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20 Ways to Use Gmail Filters

20 Ways to Use Gmail Filters

One of the coolest things about Gmail is its filters — set up properly, filters can add loads of functionality to your already-powerful Gmail account. Save time and space, rid your inbox of unwanted emails, and turn your Gmail into a multi-functional tool with simple filters.

There are some limitations to Gmail’s filters that I’d like to see improved in the future, including:

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  • the inability to mark a post as read
  • the inability to create live “smart folders”
  • difficulty in adding a large number of email addresses to a filter

But all in all, the filter function is very cool. Here are some ideas for how to use it:

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  • Killfile. If people send me too much junk mail (jokes, chain mail, etc.), they get added to my killfile. It’s a simple filter that looks at the “from” field and deletes the message if it’s one of the addresses I’ve added to the filter. Every now and then I’ll decide to add someone to my killfile, and I’ll just open up the filter and add their address.
  • Booleans. The filter works much like Gmail’s search function, in that you can add search terms such as AND or OR or NOT. So I can look for addresses that are from a number of people (using OR), or emails that must include all of the words on a list (using AND). Use search operator symbols to make it even easier: “|” for OR, space for AND, “-” for NOT, and parentheses to group different terms in your search string.
  • Other search terms. Beyond the common terms above, your filters can use other terms such as “from:”, “to:”, “has:”, “is:”, “filename:”, and “label:”, among others. Using these terms, you can make your filters even more powerful.
  • Send reminders to someone. One of the things I wish Google would add to Gmail is the ability to send a delayed email. This would allow me to send reminders to someone at regular times. Instead, I sign up for a reminder email service to send reminders (meant for other people) to my gmail address, and then set up filters to forward the reminders to various people depending on the subject or content of the email. It’s not perfect, but it allows me to send reminders to different people on a regular basis.
  • Calendar and log. I set up Google Calendar to send me reminders of events. You can set up a label (“events”) so that your calendar reminders go straight to the label, star the message, and skip the inbox. Now not only are your events in one place, instead of scattered through your inbox, you can unstar the message when you complete the task or event, and now you also have a log of all the things you’ve done.
  • To-dos. This is a commonly used function, but you can email yourself tasks that you need to do, and then set up a filter that has your email address in both the “to” and “from” boxes, that applies the label “to-do” to the message. This will allow you to view all your to-dos in one filter. Or, if you’re a GTD fan, you could set up to-dos for each context (@work, @home, @errands, @phone, etc.), by creating different labels for each, and then setting up filters for different email addresses. Email yourself at yourname+work (you don’t need the @gmail.com part), and set up the filter to label that address “@work”, and so on for each context.
  • Follow up. Even if you’re not a GTD fan, having a follow-up label is a must. Simply set up a filter with an email address such as “youname+follow” and put it in the “has the words” filter field, and have this filter label it “@follow” and skip the inbox. Now when you send out an email that needs to be followed up on, put yourname+follow in the “bcc” field, and it’ll go into your “@follow” label. Be sure to check this label once a day so you can follow up on your emails.
  • Send spam to trash. Instead of having Gmail-filtered spam go into your Spam folder (and have the annoying count of unread spam by the folder’s name), set up a filter with “is:spam” in the “has the words” field (just click “OK” on Gmail’s warning dialog box when you click next step) and “Delete it” as the action. Now all spam messages will go in your trash.
  • Archived bookmarks. If you use del.icio.us and other bookmarking services, you can archive them all in a Gmail label (“bookmarks”). Get the feed urls for each of your bookmarking services, enter them in a forwarding service such as rssfwd.com, and then set up a filter to label them all “bookmarks”. Now all your bookmarks are in one place, with Gmail’s great search.
  • Attachments. If you’re like me, you like to go through your old emails and delete a bunch of them at a time. I do common searches during the cleanup process, such as “has:attachment”, so that I can look through all my bigger emails and delete them. Make this process quicker by making a label and filter for this search, and for any of your common searches, for that matter.
  • Media. If you get a lot of media sent to you, such as music files, videos and photos, set up filters (“filename:wmv | filename:mov” for videos, “filename:mp3″ for music, filename:jpg | filename:gif” for photos, or “filename:pdf | filename:doc” for documents). Now you can quickly find any media.
  • Backups. Create a second Gmail account for storage, and create a filter to automatically forward any emails with attachments (“has:attachments”) to this second address. Now you can delete your old emails without guilt or worry.
  • Newsgroups or feeds. You can set up filters for your newsgroups, so they don’t clog up your inbox. Or forward your favorite feeds to your Gmail, and automatically label and archive them for later reading. Now you can not only access them from anywhere, but you can search them too.
  • Bloggers. If you run a blog, you can have all your blog’s comments and pingbacks automatically archived and labeled (“blog”), so your inbox doesn’t get filled up fast. Also have your blog stat reports mailed to you and shunted to this label, so you can get a quick look at your blog’s success at a glance.
  • Delete old sent emails. There’s no reason, in most cases, to keep your really old sent emails. Delete them. Create a filter with “before:2006/06/01 label:sent” with “Delete it” as the action (you’ll need to click “OK” to Gmail’s warning dialog). Every month or so, update the date of this filter.
  • No delete. Some emails you don’t want to delete — those precious ones from your kids, for example, or maybe ones from your boss. Set up a label (“nodelete”) and a filter that puts the nodelete label on emails from (or to) the addresses you want. Now, some of the above filters, add the string “-nodelete” so that it doesn’t show these emails. Now you can delete your old sent emails, or your attachment emails, for example, without worry that your kids’ or boss’ emails will be trashed along with the rest of the riffraff.
  • Flickr. Forward your Flickr account’s feed to your Gmail, with a filter to automatically label it, and now your photos are searchable through Gmail. You can also set up filters to send notices that certain tags in your Flickr account has new photos to certain relatives.
  • Notes. Email yourself notes on web research, on meetings, on books you’re reading, on classes you’re taking. Set up a filter to archive and label them (if you send notes to yourname+notes, for example). Now they’re searchable and archived and accessible from anywhere.
  • Twitter. Use your mobile phone to send text messages or IM messages to Twitter, with a keyword at the beginning of each Twitter message (NOTE, TODO, BLOG, FOLLOW, etc.). Forward your Twitter account’s feed to your Gmail, and set up filters for each type of keyword (“note twitter” will be labeled “note” for example). Now you can use your mobile device to send notes, to-dos, follow-up reminders and more to your Gmail through Twitter.
  • Wildcard. Use the wildcard character (*) for companies that use multiple types of address from the same domain. One great use I’ve seen is to use the wildcard character for vendors such as Amazon or eBay to make it easier to track online purchases. Create a label (“online shopping”) and a filter with such email addresses as “*@amazon.com|*@ebay.com|*@paypal.com|*@barnesandnoble.com”.
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More by this author

Leo Babauta

Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time The Gentle Art of Saying No Simple Productivity: 10 Ways to Do More by Focusing on the Essentials How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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