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From his column Church Tech

church-tech-01-14-1Being a person who works with technology, I’m often asked for help. And these days the problem at hand usually relates to the powerful computers we carry with us everywhere, our smart phones. Someone hands me their phone, and I immediately see two appalling things which send my stomach churning. First, is the caked-on residue of oily fingers and leftover lunches on an unlit screen. Second, is the icon indicating triple digits of unread email! One is easily resolved with a discreet swipe across my pants leg; the other is the topic of this article.

I have some sympathy for people in this situation. Most modern email systems do a good job eliminating spam, but there are legitimate sources of email that quickly become unruly and multiply like seagulls at a beach picnic. Restaurant coupons, urgent sales notices from companies whose site I accessed sometime in the past (I think), and emails from the church office combine with hordes of other daily communications.

For many, there is a tipping point at which any hope of keeping up with email is lost and their inbox becomes an ocean of messages in bottles to be opened only if we receive another email like: “It was so nice of your husband to volunteer your home for the family Thanksgiving gathering this year!”

Today, let’s explore suggestions to help you tame that sprawling leviathan we call the “inbox.”

Filters and More

Some emails you should just unsubscribe from. If you’re receiving fundraising requests from a college you never attended (or perhaps one you did attend), then by law there will be an unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email (you’ll likely have to squint to see it). Find it and vanquish that type of email.

Some emails are like coupons you want when you need them. But since you don’t eat free espinaca dip every day, you need a way to remove this type of email from your active inbox and file it away. A great way to do this is with filters. Think of an email filter as your own 24-7, tireless, personal assistant. You define rules for your assistant to follow when he receives your email, and he applies these to each new message. An example of a rule is “Whenever I get an email from my favorite Mexican restaurant, file it in the coupons folder and mark it as read.” Once this rule is in place, you’ll never see this email again unless you’re going out to eat and are looking for a meal deal.

The steps for creating an email filter are fairly similar in most web-based email systems. Let’s look at the two steps you would follow in Gmail as an example of how to set this up.

Creating a Filter

Step one is to tell Gmail what type of email to watch for. Open the email of interest. Then, choose the button that says More (it is on the opposite end of the Gmail button on that row). Click Filter messages like these. This will start a rule (filter) to select all email from this person or organization. To complete this step, select Create filter with this search in the bottom right corner.

The last step is to tell your assistant what to do when it receives messages like this. Most likely you’ll want to click the options, which are:

  • Skip the inbox (Archive it) - this moves the email out of the inbox;
  • Mark as read - this removes it showing as new email; or
  • Apply the label: Choose label - this moves the email into another folder.

Then click Choose label to select which folder you want this email filed in, and select the Create Filter button. You are finished!

There are more options and refinements available that would allow you to do things like filter advertisements from your favorite travel website while leaving in place flight confirmation messages, but this should be enough to get you started.

If you invest a few hours unsubscribing and setting up filters, you can wrestle your email back into a civilized condition so that it once again will be a useful tool for keeping up with your friends and family.

Mark Evilsizor has worked in Information Technology for more than 20 years. He currently serves as head of IT for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo. Views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.

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