Simplifying Email

Email is a necessary evil. I’ve spoken about the subject frequently on Mac Power Users and my pal David Sparks has written a book on the subject. But it’s still a topic of frustration for most of us. We feel overwhelmed by the volume of email we receive and are unsure how to manage it. I’ve made a few changes to my email workflows the past six months to simplify the way I manage my email. You may find some of these techniques help you.

Streamline Email Accounts

My mailbox setup

My mailbox setup

Over the years I’ve collected email accounts. I went through a phase where I tried to register my name on every popular email service, then I had my old college email account, another from a former ISP, one I used for friends and family, others that were used for various organizations I was member of, another I used for tech related work, and another I used for the day job. Managing all these accounts became a burden.

A few months back I decided I would allow myself only two accounts. One for work (which had to be segregated) and one for personal use. Decreasing the number of accounts I used decreased a lot of overhead. It meant I had fewer places to check for new mail, fewer sets of folders to manage for organizing message, fewer sets of rules to organize messages, fewer accounts to backup, etc. 

I consolidated my accounts in a couple of ways. First, there were a few accounts that I just decided to let go. They were simply kept for nostalgia purposes of spam collectors, it was time to say goodbye. Other accounts I decided to keep but setup a forward option to send messages to my primary account. Over time I will change the email addresses for services that I use these secondary accounts and I may eventually decide to disable the forwards and let a few more accounts go.

There are, however, a few accounts that I keep around and active so that I can send email from those accounts in situations where it’s more appropriate for a reply to come from a specific email address, rather than my personal address. This can be achieved in a few different ways depending on which email provider you use. Without going into great details, Gmail supports the ability to send mail from a different address or alias. In Apple Mail you can add multiple send-from addresses to a single account. Or, you can just setup an account for purposes of sending mail and not actually receive any mail at that account.

Sanebox helps me keep focus on the emails that matter

Sanebox helps me keep focus on the emails that matter

Filtering Out The Noise

One of the disadvantages of having several accounts filtering into one is you can bring a lot of junk. Not just spam, though that can be a problem, but noise from mailing lists and the like. 

I’ve been very fortunate that spam has not been a big problem for me. Gmail does a fairly good job of filtering out spam on the server side. I also use SpamSieve which I keep running on a Mac mini that is always on at my home. I’ve also been ruthless about unsubscribing from various mailing lists. You only want to follow unsubscribe links from emails from legitimate sources as spammers will routinely use false unsubscribe links as a means of confirming a valid email address.

Another tool I’ve adopted for filtering my email is SaneBox. (Full disclosure, Sanebox is a sponsor of my MPU.) Sanebox brings the ability to intelligently and automatically filter and prioritize email based on your previous interactions. For example, if a particular sender gets past your junk filters, you can toss them in the SaneBlackhole folder and never hear from them again. SaneBox also recently introduced domain wide filtering so if there’s a particularly ruthless marketing company that is bothering you, you can blacklist their entire domain. 

I have also become aggressive about filtering email out of my inbox. I have folders for mailing lists, folders for feedback for my podcast and website, folders that hold email deferred until a later time, and a folder for less important messages. These folders allow only my most important messages in my inbox so I can focus my attention there and process accordingly. Of course, you must train yourself to regularly check and process through these supplemental folders as well and not allow them to sit and collect messages for days. I make a point to Process my inbox to zero at least twice (usually around lunch and at the end of the day) an check my later folder at least once. Feedback and mailing lists sometimes get deferred to the weekends, but generally processed by the end of the week. 

While I use Sanebox now for almost all this filtering, you may be able to obtain similar results through the use of email rules. While Gmail has fairly advanced server-based rules, typically client side rules are more customizable. This is another case where having a home server that is always on processing your email can be helpful. There are also mail add-ons like Mail-Act On that expand Apple Mail’s built-in rules. Email rules can be very powerful and I encourage you to play with them. But be careful, an errant email rule can have unintended consequences, so it’s important you keep a close eye on your email as you are setting up and tweaking your rules.

Mail Act-On is a great tool for setting up rules to better manage email

Mail Act-On is a great tool for setting up rules to better manage email

Business Email During Business Hours

While I love my iPhone and iPad, it means that I’m never truly away from my office. This can sometimes create work/life balance problems and boundary issues. If you respond to a work-related email on a Sunday morning does it set a precedent that you are always on call and available? Certainly, there are times when urgent issues arise or working outside normal business hours is appropriate or expected, but I would caution about setting unreasonable expectations with your clients and coworkers. 

Therefore, as a a general rule (and there are many exceptions) I make it a point to respond to business emails during normal business hours. I also make it a point not to immediately respond to an email within minutes of it hitting my inbox as this too sets an unrealistic expectation for the recipient. There are a number of tools that can help with this. 

I again use Sanebox to create a “Tomorrow” folder that will defer messages to the next day. If I receive an email after working hours that is not urgent, I simply file it in the Tomorrow folder and it will reappear in my inbox the next morning. I have a similar rule setup for “Monday” which I will defer emails that come in over the weekend. 

I also use the Mail Act-On email plugin that, among other things, has a feature that allows me to respond to an email so I can get it off my mind or out of my inbox, but defer actually sending the reply until a specific time. Sometimes I’ll send the response the next business day, sometimes I’ll delay the response by 30 minutes to an hour.  MailHub has similar delayed-send features as well. 

Managing email is a constant battle and everyone must find their own workflow and set of tools that works for them. Hopefully some of these tips will help. 

This article first appeared in the February 2015 Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at