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Finding Inbox Zen: Eight E-mail Management Tips for Outlook Users

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We get ridiculous amounts of e-mail—something to the tune of 144.8 billion are sent every day, and it seems like a disproportionate number of them wind up in our inbox.  Some of us are fairly diligent with e-mail management practices, others not so much. We should accept e-mail bombardment as a natural facet of the workplace. The number of e-mails we receive is mostly out of our control, but what we do to get and stay organized, that is completely up to the user.

There is something mentally liberating about a zero inbox. It is something that efficiency experts say professionals should strive to attain and maintain. Here we will examine some easy e-mail management tips to first whip an unruly inbox into shape, and from there we will get into ways to keep it under control. These are simple things that can be done in a matter of minutes.

Since we’re dealing primarily with a business audience, we will assume almost everyone is running Microsoft Office and Microsoft Outlook for e-mail management. The tips and tricks in this post are designed to work with Outlook 2010, but should work with earlier and later versions of Outlook as well.

Delete in swaths. Here’s probably the fastest way to get an inbox under control. Under the “Arrange By” tab, click the “From” column header, which sorts e-mails alphabetically by sender and in chronological order. In this view, it becomes easier to see which e-mails are still relevant and up-to-date, and which can be deleted. From here you can slash away at unneeded messages and get rid of thousands in a matter of minutes.

Declare e-mail bankruptcy and just archive. Use this if accumulated e-mails date back a year or more.  Chances are the unread e-mails were passed over for a reason—they didn’t appear pertinent the day they were sent, and if they were, you’d have heard about it already. Setting up an archive in essence boxes up these items and moves them to where you don’t have to look at them without deleting them forever. First, set up a folder for unread e-mails for archiving, and click on “File” > “Cleanup Tools” > “Archive” to initiate the dump. The good news is these e-mails are still searchable.

Aggressively file and delete daily. Once your inbox is under control, keep it that way by filing every email you touch in a folder. Create a special “To Do” folder for items that need action. When that action is done, file it in a “To Do Completed” folder or something along those lines. A solid folder filing system is probably the number one way to keep the inbox manageable.

Employ the “Touch It Once” principle. This fundamental approach to workflow seeks to cut down wasted time from procrastinating on simple tasks. As this pertains to e-mails, the goal is to keep your inbox at zero, and file all emails into one of three folders.

  1. E-mails you can reply to in less than two minutes go in “reply right away” folder. Reply to these right away, obviously.
  2. E-mails that do not need a reply go in the “archive” folder.
  3. E-mails that take over two minutes to reply to or that are pending information go in the “waiting” folder. This folder will act as your to-do list which should be tackled throughout the work day.

Set up a special filter for CC e-mails. Outlook lets you funnel emails not sent directly to you to a special folder. Set this up by going to “Rules” > “Create Rules” and then click the “Advanced Options” button. From here, mark the checkbox that says “where my name is in the CC” and create a folder where these emails will be routed to. You will likely notice a lighter e-mail load on a day-to-day basis.

Add filters regularly. Using the same Outlook feature as above, apply similar rules to some of the e-mails you get on a regular basis—especially the ones that do not require a reply.  Always be on the lookout for these types of e-mails and set up appropriate filters for them.

Consider these apps. A few suggestions about third party software you can use to liberate your inbox of unwanted emails. All are compatible with Outlook 2003 and later.

  • Unroll.me – Rounds up all your subscriptions and lets you unsubscribe from the services of your choosing with a single click.
  • Boomerang – Lets you put a “snooze” on e-mails so you can schedule when they pop into your inbox. It’s mostly a psychological tool useful during inbox cleanups to prevent inadvertently filing away new messages.
  • Xobni –Yes, that is “inbox” spelled backwards. This add-on adds a pane to your Outlook that shows sender information and aggregates that contact’s previous threads in the inbox.  Users like its search functionality, and how it weaves together contacts and their correspondences.

Pick up the phone. Remember the phone? Sometimes a three minute conversation can take the place of four back-and-forth e-mails. Think about using it. If you have to leave a voicemail, well, that’s another story.

These starting points will for a more sane approach to e-mail and a cleaner inbox. How do you keep yours organized? We would love to hear about your e-mail management techniques in the comments section.

Photo by Dead Shareski, taken from Flickr Creative Commons

Adam Lovinus

Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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