E-mail: the New Filing System

by Rob Zorn
from the March 2005 Newsletter

I've heard the phrase "e-mail filing system" around a few times lately, and thought an article on how this is done might not be a bad idea. I also confess to having been somewhat horrified on occasion when witnessing the way some people seem to be able to make use of an inbox that is crammed with hundreds of e-mails. How do these people find and keep track of stuff? Oh well, I guess it takes all sorts. This article will look briefly at setting up e-mail folders and creating rules so that e-mails automatically go to their designated folders as they arrive.

It's relatively easy to create new folders in your e-mail program in order to sort your e-mails out. You might want to do this according to subject (e.g. Work e-mails, Correspondence e-mails, Trade Me e-mails) or by person. By this I mean you could set up a folder for all those you regularly correspond with (e.g. Billy, Ralph or Aunty Doreen).

By Default, Outlook and Outlook Express come with a few ready main folders, and the folder list looks something like the picture to the left of this paragraph. The Inbox, Outbox, Sent Items folders, etc, are all local folders, and you can add as many local folders as you like yourself. To do this, simply right-click on the Local Folders line. A grey box will pop up. In this grey box, left-click on New Folder. Another box will pop up allowing you to give the folder a name, and then Outlook or Outlook Express will slot the new folder into your folder list alphabetically (below the default folders). It's that simple.

Once you've created a new folder, you can create new sub-folder inside it using the same method. For example, you could create a folder called Correspondence. Then, once that folder is created, right-click on it to create a new sub-folder called Billy. Once the Billy folder is created, right-click on Correspondence again to create a new sub-folder called Ralph. Then repeat the process to create a sub-folder called Aunty Doreen. You should end up with something that looks like the picture to the left of this paragraph.

To the left of the Correspondence folder you will see a wee box with a minus sign in it. You can click on that wee box to collapse or expand your folder list. If I clicked on it, the sub-folders would all disappear, but only from view, and the minus sign would turn into a plus. If I clicked on the plus, the sub-folders would all reappear.

The next time an e-mail from Auntie Doreen arrived, I would read it, and then drag it, using my left mouse button, from my Inbox into my Aunty Doreen folder. When I send an e-mail to her, I can also go to my Sent Items folder, once the e-mail's gone, and drag that into the Aunty Doreen folder too. Now I will always know where my e-mails to and from Aunty Doreen are. If I really wanted to go to town, I could create sub-folders within Aunty Doreen; one called "To" and one called "From." I could do that. I love the old dear, but perhaps our relationship doesn't warrant that degree of detail.

One thing to note is that your sub-folders are all set up locally. That means the set up only applies to the machine on which you create it. If you log into web mail, you won't find those folders present. Web mail only shows you what mail you haven't already downloaded. So, unfortunately, you can't access these folders or the e-mails in them from any other computer, or while overseas or whatever.

Automatic e-Mail Rules

You can also set up automatic e-mail rules so that incoming e-mail bypasses your Inbox and automatically goes to the folder you want it in. I'm not so keen on this myself. I like to have all my e-mails land in my inbox so that I can sort them out myself and not miss anything. Nevertheless, the technology is there and may be of use to some.

Outlook Express's mail rules are found under Tools/Message Rules, and Outlook's set-up is usually pretty similar. Click Tools, then Message Rules, and then, in the little grey box that pops up to the right, click Mail. A New Mail Rule box will be invoked.

If I want all my e-mails from Aunty Doreen to go into my Aunty Doreen folder, I need to tick the box in the top window that says Where the From line contains certain people. In the second window I need to put a tick in the box that says Move it to the specified folder.

In the third window you can see that a blue link has appeared for contains people, and another one for the specified folder. If I click on contains people I can specify what e-mail address I want this rule to apply to. I can add in aunty.doreen@actrix.co.nz, or any other address I might like. If I click on the word specified I can select which folder I want the e-mails from the selected address to go to.

In the fourth little window at the bottom of the New Mail Rule box, I can give the mail rule a name. This is optional and only becomes important if you want to use lots of mail rules that you may need to distinguish one from another in the future.

You'll notice that there are a lot of other possibilities with message rules in Outlook and Outlook Express. Feel free to experiment. Any rule you don't like can easily be removed by selecting it and clicking the Remove button. Just be careful about selecting the option Delete from Server. If you set this option up and use it, anything it applies to will be deleted before it is downloaded and will be lost forever.

I've only covered the Microsoft e-mail programs in this article because these are what the vast majority use, but other e-mail programs have the same sort of capability. Mozilla's Thunderbird, for example, has a very similar setup (though more powerful and possibly more intuitive) under Tools/Message Filters.