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Last Updated on January 3, 2018

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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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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The power of habit

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to make a reminder works for you

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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