Unfortunately, my e-mail InBox is eerily similar in its state of chaos. Like many people, I don't get around to trashing things I don't need to keep, and I'm generally in too much of a hurry to file the useful things efficiently. I know I'm not alone in this. Like me, your InBox may well contain hundreds upon hundreds of messages you may never need to read again.
Unlike a messy office, though, a messy InBox can slow your whole system down. A big, disorganised InBox requires more memory to load, which makes your e-mail program inefficient and more crash-prone. Thankfully, unlike a messy office, a disorganised InBox can be made to take care of itself.
Every e-mail program on the Mac allows users to create "filters" to sort through the mail as it arrives. The most common use for them is to get rid of spam (unwanted advertising) by scanning the subjects for common spam headers like "XXX for you", and automatically deleting anything that arrives with that header.
However, there is much more that you can do with filters, including automatically filing messages away from your InBox (to keep your various mailing lists separate, for example); highlighting messages from certain senders (so that anything your significant other sends shows up in red); or activating alarms (so you don't overlook any bills).
For this tutorial, I'm using Microsoft Outlook Express 5. Not because it's necessarily the "best" e-mail program, or because it's filtering is the "best" (although it is pretty good). It's simply that Outlook Express comes with every Mac, so it's the one you're most likely using. The two other serious e-mail applications on the Mac - Netscape Communicator and Eudora Pro - offer very good e-mail filtering as well, and where possible I'll make my instructions applicable to all three programs.
CREATE A NEW FILTER First, a quick note on terminology: What Eudora and Netscape (and most actual people) call "filters", Microsoft calls "rules". And what everyone else calls "rules" (the conditions governing the behaviour of the filters), Microsoft calls "criteria". This may seem like ridiculous and inefficient mucking around with semantics, but Microsoft calls it "innovation". For the sake of general understanding, I'm going to call filters "filters" and the conditions governing their behaviour "criteria". Apologies if you get confused.
To create a new filter in Outlook Express, go to the Tools menu and select Rules. (In Netscape, select Message Filters from the Edit menu, and in Eudora, select Filters from the Window menu.) Eudora and Netscape have a single window in which you create and organise your filters, but Outlook Express keeps these functions discrete.
No matter which program you're using, there will be a button somewhere on this dialogue box labelled "New". Click on it to create a new filter. In Outlook, a new window opens in which you define the criteria that govern your filter.
The first thing you do is name your filter. The filter I'm creating is called "Amazon stuff", because I often order things from Amazon.com, and I want to keep correspondence with Amazon separate from my InBox. (Netscape also allows you to enter a brief description of what your filter does, which may come in handy down the line if the name you give it isn't descriptive enough.)LAY DOWN THE LAWS Outlook Express and Communicator both allow you to have a virtually unlimited number of criteria applying to any one filter. To apply multiple criteria, simply click on Add Criterion (or More in Netscape). Eudora limits you to two criteria per filter.
Then you need to define the relationships between your criteria. For instance, you might often get mail from a particular person who has an unfortunate habit of sending chain letters occasionally. You could define a rule to apply if the From field contains the person's name and if the header contains "FW:" (a sure sign of chain letters and Internet humour). Tell Outlook to delete such messages "if all criteria are met", and it will delete all your friend's junk mailings while leaving the good stuff alone. Or, you could create a junk deletion filter that removes messages if the sender contains "sales" or the subject contains "special" or an attachment contains ".exe". Just tell Outlook to remove messages "if any criteria are met" and away you go. You can always add criteria later, if you find things are still getting through.
I've told my filter to apply itself to any messages that arrive with a sender name including "amazon". This way it will not distinguish between the American, British, German and French Amazon stores.
MAKE IT DO SOMETHING Once Outlook has identified a mail message with which you want to do something particular, you have to tell it what that action is. The thing that makes Outlook stand apart from the other e-mail packages is the extraordinary range of things you can ask it to do to messages once your criteria are met.
Aside from simply deleting things, you can highlight them in various colours (bills in blue, love letters in red, etc.), move them to different folders, remove attachments and much more. And you can apply multiple actions to a single filter: for instance, I'm telling this filter to move Amazon e-mails to a specially-created Amazon folder (you can create folders as you go), colour them green and sound an alarm so that I know to check the Amazon folder and I don't miss anything.
And that's about all there is to it. Click OK, and your filter appears in the "Mail Rules" window with a checkbox to indicate that it is enabled.
At any time, you can deactivate filters, edit them or delete them to start again. And, you can create filters to apply to newsgroups as well, to save scrolling through a lot of dross whilst trying to find useful info. Your old e-mail program just got a lot more powerful.
Of course, creating a swathe of e-mail filters will give you the most super-organised InBox on the planet, for everything that comes in after you create the filters.
Unfortunately, they won't help sort out the mess your InBox is already in. hintsAmong Outlook Express's criteria is a simple rule entitled "is junk mail". This is designed to remove spam according to rules predetermined by Microsoft. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to work out exactly what those rules are, and quite a few people have reported problems when the rule deletes useful mail. I recommend making your own junk mail filter, following the instructions given - at least then you know what you're deleting.
You can use a filter to create an automatic reply message. If you are on a lot of mailing lists, however, this isn't such a good idea - especially if a list is unmoderated and your message is sent to the entire list. You can end up creating a vicious loop of traffic that might bring down the list. Think about the consequences of any filter you create.
You can create a filter to scan your favourite binaries newsgroups for files such as MP3 songs and automati-cally save them, thus saving yourself a lot of clicking and waiting. Be aware that this won't stop you getting multiple copies of files, so you better have a lot of spare hard drive space. Also, you leave yourself open to malicious files that, if you were monitoring the process yourself, you might otherwise leave alone. It is possible to trust the filters too much.
Make sure, if you use a filter that automatically deletes messages, that you check the Deleted Items folder before emptying it and removing the messages permanently. You never know when someone is going to inadvertently use your spam criteria in a message you actually want.