How to use filters to manage your inbox and maximise your productivity
It’s been a bit of a filter week, and it suddenly occurred to me – back when I was writing a blog about Gmail templates (only *cough*nearly6monthsago*cough*) that I had fully intended to write a companion all about the AWESOMENESS that is Gmail filters.
Gmail filters are the number one, primo way of making sure your inbox remains manageable (along with having a free, newsletter signup Gmail inbox which you use to sign up for…well, newsletters and freebies and stuff…so you keep your business inbox email marketing free).
Once you start using them, you will wonder how you lived without them – I know I do.
Making best use of filters: setting up an alias or two.
Yes – using the wonder of Gmail you can be the equivalent of Jennifer Garner in that fabulously crummy 90’s drama about a woman whose friends don’t seem to notice that she is a) never home and b) always limping despite supposedly being a student.
Joking aside, an alias is a free way of setting up an extra email address for yourself, which flows into the same inbox as your ‘original’ email address. I, for instance, have several email aliases as well as firstname.lastname@example.org.
Included in my alias line-up is:
email@example.com (the Jennifer Garner equivalent of blending in with the crowd by wearing some sunglasses – I use this one for any ‘generic’ type emails like software signups).
firstname.lastname@example.org (Jennifer Garner’s Teutonic banker style alias – pretty obvious what this one is for).
email@example.com (Jennifer Garner is now in a farmer outfit – we live rurally, ok?! This is for the local chamber of trade type emails I get).
firstname.lastname@example.org (Jennifer Garner is now masquerading as herself and this Alias metaphor is stretching rather thin. This is used for forms and activity notifications from my website).
Get the idea? Each time I need a new ‘umbrella’ category to be able to capture, filter and do stuff with, I set myself up a new alias and send a metaphorical new disguise to Jennifer.
How to use alias emails to filter…well, emails.
So, now you have your collection of Jennifer Garners, all sporting different outfits and generically ‘foreign’ accents, what should you do with them?
Why, filter them of course!
A use-case scenario
As an example, I like to deal with finance emails all in one lump, which means I do not want them waving at me from the inbox.
I want them in their own folder so I can get to them when I want to (generally a Friday afternoon when I've all but lost the will to live anyway).
So, off I go to the Gmail filter.
And, once I’ve clicked on it, I go to the section that says ‘to’ and pop in my alias email address that I want Gmail to look out for (imagine, if you will that the Gmail filter is the dastardly SD6, baddy organisation of Alias and on the hunt for Sydney).
(Disclaimer: this is an extremely wide filter – I don’t tend to use filters with quite as wide a stretch as this because they will hoover up *everything* but we’re going to start wide and then I’m going to show you how to zoom in.)
Now, click ‘create filter’ and let’s decide what to do with those important but distracting finance emails.
I know I don’t want them in my inbox, so I’m going to add a label to them (which, in Gmail, has the same effect as a folder – it stores it out of the line of sight) and I’m then going to archive them (which means they will be removed from the inbox, leaving them waiting for me in the folder). I don’t want to mark them as read, because I won’t know which ones are new and need to be looked at, so I’ll leave that box unchecked.
I hit 'create filter', and as simply as that, Gmail now has a picture of the lovely Jennifer in her banker outfit, and is scanning all the CCTV footage for her. When it spots her, it will put her in label jail.
Instantly, my inbox is clearer and less distracting.
Now, we wait.
When I create a new filter, I tend to keep it front of mind for a little while, just so I can keep an eye on it and make sure it’s working correctly – it’s the best way to spot weaknesses and things you didn’t account for when you originally created the filter.
Use Case Continued – Excluding something from my filter
Oh no! My filter has caught a query a client sent me about one of the invoices I sent!
This is an unexpected glitch – I can’t just leave emails like that until I’m dealing with the rest of my finance stuff!
Time to go make an edit.
I want to adjust my filter so that it excludes emails that contain the word ‘invoice’ – I figure that anything which mentions an invoice is something I want to see in my inbox, not find on a Friday when I go through my finance folder.
So, off I go to my email settings (cogwheel, top right, click ‘see all settings’ and go to the ‘filters’ tab). I find the filter I created and click ‘edit’.
I update the filter and once again, keep an eye on it for a week or so to make sure it’s doing what needs to be done.
Alias is a kick-ass show and I love Jenniffer Garner.
Gmail filters are similarly kick-ass.
This blog could be about ten times longer than this if I wanted it to be/could stretch the Alias metaphor any thinner, because there are lots of ways to set up really fantastic filters.
Some of them will get stuff out of your eyeline (either permanently or until you need to see it), some of them will make sure things get into your eyeline as soon as possible. Some will begin with an alias email, like the example above, others might look for key phrases. Mastery of search operators will really help you out there (think AND, OR and judicious use of "", + and -).
If you need any help, or have an email problem that you think could be solved by a filter but you can't see how to make it work, just hit me up - I'm always happy to try and wrap my brain around a filter problem!
A list of ideas for use cases
This is totally non-exhaustive and should be used with caution, because what will work for one business won't work for another.
I also recommend setting up and maintaining filters with care - too many and they can begin to work against each other and cause issues. One of my monthly jobs is to go into my email system, look through all my filters and get rid of any that are no longer working and adjust any that need an adjustment. The last thing that we want is to miss an important email because it got filtered off into a folder and we never saw it.
That said, here are a list of filters that I either use myself, or have put into place for other clients.
Autoresponder clean up. I have a filter that looks for the phrase 'out of office' OR 'out of the office' which marks the email as read and sweeps it into a folder called (very imaginatively) 'autoresponder'. Very helpful for those days when I've sent out a newsletter and a few people are away on their hols. I just check into the folder once a week to make sure nothing got swept up that shouldn't have been, delete any that arent' needed and adjust the filter if I see any that shouldn't have been swept up.
Mark up client emails. Every time I take on a new client I set up a filter that marks the email as important, adds their client label, and gives them a star. (This works well for me because my inbox is set up as a priority style - I see any emails I've labelled 'action' first wither read or unread, then any email marked important and starred, then anything else - so it means client emails are always at the top of my inbox).
Hoover up meeting acceptance notices. I have a very simple filter that looks for an email from email@example.com which also has the word 'accepted' and mark it as read and archive it. Don't need to see it, don't need it in my life, thanks Google Calendar.
Delete unwanted emails. I'm pretty handy with the unsubscribe button, but no matter how careful you are about what you sign up to, you can't avoid occasionally finding that someone doesn't listen to your unsubscribe request, or get past the spam filters and end up in your email. I just add a filter for anything coming from that email address and delete them. Simples.
Get newsletters out of the way. These days I have a separate inbox that I use to sign up for newsletters, freebies etc, but I wasn't always so wise. I do get some newsletters to my business inbox, and while I don't want to unsubscribe, I don't want them bothering me through the week. I have set up a label called 'newsletters' and have a filter set up that looks for any email that contains the word 'unsubscribe'. All those emails have the newsletter label applied and are archived from the inbox. Every Saturday, when I have time to read the newsletters I go to that label, read any newsletters that interest me, delete all the rest and the label is clear and ready to go again for next week.
If you need help setting up (or clearing out) an inbox, particularly Gmail, that's my bag, baby. Give me a poke and we can chat.
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