolute icing on the cake is if you can get these rules to run on the server (like if you are using a webmail, like Gmail or Zimbra) because then all the filtering happens whether your computer is running or not. So then, you never see unimportant messages in your inbox when you check from your phone or tablet or anywhere! It’s a dream.

When you have fewer messages in your inbox, you spend your time focusing on the important email instead of filtering out the unimportant stuff. If you have fewer emails in your inbox, you will also be less likely to let them pile up to where you have 200, or 2,000, or 20,000 emails in your inbox.

Email is taking more and more of your time, and your team’s time. It’s time to get smarter about email, and filters can help.

How do you make your email smarter?

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Brad Farris

As principal advisor of Anchor Advisors, Brad Farris has experience leading businesses & business owners into new levels of growth and success. Through his work with over 100 Chicago area small businesses he has experience in guiding founders and business owners through the pitfalls and joys of growing their business. Prior to joining Anchor Advisors, Brad spent over 10 years managing business units for a family-owned conglomerate with sales of $2 million to $25 million.  When he's not working, Brad enjoys cycling, cooking and the NFL. He is married with 5 children and lives in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with him on Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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