2009-12-17

Happy Path: Exchange/Blackberry Email Filtering

As lame as it sounds, I think one of the best things I've done in the last two years isn't a project. It's my work email filtering via Exchange and my Blackberry. It's far from perfect, but it works astonishingly well for me.

In my case, the definition of "works" is that I see high-priority information more easily. I don't waste as much time as I once did on sorting, filtering and reading to get to what matters the most for the items at the top of my priority list.

Every so often, I'll describe it, and a light will go on for the listener. And that listener is usually someone who gets 500 messages (on a good day... bad days can have MANY more), most of which are, well, just pointless to read. Sometimes, the listener has each one of those pop up in Outlook and alert on a Blackberry. Quel dommage!

I'm no rocket surgeon, so it can't be that I'm all that bright. Mostly, I just culled the ideas from other folks. Here's my version:
1) My Blackberry will only alert for "Level 1" messages
2) Messages CC'd to me NEVER go to my Blackberry (BCC does, though)
3) Messages "to" me get filtered extensively
4) Other oddball rules and practices


Now the details...

1) My Blackberry will only alert for "Level 1" messages

I have no idea why anyone would want a buzz, chime or other noise for EVERY message they get. Some people do. I like to refer to those folks as "crazy," but I mean that with love because it's ultimately a personal preference.

So, task one is to set up filtering on my Blackberry. I have control over some of the alert messages that are time-critical. That means I can generate them with the "high importance" message header, which simplifies the rule. But that's not required.

I may flag all messages from a particular address as "level 1" messages, or I might use a combination of the address and subject line contents. There's plenty on the internets about how do filter on sender and subject.

2) Messages CC'd to me NEVER go to my Blackberry (BCC does, though)

A "CC" in the paper world meant you'd gotten a "carbon copy" of a memo. Its use grew out of a time when paper had to be routed to every party to whom the memo was directed and copied. The "carbon copy" folks got a copy usually as a courtesy. In other words, receiving a "CC" wasn't a direct call to action.

Fast-forward (or timeshift, since even "fast-forward" is a term mired in the 1980s VCR/cassette world) to email communications. We can make as many copies of the message as we want. And receiving a "CC" still is not a direct call to action.

If a sender CC's me, I assume they do not wish for me to take direct action. They may be doing me the courtesy of making me aware of a suggestion or request for action. They may be doing me the courtesy of letting me know that someone else will be doing something or has done something.

But a CC is not the place to send an emailed action request to me. Personally, I only want actionable items on my Blackberry. Informational items can wait until I'm back in Outlook.

3) Messages "to" me get filtered extensively

Part of this is that correctly filtering what appears in my Inbox is a key to only having actionable items appear

All "Outlook" rules are really Exchange server-side rules. It's easy to tell where they live because Outlook will tell you. I've found that if I can't do it server-side, I shouldn't do it at all. That's not the opinion of many "email filter" proponents. Your mileage varies.

My rules break down like this:
A) Cull out junk
B) Route genuine alerts to the correct folder
C) Put autogenerated informational messages in the correct folder
D) Put "CC" messages in the correct folder

A) Cull out junk

First, I filter junk. And I don't mean I use the junkmail filter, though that's helpful. I have two "junk" rules (for external and internal email). I add whole domains to the external rules sometimes. While I try to unsubscribe from email lists, that doesn't always work. I figure I spend 5 minutes a week adding senders or domains to that rule. That's a pretty effective use of 5 minutes each week, too. Internal junk would be things that don't impact our bottom line.

For example, each year we have a chili cookoff. I know we're having it because we have posters all over our department, and it's all good fun. And every year, there's a thread of 40-80 messages of humorous trash-talk. Again, it's all good fun and no harm is intended. But I don't need to see it in my Inbox, and I darn sure don't need it fogging out the one important message I might see on my Blackberry.

B) Route genuine alerts to the correct folder

My day job is to be operationally-focused on the support of multiple applications. And like most operations folks, I have a host of emailed alerts to let me know when excrement is contacting a set of whirring blades. I already have these messages going to my Blackberry as "level 1" messages so it will buzz. All I want in Outlook is to see them in one folder called "_Alerts" (note the underscore so it appears at the top of my folder list).

C) Put autogenerated informational messages in the correct folder

One admin's alert is another's informational message. If it's not something on which I need to take action, or it's just a notification that a job finished successfully, I filter these to a folder called "_Info" for archiving.

D) Put "CC" messages in the correct folder

This goes hand-in-hand with #2. I have them to read later (if I choose to read them at all). Whether I read them or not, I do archive them.

4) Other oddball rules and practices

These are part of my messaging processing, but they aren't specifically about filtering messages for better visibility. I include them because they still feel like part of what works for me in my email-handling systems.

- Actionable items get filed in a folder named "_Action"
It's just a bit of the David Allen GTD method. I don't do this by rule. It's just a handy way to help me process my Inbox.

- All "new email" notifications are off in Outlook
My Blackberry will buzz if it's a critical alert. I don't need Outlook popping something up as well.

- Archive (almost) everything
Ff it's work-related, archive it. If it's about your chili cookoff, well, you can probably delete those messages.

- Use a desktop search application
My archiving is unfancy. I just separate messages by year and they all go into "Save" or "Sent Items." I use Copernic Desktop Search to index the Outlook PST archives. Google Desktop or Windows Saerch 4.0 would probably both do what I want as well.

If you made it this far, and you think "this is like Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero" or "that sounds like a line from David Allen's Getting Things Done" or "Didn't Tim Ferris mention Outlook filtering in The 4-Hour Workweek," you aren't crazy. I just pulled the pieces that work for me to make a system that keeps my Inbox moving. The only goal (and the only one worth having) is for me to see what I need to see when I need to see it. Everything else is secondary.

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