Email Filter Shmilter

Over the past two weeks, I've noticed a wonderful side-effect of using the Burner Mail web service: I get so little email directly, that new, unfiltered stuff no longer overwhelms my default inbox in Gmail! Why is this a big deal? Well, it means that my email workflow has stabilized. Here is the significance:

  • I can be sure that I will not miss anything important in my filtered emails
  • I no longer have to update those filters to add new addresses
  • I can get through my Inbox in less than a minute

Filters

In the beginning, I had dozens of filters for many types of email. Whenever something undesirable came in, I created a delete filter. Between the intended filters and the delete filters, I probably had about 60 filters.

Desperate to improve my efficiency, I researched "best practices for Gmail filters" (or something like that.) I found an article that suggested using the Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy. For your reading pleasure, here is Dan Silvestre's take on GTD in Gmail. I also read articles that emphasize "Inbox Zero", the holy grail of email efficiency.

Now, I'm not big on following systems. I prefer to implement the best ideas presented by systems. In the case of GTD, I liked the ideas of handling email as quickly as possible and archiving emails. Before I switched to Gmail, I used to download email to my hard drive using Mozilla Thunderbird. I spent way too much time devising email backups, filters and whatnot. So, it was hard to change my mindset that email applications are repositories.

It was not until I saw emails from 2002--random jokes, birthday greetings, receipts for services I no longer used--that I knew I was doing it all wrong. Instead of maintaining a burdensome collection of filters and retention policies, I developed a system based on the overall priority of email:

  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Clients
  4. Everything Else

Updating Filters

The point of these filters is obvious. The Gmail labeling system made implementation a breeze. The hard part was reallocating all the existing filters. The list above does not include the following:

  • Delete Without Reading
  • Lists (the ones from things like listserv)
  • Aunt Betsy's massive CC: emails to everyone she's ever met

Of course, I created one massive Delete filter for everything that comes in that I don't want to see, especially from companies that ignore my requests to unsubscribe. The lists are still filtered individually and, rather than add Aunt Betsy to the Delete filter, I just let her into my inbox. If she has something interesting to say, I'll read it. 

I created a one-off Excel Spreadsheet to regroup the email addresses into their new homes. When I wrote that I no longer have to update those filters, I meant that, for the most part, the list of people who contact me directly via email has not changed in years. Family members have had the same email addresses forever and, until my grandchild decides to start writing me, I don't have any new members to add. Friends are the same. Most clients do not have my email, because I control my availability. Finally, everything else is a collection of low-priority emails for people and businesses I have had a relationship with up until I started using Burner Mail.

The Everything Else category is where I will be culling addresses and switching to Burner Mail addresses, where possible. For example, I recently added a burner mail address to my WordPress.com account. That allowed me to remove the voluminous comments from the Everything Else filter to one of my Burner Mail inboxes, where I can read them at my leisure. I wrote about that exercise, here.

The whole point of Burner Mail is that I can subscribe to stuff and not give out my personal email address. The email can either be forwarded to my Gmail inbox or, as with WordPress.com, be delivered to on of my unlimited Burner Mail Inboxes.

Astute readers may point out that I'm merely sweeping dust bunnies under the rug. To that, I say, "True, but you don't see any dust!"




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