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The Gmail team has been adding features to Google’s web-based email program at a gallop. A quick click of Gmail’s Settings link unveils an impressive array. By clicking the Labs tab and enabling some of Gmail’s experimental features, you’ll find yourself with even more options.

There’s plenty worth exploring in the Gmail Labs, but some of Gmail’s most attractive features are its oldest. Take filters, for example.

Gmail’s filters let you automate the processing of incoming email. Attach a label, bypass the inbox, forward the email or simply delete it without having to lift a finger. Filters let you perform automated actions on any email which matches criteria you specify.

The easiest way to create a filter is to filter by example. Say you receive an email and think “Aha, I never want to see email from this person again”, place a checkmark beside the email and from the More Actions box select Filter Messages Like These. Gmail will display the filter options box with the From box filled in for you.

Creating filters

To create a filter you first specify the criteria for the filter and then choose one or more actions to apply:

  1. Click the Settings link near the top right of the Gmail window, then click the Filters tab.
  2. Click the Create A New Filter link. The filter options box appears at the top of the page.
  3. Build your criteria by entering information in the From, To, Subject, Has The Words and Doesn’t Have boxes. For example:

From: ourmob.com.au

Has the words: anniversary

will select mail with the word ‘anniversary’ in its text, sent to you by anyone with an ourmob.com.au address.

From: big@boss.com OR boss@big.com

To: myworkmail@gmail.com

will select all email to you at your myworkmail address from either big@boss.com or boss@big.com. Check the attachment box to filter only those emails which contain attachments.

If you already have matching email in your Gmail archive, you can get a quick idea of whether your filter criteria will catch the email you want by clicking the Test Search button; Gmail displays a list of all matching email in your archive.

  1. Click the Next Step button and select one or more actions to apply to the selected mail. You can skip the inbox, mark an email as read, star or label the email, forward it to another email address or delete it. The Never Send It To Spam option is useful when you subscribe to an online newsletter and want to ensure Gmail’s very vigilant spam filter doesn’t block the email.
  2. If you want to apply your new filter to mail you’ve already received, check the Also Apply Filter To x Conversations Below button. Then click Create Filter to put your filter to work.

You can edit or delete an existing filter by clicking Settings -> Filters, scrolling through the filter list and clicking Edit or Delete.

Gmail’s filters recognise Boolean search operators such as AND, OR and NOT. Use AND to limit results to those which match all criteria; OR to expand results to emails matching any one or more of a series of criteria; use NOT to exclude particular emails from the results. Note that instead of typing AND, OR or NOT, you can use their shorthand symbols: type a space for AND; type | for OR; type – (the minus sign) for NOT.

A filtered to-do list

Creating a filterBy combining filters, labels and Gmail’s nifty ‘plus addresses’, you can build yourself a handy to-do list.

First, a word on ‘plus addresses’. Gmail ignores anything you type after a + symbol inserted into the first half of a Gmail address. So if your email address is boffinbob@gmail.com, you can receive email sent to boffinbob+betty@gmail.com, boffinbob+photinos@gmail.com, boffinbob+quarks@gmail.com, and so on. Gmail strips out the extraneous characters and delivers the email to your inbox. This is very handy for creating disposable email addresses and for figuring out who has sold your email address to spammers.

It’s also handy for creating things such as to-do lists. Here’s how:

  1. Create a new label by clicking Settings -> Labels -> ‘Create a new label’, typing To Do and clicking Create.
  2. Create a new filter. In the To box type your Gmail address with +todo inserted before the @ symbol. For example, boffinbob would type boffinbob+todo@gmail.com in the To box. In the filter actions, tick ‘Apply the label’ and select To Do from the list of labels. Click Create Filter to finish.

Now, whenever you want to set yourself a task, send yourself an email at your +todo Gmail address. Stick the task in the subject line of the email, add details to the body. You’ll then be able to log into your Gmail account at any time, click To Do in the Labels box and see at a glance all your tasks. To add urgency to a task, create another filter for mail sent to youraddress+todo1st@gmail.com then, as well as labelling this email with To Do, check Star It.