How to slim down your inbox


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Reader Robert Matheson desires a tidier inbox. He writes:

For years I’ve allowed all my incoming email to pile up in my inbox. That strategy has broken down to the point where I can’t find my important email. I want to be more organized but don’t know where to start. Any hints?

If you could see the office I inhabit, you might think better of asking me anything about organization. But while the immediate area around me may be a disaster, I’m fairly picky about my inbox—not Inbox Zero picky, but particular enough that the worst of my electronic effluent is not within eyeshot.

To do that, I employ rules like nobody’s business. By creating conditions that act on existing as well as incoming email, you can tidy up an inbox in next to no time.

Move notification email

I’d begin by weeding out organizational email. By this I mean notifications from Amazon, iTunes, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google Plus, Netflix, and so on. In Apple’s Mail create a new mailbox within the account that receives the notification or create one that appears under the On My Mac heading. (Choose Mailbox > New Mailbox, select a location for it in the sheet that appears, and then name the mailbox.) Click on a representative message—a notification that you have a new Twitter follower, for example. Choose Mail > Preferences and click the Rules tab.

Click Add Rule and in the sheet that appears enter a name for your rule in the Description field—Twitter, in the case of our example. From the first pop-up menu choose From. In the field to the right you will see the return address from the currently selected message. You could leave it as it is but I’d recommend stripping out everything but the domain name—so, remove everything but for a Twitter notification. I’ve found that organizations will often use a variety of email addresses for different kinds of notifications— and, for example—and if you include everything after the @ symbol, some notifications will slip past your rule.

twitter rule

Creating a rule to filter Twitter notifications.

Below this, configure the action to read Move Message to Mailbox Twitter. Click OK. Mail will ask if you’d like to apply your rules to the currently selected mailboxes. Click Apply. Messages that meet the condition you created should be moved from your inbox. (At this point you can simply delete them if you don’t care to hang on to this kind of stuff.)

Repeat this procedure for other kinds of messages you routinely receive. If you feel up to it, additionally adopt that warm glow that appears when you understand that future messages that meet these conditions will be filtered automatically.

Organize work and family email

In the previous example we filtered inconsequential email. But a rule needn’t apply only to email you don’t care about. It can also be used for messages that matter a great deal to you. For example, missives from your coworkers or family members.

In this case you’d use the same kind of From filtering and, if you like, individualized mailboxes. In my case, I might create a rule and mailbox for any messages from And in the case of messages from the boss, I would add Set Color of Background to Red and Send Notification actions to that rule so I’d be sure to see important messages right away.

Look at server-side filtering

What I’ve discussed so far addresses email on your computer. But many people first see their email on an iOS device and this kind of filtering does you little good in that it’s filtered only after it has touched your computer.

In this case you should create server-side rules—rules that deal with your email when it first hits your IMAP account. They work much the same way as they do on your Mac. The advantage is that your email will be cleaned up before you see it on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch (as well as on your computer and in webmail).

For example, if I wanted to filter all the Google Plus notifications my Gmail account receives I’d travel to the Gmail website, log in to my Gmail account, choose Settings from the Gear menu, click the Filters link, click the Create a New Filter link, enter in the From field, click Create Filter With This Search, and, in the next pane, select Apply the Label, choose New Label, enter a name for my label in the window that appears, click Create, and then click Create Filter after enabling the Also Apply Filter to Matching Conversations option. This filters existing messages as well as those that arrive in the future.

gplus filter 2

Filter email on the server to clean up the inbox on your iOS device.

You can speed up the process a bit by selecting a representative message and choosing Filter Messages Like These from the More menu. This takes you directly to the condition pane where you can then set about creating your filter.

Yes, this process is a bit tedious but it will pay off in a much cleaner inbox—both on your Mac and with your iOS devices.

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