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Tool Box: Using filters
by Jon Huntress, Contributing Editor

In the last article in the Tool Box, I wrote about Rob's spam filter (see: Building a Bozo filter). Rob gets over a hundred messages a day so having all spam delivered directly to the trash saves him a lot of time. The purpose of filters is to save time by pre-sorting your mail into specific categories so you don't mentally have to do it all from your Inbox. Now, we will cover how to set up and use filters to make your morning wade through the mail a little easier.

If you only get a dozen mails a day, you don't need to filter them. Do you feel a sense of excitement when you see the new mail you have received? Do you start to scan the "from" line eagerly to see who has written you? Then you don't need any filters. But there is a lot of good information from thousands of mailing lists out there, and if you subscribe to even just a few, your mail will turn from a trickle to a deluge. The key to whether you need to filters is your own level of annoyance when you see your Inbox in the morning. If you experience a sinking feeling accompanied by extreme nausea, its time to filter.

Filters automatically scan the headers and content of your incoming mail for a condition that you set, then perform actions if the condition is found. The order of your filters is important, as they are sequential. If your first filter is for spam and one of the conditions is the string "free offer" found anywhere in the message, it could dump in the trash a message from your boss wanting to give you some frequent flyer miles that need to be used soon. Some programs match all mail to all filters before the action is taken and some of them allow you to determine whether the message will got to subsequent filters if the first condition is met. But with all filters, you need to check their action on a regular basis. If you are filtering anything directly to the trash, the last thing you should do every day is to check the trash to make sure nothing important ended up there by a mistaken filter setting or some glitch.

The most common action of a filter is to put mail from one person or group into a separate mailbox or folder. The first group of filters should be for your most important mail. Anything from management or clients should go into their own boxes, so there is no chance of it getting lost. Let the condition you set be who the mail is from. Anything from inside the company can go into one or more mailboxes. Major clients can get their own box, as can personal mail you get regularly.

Since mailing lists generate so much mail, it is almost a necessity to have a separate box for each list. This also makes finding a particular mail months later much easier. Most lists give you the option of receiving the mail as it comes or once a day in a digest version. I prefer the digest because I can scan them quickly to see if any of the subjects are of interest.

You can set more than one action on the mail, too. Mail from the boss or an important client can be given a higher priority or even opened when it comes in. Many programs allow you to change the chime of the mail when it comes from a particular person or place. You can also filter a message based on whether it is addressed to you or if you are included on the Cc line. Generally the cc messages are less important than those sent to you directly and you may want to create a separate place for them. Be careful of the routing of messages that don't contain your address at all. Some of it is spam, but mail addressed to "everyone" or some other word that goes to everyone in the company could contain information for you that may need to be seen quickly. If your filter is made to find mail that doesn't contain your specific address, "everyone" would satisfy the condition and be trashed.

If you send out a lot of mail, you need to filter for the bounces that come back. Then you can go over the bounces at your leisure to see why they bounced and if they need to be unsubscribed. Depending on what mail program you use and how big your list is, there can be thousands of bounces every day. Once there was a system crash on a list I was managing and we had to reconstruct the day's mail from a back up. All the messages for that day, about 500 and most of them bounces, ended up unfiltered in my Inbox. It took hours to sort them out.

Filters can also work on outgoing mail. Sometimes it is a good thing, or just good politics, to put all your out mail to one person or to a group or client in its own box, in case you have to justify your actions in the future, or just to keep a record of a project. Since email at work is completely open to management, and is being used more and more often to track what employees are doing, proper mail management is an important factor in job security. It is one of the main records of what you do in a business day. Would you change the way or the look of your mailboxes if you knew someone else was looking at them regularly?

You can do all of this manually, of course, but as the volume of your mail increases so does the overhead. Good filter use is one way to buy more time in the day and to keep a handle on what happens day by day. Getting more organization in your life is always good.

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