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Use Gmail Filters and Labels to Effortlessly Organize Your E-mail

Gmail Filtering and Labeling
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Everyone has their own coping methods and inbox philosophies for e-mail management. Whether you're subscribing to a super-involved "Getting Things Done" method or a minimalist "Inbox Zero" system, a few minutes spent building a smart filter and label routine will let you focus on what's really important. The point here is to make the messages hitting your inbox as relevant and important as possible. Facebook friend requests, daily digests, Groupon deals, college newsletters and more flood your inbox daily, and most aren't worth your immediate attention. Gmail's Priority Inbox feature may help sort your messages by algorithmic relevancy, but Gmail's Labels and Filters are the real deal when it comes to complete organization.

Note: Most of the following filter tips and tricks will be applicable on Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail, AOL Mail and other online services. Desktop clients may have trouble dealing with labels, but many of the filtering suggestions can be used in most modern e-mail clients.


Why Gmail?

Gmail WhyWe've grown used to Gmail's search and archiving features, but only five or six years ago, the e-mail experience was radically different. Without clients that supported a fast, full-text search, we spent countless hours coming up with sorting mechanisms and folders for keeping track of projects, work, friends and family. Should that Amazon receipt be filed under "personal_finances" or "expenses"? The introduction of advanced webmail services -- specifically Gmail -- brought the search function to our cluttered inboxes, making it vastly easier to find that e-mail from three weeks, or several months, ago. While search may have helped limit the need for Byzantine folder structures, the e-mail flood continues to rise, and labels and filters will help with the overflow.

Labels: A More Powerful and Flexible Folder Alternative

Labels
Think of Gmail Labels like old-school folders, only far more powerful. Like folders, you can move messages into and out of Labels, but you can also apply multiple Labels to any given message. While Outlook would balk at putting the same message in your Work, New Project, Action and Expenses folders -- forcing you to strictly sort your e-mail -- Gmail can add all four labels to a message without any trouble.

We've spent far too much time thinking about this (so you don't have to), but we opt for a two-tier label system: one based on importance and the other on context. There are countless philosophies for labeling, so find something that works for you. (Type, sender, to-do list and importance are a few ways people organize their mail.) Switched staff works on an Action-Pending-Archives rubric, to decide how to handle a correspondence. Labeling an item as "action" means it needs our attention -- an RSVP, an appointment, responding to someone. We set up an Action label, if you will, for anything we need to act on. Next is a Pending label for things we want to keep visible, but don't necessarily need to be dealt with immediately. After that, everything gets sent to the Archives. Archives is a brilliant aspect of Gmail; with so much room, you can send info to the Archive attic, hidden permanently but never deleted.

labels and colorsThe next set of labels helps to sort by type and context. Create labels for Family, Friends and Work, and then break down other regular e-mail by Newsletters, Finances, Social Networks, etc. It's easy to go overboard, so take some time to consider the variety of e-mail you get, and focus on creating labels that are broad enough to capture and organize chunks (e.g. Receipts), without being too limiting (e.g. Receipts_October_2010).

Let's touch on one last bit of customization before moving on: colors. Adding color (left-click the square next to the label in Gmail's labels sidebar) can make your inbox easier to scan at a glance. Get your Action or Important labels to stand out by setting them as red or yellow. Contrast a cool color palate on Work-related tags with a warm one on family. We prefer a subtle pastel for Facebook, Twitter and other social updates, saving more intense tones for friends and finances.

Filters: Stress-Free Organizing

Gmail Filters
With your newly created labels in mind, let's move to Filters. Labels identify what will appear as what, but you're still going to have to manually add them to e-mail as it hits your inbox. This is where Gmail's filters are an enormous help; they'll sort, modify and label e-mail before it even appears in your inbox.

You'll need to do some e-mail soul searching here to gauge the importance of the messages flooding your inbox. Is your daily Gilt Groupe e-mail important? Is your college newsletter worth reading immediately? If not, send these straight to the archive with a tag. Then, you can revisit when you actually have the time. A filter can automatically label every newsletter you receive as a Newsletter, archive it and keep it set as Unread. This way, you won't be getting distracted with new message updates every time a newsletter hits. Because you can set messages to skip the inbox but stay unread, you can still keep track of how many unread missives you've got in the left rail. There's a lot here, so it's time to get creative.

Gmail offers six different search criteria to work with:
  • From:
  • To:
  • Subject:
  • Has the words:
  • Doesn't have:
  • Has attachment
and you've got eight actions that you can apply to these results:
  • Skip the Inbox (archive it)
  • Mark as read
  • Star it
  • Apply a label
  • Forward It
  • Delete It
  • Always mark as important (Priority Inbox)
  • Never mark as Important (Priority Inbox)
Gmail Filters 2 To show the power of filters, let's start with Facebook friend requests. Click "create a filter" at the top of the Gmail page (next to "Search the Web"). Now, in the "Subject:" field, enter "wants to be friends on Facebook". Click next. Apply the appropriate actions. Set this filter up to automatically apply the Social label (or whatever you set up earlier) to every message with this subject. Select "Social" under "Apply a label," set to skip inbox, click Update Filter and Gmail will ask you if you want to apply it to all previous messages. Be careful; browse through the search results and make sure everything is displaying correctly before applying the actions to the results. Now, all of your Facebook friend requests are labeled Social, moved out of your inbox and you can deal with them on your own terms.

Next, try family. Gather the e-mail addresses from everyone in your family, create a filter that searches for any e-mails (add "OR" after every address to add multiple people) from familial contacts and labels it "Family." In just a few quick clicks, you can easily label thousands of e-mails spread over several years, without having to go in and manually label any individual e-mail.

What to Filter

Receipts
With online grocery delivery, utility payments, Amazon, iTunes and countless other ways to spend money online, the e-mail receipt is inescapable. Look at the subjects and from: address on your receipts ('Your receipt' or 'Your Monthly Statement from...'), and build a smart filter that automatically labels all incoming receipts.

Newsletters and Mailing Lists
Label incoming newsletters, and then set them to bypass your inbox. Once you have time, you can pull up the Newsletter tag in the left rail, and read through your newest, uh, news.

Social Media Updates
Grab the "from" address in your social network update e-mails and send the flood of Facebook and Twitter directly to the Archives. If you're worried about missing messages, set up special filters to keep direct messages or Facebook notes in your Inbox.

Movies, Recipes and Reminders
As much as we love sites like delicious and Yelp for bookmarking, we often opt to e-mail ourselves reminders. Set up special filters and reminders to catch and sort research, movies and recipes.

Attachments
Filters and labels can be combined to reveal all messages with attachments -- helpful for finding that recent PDF report or gathering all your large files in a single place.

Pro Tips

While many of these are far nerdier than others (e.g. Keyboard Commands), Gmail pro tips will help the geek in all of us .

Keyboard Shortcuts
Speed up your sorting and labeling with Keyboard Shortcuts. Head over to "General" under your Gmail settings, and turn on keyboard shortcuts. Press shift + ? to bring up a reminder for your options; now your fingers don't have to leave the comfort of the keyboard for moving through e-mail.

Multiple Inboxes (Google Labs)
Once you've got your Labels set up, Google Labs' Multiple Inboxes feature is amazingly helpful for letting you see, naturally, Multiple Inboxes. Set one up for e-mail you need to reply to, friend e-mail and anything else you'd like to regularly track.

Google calendar gadget (Google Labs)
A simple left sidebar plugin, this gadget pulls in a scrollable version of your Google Calendar.

Multiple Accounts (Google Labs)
If you've got Gmail importing your work, home, ISP and personal e-mail accounts, set up filters and tags to help keep each account organized.

Tags: email, features, gmail, google, productivity, techtip, top, web