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Tame Your Inbox!

Is your e-mail program's Inbox overflowing and out of hand? Do you spend too much time searching for a few important e-mail messages among a majority that are trivial and distracting? Or worse yet, through "Junk" or "Adult Content" e-mail (which I'll collectively call "spam" from here on out)?

I can relate. Back when I was a "Microsoft-ie," it wasn't unusual to get 300 to 500 messages a day (and I'm talking about legitimate messages, not spam!). And I knew people who received even more. Obviously, nobody can read and respond to that many messages. Talk about information overload!

So how do you handle such an onslaught of e-mail? To start with, you use the power of your computer to automatically handle as many messages as possible, so that you can concentrate on the important ones that deserve your immediate attention.

Most e-mail programs have features to help you "separate the wheat from the chaff." I'll focus on Microsoft Outlook, one of the most common full-featured e-mail programs, (specifically version XP/2002).

However, previous versions of Outlook can do most of the same things, as do other e-mail programs such as Eudora and Netscape's Communicator. (Note: Outlook Express is the free e-mail program that comes with many computers – it has fewer capabilities than the full-featured Outlook included with Microsoft Office.)

The easiest way to manage, or organize, your Inbox (which is actually just a special folder inside of Outlook) is to use a feature called, appropriately, "Organize." Click on Outlook's "Tools" menu, then "Organize." Since spam can be the biggest detraction, let's deal with it first.

On the left side of the Organize area, click "Junk E-Mail." Now pick a color that the subject lines of Junk (meaning unsolicited advertising) and "Adult Content" messages will be displayed in, and then click both of the "Turn On" buttons. Now when you scan through your Inbox, you'll be able to quickly identify what to ignore.

Note: Don't pick blue or red for these (even though red seems like a logical choice for adult content), because Outlook already marks high-priority messages with red and low-priority messages with blue. Gray is a good choice for spam because it de-emphasizes the messages without making them unreadable.

So how does Outlook decide whether a message is spam or not? It uses two different methods. First, it looks for certain phrases that are commonly associated with spam. Some examples are "$!", "money-back guarantee", "over 18" or "xxx". To see exactly what Outlook uses to identify spam, look for the "filters.txt" file on your computer (look in the "Program Files" folder, then the "Outlook" folder).

The second method is to look at the sender's e-mail address to see if it belongs to a known or suspected spammer. (You can add or remove e-mail addresses from Outlook's list of known spammers).

You might have also noticed that you can use the Organize feature to move spam out of the Inbox into a different folder instead of just color coding it. However, I recommend that you only color code it. Here's why.

Occasionally somebody will send you a legitimate message that's incorrectly identified as spam. For example, if one of your vendors e-mailed you about equipment you wanted to buy with the message "OK, I'll add the money-back guarantee you asked for," the phrase "money-back guarantee" could cause it to be identified as spam. If spam is automatically moved out of your Inbox into a spam folder, you might never see his e-mail. You'd wonder why he never answered your request for a money-back guarantee, and he'd wonder why you didn't make the purchase after he'd finally agreed to your terms.

But, with color coding, you'll still see his message in your Inbox, you just might not notice it as quickly as the messages that arrived that weren't identified as spam.

Although the Organize feature has quite a few other capabilities, the two to become familiar with right away are "New Folder" and "Rules Wizard" (the two buttons in the upper right corner of Organize).

Use the "New Folder" button to create folders in Outlook. For example, if you receive a lot of joke e-mails, you could create a folder named Humor. Then you could move all of the joke messages out of your Inbox into the Humor folder, to be read some other time.

But, moving those joke e-mails is something you should tell Outlook to do automatically, instead of doing it yourself. Using the Organize feature's "Rules Wizard," you could create a rule that moves messages into the Humor folder (based on them coming from the e-mail address of a friend who only sends you jokes, or perhaps any messages with a subject line containing the word "humor" or "joke."

However, the best way to protect yourself from spam is to only share your e-mail address with the people you really want to communicate with.

To protect your "real" e-mail address use a free e-mail service (such as www.Hotpop.com, www.Yahoo.com, www.Hotmail.com, or www.MSN.com) to create another "public" e-mail account that you'll share with the Internet world whenever there's a chance of it getting on a spammer's list. For example, anytime you order something online, enter a sweepstakes, or post a message to a newsgroup, use your free public e-mail address instead.

Then, if your free e-mail account provides what's called a "POP3" service, you can also set up Outlook to download its messages. You might also want to create a rule to move them out of your Inbox into a different folder. That way you can check all of your e-mail accounts at one time from Outlook!

For example, for the address PublicKevin@hotpop.com, I'd create a folder in Outlook called something like Public Kevin, and then create a rule using the Rules Wizard to automatically move all PublicKevin@hotpop.com messages to that folder.

Even if your free e-mail account doesn't provide the "POP3" service (some companies like Yahoo! and MSN charge extra for that capability), you can still check that e-mail using your web browser. 

The wonderful thing about this is that after PublicKevin@hotpop.com (inevitably) starts receiving too much spam, I can abandon it and create a new account, say PublicKevin2@hotpop.com!

For more information about e-mail and spam, go to email.about.com. If you can ignore all the advertising on their site you'll find some great advice.

Although we've made a great start, we've really just scratched the surface of what Outlook can do. To learn more, use Outlook's Help. In particular, look for information on rules, spam, folders, and adding additional e-mail accounts.

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