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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Inbox Zero: Where filters will and won't help

This post is part of the Inbox Zero series.

Filters and scripts can greatly minimize the manual processing you do each day as well as way cut down on unnecessary interruptions. The trouble comes when you're filtering so much stuff (especially via "sender" and "subject" filters) that you end up scattering useful and timely updates into a jillion different places out of view. This can be that rarest of beasts where you've actually automated too much.

Instead, focus on creating filters and scripts for any noisy, frequent, and non-urgent items which can be dealt with all at a pass and later. Depending on what you consider noise, this could probably include:

  • blog and LiveJournal comments
  • "friend" requests and similar announcements from community sites like My Space or Flickr
  • mailing lists and subscribed forum threads
  • regular updates like newsletters and office memos
  • non-spam store updates, coupons, and sale announcements

Remember, our ultimate goal here is for you to spend less time playing with your email and more time doing stuff. The idea of a filter is not to hide information that you really need, but to ensure that you aren't being interrupted constantly for what amounts to low-level noise. Choose what you can stand to deal with later on and make regular reading and culling of these filtered items a scheduled task -- maybe twice or three times a week go through all your collected bulk and catch up on what you "missed."

Good rule of thumb: When you check your email and find yourself groaning "Ugh, this again?" consider creating a filter. By the same token, if you notice you're missing stuff to over-filtering, dial it down until you get the mix right. A filter is ultimately best at shunting away the really un-important stuff -- you are the only one who's got the qualifications and wetware to decide what happens to important items. That's why you get the big bucks.

Finally, keep in mind that, like digital security and sustainable human love, smart email filtering is a process, and not a one-time event. Learn, tweak, watch, and improve to keep your priceless attention trained where it can do the most good. (Hint: that's probably not monitoring realtime updates on your current count of LiveJournal friends.)

TOPICS: Email, Tips

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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