Combine and organize your e-mail accounts

Integrate your Outlook, Gmail, Hotmail, and other e-mail addresses and direct less-important messages to folders outside your inbox so the mail you need to see right now appears first.

I'll wager you've got mail waiting for you right now--probably in several different inboxes.

Gone are the days of having only two e-mail accounts: one from your boss for work and another from your ISP for everything else. Now you're likely to have a Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, or other free Webmail account--and maybe two, three, or more such addresses--in addition to or in place of your work and ISP accounts.

You can avoid having to open multiple programs or browser windows to view all your messages by forwarding mail between your active accounts. That way you've got one universal in-box that's accessible from a desktop mail app such as Outlook or Thunderbird and from a single browser window.

A nice bonus of this technique is the ability to manage all your mail based on the strengths of each mail system: the rules, sortability, and integration of desktop clients such as Outlook and Thunderbird, and the easy, near-universal access of Webmail. This also lets you filter the mail you receive at various accounts so less-important messages--such as the weekly neighborhood newsletter and special offers from your favorite merchants--are diverted automatically from your in-box to folders for review when you have the time.

It has been almost three years since I explained how to direct mail to and from Gmail accounts and Outlook and Thunderbird . The Gmail help site provides up-to-date instructions for forwarding Gmail messages to POP and IMAP accounts and also for importing mail from other accounts into Gmail.

Making the Outlook-Hotmail connection
To view your Hotmail account in Outlook, run Microsoft's Outlook Hotmail Connector, which also adds your Hotmail contacts and calendar entries to their Outlook equivalents. Linking a POP or IMAP account to Hotmail is almost as simple. After you sign into your Hotmail account, navigate to the Hotmail Options page, enter the e-mail address and password, and click Next.

Hotmail will attempt to connect to the account and import its data. You can create a new folder for the imported account or assign it to an existing folder. You can also select one of seven color-coded icons to use for the folder.

Microsoft Windows Live Hotmail account-import settings
Microsoft's Hotmail service makes it easy to import mail from a POP or IMAP account. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Automatically prioritize incoming mail via rules and filters
All the major e-mail systems let you process your mail before it reaches your in-box. In Outlook this is done by creating rules that automatically forward the messages to the folder of your choice, including the Deleted Items folder. In Outlook 2003, right-click the message you want to filter and choose Create Rule to open the Create Rule dialog. Make your selections and click OK, or choose Advanced Options to open the Rules Wizard.

Microsoft Outlook Create Rule dialog box
Keep non-priority messages out of your Outlook inbox by directing them automatically to a separate folder via the Create Rule dialog box. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

In Outlook 2007 and 2010, redirect less-important mail by right-clicking the message, selecting Rules, and choosing one of the four options: Always Move Messages From, Always Move Messages To, Create Rule, or Manage Rules & Alerts. Selecting one of the first two options prompts you to select a folder or create a new folder to store the messages to or from the specified account. The other two options open the Create Rule dialog box and the Rules & Alerts dialog, respectively.

For more on creating and using Outlook 2003's rules to manage your mail, see the article on Microsoft's Office Support site. The site also describes the rules-creation process for Outlook 2007 and for Outlook 2010.

Filter received mail in Thunderbird
To create a message filter in Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail client, click Tools > Message Filters and select the New button on the right side of the Filter Rules dialog box. Give the filter a name, select the desired filter criteria in the drop-down menus, and click OK.

Mozilla Thunderbird Filter Rules dialog box
Mozilla Thunderbird's Filter Rules dialog provides many options for redirecting the mail you receive automatically. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Select the filter you just created in the Message Filters list and click the Run Now button at the bottom right of the screen. As in Outlook and other mail systems, folders listed in Thunderbird's left pane appear bold when they contain unread messages. To mark all messages in a folder as read so you can be alerted at a glance to new mail in that folder, select it and click Message > Mark > All Read (or press Ctrl-Shift-C).

Unclutter your Gmail in-box via filters
I'm a fan of Gmail's new Priority in-box feature that attempts to place your most important messages at the top of your inbox. Unfortunately, the Gmail prioritizer relegates some important messages to the "Everything else" list and puts some less-timely mail in the Priority stack.

You can out-prioritize Gmail's Priority algorithm by applying filters that move less-important messages to the folder of your choice. To do so, check one of the messages you want to filter, choose "More actions" at the top of the message list, and select "Filter messages like these." The Create a Filter dialog box appears with the sender's address in the From field and all other messages from the sender in a list below the dialog.

Gmail lets you fine-tune the filter by specifying the recipient's e-mail address, the subject text, text in the message itself, text missing from the message, or whether it has an attachment. After entering your filter criteria, you can test the filter or click Next Step to open the "Choose action" dialog. Here you can instruct Gmail to archive the message automatically, apply an existing or new label to it, mark it as read, forward it, delete it, mark it as important, or perform some other action.

Gmail Create filter window
Gmail's Create a Filter dialog lets you specify the action to take when messages meet certain criteria, including deleting them or forwarding them to a folder automatically. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You can apply the filter to all messages meeting the criteria you specified by checking "Also apply filter to X conversations below." Click Create Filter to run the filter and open a list of the Gmail filters you've created. When you return to the Gmail in-box, the filter will be listed on the left side of the window along with your other labels.

It's simple to spot new additions to these filter categories because labels containing unread messages appear in bold type. In some cases, the labels may contain old unread messages you aren't interested in reading but you still want a visual cue of new mail in these filtered categories. To mark all messages in the category as read, select the label in the left pane, click "More actions" at the top of the window, and choose "Mark all as read." (If there are more than 50 messages in the category, you'll have to select Older and follow the steps for each subsequent screen full of mail.)

Filtering messages in Yahoo Mail and Hotmail
Yahoo Mail's filtering feature is similar to Gmail's: select one of the messages you want to filter, choose Actions > Filter Emails Like This, pick your filter options (To, From, text in or missing from the Subject or message body, etc.), choose the folder to redirect the messages to (or create a new folder), and click Save. Unfortunately, the filter won't be applied to the current message or similar messages automatically.

To view, edit, or delete your Yahoo Mail filters, click Options > More Options and choose Filters in the left pane. Select the filter in the middle pane to see its settings in the right window. Buttons on the top of the window let you add, remove, or reorder your filters.

Hotmail requires that you first create the folder you want to redirect messages to, then right-click the message and choose "For this sender." Four more options appear at the bottom of the menu, two of which are "Move all from" and "Delete all from" (the other two options let you send a message to or find all messages from the sender).

Select the destination folder for the messages in the drop-down menu, check "Also move future items," and click "Move all." As with other mail systems, the folder name will appear bold when it contains unread messages. If you want to set all existing messages in the folder as read, choose the folder, check the box in the top-left corner to select all the messages in the folder, click the "Mark as" option at the top of the window, and select Read in the drop-down menu.

Now your most important messages will appear in the in-box of whichever e-mail program or service you're using and you'll be able to tell at a glance when new messages have arrived from senders you have designated as less important.

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