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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 8 Issue 3
March 2014
Use Email Rules & Filters to Organize Your Messages

I get a lot of email. Between friends, clients, colleagues, newsletters, memberships, discussion groups, store offers, follow-up on orders I've placed and more, it's a lot. So far today I've deleted about 50 new messages, and today's not over yet! If this sounds like your Inbox, consider creating "rules" or "filters" to mechanically organize your messages.

If you don't get much email, or if you get a wide variety of email with very few themes, then creating email rules probably won't help much.

What are email rules & filters?
Whether you use a regular email program (like Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Apple Mail, Thunderbird, etc.) or webmail (on web sites like gmail.com, comcast.net, verizon.net, aol.com, etc.), almost every email system lets you create email "rules" (sometimes called "filters") to control your incoming messages. For example, depending on your email system you could set up rules that:
  • Detect incoming messages from john@smith.com and move them from your Inbox to a "Smith Client Project" email folder.
  • Detect incoming messages with "Photography newsletter" in the Subject, then mark them with the color red and play a special sound (but leave them in your Inbox).
  • Detect incoming messages from notices@irs.gov which also have "Payment due" in the body, and then delete them.
The overall process is:
  • You create email rules that you think will be helpful.
  • You decide on the order in which your rules will be applied.
  • Then, when new email arrives, your email system mechanically applies your rules (in the order you specified) to each new message.
Creating a new rule
There are typically three parts to each rule:
  • A Name or description, e.g., "Move Martin's newsletters to folder"
  • One or more criteria to identify matching messages, e.g., Sender is "Martin Kadansky (E-Newsletter) <martin@kadansky.com>" or Subject contains "piano," etc. If you specify multiple criteria, using various portions of a message like Sender, Subject, Body, etc., then all of the criteria must be true before the rule will apply to a given message.
  • One or more actions to perform on those matching messages, e.g., "move to 'Kadansky Newsletter' folder" and play a special sound.
You can create a new rule from scratch, and some email systems also let you make a rule based on an example message, which can help make sure the rule gets the correct criteria.

Then, rather than waiting for new messages to arrive to confirm that your rules are working correctly, most email systems let you apply your rules to existing messages to try them out.

You'll probably find the following functions for managing your rules:
  • Create
  • Edit
  • Change order (if you don't see this listed, try clicking-and-dragging to reorder)
  • Apply to selected messages
  • Enable/Disable - lets you deactivate and keep a rule for future use without deleting it
  • Delete
Order matters!
Email rules are applied to new messages in the order you specify, and this order matters!

To illustrate this, imagine you're a professional photographer, and you belong to all three of the following organizations:
Let's also say that you get a lot of email from each of these groups, so you create three email folders for each of them, along with three corresponding rules:
  • Detect incoming messages with "PPA" in the Subject and move them from your Inbox to your "PPA" email folder.
  • Detect incoming messages with "NPPA" in the Subject and move them from your Inbox to your "NPPA" email folder.
  • Detect incoming messages with "PPANE" in the Subject and move them from your Inbox to your "PPANE" email folder.
Do you see the problem with this set of rules?

If these particular rules are applied in the order listed above, then all the messages from all three organizations will get moved into the "PPA" folder, and none will end up in the other two folders. Why? Because "NPPA" and "PPANE" both contains the letters "PPA," so the first rule will always apply to these messages, and the other rules will never get a chance to run!

In this case, here are some better approaches:
  • Reorder the rules, putting the "PPA" rule last, or
  • Change all three rules from looking at the Subject field, and instead (or in addition) have them check the Sender field for a specific (and distinct) email address, probably something like newsletter@ppa.com vs. newsletter@nppa.com, etc. This change will also make these rules work the way you intended regardless of their order.
In general, as you create your rules, think about what might go wrong. Try to imagine messages that might match your rules in ways you didn't intend, and messages that might slip past your rules and not get processed correctly.

Most useful criteria
In my experience, the most useful criteria that you can use in an email rule to find matching messages are:
  • Sender (or "From") is a specific email address, e.g., "john@smith.com"
  • Sender contains a portion of an email address, e.g. "@smith.com"
  • Subject contains (or starts with) a specific word or phrase, e.g., "Freecycle" or "Newsletter"
  • Message body contains a specific phrase, e.g., "Smith client"
Your email system will probably let you specify a number of message "parts" for your rules to match.

Most useful actions
In my experience, the most useful actions that an email rule can perform are:
  • Move the matching message from your Inbox to email folder X (or "apply label X" on Gmail); you'll need to create folder X (or "label X" on Gmail) first, before creating the rule
  • Mark the matching message with a color or category or flag or importance
  • Play a special sound to call your attention to the arrival of a matching message
Actions you should avoid
On the other hand, many email systems will let you create rules with the following actions, but in my experience these are not a good idea:
  • Send a reply back to the sender of the matching message
  • Forward the matching message to someone else
  • Delete the matching message
In all of these cases I would worry that something could go horribly wrong. Creating rules that mechanically send out email replies or forwards could (in theory) generate a lot of traffic that could cause a lot of problems. Creating rules that mechanically delete messages that you haven't seen could also cause a lot of confusion later.

Instead, I strongly recommend the following safer method:
  • Create email folders to collect these messages, e.g. "For review" or "Needs a reply" or "To be deleted."
  • Make rules that move the matching messages to one of those folders instead.
  • Periodically review the contents of those email folders and act on those messages manually.
Should you use email rules?
Rules carry some tradeoffs. On the one hand:
  • Email rules, if set up correctly, can help de-clutter messages from (or highlight messages in) your inbox.
  • They work mechanically, saving you time and effort.
On the other hand:
  • When rules move messages out of your Inbox into another folder, you probably won't notice, and so unless you make a habit of looking in those folders, you may miss something timely or important.
  • Unless your rules play a sound, you may not get any indication that they've been invoked.
  • Your rules may not work the way you intended. They may filter too little or too much, or incorrectly. Your rule for "Subject contains 'piano,' " (which you hope will catch notices from Freecycle that a free piano is available) will also catch notices from Netflix that "The Piano" and "Shoot the Piano Player" are available for renting. A better rule would look for "Subject contains 'piano' " and "Subject contains 'freecycle.' "
  • Rules aren't always the best solution. If you find yourself wanting to create a rule like "Detect incoming messages from offers@sears.com and Delete them," if the sender is a legitimate company like Sears, a better approach would be to "unsubscribe" from Sears' email notices and not use a rule at all.

Additional advice
  • Do NOT use email rules or filters to create an email "vacation reply" or "away message"! (Think about it: You'd be creating a rule to mechanically send a reply to every incoming message. This is a really bad idea, for a number of reasons.) See below for the right way to do this.
  • Rules can definitely help if you get a lot of email with consistent Senders or Subjects that make using rules worth your effort. However, if you get a wide variety of email with very few consistent themes, or if you don't get much email at all, then rules probably won't help much.
  • Be as specific as possible. "Sender contains john@smith.com" is better than "sender contains john."
  • Test your rules!
  • In some email systems, it is understood that as soon as one rule applies to a given message, no other rules will be applied. In other systems (like Apple Mail), unless your rule moves the message to another folder (or it specifies "Stop applying rules"), more than one rule may be applied to your incoming messages.
  • Review your rules from time to time, and disable or delete ones that are no longer useful or appropriate.
  • A few email systems (including Outlook & Gmail) also let you create rules to perform actions on outgoing messages, so (for example) you could have messages that you send to john@smith.com also get moved to the "Smith Client Project" email folder.
  • If you've had email messages disappear (or other strange behavior), you may have accidentally created some rules that are interfering with your messages, or have obsolete rules that are still active. Check your rules!
Where to go from here
  • To get started with email rules or filters, look in your email system under Settings or Preferences or Tools.
  • Remember that rules are mechanically applied, so they will do what you've specified, not necessarily what you intended.
  • DON'T use rules or filters to set up an email "vacation reply" or "away message." Here's the right way: What Do I Do About Email When I'm on Vacation or Traveling?" - http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2011/2011_08_31.html 
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2014 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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