Why You Shouldn't Use E-mail Filters

Most people I know use filtering -- that tool in Outlook, for example, that diverts new mail directly to a folder so it doesn't clutter your inbox. I can certainly appreciate why you would want to do this: If a lot of the mail you get is informational or lower priority, then shuffling it off to a holding cell for review "later" is a reasonable strategy, at least in principle.

But here's the main argument against such a plan:

Check out my folder called Lists -- it's currently got just shy of 9,000 items in it. And that's only because I remembered I had such a folder a few months ago and emptied it from a previous high of almost 20,000 messages -- without reading a single one of them.

I'm not alone; I've chatted with a lot of people, and they all agree that those lower priority messages get forgotten. It's not hard to see why, either. By their very nature, they are for information only or of such a low priority that we choose to file them for later. And the fully automated nature of e-mail filtering means we forget it even exists -- out of sight, out of mind. So the only thing you're really doing is wasting e-mail storage space and setting yourself up to have to purge your mail occasionally.

So skip the filtering. Instead, try these tips for managing your mail more effectively without them:

Skip the stuff you never read. If you currently filter certain kinds of messages that you honestly never really look at, unsubscribe from them entirely. Tell the sender that you don't need to get their weekly update on whatever it is they're FYI'ing you about.

Touch once. Instead of filing mail to read or act on it later, deal with your mail once and only once. When it arrives -- and you have time -- open the e-mail, read it, and act on it. Delete it or file it for safekeeping when you're done. It's admittedly harder than it sounds, but no other e-mail strategy will be more effective at helping you manage your time.

Make a library of responses. If you send a lot of messages with short replies -- of the "thanks," "congratulations," or "approved" varieties, then consider creating some canned responses in your mail program so you can quickly populate a mail with your desired message. It'll let you speed through your inbox even faster, and mitigate the need for automated workarounds like filters. In Outlook, for example, you can make a set of canned responses using the signature feature.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Christian Haugen
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