E-Mail Survival Guide: Get Organized

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E-mail was supposed to be a time-saver. But hand-sorting an in-box overflowing with personal messages, business correspondence, mailing-list deliveries, and jokes from clueless cousins (not to mention the load of unsolicited e-mail you receive each day) can take a substantial bite out of an already busy day.

What you need is an e-mail strategy. I’ll show you seven ways to take control of your jammed in-box.

Establish Rules

One of the easiest ways to automate filing duties is to create a mail rule—a set of criteria that tell your e-mail client how to sort and file your messages when they arrive. This not only makes your in-box more manageable, but also helps you quickly prioritize your incoming messages. For example, you can use rules to assign colors to different types of mail, so you can quickly distinguish work assignments from family gossip.

To access rules in Entourage, go to Tools: Rules and click on New. In Mail, go to Mail: Preferences: Rules. In Eudora and Mailsmith, go to Window: Filters.

Regardless of the program you use, the basics of setting up a mail rule are essentially the same. You use If statements to tell your e-mail program how to identify the messages you want to control, and Then statements to specify what to do with those messages.

For example, if you have two e-mail addresses—one for personal mail and one for business mail—you might find it useful to separate these messages into two different mailbox folders. Such a filter would look like this:

	If: Any Recipient is

Then: Move Message to Personal E-mail Folder

For more-powerful filters, you can combine multiple If and Then statements. For example, to make sure you give prompt attention to messages from your company’s bigwigs, you might want to move their incoming messages to a From The Boss folder and play a suitably ominous sound (see screenshot).

Take Control of Mailing Lists

Using rules is also vital if you subscribe to mailing lists—particularly ones that don’t offer digests, but rather copy you on every message sent to the list.

Entourage has a handy Mailing List Manager feature (in the Tools menu) that automates the most laborious aspects of managing such lists. For example, it can move incoming list e-mails to a designated folder, break list digests into individual messages, and delete duplicate copies of messages you send to the list. If you don’t use Entourage, you can set up something similar—but much more basic—by creating a mail rule that picks out any message with the list’s e-mail address in the From field and moves it to a dedicated mailing-list mailbox.

Follow a Conversation

Some e-mail exchanges can span weeks and include half a dozen people. You can often get a quick overview of the back-and-forth by sorting your mail by Subject, but this method is far from perfect: I can’t tell you how many of my message threads have started with the subject lines “A quick question” and “Hello.”

With Entourage, you have only the sorting method. Mail and Eudora offer more-efficient solutions. In Mail, go to View: Organize By Thread. Mail then groups all your related e-mails—and only the e-mails relevant to this specific thread—under a single heading highlighted in blue. You can view all of the messages in a thread by clicking on the arrow to the left of the highlighted message. To group messages by thread in Eudora, go to Special: Sort: Group Subjects (or just option-click on the message’s subject line).

Get a Better View

Most e-mail programs offer basic sorting options—such as Message Status, Subject, and To. Entourage 2004, however, lets you further arrange your messages into groups—larger categories of sorted messages that you can then quickly collapse or expand.

For example, you could use the Groups feature to quickly slim down your Entourage database by eliminating large files from your in-box. Turn on Groups by going to View: Arrange By: Show In Groups. Now when you sort your messages by Size (View: Arrange By: Size), Entourage groups them into categories such as Small, Medium, Large, Huge, and Enormous. To quickly eliminate all of your Enormous, Huge, and Large files, click on the Group header (which selects all messages in the group) and press delete.

To further control your messages, you can define how they are sorted within individual groups. For example, you may want to eliminate only some large files:those that are older than a week or that are from certain individuals. To do this, create a new custom arrangement (View: Arrange By: Edit Custom Arrangement) that groups items by size and then arranges items within the group by Sent or by From. Click on OK to save your new arrangement. To apply this view to your in-box, go to View: Arrange By and select the saved custom arrangement.

Find Anything Fast

Most e-mail clients offer an advanced search option that uses multiple criteria to scan all your stored e-mail. Entourage’s advanced search option even lets you include contacts, notes, and calendar options in the hunt.

Apple Mail won’t let you search by more than one criterion. But there is a workaround. Create a rule that uses multiple criteria to identify messages and then copies those messages to a special folder. For instance, if you wanted to find all your business-related messages older than seven days that CC’d your coworker Fred, you’d create a rule that looked like this:

If: CC contains Fred

Date Received Is Greater Than 7 Days Old

	Account Is

Then: Copy Message To Mailbox Fred

To apply the rule to a selection of messages, go to Message: Apply Rule. Everything that meets these requirements will appear in your Fred mailbox, which you can delete once you’re done.

Create E-mail Archives

Any good e-mail maintenance plan should include a backup strategy. That way, if a question comes up months or even years from now, you’ll have an intact, searchable record of the correspondence. But archiving all of your messages at once can be unwieldy. A better approach is to create separate archives of related messages. This way, you can conserve space by backing up only the messages you need.

One easy way to create these archives is to filter messages as you normally would while also filing away a copy in a separate, archived mailbox. For example, if you employ freelance workers, you might create a rule that filters their messages to a mailbox for whatever project they are currently working on and sends copies to a mailbox called Quarterly Projects, which you archive four times a year.

When you’re ready to back up your archive file, just drag the mailbox from your e-mail client (if you’re using Mail, Entourage, or Mailsmith) to the desktop to create an mbox file that you can then burn onto a CD. To locate Eudora’s mbox files, open your user folder and go to Documents: Eudora Folder: Mail Folder. Later, if you need to access the information in an archived mbox file, just open it in a text editor or drag it back into your e-mail client.

Archive Entourage Projects

If you use Entourage 2004’s Project Center to group related e-mails, tasks, and documents, you can archive projects via the Export command. In the Export window, enable the Items That Are In The Project option and choose a project from the pop-up menu. To save space, tell Entourage to delete messages once they’re archived. Entourage will create an .rge file. To restore the data in this file, select File: Import: Import Information From An Entourage Archive. If you don’t want to permanently return the messages to your mailbox, import them into a new identity (Entourage: Switch Identity) and delete the identity when you’re done.

[ Contributing Editor Christopher Breen pens Macworld 's Mac 911 column and is the author of Secrets of the iPod , fifth edition (Peachpit Press, 2004). ]

Sidebar: Tip

Organize Your Rules The order in which mail rules appear is important. E-mail programs apply rules in the order they’re listed. So if you’ve created a filter that moves all messages sent by Jane Doe to one mailbox and another filter that transfers all messages that came from the Taffy Lovers mailing list to another mailbox, Jane’s message expressing her love for taffy will be filtered by whichever rule appears first. If one of your rules doesn’t work, check to see whether another rule higher in the list conflicts with it.

Sidebar: Manage Your Web Mail

Free Web-based mail services such as Yahoo Mail and Hotmail are great for checking your mail when you’re on-the-go. But when you’re sitting at your desk with your favorite e-mail client in front you, having to open a Web browser to check your messages is frustrating. It also makes archiving a challenge. But there are ways to access your Web mail from a desktop client.

The Paying Way Both Yahoo Mail and Hotmail offer extended mail plans that let you download messages via a POP mail account, for $20 a year. With POP access you also get greater e-mail storage capacity, spam filtering, and no advertising. For a rundown of Web mail options and applicable fees, see “Web Mail Supersizes” ( Mac Beat , August 2004 ).

The Built-in Way Some e-mail programs offer tools for accessing specific Web-based mail accounts. For example, you can access Hotmail messages from within Entourage. Just run the Account Setup Assistant (Tools: Accounts: New), and enter your Hotmail address in the E-mail Address field to get started.

The Third-Party Way Several utilities let you forward e-mail from a Web-based service to an e-mail account you maintain with another ISP.

You can download Hotmail messages to Mail with the help of Daniel Parnell’s free HTTP Mail Plugin. After you install the program, open Mail’s Accounts preferences, click on the Account Information button, and click on the plus sign (+) button to create a new account. An httpmail option should now appear in the Account Type pop-up menu. Choose it; then enter your Hotmail settings in the appropriate fields. Your messages will now download to a newly created Hotmail mailbox.

Yahoo Mail users can forward their mail to any POP account with the help of System Support Products’ $15 Mail Forward. This application, which can also forward AOL and Hotmail messages, logs on to your account and forwards your messages to another e-mail account via your ISP’s SMTP server.

A mail rule that alerts you to the presence of messages from higher-ups may save your bacon.
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