Empty Your Inbox

The fast way to file your e-mail

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Set up rules

Your e-mail client can reduce the amount of work you have to do when new messages arrive by processing some of them for you. E-mail programs like Mail and Entourage let you create rules that look for certain characteristics in incoming e-mail and then take an action—such as moving it to a certain mailbox, deleting it, or sending out a canned reply—when a message matches the criteria. Although rules can’t deal with all your incoming messages, they can go a long way toward keeping your inbox free for personal correspondence and helping you identify especially important messages.

Rules 101

Rules consist of two parts: the first is the condition, which is the attribute the rule looks for, and the other is the action, which is what the rule does if a message matches the conditions. Rules can have multiple conditions and actions to create complex interactions.

To create a new rule in Mail, choose Mail: Preferences, click on the Rules button, and then click on Add Rule. In Entourage, choose Tools: Rules, click on the New button (or, in Entourage 2004, the tiny arrow just to the right of the New button), and then choose the account type for which you’re creating a rule from the pop-up menu. Then, no matter which program you’re using, fill in a name for the rule, select one or more conditions and actions, and click on OK.

Three to try

In general, I suggest using rules to move nonessential messages into your Later mailbox while leaving them marked as unread, so you’ll know which messages you haven’t yet seen. You’ll have to decide what counts as nonessential, but for me, that would include anything sent by an automated system rather than a human being—notifications from banks, utilities, airlines, stores, and the like; messages from a mailing list; and any other frequently received messages that follow a pattern you can summarize with a rule.

Here are some suggestions for helpful rules. Adjust the conditions to fit your own needs.

Low-Priority Notices Notifications of online bank statements, mailings from merchants, newsletters from your alumni association, and other such messages can all go into your Later mailbox for perusal when you have free time. In most cases, you can simply create a rule that looks for the sender (consult the last such message you received to get the e-mail address).

Set up the new rule with the condition From Contains _address@example.com_. Then set the action to read Move Message To Mailbox Later, in Mail; or Move Message Later, in Entourage. Each time you get a similar type of e-mail, you can add a new condition to the rule that includes the new recipient—or, if you prefer, create an entirely new rule.

Not-So-Funny Forwards Just about everyone has a friend or relative who loves to forward jokes, funny pictures, and chain letters to everyone in his or her address book. Although such people are undoubtedly well intentioned, these sorts of messages can wreak havoc with an otherwise clean inbox.

Personally, I think honesty is the best policy. If you think your friend or relative will be understanding, send a polite, thoughtful, and perhaps self-effacing message explaining that you really do enjoy hearing from them, but you need to limit nonessential e-mail for the sake of your sanity. If you don’t have the heart to ask him or her to stop, set up a rule that looks for that person’s e-mail address and a subject beginning with Fwd, and then moves such messages into your Later mailbox.

Because the rule will have multiple conditions, you’ll first need to specify that all conditions must be met in order for the rule to take action. In Mail, choose All from the Any/All pop-up menu. In Entourage, click on the Execute pop-up menu and choose If All Criteria Are Met. Now create two conditions that read more or less as follows (the phrasing will vary slightly in Entourage):

From Contains _offending_address@example.com_

Subject Begins With Fwd

And create this action:

Move Message To Mailbox Later

A rule like this one in Entourage can direct jokes and other random forwards from your relatives into a mailbox that you'll check only when you have extra time.
Autoreplies If your e-mail provider doesn’t offer a server-based out-of-office feature, you can set up a rule that does something similar by sending an automatic reply to each incoming message. But be careful: this rule really will reply to all messages, which may result in some people getting multiple copies of your autoreply. In Mail, set the first condition to Every Message and the action to Reply To Message. In Entourage, set the condition to All Messages and the action to Reply. Enter the text of your autoreply, and click on OK.

Right now this rule may also reply to spam, which you probably don’t want. To avoid this in Mail 3, choose Mail: Preferences, go to the Junk Mail pane, and select Filter Junk Mail Before Applying My Rules. In Entourage, you can handle this with an extra condition: Junk Mail Likelihood Is Low. To turn off the autoreply, either delete the rule or deselect it in your Rules list.

On Day 3: How to deal with your backlog of old e-mail

[Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBits and the author of numerous e-books about Mac OS X.]

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