The sales assistant at your favourite store offers 10 per cent off, as well as exclusive discounts in the future, in exchange for your email address. Your friend recommends a daily deal newsletter that could help you save money if a bargain comes up that's right for you. You've signed up to receive a vocabulary-word-of-the-day email, which you only read on mornings when work is slow.
All these messages are greymail, solicited mail that you may want to read sometimes, but they’re emails which are never crucial. Greymail differs from spam in that the latter is unsolicited, whereas greymail comes at your request. While many of us do browse our greymail, it can also be a major source of clutter, especially if it goes unchecked for too long.
Here are some solutions for managing greymail to keep your inbox in check.
Create a 'junk mail' account
One of the oldest solutions in the book for managing greymail is to create a free webmail account that you use exclusively for marketing messages, newsletters, deals and discount emails, and other unimportant messages.
For years, I've used a Hotmail account for this very purpose, although it seems a bit silly now because both Hotmail and Outlook.com (not to be confused with Outlook's desktop app) have several integrated tools specifically for managing greymail, discussed in greater detail below.
These tools aren't necessary to use if you're reserving one email account wholly for greymail, as I've done, as the inbox itself will already be one giant filter. In any event, I set up the account about ten years ago, before the aforementioned tools were in place.
I usually log into the account once a day, but I never think twice about it when I don't. I also never worry that an important message will become buried among the greymail, because there are no important messages in this account. It's purely reserved for greymail. A newer feature in Outlook.com lets you create an alias email address, which can even be disposable, for things like greymail or other correspondence that will be limited and for which you don't want people contacting you again (say, to post on Craigslist).
Use rules, filters, and folders
Just about every email program lets you create rules or filters to sort messages automatically into different folders so that you can manage them separately. For example, you might create a rule that says "if an email is from a sender whose address ends in 'ac.uk,' then automatically move the message to a folder called University Correspondence upon receipt.”
Before I go on about specific features in Hotmail and Outlook.com for greymail, let me just outline how to set up filters and rules in the other two major free webmail programs, Yahoo! Mail and Gmail.
How to add filters to Yahoo! Mail
In Yahoo! Mail, shown above, tick a message's box (or more than one), then select Actions and Filter Emails Like These. A pop-up box will let you fill out the rules for how to filter and sort similar messages.
You can create folders for whatever your heart desires. See my list of suggestions at the end of this article for ideas.
How to add filters to Gmail
The process is very much the same in Gmail.
Tick the box to the left of whichever messages you want to filter, then select More and then "Filter messages like these." You can then apply the first set of rules to the filter, such as information about the sender, or the "to" name, or something in the subject line. Click "create filter" and you can apply the next step in the rule: What to do with the messages that meet the criteria (e.g. mark as read, delete, forward etc).
Note: In my experience, enabling rules in Gmail isn't always a smooth process (most recently, using Chrome on Windows). Links and buttons don't always work. Signing out and signing back in again seems to fix any unresponsiveness.
One additional Gmail option not found in Yahoo! Mail lets you automatically star any message to mark it as important. While Yahoo! does have a way to mark important mail, too, you can only do so manually, not automatically with filters.
How to add filters to Hotmail/Outlook.com
Hotmail and Outlook have many more included features for managing greymail. The examples I've used so far only skim the surface. Rules can be quite complicated, and when they are, enabling them correctly and testing whether they work as you intended takes some time – unless you use Hotmail or Outlook.com. Check out the following video…
As mentioned, Microsoft's webmail apps have a few ready-made rules that carry out some of the most common filters people want to apply to their inboxes. Much of the automation is managed through categories. For example, you can categorise a number of messages as "Newsletters" and then set a rule for what happens to all newsletters. Having categories makes it much easier to make changes to a rule later and have it apply to similar messages.
Another truly fantastic feature in Outlook.com and Hotmail is the Unsubscribe and Schedule Cleanup options that appear at the end of every message Microsoft knows to be greymail.
The unsubscribe link is independent from any unsubscribe directions given from the sender, and in effect, it lets you get rid of unwanted messages very easily, which is sometimes preferable to managing them. When used, the unsubscribe button also gives you the option to delete all previous emails from the same sender.
The second option, Schedule Cleanup, offers a few options for dumping messages from the same sender that may have piled up over time. My preferred selection is to keep only the most recent message from the sender, and doing so creates a rule to the same effect. When a new message arrives from this sender, any old ones will be deleted from the inbox.
You can probably already imagine the benefits of this feature for something like daily deal emails, for which only the most recent email is relevant.
Ideas for folders
When managing greymail, I recommend making a few folders with easily recognisable names for the kinds of mail you tend to read – or maybe "scan" is the right word – more than others. A few ideas include:
- Blog Updates
- Confirmation Emails (such as automatic payment alerts)
- Event Announcements
- Facebook Tag/Message Alerts
- Google News Alerts
- LinkedIn Alerts/Job Updates
- Newsletters-Personal (for hobbies and interests)
- Newsletters-Professional (for career development)
- Shipping Confirmation/Tracking
- Scheduled Downtime Notices
- Twitter Alerts
On the other hand, if it is important to you to see all your Facebook tag alerts, for example, do not filter these messages! Leave them set to go direct to your inbox.
Keep your inbox working like an inbox
The whole idea behind managing greymail is to keep those messages you may want to see sometimes separate from the messages you need to see as soon as they arrive in your inbox. Doing so will keep you happily reading updates from your favourite blogs, websites, news sources, social networks, and more, without hindering your ability to be productive and efficient the rest of the time.