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Hack 10: Filter Low-Priority Messages  – Control Your Email

Level Easy

Platform All

Cost Free

You’re head-down at work on that important presentation that’s due in two hours. Ding! An unopened envelope appears in your system tray.

“You have 1 unread message.”

Maybe it’s your co-worker with game-changing information about the presentation. Maybe it’s your boss asking to see you right away. You switch and take a look at your inbox. Oh. Aunt Eunice forwarded you a picture of a kitten in a tutu. Again.

Millions of email messages course over the Internet per second, and a bunch of them land in your inbox. Your spam filter helps shuttle junk mail out of sight, but what about messages from CC-happy co-workers, Aunt Eunice’s forwarded emails, Facebook friend notifications, Google Alerts, and mailing-list messages that clutter your inbox with low-priority noise? A group of web users coined the term “bacn” to refer to this “middle class of email” that’s “better than spam but not as good as a personal email.” 11 In other words, they’re messages you want to read eventually, just not right now. Instead of giving your bacn the same priority as your actually important email, put a system in place that clears away the bacn automatically so that you can drill down quickly to what’s important.

NOTE Bacn (pronounced “bacon”) is an Internet slang term cooked up by a group of web users at PodCamp Pittsburgh 2. It means email that you want to read, but not right away.

Filter Bacn

Set up rules — also called email filters — to make low-priority messages skip your inbox and file themselves away someplace less urgent. An email filter is a list of conditions you define that trigger an action on an incoming email message that matches your filter. Filter actions can be as simple as, “Delete any message from annoying.person@example.com” or much more complex, such as, “Any message that doesn’t contain any one of my five email addresses in the To: field and does not have the word URGENT in the subject line should be moved to the Not Important folder.”

The steps for creating a mail filter or rule vary depending on your email client. The following examples use the excellent, free, cross-platform email program Thunderbird, available at http://mozilla.org/products/thunderbird.

TIP Apart from Thunderbird, Google’s popular email client, Gmail, is particularly adept at filtering incoming messages. Click the Create a Filter link next to Gmail’s search box, employ some of the advanced Gmail search tricks you learned in Hack 6, “Master Message Search,” and apply the same filters discussed here to your Gmail inbox.

To configure your email filters in Thunderbird, choose Tools ⇒ Message Filters and click the New button. Figure 1-11 displays a rule that files Aunt Eunice’s forwarded messages and any messages from a mailing list to a folder called Later.

Figure 1-11: A mail filter that moves low-priority incoming messages to a folder called Later in Mozilla Thunderbird.

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Filter CCed Messages

One of the most common misuses of email — especially in an office situation — is carbon copying anyone and everyone even tangentially related to the topic of a message. It’s safe to assume that messages not directed to you (that is, your email address is not in the To: line) are less urgent and more informative; CCed messages most likely don’t require a response or action on your part. On a day when you’re firewalling your attention and care about only the most important disruptors, set up a rule that shuttles email you’ve been CCed on out of your inbox and into a separate folder for searching and browsing later.

To do so, first create a CC folder in your email program. Then set up a rule (filter) to say, “If my email address does not appear in the To: field, file this message” as shown in Figure 1-12.

NOTE Hack 6, “Master Message Search,” provides tips for digging up messages based on specific criteria.

When the filter is enabled, all new messages that arrive without your email address in the To: field are automatically filed in the CC folder.

Figure 1-12: An email rule that moves messages not directed to either of two email addresses to a folder called CC.

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Gmail’s Priority Inbox

If setting up and managing filters for every piece of bacn that makes its way to your inbox sounds like more effort than it’s worth, Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature may be a better fit for your workflow. Priority Inbox analyzes your email behavior — like which messages you open and reply to — to automatically identify the email that’s most important to you. It assigns those messages to your Priority Inbox, which, if Priority Inbox is doing its job, is a bacn-free zone.

To enable Priority Inbox, click the Settings link at the top of any Gmail view, click the Priority Inbox tab, select Show Priority Inbox, and then save your changes. Gmail reloads with Priority Inbox running, and you see a new Priority Inbox link right below your Inbox in Gmail’s navigation sidebar. Click it.

By default, Priority Inbox separates your email into three panes, as pictured in Figure 1-13: Important and Unread, Starred, and Everything Else, each signifying just what it sounds like. Important and Unread contains those emails that Gmail believes are a priority to you and which you haven’t yet read; Starred contains all messages that you’ve starred; and Everything Else contains — you guessed it! — everything else.

Figure 1-13: The default Priority Inbox view in Gmail.

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TIP The default three inboxes Gmail displays when Priority Inbox is enabled may not be the right fit for you. You can adjust what inbox sections Gmail uses by navigating to Settings ⇒ Priority Inbox and adjusting Priority Inbox Sections to better fit your needs.

If you don’t feel like Gmail’s getting it right — that is, if you see a few less-than-important messages labeled as important, or a few important messages that aren’t tagged as important — you can manually add or remove priority to a message. Doing so can also help train Gmail to better identify what’s important to you, so the more feedback you give it, the better Priority Inbox will get.

To mark a message as important, simply click the Mark as Important button (it’s a yellow label with a plus sign, as shown to the right of the delete button in Figure 1-14) when you’re viewing a message or when you’ve ticked the check box next to a message; to mark a message as unimportant, click the Mark as Not Important button instead.

Figure 1-14: The marker with the plus sign indicates an important message.

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Shortcut

Keyboard junkies, you can promote a message’s importance from your keyboard by selecting a message and typing + or =. Mark a message as unimportant by typing -.

 

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