Engineering Your Email

Russell Stringham
Jun 3 · 9 min read

Prioritize What You Read

Engineers hate meetings and other distractions that keep them from getting their work done. Engineers are also quite often swamped with emails. Reading all these emails takes too much time, so many go unread. Many are irrelevant or low value to your work, but when inboxes are filled with thousands of unread emails, it can be easy to miss important emails among all the clutter. Engineering your inbox can help.

Inbox processing

Organizing your emails automatically into subfolders with inbox processing rules can make sure that the important emails are more easily identified and less likely to be overlooked. Less important emails can be sorted into those you may want to look at when you have time and those you will never want to see, unless you need to search for something specific.

Adobe uses Office 365 for email, with Microsoft Outlook as the only supported email client on phones and computers, so I will focus on how to do this within Outlook, but the same ideas could be applied to Gmail or other email services. While the examples below are Adobe-specific, most can be generalized for an engineer at any company. For an employee who interacts more with customers, vendors, or others outside of the company, these rules might require more adjustments.

On my phone the only emails for which I receive notifications are those in my inbox folder (you can configure notifications on other specific folders if you need them). As a result, my inbox folder is where I want the email that is most important for me to notice when I am away from my desk, and that I should read first and respond to quickly. All other email is automatically routed to other subfolders. I use a folder structure similar to the following:

Defining rules

Outlook on the Mac has had a bug for the last several years when used with Office 365, where when saving the rules, it doesn’t preserve the order in which you defined them. Therefore, I always use Office 365 from a web browser to define or edit the rules. To access the rules from the web interface, on the top right of the UI, choose the gear icon and then near the bottom of the drop-down menu in the “Your app settings” section choose “mail”. Now on the left (see image below), under “Mail”, in the “Automatic processing” section, choose “Inbox and sweep rules” (note, I don’t use any sweep rules).

If you use a PC, creating and editing email rules is easier, because after you have defined or updated a rule, you can immediately apply it to emails in your inbox to verify that the rule is working correctly. In the web version, you must wait for a new email to arrive that matches (or that you expected to match) the new rule to verify if it is working correctly and to validate that you have ordered the rules correctly.

Defining the processing rules is fairly simple. The hardest part is often getting them in the proper order, because the order in which the rules are applied is critical to getting each email into the correct folder. All rules that I have defined are configured to stop processing more messages after the rule matches and is applied.

Key rules

These are the rules I consider to be the central to effectively organizing and prioritizing your emails:

  1. Keep in Inbox — Email sent to distribution lists for my team (CC-team-name), or to my boss’s org (org-boss-direct, org-boss-all and grp-boss-all). When an email matches one of these conditions the rule moves it to the inbox folder (even though it is already in that folder, because you can’t define a rule that does nothing).
  2. Most subfolder rules — I have 31 rules defined for my account (25 after excluding the others in this list), but the number you will need for a similar configuration will depend on the number of special folders you desire and the number of ways that you will identify which emails go into which folder.
  3. To Only Me — sender’s address contains “@adobe” and my name is the only name on the recipient list. I assign this to the Outlook blue category, to highlight it in my inbox. Since I didn’t move it somewhere else, it stays in my inbox.
  4. To Me — sender’s address contains “@adobe” and my name is on the TO line. Move it to the inbox.
  5. CC Me — sender’s address contains “@adobe” and my name is on the CC line. Move it to the CC folder.
  6. Other Adobe — sender’s address contains “@adobe”. Move to Other Adobe folder
  7. Non-Adobe — every remaining email is moved to the Non-Adobe folder. Because each rule must have a match criterion, I use sender’s address contains “@”.

The first rule above is the first in my rule list. The last two rules in the above list must be the last two rules, but I have found that rules 3–7 in that order work best at the very end of the list. Many Adobe-internal, automated emails have my name as a recipient on the TO line. If I move rules 3 or 4 earlier in the list then these emails end up in my inbox, rather than in the appropriate folder. Also, by having them at the end, if I respond to an email for a distribution list and someone responds back, even though my name will now be on the TO line, the distribution list will still be there as well and its rule will match first, so the entire thread will remain in the same folder.

Subfolder rules

The rules defined in 1–2 will take care of getting emails into most of the appropriate subfolders. As described above, rules defined for item 2 will comprise the majority of the rules. Order often doesn’t matter much within this set, but sometimes certain emails will be sent to multiple distribution lists. You might want to order the rules for these two distribution lists, such that the one for the most important list is checked first, so that an email to that list doesn’t end up in a folder you are less likely to look at. This suggests that in general these should be ordered from most important distribution list to least important, which generally works, but may require exceptions. For example, when an automated email sends to a distribution list that is a high priority for other purposes, but where this particular sender/subject is lower priority, you may want a rule for that sender/subject before the rule for the distribution list.

These rules use one of three techniques to identify emails of interest:

  • Email comes from a specific person.
  • Email is sent to a specific distribution list (DL) or set of DLs.
  • Email subject line contains a specific string — use the longest string possible to avoid accidentally matching something incorrectly. Use this only if the other options won’t work.

The result of these rules is always to move the email to a specific subfolder.

For example, for my Corp Com folder, I have two rules:

  • Email to specific DLs, such as those for company-wide, regional and site-specific employee groups.
  • Email from no-reply@adobe.com, “Employee Communications” and from a few specific leaders who regularly send out these types of emails. I need these rules in addition to rules for specific DLs, because these emails often have nobody listed on the To and CC lines, as they are sent out via BCC to avoid someone replying with a reply all.

For emails from specific partners I work with regularly, I define a rule where the sender’s address contains “@partner-name” and then move matching emails to the appropriate partner folder within the Non-Adobe folder.

Low priority

When I send out a meeting invite, I don’t like to get spammed with responses from everyone who accepted the appointment, so I have a rule that looks for “Accepted:” or “Accepted All:” in the subject and moves these to the Accepted folder. Notice the colon in these strings to avoid matching when the word accepted simply appears in the subject. I don’t have similar rules for tentative acceptance and meeting rejections, because I want to see these emails, to verify if the person is critical to the meeting, necessitating that I reschedule it.

The Low Priority folder, which contains the Accepted subfolder is critical to my organization. I don’t have any rules that place emails directly in this folder. When I collapse this folder so that its subfolders are not visible in the Outlook sidebar, the number of unread messages in these subfolders is not visible, so I can focus only on unread message counts for folders I care about. If I really need to see these details, I can expand the folder.

When my email storage grows too large, and I need to cleanup space to stay within limits defined by IT, it is easy to go into the Low Priority folder and delete the emails from each subfolder.

The From Me folder is another unusual Low Priority folder. When I send an email to a DL, if I am part of the DL, I often (but not always?), get a copy of the email in my inbox. I automatically move these to this low priority folder. I could instead define the rule to delete them, but I don’t know if that might somehow also delete the original from my Sent folder.

I continue defining rules like the above to get all lower priority and special category emails into the appropriate folders. Occasionally, I must create new rules to handle new distribution lists to which my name has been added, but these can often be handled by updating an existing rule with a new value to match in the sender’s or recipient’s field.

Flags

While not an email rule, one other feature of outlook that I use regularly to keep emails from getting lost is the flags feature. When I get an email that requires a response or action and I don’t have time to respond immediately, I flag the email. This makes the email easier to find later when I need to get back to it. When I have a few minutes between meetings or while waiting for a build, I go the Flagged Mail folder under Smart Folders, where I can review the emails I’ve flagged and knock off one or two or make plans to set aside time to deal with them.

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Thanks to Trent Davies and Mike Rimer.

Russell Stringham

Written by

Software engineer at Adobe

Adobe Tech Blog

News, updates, and thoughts related to Adobe, developers, and technology.