Taking control of your inbox with Microsoft Outlook

Take control of your inbox. Reduce stress by reaching "zero inbox" with a well defined workflow. Leverage the possibilities in Outlook and, at the same time avoid some pitfalls.

Why do you need this?

To doIn today's world, a lot of business communication is happening via mail. We do not have time or patience to sit down and talk on the phone, and a lot of people like to have things "black on white" instead of just floating in the air (like with a phone).

This leads to over full inboxes.

Once your inbox reaches a certain size you start getting anxiety over what actually hides in the pile of musts and to-dos. Did you forget something important? Was there a mail from your boss? How about that project that seems to be stuck? Was there a mail from them?

You don't know what's in your inbox, but you can't just throw away all mails before you know if they are important or not.

I am going to show you a way to keep your inbox empty and at the same time keep track of what mails need attention in what project/from what customer. And all by a press of a button and a drag-and-drop of the mail.

Well, all you need is an installation of Microsoft Outlook and some time to set it up.

Getting started

In order to use this method there are a few things you need to do, and I'll show you how to do these things using Outlook:

  1. Keep the inbox empty
  2. Store events in the calendar, contact information in the address book, and keep tasks as mail
  3. Organize your mails in folders, one per customer and/or project

I am using Outlook 2013, but I've used this technique for years. I am not sure what version of Outlook I started with, but all versions I've used can do this. Some versions require a bit more tinkering with Search Folders than others.

If you have tips on how to do this using other tools than Outlook, feel free to comment on this post.

Keep the inbox empty

In order to keep your inbox empty, you obviously have to move your mail to sub folders. However, things that need your attention in some way needs to be tracked.

You do this by using Categories combined with Search Folders and Favorites.

Setting up Categories

The first step is to set up your categories in Outlook.

I mostly use the following categories (shortcut keys in parenthesis):

  • To do (Ctrl-F2)
  • Reference material (Ctrl-F6)
  • Later/Maybe (Ctrl-F7)

You may wish to extend the list or use other categories. However, since we want all categories and a handful of important project folders on the Favorites pane, your number of categories are limited.

Add the shortcut key to the name (this will make it much easier to decategorize mail later on).

Categories

Setting up categories.

Access the list of categories, e.g. by right clicking a mail and selecting "Categorize > All Categories".

Create each category, assign a color and a shortcut key. (The shortcut key is important!)

Setting up Search Folders

The next step is to create Search Folders that will display e-mail belonging to the different categories you've set up. Usually you'll want one Search Folder per Category.

I've created the following folders, and in order to make it easier to remember the shortcuts when assigning mail to the different folders, I've added the shortcut after the name:

  • To do (Ctrl-F2)
  • Reference material (Ctrl-F6)
  • Later/Maybe (Ctrl-F7)

Finding "Search Folders" in Outlook

Finding "Search Folders" in Outlook

To create a Search Folder, right click "Search Folders" and choose "New Search Folder".

You find "Search Folders" in the bottom of the list of nodes on the right side of your Outlook.

The "New Search Folder"-dialog is displayed. Select "Categorized mail" under "Organizing Mail" and choose your category by clicking "Choose..." and select the category in the new dialog.

The "New Search Folder"-dialog

The "New Search Folder"-dialog

Click "OK".

A new Search Folder will be created using the name of the selected category. But you can change this name by right clicking the folder and select "Customize this Folder".

Right click the search folder you just created and select "Show in Favorites".

Repeat the above steps for each of the categories you have created.

You can drag the folders in the favorites list to organize them in the order you like.

Organizing the Search Folder

At this point you have Search Folders that are organized by category. This is a bit redundant. We want them to be organized by folder instead (but you are encouraged to test other kinds of organizations of your Search Folders until you find one that works for you).

By Category

Search Folder sorted by Category.

In order to organize a search folder by folder click the "By Categories" option in the header of the mail-list in the search folder and change it to "Folder".

Now your Search Folder is organized by Folders instead.

Repeat this step for each of your Search Folders.

Setting up Projects Folders

To get the most out of this method, organize your mail in folders.

You create a folder by right clicking the node you want to be the parent (I have all my folders under "Inbox"). Select "New Folder..." from the menu, give the folder a name and press ENTER.

I usually have one folder per project and/or customer. Here are a few variants:

  • Customer A, Support
  • Customer B
    • Project 1
    • Project 2
    • Support

You may also wish to place your folders in a main folder for all customer projects and have another main folder for your internal projects.

Guess what? Outlook lets you rearrange your folders to your hearts content, because the Search Folders find your mail regardless of their location.

In order to make it easier to arrange your inbox you can mark the folders of your most active projects as "Favorites", thus making them accessible in the favorites list.

Then, in order to move a mail to this folder, just drag it to the folder in the favorites view.

Unfortunately this does not work for categories. You cannot drag a mail to the Search Folder for a given category to assign it to that category.

This is why your categories need shortcut keys, and why it's a help to display the shortcuts in the category and Search Folder names.

Taking control of your inbox

Now it's time to test your set up.

Go to the inbox, open the first mail. Answer the following questions:

  • Does it require you to perform some kind of action?
    • Is your response optional?
      Mark it as "Maybe/Later" (press Ctrl-F7)
    • If you have to reply or act on this mail, mark it as "To do" (press Ctrl-F2)
  • Does it contain reference material?
    Such as contact information, time reporting codes, links, etc.
    Mark it as "reference material" (press Ctrl-F6)
  • Do you want to read it later? - Mark it as "Maybe/Later"
  • Are you unsure what the mail is about or what to do about it?
    Mark it as "To do"
  • If the mail does not require you to do anything, and it does not contain any reference material you need to save, don't give it any category and be done with it once you move it to its project folder.

Regardless of if you have to act on this mail or not, move it to the customer/project folder.

Work fast!

If you have 500 mails in your inbox, you don't have time to read epic-size mails from your colleague three cubicles over. Just mark it as "to do" or "maybe/later" and move on.

You should be able to perform the initial sort of a 500-mail inbox in about an hour, so make snap decisions about if it requires your attention or not.

You'll get back to do the actual work later. Initially your primary goal is to empty the inbox and give each mail a quick glance and perhaps a category. Nothing more!

If you're not sure what to do with the mail, mark it as "To Do" and move on to the next mail. You'll have plenty of time to find out what you're supposed to do once your inbox is emptied.

The point is, if you organize your mail by folders, your to-do list (and all the other Search Folders) will also be organized by folders.

In most cases you have an inkling about what project needs your attention most, or what priority different projects have, so just open the most important project and start working on the mails from that project.

You can try this with a couple of mails in order to test that you've set things up correctly, but in order to keep your inbox clean (and your  stress levels sane) you'll have to move your mail out of your inbox before you start working on them.

Note that you can select more than one e-mail at a time and both categorize them and move them. You can also assign several categories to one mail, making it appear in several Search Folders at the same time.

Doing the To Dos

Once you've emptied your inbox, open the "To Do" search folder, and start working on the e-mails (replying to them etc).

Once you're done, pressing Ctrl-F2 once more, will decategorize the mail as a "To Do" item and remove it from the "To Do" Search Folder, leaving room for the next item on the list.

If you are working on mail in other Search Folders, you use the shortcut key for that search folder to remove the mail.

Reference material

I have a category for reference materials in my set up (logins, project plans, time reporting stuff etc) but I also use a number of other programs to organize my reference material such as Wordprocessors, text editors, markdown-editors, etc. And I keep it all in my Dropbox. Logins and similar information is kept in my LastPass account.

So even if I have a reference materials category, I only use it to store information temporary, all to clean up my inbox quickly. Some of this information is only needed for a short period of time and never makes it past my Outlook.

What about the Calendar?

I also use my calendar - for events and actions that must take place at a certain date and time.

This could be meetings, prearranged phone calls, and other events with a schedule.

I do not, however, place my to do items on my calendar.

The main reason for this has to do with priorities. I want to handle my tasks in priority order, but having them arranged on a calendar will break down as soon as a "higher" priority task comes in.

I'd have to rearrange my calendar, and if I can't finish the tasks for the day, I may have to rearrange several days or weeks worth of planning.

Another reason for keeping my tasks away from the calendar is that it requires me to plan ahead, much farther than I feel like, and it forces me to do some task at a specific moment in time, while I might feel like doing something else instead.

Having to-do lists makes it possible to pick a task I feel like, and still "do my job". Perhaps I'm more ready to call that customer after lunch? Let's finish that document and reply to some mail before lunch...

Besides, moving every mail that requires me to do something to the calendar takes time and may encourage me to try to deal with the mail at once instead of categorizing it for later - which in turn means that if I cannot handle my whole inbox, it starts to grow, and I start loosing track of what it contains. And I am back where I started.

Pros and Cons

The pros of this approach is obviously that, instead of having a seemingly huge pile of unread, unanswered mails in your inbox you can quickly categorize them to weed out those that actually do need your attention.

You also get a firmer grip on what's in your inbox (or in fact what was in your inbox). There's no black holes or unknown horrors lying in wait, because even if you just scanned the top part of each mail, you've seen it and have a much better idea of your workload.

You also become more agile and able to act more by priority than if you were to just handle one mail at a time until the inbox was emptied. Having seen all the mails once gives you a much better idea of what your priorities should be.

The cons however is; you now have your unhandled mail in several folders. You can still find them if your categories would get lost or your Search Folders get damaged (something that has not happened to me despite several upgrades and reinstalls - my categories and Search Folders are, however, located on my company's Exchange server...)

However, this setup is a bit more technology intensive than just keeping everything in the inbox, and there are more places where things can go wrong.

Take regular backups! (You always should...)

You're also not able to use this method in web mail. Your Search Folders aren't visible, but you can still categorize mail, and move them to folders, just not view them in any sensible way.