How to organize your email with server-side rules in 2022 📨

productivity

Achieve inbox-zero nirvana

Over the first half of 2022, my inboxes morphed into a mess.

Newsletters, financial notices/statements, work emails, app email notifications and more were all coming into the same Unread inbox that I default to on iOS and macOS's Mail client containing each of my email addresses incoming email.

Slowly but surely, the unread count was creeping up and I started losing track of important emails.

I knew there had to be a better way, but it wasn't obvious what would make the most sense for me.

Potential solutions

You hear of a bunch of different key players in the email management space, but it's not clear what could be a good fit for you.

These were some of the providers that came to my mind when I was evaluating my options:

just to name a few (running my own email server was off the table, as had I tried it once - never again).

They're each useful in their own way, but I quickly found issues.

I wanted something that would work for all of my email addresses, not just one. And an option that wouldn't require migrating to proprietary tech.

I didn't want to lose ownership of my email so to speak, so HEY was off the table (you have to use their apps to access your email, as they don't support IMAP due to their feature set).

Proton mail is also not a generalized email client.

Superhuman is more portable, but would only work for Gmail addresses. So that was off the table.

And lastly, Spark is actually the closest, as it's a generalized email client that roughly supports the features I'm interested in, but I've found the iOS and macOS clients to be buggy (syncing issues + calendar issues).

I use Spark for a single work email address and the middle-of-the-road experience has been consistent for the past 2 years. Doesn't entice me to migrate all of my email there. Additionally, they recently launched a major redesign that looks enticing, but with the redesign, features were removed while simultaneously adding a subscription model. There was enough backlash to warrant this blog post response. I'm not opposed to the subscription, but I'm less enthusiastic about migrating and depending on their feature-set given my experience and this context.

Ultimately, most email options will have these limitations (either you have to setup new address(es) on their offering, you can't get all of your email organized the way you'd like on their client, or a mix of each).

Fortunately, there are solutions that work well in most common scenarios, so I decided to share my findings with you.

My solution

I've been using server-side rules to organize my email for the past 6 months and while they're simple, they serve my purposes, and importantly, don't require overhauling my email clients, migrating anything, or paying for subscriptions.

Server-side rules are applied from the email server as opposed to the email client. This means that the rules are applied before the email is downloaded to your device.

If you've explored email clients, you've probably seen the option to setup rules in the client. These are client-side rules and are instead applied after the email is downloaded to your device, which means that if your device is offline for any reason (eg your desktop is off/asleep) the rules wouldn't get applied on your other devices, like your phone, which for me was a no-go.

How to setup server-side rules

On some popular providers:

After becoming familiar with the steps above, I then triage most new emails that land in my general Unreads inbox by applying rules to have them skip my inbox in the future, and instead be sent to a folder of my choosing (eg Financials, Health Newsletters, Product Newsletters, etc)

As well, email clients like iOS Mail allow you to add the folders you use for server-side rules to the All Inboxes view, so they're pretty front-and-center if needed which is great.

This system still has gaps that I'm looking to fill (namely, creating server-side rules takes more clicks that I'd like), but at least my day-to-day inbox is tamed as the rules don't have to be updated too often after initial set-up.

In the end, after realizing that server-side rules/filters were the 80% of what I wanted and were supported for each of my email addresses, it became a no-brainer to eliminate the need to trust more companies with all of my email. If I were to use the Spark email clients for everything, for example, I would now have to heavily trust Readdle in addition to continuing to trust Apple, Google, etc.


Last Updated: Tue Nov 18 2022

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