If you spend any serious amount of time using Outlook, you should investigate your workflow. You can always save small snippets of time by considering how to best use the software, be that through simply batching the bulk of your email sending into designated blocks, or remaining abreast of your ever growing inbox (I’m ever-so guilty of not adhering to the latter!).
Email is a vital part of modern communications – make it work even harder for you.
Outlook has numerous built-in organizational functions, but you don’t need to go crazy to be more efficient. This can work as part of a dual-approach strategy, which is what I use.
First, you’ll need to create a very simple system:
- Schedule email management periods throughout your day.
- Boss your inbox, using rules and action folders.
- Delete where possible, as quickly as possible.
I try to check and respond to my emails at two points throughout the day. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it can certainly reduce the time spent analyzing when, who, and what to respond to first. Isolating your email times works somewhat like a batch file process: everything is taken care of at once, and you leave nothing behind. Later during the day, you complete the batch process again, and stay atop the email crest.
Second in the categorical organization section are your Rules and Action Folders. We all have folders. You’ll have them for clients, topics, and personal emails. Maybe even a few person-specific folders, so you don’t miss an email from your boss.
Important to maintaining the flow from your inbox to these folders are “rules.” These are small if/is logic statements Outlook will periodically runk while the program is open, automatically moving any emails with matching criteria to their newly designated home.
For instance, I receive emails from my parents and sisters, who obviously use different email addresses. Instead of manually moving each email, I’ve created a rule requesting Outlook scan for their respective email addresses and, if found, will be automatically moved into the “Family” folder.
To create a rule, right-click the email and browse to Rule. If you regularly receive emails from this single address, and you’re simply moving it from your inbox to a separate named folder, you can select Always move to, then browse to and select the respective folder.
If you have multiple criteria for email filtering, choose Create rule. From here you’ll be able to select from numerous options, including from a specified sender, using the subject bar, and who the email is sent to. If you open the Advanced Options, you’ll be able to filter based upon an email being flagged, sensitive, or requiring action, or even down to very specific words used in the body of the email itself.
Action Folders form the second tier of email placement, and work extremely well with slightly lower volumes of email. For each main folder, I create three subfolders, named To Do, Pending, and Finalized. When a new email enters the main folder, I respond appropriately, and decide where it should then head to:
- To Do: Communication/situation ongoing, no immediate action
- Pending: Have responded, awaiting response or further action
- Finalized: Communication/situation has ended, email awaiting deletion or archive
2. Colors and Flags
Categorization really is key to Outlook productivity. Aside from your actual folder management, you can make your inbox vastly easier to maintain by using color-coded categories and follow-up flags.
Color categories can be used to bring immediate definition to your inbox, but I would suggest taking it relatively easy. You don’t want your inbox looking like the rainbow road!
Note that color categories have one major issue: they’re unsupported by IMAP accounts. This means you’ll have to create a separate POP3 email account to use, or alternatively, create a “this computer only” folder, neither of which is ideal.
To begin your color classification system, head to the Home tab, and locate the Tags section. Here you should be able to navigate to Categorize > All Categories, which will open a current list of active categories. Now you can edit the colors, names, and shortcut keys as you see fit.
If you already have a POP3 account, but cannot use color categories, it may be you need to turn them on. Locate the email address in the sidebar. Right-click the account name, and select Data File Properties. At the bottom of the properties panel should be an option to Upgrade to Color Categories.
Depending on the size of your existing inbox, this could take some time, but once completed you’ll have access to the full range of color categories.
If you are desperate for color categories using an IMAP account, you can use an Automatic Formatting system to change incoming message colors and fonts based upon their sender, subject, and recipients, and we’ll explore that in more detail in a follow up article.
Flags act as a priority system. As your emails arrive, you can assign them a priority level, automatically adding them to a dynamic to-do list you curate as you work. Priorities range from Today through to No Date, with an option for Custom… flags. You can also use Add Reminder to set a timed notification.
Access the dynamic list by clicking Follow Up on the Menu tab. You can search for all flags, only certain priority levels.
3. Setup Quick Parts, Use the Scheduler
These two features are sometimes the most overlooked, but can remove some of the more tedious moments of your email communications.
If you regularly reuse standard phrases that make your fingers cry with their repetition, this will save your mind from deteriorating any further.
Save your tired phrases as a Quick Part by highlighting the text within the composer window, switch to the Insert tab, click the Quick Parts dropdown menu, and select Save selection to Quick Parts gallery.
In future, when you start typing the phrase, it will pop-up as an auto-complete suggestion. Now you’ll only have to read the darn thing again. And again. And again.
The scheduler is another excellent feature, and I must admit one I’ve only just started using. I realized how useful this was during a bout of child illness. Realizing I wouldn’t be at home to send some work specific emails due on a given date, I created the email, attached the relevant files, and scheduled for the required date.
Write your email, then switch to the Options tab. Click Delay Delivery. Under Delivery options, check Do not deliver before, and enter your requirements, followed by Close.
Now, if you’re using an Exchange server, you can go ahead and close Outlook. However, if you’re using an IMAP or POP account, Outlook must remain running until the email schedule time is met.
4. Create a Search Folder
Instead of constantly typing out the same search using the Outlook search bar, you could create a Search Folder. You can specify the Search Folder to search for a variety of criteria using one of the Outlook templates, or create a custom search to suit your needs.
Head to the Folder tab and under New select New Search Folder. This will open the New Search Folder criteria panel. The Outlook templates complete regular tasks, such as moving flagged mail, or mail from specific people, but if you’d like more control, the custom search folder provides a vast array of detailed options for customization.
5. Make Your Inbox Your Own
As amazing as email is, it can be an undoubted distraction. Especially in large organizations, individuals can end up being included in long email chains, although the subject has nothing to do with them.
If this happens to you, you can use custom rules to filter any email that doesn’t include you as a direct sender to a separate folder for later inspection. On the Menu tab, select Rules, Create rule, followed by Advanced Options. Put a check next to where my name is in the Cc box and select Next. Put a check next to move it to the specified folder, and then click the link to define a folder.
Change the Junk Email Filter Level
Outlook has its own spam filter, thank goodness. But it doesn’t always catch some of the glaringly obvious trash coming through to our inboxes, and dealing with this rubbish literally takes away minutes of our lives. By default, the Junk Email Filter is turned on, but set to low.
To change the level of junk email protection, head to the Mail tab, where you’ll find the Delete options. Select Junk, followed by Junk Email Options. You can now select the level of filtering you feel is appropriate for your inbox, on an account-by-account basis, if required.
As noted within Outlook, setting the junk mail filter to High could result in some of your regular mail being syphoned from your inbox, so make sure to regularly check your Junk Mail!
If moving them isn’t enough, there is an option to Permanently delete suspected junk email instead of moving to the junk email folder check box. Please note that when used with a High filter level any legitimate mail accidentally moved to that folder will be irretrievable.
6. Create Backups
Outlook contains more data than we usually think. Chances are you have several important emails lurking in your account somewhere that you keep meaning to back up to a secure location, but haven’t quite managed, yet. Well, I say to you DO IT NOW!
Exporting is extremely easy in Outlook. Select the account you wish to backup and head to File > Open & Export > Import/Export. Select Export to a file, followed by Outlook Data File (.pst). (Knowing how to combine Outlook PST files will come in handy here.)
Next, you’ll select which folder(s) you’d like to back up, or you can back up the entire root of the email directory. Finally, choose where to save the backup. Use the advanced options if you only want to back up specific aspects of your account.
The Best Practice Of All
The best practice of all is doing all of the above (or not, it would seem)! Some of the practices here will suit some readers, others will not, but managing and maintaining an efficient, stress-free inbox can help you toward a distraction-free day.
And don’t forget about the basics, like creating a signature in Office 365.