Solving the Inbox Problem with Gmail Advanced Filtering

Left unmanaged, my email inbox begins to feel like this . . . (photo by flickr user tavarua).

Although at Bright+3 we tend to focus on organizational and campaign issues, we are just as much fans of better time management and workflow strategies as the next folks. My gmail inbox is a constant source of interruption and distraction, yet enough urgent emails land in my inbox that I don’t want to ignore it entirely. By identifying the specific people who might be sending me urgent emails, I am figuring, and filtering out everything else into another inbox, I can keep tabs on those urgent emails while only checking and dealing with the main flow of incoming email a few times a day.

I’ve found Gmail’s “Priority Inbox” to be useful, but it still displays plenty of emails that aren’t urgent. I started with an approach that Lifehacker (“Build advanced Gmail filters and persistent searches“) described, using advanced filtering to weed out any emails that didn’t come from the specified list of email addresses, but because it was based on the “From” field I ended up losing multi-person email threads. A variation that seems to avoid this problem relies instead on the “Doesn’t have” filter function:

-:{, }

If an email or email thread contains any of the specified email addresses (in the From, To, Subject, or anywhere in the content), the filter skips it and it remains in my inbox. My inbox right now has five emails right now, a feat I haven’t accomplished since the last time I created a new email account.

Everything else skips the inbox and ends up with a “The Other Inbox” tag. This “inbox” gets pretty full, but I check that inbox and power through the emails just a few specific times a day, which helps protect me from my distraction-prone self.

One of the really helpful Lifehacker tips, by the way, is to use {} and () instead of “OR” or “AND.” Google applies the boolean operator “OR” to a list of terms within the the curly brackets and it applies “AND” to those within the parentheses. This provides the advantage of simply adding or deleting terms within the list rather than needing to add the boolean operator each time as well. This approach also lets me include other types of phrases in the search line. If there are specific keywords that might indicate urgency, for example, it’s easy to include them in the filter string.

It’s also quite easy in gmail to edit the filter anytime, so I can quickly adjust the list of search terms to reflect an issue that might be urgent on a particular day but not otherwise.

One problem – and I’d welcome suggestions – is that my sent emails end up in this new inbox, so I need to figure out an additional element to the filter that skips those.

It’s not perfect, but so far it’s helping me stay focused and ignore inbound emails except for just a few times a day but to still quickly notice the small number of truly urgent emails requiring more immediate attention.