Sunday, April 3, 2011

How to manage your way out of email overload

Do you suffer that feeling of dismay as you sit down after work and open up your email only to see the message "Downloading 1 of 87 new messages" after day?

Do you find you can't read all your emails? You shudder at the thought of putting your name on a new e-list? You miss important information because you can't find it?

I know of people who simply delete their unread email when the inbox gets too full. This might get rid of the problem for now, but deleting important emails can cause bigger problems down the track!

I suffer those problems much less since I have instituted a series of filters and folders that automatically sorts my email. Bulk sources of email such as discussion lists and news lists go straight to their own dedicated folder as soon as they are downloaded. The folder is highlighted when a new message arrives, and I can go in and read it if I want. If I don't have time to follow that particular list today, I can leave it for later. I don't have to read all the messages, but I can easily see who has sent messages on what subject in case something piques my interest.

I can also set folders to delete messages after a set period so my email doesn't grow and grow until it's using up too much hard disk space.

This post is a simple how-to for managing your email using filters and folders. I have written this for users of Mozilla's "Thunderbird" email program (simply because it's the one I use). If you use something else such as
Outlook or webmail, there should be equivalent tools - google "filters" and the name of your email program you should find help easily enough (including for Thunderbird if you need extra help beyond this article).

Set up folders for categories of mail
The first thing you need to do is to work out what emails you can easily identify to separate into a separate folder. If you are subscribed to a yahoo group, messages will come with the group's name in square brackets at the beginning of the subject, which makes them easy for the computer to identify. If you want to separate all email that comes from a particular email address such as a news source that you are subscribed to, that is also easy for the computer to identify.

Once you have identified some potential categories to separate out like this, you need to set up folders for them. Right-click on your inbox and select "New Folder" to create a subfolder, as in this picture (you can see some of the large number of  folders I have - they may only get a new message now and then, but this way I know it won't get lost in my still-busy inbox).

1. Create a folder

Set up filters to direct mail to your folders
Having created a folder, you need to set up a "filter" for incoming email that will send messages to your folder. Click on the Tools menu tab at the top of Thunderbird, and then on the "Message Filters" option.

2. Open up the message filters tool

In the message filters window that appears, click on the button labeled "New..." at right. Another window entitled "Filter rules" will open up, as in the illustration below.
3. Setting rules for message filters

In Filter Rules, there are two things to do, as you can see from the two boxes. First, define the filter to apply. Second, what action to take with emails that are identified by the filter. You can use one or more filters to identify a particular category of messages, by clicking on the "Subject" and "contains" drop-down menus.
4. Parameter menus for setting filters

For a simple example, I commonly choose "subject" for the first parameter, "contains" for the second parameter, and then enter the name of the yahoo group I am filtering in the text field to the right, For example, every message from the CEN yahoo group has a subject line that starts with "[climateemergencynetwork]", so that would be the text I enter. If you want to set up extra rules, click on the plus button.

The next step is simple. Go to the next box and click on the "Move Message to" drop down menu. Actually, you probably don't need to click on it, if all you want to do is move the messages to a set folder, but you can see the range of actions that are possible for messages you have filtered.
5. Action options

Next, click on the drop-down menu entitled "Local Folders" and select the folder you want to move the message to. Having done this, click on "OK" and return to the "Message Filters" tool window. Ensure that your new filter has a tick in the "Enabled" box. If you want to run this filter now on the messages that are already sitting in your inbox, click once on the filter, then use the option at the bottom "Run selected filter(s)" by selecting Inbox on the drop-down menu, and clicking "Run now". 

If you set up multiple filters and folders, you can easily manage subscriptions to a dozen or more busy email lists. You don't need to read every message that comes in; just look over the subject and sender and decide which one looks important enough to read.

One notable shortcoming
There is one serious pitfall with this tool. If a friend replies to, or forwards an email directly to you personally that has the parameters of your filter, it might go to the folder instead of to your inbox, even if it's an urgent personal message.

For example, the CEN secretary  sees the message entitled "blind carbon copy is a climate change denier" on the Climate Emergency Network yahoo group and forwards it to me with an additional personal message "is this true? Please tell me it's not or I shall have to expel you from the network. Respond by 5PM today or you are banned." Because it was a forwarded message, the subject line includes the original subject line with "[climateemergencynetwork]" in it. So it is sent straight to that folder, and if I haven't time to read that folder today, I will miss this important personal message.

The same problem, of course, can happen with well-known spam filters causing us to miss important messages. Even if you aren't going to read a particular folder regularly, it's a good idea to regularlyl check what new mail has arrived in it.

Let old mail delete itself
The last thing to do is to set up folders so that old mail doesn't stay forever. This may be relevant, for example, for a news or discussion list folder where you only keep messages for a few days, or a few weeks. Some folders you may wish to keep all mail forever, but remember that if you need to look at old messages on yahoo groups or google groups you can go to the group's homepage on yahoo or google and look there  so no need to keep them in your inbox forever if you don't want to.

Right-click on the folder you want to set a rule for. Click on the "Properties" option.

6. Edit the folder properties to allow automatic message deletion

In the Folder Properties tool box that opens, click on the "Retention Policy" tab and select the options that suit your folder best.
7. Select the parameters for which messages to delete.

Once you have done this, you are done. This may not decrease your actual amount of work, but by keeping the information ordered and categorised it will help you to avoid the information overload that often stops us working due to stress and confusion.

Please add any extra suggestions or problems with these instructions in the comments field below!


  1. 87 a day? I wish! One useful tool I use is a free program called Mailwasher (Google it), which you can use to quickly delete spam, filter etc. without downloading. Worth a try.

  2. re the issue of a forwarded message going to the designated e-list folder, would it help if, instead of setting up the filter based on the subject, you instead used the recipient field? that way, messages sent to the list will go into the e-list folder, but if it was sent to your personal address it should stay in your inbox.


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