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I believe I have a somewhat unusual approach to email – at least, unusual in that it doesn’t seem to be discussed much. It works for me, and might just work for you.

I get a ton of emails – mainly because I either a) have notices and warnings and logs coming from systems I manage, or b) subscribe to way too many newsletters, mailing lists, and so forth. At work, I get notices; at home, I get mailing lists…

This is what I do.

Sort everything!

If you can quantify it, put it into a folder. Nothing should be in your inbox except mail you’ve not had a chance to quantify yet – or haven’t seen before.

Create rules to sort things automatically. This is the crux of the system: everything is sorted as it comes into your mailbox. Also, if necessary, force the rules to sort only once: once the rule is triggered, it should quit and stop processing rules. Thunderbird does this automatically; Outlook has to be told.

As you create the rules, most email clients will allow you to create a folder at the same time. Use this capability.

Many clients also have the ability to create a rule from a message – sometimes even to the point of automatically creating a filter on a sender or on a mailing list sender: use it. Both Thunderbird and Outlook will provide much of this capability from a right click on the message to be sorted.

Also remember to apply the rules as you create them to all messages currently in the inbox: that is the whole purpose. Before the rule was created, they couldn’t be sorted – so sort them afterwards.

Here are some examples:

  • Mail from the boss. Move it to a folder with his name.
  • Mail from the system administration mail group. Put into a folder named according the the group’s name.
  • Newsletter from a system manufacturer. Move to a folder named according to the newsletter name or the manufacturer’s name.
  • Automatic log messages sent by mail from a system. If these are “alarm” type messages, separate them. System messages could go into a folder named after the system, or into a folder according to the monitor tool reporting.

The last example brings up the next point:

Use saved searches to sort in different ways.

For example, all automated messages from a system could go into a folder by system name. Then created saved searches that show all messages from a particular monitoring system (such as Nagios or HP’s EMS).

Add alarms for vital mail.

In contrast to what others have said, I believe in message alarms: however, only use them for mail that is truly important. For example, when the boss sends you an email, you’d better look it, yes? Likewise, if you are responding to help desk tickets, you’d better know about it right away.

The general suggestion still holds however: turn off global message alarms!

Change view of inbox to only show unread mail.

This is how I achieve Inbox Zero (I cheat!). I do still create rules as much as possible for everything that comes in – but there are stragglers.

Create a list of favorites.

Lastly, create a list of favorites. Outlook allows you to mark a folder as a favorite; KMail has a similar capability. This provides you with a way to sort everything but only see (directly) what is most important.

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