Help me wrangle my inbox!
July 23, 2021 4:02 PM   Subscribe

What are your best tips and tricks for email management in Outlook? I'm about to start a new job (yay!), and my inbox had gotten way out of control at my current one. I'm looking for some ideas to be more organized this time.
posted by Blue Jello Elf to Work & Money (12 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I use the "focused" mailbox feature in Outlook. It dumps what it deems less important emails into a separate box, but they are still easily visible and it learns quickly what is important to you.
posted by manageyourexpectations at 4:08 PM on July 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

And congratulations!!!
posted by manageyourexpectations at 4:12 PM on July 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I can't recommend these tips and tricks enough!!

Written by office support for common users in your situation. Walks through rules, highlights, and how to get around the annoying parts of office.

I went to a $700 office training by consultants, and they just covered this website, and, it easily doubled my Outlook productivity. The only difference is they spent 5 minutes on each line and made us actually do it instead of skimming it!
posted by bbqturtle at 4:45 PM on July 23, 2021 [8 favorites]

I think a lot of this will depend on the nature of your work and the e-mails you receive. But my approach in my current role (software troubleshooting, workflow/process development and documentation, low-level coding, occasional data analysis and project management), which is, for better or worse, extremely e-mail heavy:
  • A folder structure with big "buckets"—the idea being that it makes it relatively easy to search within those to find what I'm looking for (whereas it's tougher with a larger number of more specific folders). So, everything related to invoicing goes in one folder, everything related to reporting in another, etc. (In rare cases, I will put a copy of an e-mail in a second or even third folder to facilitate searching.)
  • I have folders that I use as queues for low-urgency tasks (e.g., rarely used documentation that needs to be updated), to pick away at when things are quiet, and low-urgency things to follow up on in a month or two. I also have folders for things I want to discuss with my manager/direct report. These folders hold copies of e-mails, which get deleted once they're dealt with.
  • Flags for e-mails (or straight-up Outlook tasks) that require follow-up on a particular timeline, and/or are more urgent than the To Do's relegated to "queue" folders.
  • Application of topic-based tags/categories. This both aids with searching, and with quickly identifying the topic(s) of a given thread.
  • Heavy use of filters, based on both To/From (e.g., everything sent to a particular distribution list goes into a particular folder) and keywords/phrases, to automate as much as possible. The filters move messages to the correct folders, apply tags, and adjust the notifications that I receive when each message arrives. (For some e-mails, I want nothing; for some just a standard audio alert; and for messages where I'm @-tagged, a special audio alert plus pop-up.)
  • Threaded/conversation view. I get a lot of e-mail; as long as the subject line stays the same, things makes everything easier to track, even across folders.
  • E-mail templates (which, in the version of Outlook I'm running, need to be triggered via VBA macros) and Quick Parts for things that are template-worthy. Prevents me from having to reinvent the wheel for things that I need to do repeatedly. I use .oft templates not just for e-mails, but also for calendar invites that I need to send repeatedly (e.g., for planned system outages)—super handy.
Probably this is not the best approach, but a large chunk of my job is effectively tech support via distribution list. My direct report is on the front lines and I'm more of an escalation point, but I still need to be keeping tabs on everything (they are absolutely amazing, but still much newer to these systems than I am), and we do not have a formal ticketing system. In any case, this is the setup I've developed of the years, and it works pretty well for me.
posted by cellar door at 4:56 PM on July 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Folders and Rules for sure. I have separate folders with a rule to send emails from certain (important) people to those folders - then I can see immediately if there's an email I need to deal with straight away.

I also have folders (with rules) for other things I don't need to read immediately, such as subscriptions from professional journals.

That leaves my Inbox relatively clear and easy to navigate. I also set aside five minutes at the end of the day to delete anything that's not relevant or needed.
posted by essexjan at 4:57 PM on July 23, 2021

I cannot recommend the link bbqturtle shared enough. I'm going to help out by making it clickable. We refer to this at work all the time and share it with new hires. Best Practices for Outlook
posted by shesbookish at 5:00 PM on July 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

Oh, I forgot to add: I also took the time to set up Quick Access Toolbar shortcut for functions I use often. Where this gets particularly powerful is QAT shortcuts for searching—so, I have a QAT shortcut flags, and one for tags/categories. Then, if I'm trying to find an e-mail about a VBA macro with a particular keyword, I can pick my macro category and enter the keyword. That quickly narrows it down to, say, 10 e-mails rather than 50 (or whatever).

Similarly, Outlook's smart folders are pretty handy if you want to find flagged e-mails across all folders, rather than within a particular one.
posted by cellar door at 5:01 PM on July 23, 2021

Yeah, mostly folders and rules, but also just taking the time to do something with each message. Block off ten minutes at the end of each day for “admin” tasks, and actually look through your inbox and file your messages in the fancy folder structure you created.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:54 PM on July 23, 2021

I set up categories (those little colored blocks) for various purposes. Some of the main ones I created and use a lot are "Waiting for response", "Waiting for input/info from someone else" and "To Do".
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:04 PM on July 23, 2021

The Best Practices for Outlook link is great. I also liberally apply David Allen's "2 minute rule" and "touch everything once" principles from Getting Things Done.

In short, most people lose a ton of time with email because they leave stuff in their inbox without deciding what to do with it, and as a result they re-read messages multiple times every day and repeatedly tell themselves, "Won't deal with that yet...". It seems small, but those repeated reviews and deferrals add up to a ton of wasted time.

So, the 2 minute rule is that, if you can resolve an email in two minutes, you do it right then. Just knock it out and get it out of your inbox.

If you can't do it in 2 minutes, then you figure out what the action needs to be and when to do it. I might file a message in my folder of "Do Today" or "Do This Week", which I look at and clear out at a scheduled time each day/week. Or I might schedule time on my calendar to deal with the email, and I can safely move the email out of my inbox. I personally have become a fan of just scheduling everything instead of using the task list (which is more "pure" Getting Things Done, with its next action lists), but that's a personal preference. The key idea is that my inbox is almost always at zero because I refuse to let stuff pile up as a de-facto todo list, and so I waste no time re-reviewing and re-deferring on actions.
posted by philosophygeek at 6:41 PM on July 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have 4 main folders: in box means I have to act on something. In Progress means I may need to follow up, but the action is from someone else. Reference if I need to look at something again, and DONE for everything else. I rarely delete because of FOI requests. Over Covid I made an After the Apocalypse folder for things that I thought I would deal with down the road.

I try for inbox 0, but I settle for inbox < 25.

(My job, academia with a heavy helping of administration)
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:35 PM on July 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

One of the challenges I had with the Best Practices document is that subfolders can be collapsed which means any unread messages in the subfolders disappear. I tried using rules to auto-sort emails about my many projects, but quickly found that I was missing information because it bypassed Inbox entirely and I didn't see the "unread" number in the collapsed version of the folder. Example: if you have a folder that says "Animal Wrangling" and below that, subfolders for "Llamas" and "Hamsters," you can only see the unread messages about Llamas and Hamsters if you expand Animal Wrangling. If you collapse Animal Wrangling to save space, it looks like you have no unread messages in that folder/subfolder at all. (If there is a setting to make the parent folder display the # of unread messages in all its subfolders, please tell me!!)

I tried Categories instead of Folders, and I really like the fact that you can assign several categories to a single message (like Gmail's "labels") but I ran out of colors.

Also, the suggestion to use conditional formatting to highlight anything addressed directly to you does not work when 90% of the corporate FYIs and all academic spam is sent "directly" to you using Mail Merge type features. Conditional formatting lives on the machine and not the server, which means it doesn't transfer if you use a desktop vs laptop vs Outlook Web App. This was a major issue for me because in a given week, I use at least 6 different machines between WFH, two different office locations, and needing to keep OWA open in the clinic workroom.

Anyway, my current strategy is to let everything come into Inbox and address it Kanban-style:
1. Answer immediately, archive
2. Answer immediately, file into a "waiting for response" subfolder under Inbox
3. Flag for follow-up at a later date

I spend about 10 min at the beginning and end of the day doing this; rarely on the weekends unless I've been on vacation and need to play catch-up.
posted by basalganglia at 6:31 AM on July 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

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