Taming that Inbox

Does your email inbox feel like it’s a beast out of control?  I feel that way about my inbox every now and then.  Because an out-of-control inbox can make me feel like I’m letting my professional life get out of control, I have at least a few self-help organizational books on the shelf.  While I’ve never fully adopted any of the models, I have borrowed some ideas and morphed them with my own processes and work habits.

I share because we all still battle the email overload beast, and you might find one or two ideas that help you.  I’m using Outlook 2016, but most of these tips will work in most versions of Outlook. (Although they may function a bit differently and have more or less features.)

Being proactive with rules

For me, seeing the number of unread messages in the inbox tick up raises my stress level.  Because I know this about myself, I try to keep the emails sitting in my inbox the must-read emails.  I use rules to move the nice-to-read emails into folders.

Rules take action on the items in your mailbox.  They run automatically on incoming or outgoing messages.  (You can also manually run a rule on an existing folder.) You build rules using the Rules Wizard to step you through the design process.

My nice-to-read emails are newsletters, tips and discussion groups that I subscribe to and links that I send to myself of treasures I find when I’m researching.  If you are like me, you probably also belong to internal email groups and receive messages that are informational but not time or task dependent.  All of these are perfect for rules-based organization.  The Rules feature can be found on the ribbon or from the File|Backstage view.

Here are a few of the things you can do with rules:

  • Move messages from someone to a folder
  • Move messages with a specific word in the subject field to a folder
  • Move messages sent to a group to a folder
  • Forward messages to someone
  • Flag messages from someone for follow-up
  • Move RSS items from a specific RSS feed
  • Play a sound when you receive a message from someone
  • Assign a category to a message

Inbox triage

When my inbox is out of control, as it was after the recent ILTACON event, I use a few different tricks to catch up.  Message Preview and the Reading Pane are a powerhouse duo that makes it possible to get a quick preview without having to open and close a lot of different messages.  Both are View options.  In newer versions, you can even preview attachments in the Reading Pane.

Messages with Preview turned on along side Reading Pane

While most experts give advice to “Do or Delegate” your messages, I don’t have anyone to delegate to and a lot of messages require some research before I take action.  I use a combination of tricks to keep myself organized.  For me, my lifesaver is the To-Do Bar.  The To-Do Bar is a pane that displays to the right of the Outlook window where you can display Tasks and Calendar Items.

When I’m working through my list and I need to take action on a message at a later date, I set a Follow Up flag or create a task. Using a Follow Up flag adds the message to the To Do bar and gives me the extra visual reminder in my message list.  I can sort, filter and search flags.  To set a Follow Up flag, select the message and then select Flag.  Or right-click the message to set a flag and apply a date option.

Message with Follow up Flag selected

To create a task based on a message, I drag the message to Tasks on the Navigation bar. The body of the message is copied, and I can set a due date, add a reminder or assign it to someone else just like a task created from scratch.  (If you aren’t comfortable dragging the message, you can use the Move to Folder option.) Doing this instead of flagging creates a separate task that is independent of the message.  If the original message is deleted, the task is still available.  I’ve inadvertently deleted a message with just a flag and lost my task.

Finding the needle in the haystack

One of my favorites tricks to quickly focus my inbox is viewing only unread messages.  At the top of the message list, click Unread to filter the list to show only unread messages.

Unread Messages option above the message list

When I know there is a time sensitive email, subject or person that I need to reply to, I use Sort and Search to filter out the distractions of unrelated emails from the message list.  To sort any column in your message list, click the column header.  Click again to reverse the sort order.

To make the sort even more effective, try the Show in Groups feature.  To use it, right-click the column heading and click Show in Groups to toggle it on.  Once you have grouped your email, you can collapse groups. The feature is available when you right-click on one of the group headers.

Grouped messages displaying in collapsed view

The search feature is very powerful.  In Outlook 2016, I start my search by typing a name, subject or phrase in the Search Bar.  When I need to be more precise, I can refine or widen my search using categories like From, Subject, Has Attachments, Sent to, within a date range and more.  You can also use logical operators like AND, NOT, OR.

Believe it or not, I recently found that even with all my tricks I wasn’t finding an email that I needed.  After searching and sorting, there were more than a hundred emails to sift through. It wasn’t practical to preview each message; so I turned to Rules to help me.  I created a rule that searched for email from my coworker Claire that contained a specific word in the body of the message and assigned a category with a color to any messages that met the criteria.  The visual color clue worked like a charm.

There are certainly more ways you can manage your inbox.  There are newer features like Clutter, Focused Inbox and Conversations. If you have any tips or tricks that work for you, share with us.  I’m sure your tips will help someone else who’s fighting the inbox beast.

About the author: Tami Schiller

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