Message Rules for a Cleaner Email Inbox

Posted November 14th, 2006 by Mike Cherim

Tired of trying to find important email messages in your cluttered Inbox? Establishing a few simple “Message Rules” can help make your wish a reality. If I’ve lost you already and you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about but can relate to the cluttered Inbox syndrome, I’m about to make your day. In this tutorial I will show you how to set up a message rule for a mailing list you may belong to using Microsoft’s “Outlook Express” client-side email software. Specifically in this exercise I will create a rule to capture mailings from the Web Standards Group (WSG) mailing list.

Create a Special New Inbox

Tutorial Image 1: See text for details The first thing you want to do is to create an alternate Inbox so the new message rule will have a place to put the messages. To do this you will select your “Inbox” folder so the new inbox will be an “Inbox” sub-folder. I suggest doing it this way so the special inbox is located at the top of your folder list and thus it’s easy to find and manage.

Once the “Inbox” folder is selected or highlighted, go to “File” click “New” (1) then choose “Folder” (2). Using the Web Standards Group mailing list as an example, call this new folder “WSG” (3) then click “OK” to save it. You will now have a sub-folder called “WSG” under your “Inbox” folder.

Create a New Rule for the Messages

Tutorial Image 2: See text for details Now that this is done it’s time to actually create the new rule. To do this Go to “Tools” (1) then click on “Message Rules (2),” then choose “Mail” (3). Doing this will bring up the Message Rules set-up window for email messages. (Note: There is an alternate method of doing this by applying a rule to an existing message but I will cover this method only. To play around with the other method choose the Message tab on your email client software and select “Create rule from message…”)

In the image you might notice the new Inbox sub-folder called “WSG” (4) that was created during the last step. It is here that WSG-tagged emails will end up — effectively keeping them away segregated from the other items in your regular Inbox.

Specify the New Mail Rule

Tutorial Image 3: See text for details Once you’ve completed the steps above you’ll have a new window pop-up offering the tools you need to specify the new mail rule or manage existing rules available in the upper pane (1). To create a new rule you will click on “New (2).”

Note: The selected rule’s specifics will be shown in the lower pane (3). Using this interface you can also “Move” your rules around, “Copy” them, or “Remove” them altogether. If you have an existing rule that you want to modify, simply click “Modify” instead. Setting up multiple lists can be done by copying one rule then simply modifying it. Doing it by way of this method and you might save yourself a click or two.

Define the Parameters and Actions

Tutorial Image 4: See text for details Clicking on New (or Modify) as described above, you will be presented with a new pop-up window or interface in which you will be given some choices as to how the rule is implemented and what happens to the email. The top pane (1) in this window will offer you choices on what will make the rule go into effect, as follows:

  • Where the From line contains people.
  • Where the Subject line contains specific words.
  • Where the message body contains specific words.
  • Where the To line contains people.
  • Where the CC line contains people.
  • Where the To or CC line contains people.
  • Where the message is marked as priority.
  • Where the message is from the specified account.
  • Where the message size is more than size.
  • Where the message has an attachment.
  • Where the message is secure.
  • For all messages.

For the WSG example the emphasized choice above is selected. Once it is, then you will be presented with some action choices to specify in the next pane down (2), as follows:

  • Move it to the specified folder.
  • Copy it to the specified folder.
  • Delete it.
  • Forward it to people.
  • Highlight it with color.
  • Flag it.
  • Mark it as read.
  • Mark the message as watched or ignored.
  • Reply with message.
  • Stop processing more rules.
  • Do not download it from the server.
  • Delete it from the server.

Using the WSG example, you will want to move it to a specific folder as emphasized above. Once the actions have been specified you’ll need to define them. The third pane (3) will provide you with the needed action links. In this example, you will see this:

Apply this rule after the message arrives

Where the Subject line contains specific words

Move it to the specified folder

Clicking these links will launch yet another interface to provide the details (described below). Once done you’ll give the rule a name (4) such as that used in this example: “Web Standards Group.”

Defining the Rule Specifics

Tutorial Image 5: See text for details The rule specifics further define the actions you want to rules to carry out. In this case the…

Where the Subject line contains specific words

…is clicked bringing up a new pop-up where you will fill in the word or phrase to target. In this case it is “WSG (1)” as that appears in the subject line of the mailing list messages. Click “Add.” Once that’s done you’ll see the name (or names if you want) appear in the lower pane (2).

Tutorial Image 6: See text for details After specifying the first action above you’ll be returned to the original window and you’ll then click…

Move it to the specified folder

…bringing up yet another pop-up window in which you’ll specify the target Inbox folder. Once selected, you’ll click “OK” again being returned to the original window. As noted above you’ll then name the rule then click “OK.” That’s it, you’re done. Using this tutorial’s example, all messages that contain “WSG” in the subject line will be moved to the “WSG” Inbox sub-folder using this new “Web Standards Group” message rule.

Note: If you skipped step one and didn’t create a new folder yet, you can do it at this point by clicking on “New Folder.”

Taking it to New Heights

From the choices available on what rules you can create, you can get pretty clever. You don’t have to limit yourself to just handing mailing list messages. You can take care of any mails that contain specific information such as who the sender is, what email address it’s going to, or static content in the subject line as is often found on contact form messages. You have to focus on legitimate emails as you can’t successfully target spam messages; the triggers are too diverse. Spam mails can come from seemingly legitimate sources or sources that simply cannot be identified. You can’t even key in on specific words due to intentional misspellings and other obfuscation techniques that spammers use. (Of course, if you can trust your spam filter you can use this to delete any messages marked with that ubiquitous [Spam] on the subject line but that can be a dangerous move.)

What you can do is create an Inbox sub-folder called “Legitimate” and create message rules for as much legitimate mail as you can: that from friends, family, contacts, vendors, clients, smaller lists, contact forms that you own, anything where you do know the information. Plus you can tag new ones as you go. If some new contact emails you, simply open the Message Rules and “Modify” the applicable rule to add that contact.

Launch your email program to that new Inbox folder as your new default Inbox, (being sure to check the normally default Inbox now and then to weed out the good stuff and delete the garbage), and over time you’ll end up with a pretty usable custom Inbox and you’ll have a lot less clutter to contend with.

Note: Alternatively, if you want the default Inbox to be your Inbox, create a new rule that sends all message to an “Unverified” Inbox, then create another rule that sends your “legitimate” emails to the default Inbox. Either way you’ll be in control — at least more so than you are now, perhaps.

Other Email Client Software

This tutorial is specific to Outlook Express, but most quality client-side email software has message rules you can define. Using this tutorial as a guide, play around with what you’re using to see what you can come up with. If you create a similar tutorial for Thunderbird or whatever it is you have, please share the link here for others to follow. That’d be pretty helpful to everyone… except the poor spammers. Awww.

4 Responses to: “Message Rules for a Cleaner Email Inbox”

  1. Martin Neczypor responds:
    Posted: November 15th, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    Sounds neat, but Outlook Express kills babies, and since I am pro-babies, Outlook Express isn’t for me ;) . I’m actually surprised you don’t use Thunderbird. I’ve tried using Outlook Express and Thunderbird for my email addresses on my domain, but it never ends up working out because I always feel so confined when running client-side email applications. What are the benefits, do you think, of using something client-side, instead of using things like gmail or other web-based email?

    By the way, I really like the numbered arrows on the images to show the steps, that’s a really great way to quickly show people what to do, nice.

  2. Anthony Brewitt responds:
    Posted: November 27th, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    Its one of those things you know will be great once you make the effort to implement, but sadly I truly hate using Outlook so much (but have too) that I try to limit my time on it. I will play with these sometimes though because I also have a few newsletters and emails that bug me constantly.

  3. - The Best of the Beast in 2006 by Mike Cherim responds:
    Posted: December 29th, 2006 at 11:30 am

    […] 2006/11: Message Rules for a Cleaner Email Inbox […]

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