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Take control of your inbox…

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This posting has been inspired by a recent posting (Take control of your notifications) from @sciencebase on his website “sciencetext”.  It does make sense to turn off unwanted notifications from websites, but if you do wish to receive them then you can take some simple steps to take control if your inbox.  Pretty much every mail service and mail client have built in filtering rules that can be used.   I’m going to show you how to configure mail filters in GMail since that’s where my email is hosted.


I’m always amazed at how many people NEVER use filters or have even heard of them.  I see this all the time in the work place as well as with friends.  People I have worked with that used Outlook never ever use rules to filter email out of the inbox and I’ve seen people with 80,000+ emails in their INBOX!!! That is, in a word, retarded!


Right, on to the important stuff …

In Google’s GMail they don’t use “folders” to store your filtered email into.  They use Labels.  Why does this matter?  Well, in a mail system such as Exchange where they use actual “folders” to store your messages in it’s really a bit like a physical structure, a message can only appear in one folder at a time, unless you make a physical copy of the message to put in multiple places.   This obviously can cause some issues if everyone is duplicating their emails so they end up in multiple places.

Google’s approach is to use Labels.  What you see when you access your GMail “folders” is simply a view that shows you the messages which have been tagged with a specific label.  For example, if emails that come from Facebook are tagged with, well, Facebook, then you’ll see a “folder” that will be called Facebook.  However, you can also apply multiple labels to an email, this will allow it to be seen in multiple “folders”, so you could automatically tag all emails from with your Facebook label, but another rule could then look for messages from your mother and tag that with say “Mother”, then those emails will appear in 2 folders, one called Mother and one called Facebook.  

Why would you want to do this?   Well, it can really help to organize your emails so you don’t have 1000’s and 1000’s in one inbox.  Now, most people tend to access their email using an email client such as Thunderbird, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, or mobile devices such as Android phones or iPhones.   I always suggest that people use IMAP rather then the very out dated POP.  I’ll leave you to read about Why IMAP is better then POP from there (or just simply Google it).  But basically, IMAP will maintain your “folders” that you’ve created on GMail (or other services).

Ok, I could go on forever on this, lets get started on how you setup filters.

The simplest way on GMail is to login to the webmail interface and go and read a message you’d like to filter.  I’ll use an example of an automated email update from Flickr when my contacts post new photos.  I don’t have time to go and check Flickr manually all the time to see what new photos are there so I let Flickr tell me about it. 

Right, so I’ve opened the mail from Flickr and you want to click on the little down arrow on the right side of the message area as highlighted


Then, you’ll want to click on “Filter messages like this”.   That will then open a dialog box like this:


You can adjust any of these fields as you see you see fit, the “Has the words” can be uses to search for text in the message body such as your Mothers name or something.   Once you’re happy with those settings click on “Create filter this search” to go on to the next page of options:

On this page there’s lots to click on



If you don’t check the first box, “Skip the inbox” then the messages you’re about to “Label” will be labelled with both “Inbox” and “Whatever Label you create”, this sort of defeats the purpose for the aim of this tutorial.  So, we’ll check this.

I also always check off “Never send it to Spam” "and “Never mark it as important”.  The first one ensures Google doesn’t accidently consider emails matching our criteria as spam for whatever reason.  The second one is because Google has never managed to work out what’s important to me and what’s not, I mean really how could they ever really make that feature work.

You can also check the bottom one what in my case, says “Also apply filter to XX matching conversations”, you’ll likely want to check this in all cases.  What this will do is basically strip off the “Inbox” label and apply the new Label that we’ll create next.    But WAIT don’t click on Create Filter yet!!!

We need to go back to the “Apply the label” line..  Click on the “Choose Label” and you’ll get something like this…


As you’re reading this and likely don’t have any labels you’ll need to select “New label”   That will then open a new dialog box that you’ll need to fill in.


You need to give the label a name, in this face I’m calling it Flickr, as I already have a load of filters and some of them are nested.  I didn’t want to get into that but I’ll quickly explain it.  Labels are just names but they are represented as “folders” for the lack of another word.  That being the case, you can nest Labels in Labels, think of it as folders inside folders.  In my screen shot above you’ll see in the Red I’m going to place the Flickr folder into my “Mailing Lists” folder.  This helps me to keep my email organized better.   Google’s Labels are are very clever, if you skip the Nesting at this time and later decide to do it you will NOT have to fiddle your filters.  If you later decide to create a Label called “Mailing Lists” (for example) then move the Flickr label to nest under Mailing Lists Google will automatically fiddle all your filters, so there is nothing more to do.

Ok, back to the screen shot above, once you’ve named your Label click on Create, now you’ll go back to the first dialog box and the “Apply the label” line should look something  like:


You can now go ahead and click on the blue “Create Filter”  button.  Google will now apply the new filter name to all the messages that match (if you checked the box next to the “Create Filter” button.  Those messages will now disappear from your inbox and be “moved” to the new “folder” you’ve just created.

Now, here you can see the new folder we’ve just created


You’ll know if you have any new messages that have been filtered by looking at which folders are bolded and you’ll see how many unread messages are available (depending on how long the label names are).  That brings me to another point, keep your label names as short as possible but still informative so you know what they mean without having to do a lot of thinking.

I hope you find this useful, I hope I’ve covered all the aspects of setting up labels the simple way.

The other way, which I’ll leave you to explore on your own, is to go into your mail settings on Gmail, you’ll find a tab for Filters where you can manage your filters by editing, creating, deleting and even ordering them.  The process to create a new one using this method isn’t really much different and it’s still a rather guided process so give it ago.

Now, get cracking and claw back your inbox so it’s more manageable!

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