Custom ringtones on our phones have been making it easy to tell who's calling (and whether we want to answer) without looking at our phones for years now, so why aren't we doing the same thing with our incoming email? A frequently firing new-email alert can throw you off a productivity sweep with nothing more than a gentle ding. You rush to your inbox to open this new gift of an email just to find that... oh... it's another borderline offensive mass email chain from your cousin-in-law. Today I'll show you how to set up custom alerts with your favorite desktop email client to minimize email distraction without missing important messages.
This post was inspired by this excellent post at weblog Inspect My Gadget.
A lot of people turn off email notifications altogether to ensure they avoid the distraction of the constant, IM-like flow of new email, but that also means that when a really important message arrives, you may not get to it in the timely manner it requires. You can take advantage of custom alerts (i.e., custom ringtones for your email) to help firewall your attention so that only the messages that need to be brought to your attention are, and the emails you don't need to get to quickly aren't. Whether you're running Thunderbird, Outlook in Windows, or Mail.app on your Mac, each has the ability to perform custom alerts for incoming mail. First I'll show you the customized email alerts I use to give you a few ideas of where you can start, then I'll show you how to set it up in your client of choice.
When To Use Email "Ringtones"
- By Groups: If you use your desktop email client to deal with both personal and work email, you may want to set up different alerts for each (or only alerts for the more important group). Likewise, if you're just using the client for personal email, you might want to set different notification sounds for friends and family.
- By Individual: If you want to get really specific, you can set custom alert tones by individual. This won't be the most practical for all clients (it would be especially painful to set up with Thunderbird), but the concept of matching a snippet of your contact's custom phone ringtone with your email notification is enticing.
- By Subject: If you've got a buzzword or two that you always want to keep on top of, you might want to consider a custom alert for any email containing that special topic.
- By Priority: I don't know a lot of people who actually set priority when they send emails, but if you're dealing with folks who do, it might be worthwhile to set a special alert for your high priority messages. Then again, you can still set up your own list of priority contacts and non-priority contacts to achieve the same basic goal.
If you really want to use custom notifications to streamline your inbox and minimize distraction, I'd recommend setting custom alerts only for important emails—that means long threads discussing this YouTube video with your friends won't receive a notification at all, but that all-important email from your boss will set off a fire-alarm-esque alert.
Now that you've got a better idea how and when you might use custom alerts, here's how to set them up.
Custom Email Notifications in ThunderbirdIn contrast to Outlook and Mail.app, Thunderbird unfortunately doesn't come with a "Play Sound" option in its Message Filters dialog. Luckily a crafty extension developer has thrown together a Thunderbird extension called Mailbox Alert. After you've installed Mailbox Alert, you can create notification settings every time a new message arrives in any folder in Thunderbird.
That means that all you have to do is set up the appropriate filters to either move or copy a message to a separate folder in Thunderbird when you receive new email, at which point you can set up an alert specific to that message by its folder. Alternately, if you're using Thunderbird as the ultimate Gmail IMAP client, you may already have filters set up in Gmail that you can use, in which case you'd only need to set up the customized alerts.
Remember that Thunderbird's address book supports groups, which means that if you want to create separate alerts by group, creating a filter that can copy new email into separate folders by contact groups is a cinch.
Custom Email Notifications in OutlookThe original post on Inspect My Gadget already covered the basics of setting up custom alerts in Outlook, so I won't go into detail here. In a nutshell, you just head to Tools -> Rules and Alerts, create a new rule, and apply the ""Play a sound when I get messages from someone" template. Outlook makes it extremely easy to set up a lot of these custom alerts—by sender or distribution list—relatively quickly.
Custom Email Notifications in Mail.appSetting up custom email alerts with Mail.app is easy, due mostly to Mail's simple filtering setup, integration with Address Book, and large set of filter options. You can easily set up alerts by Address Book groups, sender, or any other criteria with very little work. Just open Mail's preferences, click the Rules tab, then start adding rules like the one you see above.
Other Worthwhile Distraction FiltersAs I'm sure you know, email filtering is far from new, but you can go a long way toward minimizing your email distraction with custom "ringtones" for your email—especially if you choose to set alerts only for important mail. And if this has inspired you to gear up your email filters, check out these other essential email filters to bolster your distraction-free work environment.
Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker who doesn't think cell phones are the only devices that should get to use ringtones. His special feature Hack Attack appears every Tuesday on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Hack Attack RSS feed to get new installments in your newsreader.