As I work with both educationalists and corporations around the world on their productivity issues, almost everyone shares one common challenge – too much time spent on email.

One really simple strategy can make a huge difference, and yet hardly anyone uses it. When correctly set up, rules save you filing time, make it far easier to keep your Inbox empty, and simplify finding things. If you’re a Mac user, check your Help menu for specifics. Sorry, but this explanation is for Outlook and Outlook Express users.

Many people know vaguely that Rules are useful. Some know that they can be created to assist in automatic filing of much of our mail. But even those who do know often don’t follow through for fear that they’ll lose sight of new mail (I was just the same until only a few months ago). In fact you won’t lose anything – as long as you change one tiny action when you first go to your Inbox.
Let’s start from scratch.

Folders
Before we can do fancy things with rules we need a folder or sub-folder for every category we deal with, just as we would with a physical filing cabinet. If you don’t yet have a range of folders set up in the left-hand-side of your Inbox, learn to do that first or the following explanation won’t be much use to you. If you’ve got no-one to show you, use the Help menu. It’s pretty straight-forward.

How to create a Rule
First we’ll examine the simple application and some basic tips. Then I’ll show you how to keep everything under your nose in a beautifully elegant and time-saving way.
Choose an email in your Inbox that you’d like to keep. Right-click on it. A menu will open up. Choose ‘Create Rule’.

In the small ‘Create Rule’ dialogue box that then opens you’ll see the email of the sender and the subject line in the top two boxes. If you want to send all correspondence from that person to one destination, tick the top box. Only tick the second one if the subject line is always the same.
The two bottom lines of the dialogue box are the key to it all. Tick ‘Move email to folder’ and then ‘Select Folder’. This will open up your entire list of folders. Highlight your chosen folder. Choose ‘OK’.
Now you’ve got a simple rule.

The cool and sophisticated part
‘Advanced Options’ covers all the variables. Take a tour through all the screens and prepare to be delighted. The Wizard will walk you through a bunch of additions, inclusions and exceptions.

For instance, suppose you want everything with the word ‘Curriculum’ in either the subject line or in the body of the text, and which comes from your DP, to go to a Curriculum folder. In the first page of the Advanced Options Wizard you’d tick both ‘with specific words in the body’ and ‘with specific words in the message header’. In the Edit box below, click on ‘specific words’ (this will show up once you’ve ticked as directed in the top panel). Now you can add any words you like.
Apply to both incoming and outgoing mail

The process you’ve just applied to incoming mail can also be applied to your Sent items. The only difference is you don’t need to tick the sender (yourself). Instead, select the ‘Sent To’ box – it shows the address of the recipient.

So how do I find these nicely filed mails?
Some will tell you to watch out for the bold font in each folder, but if you’ve got any sub-folders you could easily miss things.

One tiny action solves the problem. Instead of going to Inbox when you check new mail, go first to ‘Unread or For Follow Up’. It’s a system default folder which you usually find at the top of your email directory (unless you’ve got a very old email system). Sometimes ‘Unread’ and ‘For Follow Up’ are displayed as two separate folders, depending on your set up. You can achieve the same with two folders
but it’s quicker to have both categories in one.

The big time-saver is that, no matter in which folder your mail has automatically filed itself (because of your clever Rules), you’ll find in that one ‘Unread or For Follow Up’ folder contains everything either awaiting attention or deletion.

A few other enhancements
Once you’ve read a mail, if you go out of that folder the mail will disappear from the ‘Unread or For Follow Up’ folder. If you don’t want to lose sight of it there are at least two simple options.
1    Do another right click and choose ‘Follow Up’. You’ll get a selection of flags. These will then continue to show up in the same folder. (You can see in the screen shot above that there are 21 items. They’re dotted all through the folders – NOT in the Inbox.)
2    A right click will also give you the choice to ‘Mark as Unread’.
Either of these actions ensures that the item continues to show up in your Unread or For Follow Up Folder. To remove the flag, hold your cursor over the flag for that email. A right click will remove it. Alternately, right click, Follow Up, Clear Flag.

Once you start setting Rules you’ll delight in an Inbox with hardly anything in it. Of course you still have to deal with the mail, but many users find they save themselves easily up to half an hour a day.

Best-selling author and conference speaker Robyn Pearce CSP, international specialist in time management and productivity, stumbled in to the field of time management because she used to be bad at it! Her time management training programs are now available for licence by educators and training departments around the world. You’ll also find heaps of other help and products at www.gettingagrip.com