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An organized mailbox is critical to getting work done, especially if most of your day involves working with Outlook. However, spending more time organizing your mailbox means there’s less time to spend on real work – thus it’s important to find a system that is both simple and efficient.
In this post I will talk about one way you can triage mail using categories and Search Folders. Keep in mind that no single e-mail management method is ideal for all work styles; this is just one method of many and if you’re looking for a change you might want to give this a try and see if it works for you. If you haven’t already, I suggest you install the February Cumulative Update for Outlook 2007, as it has performance updates for Search Folders.
This triaging technique is aimed at quickly working through a long list of e-mail and deciding which e-mails need your attention now, and which ones can wait until later. By the end of this post you’ll know how to triage each new e-mail with a couple quick clicks and you will have easy access to the messages that need your attention throughout the day.
In order for this to work you will need a set of categories that represent what actions you need to take with any given e-mail. In this post I will assume you already have the following categories created (To create categories, go to Edit | Categorize | All Categories, then click New):
You may recognize this set of categories is similar to other mailbox management techniques, like Getting Things Done.
Now let’s set up the search folders you will be using to help manage your mailbox. You will need one search folder for each of the categories above. Here’s how to make them:
Scroll down and select Categorized Mail from the Organizing Mail group. Click the Choose… button and select one of the categories above. Click OK.
You need to restrict this search folder to only searching your Inbox (and sub folders) – otherwise it will include messages from your Sent Items and Deleted Items folders.
To do this, right-click the Search Folder in the Navigation Pane and choose Customize this Search Folder. Then click the Browse button, uncheck the top box titled “Mailbox”, and check the box next to “Inbox”, like in the picture on the right.
Click OK to close the dialogs, and you’re done!
You’ve just created a Search Folder for the first category! Repeat this for each additional category above.
The last search folder we need to create is going to replace your Inbox as the place you look for new mail because you’ll only want to see mail that has not yet been categorized. Creating this search folder is a little more complicated:
Right-click Search Folders in the Navigation pane and select New Search Folder.
Scroll down and select Create a custom Search Folder (it’s at the very bottom of the list). Click Choose... and you’ll see a dialog like the one on the right.
Specify a name for this new Inbox like “New Mail” and then click Criteria....
In the Criteria window that pops up click the Advanced tab. From the Fields selection box choose Frequently-used Fields | Categories.
Finally, set the Condition to ‘is empty’ and click Add to list. Close the window by clicking OK.
You’ve just created a search folder that will show all mail that does not have a category – this will be your new Inbox! Note: it may take a while to build the search folder if your mailbox is large – initially it will contain every mail in your mailbox.
Like before, you need to restrict this search folder to only searching your Inbox (and sub folders).
Right-click the Search Folder in the Navigation Pane and choose Customize this Search Folder. Then click the Browse button, uncheck the top box titled “Mailbox”, and check the box next to “Inbox”, like in the picture on the right.
Now there are a few final touches to make this system useable.
Alright, we’ve finished with the setup work – now let’s start using this new system!
Whenever a new e-mail arrives it will show up in the New Mail search folder, so you should treat this as a replacement to your Inbox. To triage your e-mail right-click the empty category symbol and apply a category (e.g. Read Later) – that e-mail will immediately leave the New Mail Search Folder and appear in the respective Search folder – quick and easy!
An empty New Mail folder means there’s no new e-mail for you to triage – you’re caught up and can spend time responding to messages (which are already neatly listed in a search folder) or doing other work.
There are a couple ways to work with the ‘Response Needed’ and ‘Read Later’-style folders to track which ones you’ve already seen. You can:
All of these options will work and you should pick the one that best suits your work style.
In this e-mail management system you should aim to keep the New Mail folder empty by applying categories to each message within it – otherwise the system will break down and won’t be useful to you.
I hope you’ll find that this e-mail management system saves you time by making it quick and easy to sort and access your mail in a way that helps you get the most important work done first. Seeing the message counts next to each kind of Search Folder can even help you know how much work you have left.
If you are interested we’ll share additional e-mail management strategies in the coming weeks. Let us know in your comments what you think of this system, how you’ve changed it to best fit your work style, and if you want to hear more!
Outlook Program Manager
I would love to read more about email management. I just started my job about two months ago and I am really starting to get more emails every day.
Well done, Tom. I've long been an advocate for my clients to make better use of search folders in trying to manage large volumes of e-mail. This gives a little new life to categories as well. I was beginning to question the usefulness of categories to me in my day-to-day operation, but this has inspired some new thoughts along that line. -Ben-
I like this approach a lot but as I see it there are two obstacles when it comes to using search folders (for anything) - one major and one annoying. The major drawback of using search folders is that they aren't supported on Windows Mobile - at least not in any existing version of WinMo. I fail to see why, it should be possible to at least get a "Read Only" sync with the ones on the server. But this leads us to the annoying matter with them; if you use Cached Exchange mode - which you should - the search folders aren't propagated to the server and only lives in your OST-file. You need to jump through some rather stupid hoops in order to get your existing search folders on to the server (and thus make them available in Outlook Web Access) and as soon as you enable cached mode again any new search folders won't be created on the server. So until these two issues are taken care of it'll be very hard to convince some users to use search folders, no matter how useful they actually are.
This works great--but one question--why do messages I send now show up in the "New Mail" search folder? Doesn't seem logical, but that's what's happening. Anyone else have this problem?
It seems to be a great article, I am giving it a try..lets hope it will help me to manage my emails. I love this blog.
this is a great post. Is there a way to set the "New Mail" favorite search folder to be the default mail folder outlook shows when you start outlook?
Thanks everyone for the feedback! Spence Lloyd – It sounds like your New Mail Search Folder is set to search for mail in your entire mailbox – you need to limit it to just the Inbox. To do this, right click the Search Folder, choose "Customize this Search Folder", then click Browse – uncheck the Mailbox box and make sure Inbox is checked and Sent Items is not checked. Let me know how it goes!
This article is great! I just started using a similar system, which I've found to be EXTREMELY helpful. I use colored flags for triage and categories for drilldown enabled storage. If you're interested in reading more, see below...sorry if it gets too long, but this has been EXTREMELY effective for me, and would be very happy to see it help someone else. = PREPARATION =
I've created a local PST folder with the following folders: (1) Staging (2) Archive. In archive are by year to reduce footprint for one folder. _Toolbar_
I've created a toolbar which has 5 colored flags with a name next to each (defined in customize), which adds meaning to me.
-Red = Action (need to do/add to task list)
-Orange = Follow Up (waiting on information)
-Yellow = Reference (anything i could need to refer to in future)
-Blue = Feedback (positive comments/performance feedback from coworkers/bosses)
-Complete Check = Complete (ready to archive) _Search Folders_
Then I've created several search folders. If they have a star below that indicates I've set it to show # of items total (indicator that messages are in them: read or unread). All the search folders spider ALL folders in the offline PST.
-0 To Flag*
-2 Complete (shows complete flags only in staging [ready to moved to archive folder])
-4 All by Category (Shows all grouped by category sorted by date, so i can easily drill down or search)
-4 No Category _Categories_
All categories are topical and built on a quasi-hierarchy. I purposefully dont use spaces, as later on it makes life easier, so i use the following naming convention:
'Category/Subcategory' (without 's). So for example: Teams/Communications; Teams/Recruiting; Other/Training; Other/Personal etc... = PROCESS =
0. To start all non-calendar invite/acceptances, etc are moved to the offline folder 1. Staging. This immediately clears my inbox (as my companys server-based retention policies are restrictive). 1. Since incoming mail comes in unflagged, it shows up as an unread item in the search folder 0 To Flag. From here, I triage mail based on GTD: either reply quickly, mark complete, or mark as actionable/followup/reference/feedback. 2. I then follow up with items throughout the day in the 1a actionable folder and 1b follow up folder, and either work on them or move them to tasks on my to do list, attaching the email and marking them complete from my email triage. 3. Finally, at the end of the day, I go through all items in 4 No category, and use a quick trick to categorize. First, all items are grouped by sender, b/c for me a lot of my contacts are all relevant to one particular category. I go through an at either the individual message level, or if i want to categorize all messages from a particular person, i press the keys (not at the same time, but quickly after each other) [alt]+[e]+[i]. This brings up the category selector. Since my categories dont have spaces, i can begin typing, as its selecting, and once i hit the right one (you can arrow too), you hit the [Spacebar] to mark the category (you can also select multiple), then [Enter] to close the category selector. At the end of the day, all actionable items are either in my task list or complete, and the only item in my search folder that has an indicator is 1b follow up, so that the next day I will check that. If I need to find something recent, I can go to my 4 All by Category, and scroll through, or use find. Hope you find this helpful...if so, post and let me know! Nate
@Marvin: Yes. Open the "Tools" menu, select "Options" and go to the "Other" tab. Click the "Advanced" button and you should be able to select any folder you like as your start folder. HTH.
What I really need is a way to categorize messages in a shared (i.e. server) mailbox that multiple people can view and manipulate. As far as I can tell, when I categorize messages, since these categories are stored locally, my work mate cannot see them. Thus, we're using flags right now to indicate items that are FYI, etc. But the flags cannot be customized (change color, label, and so on) so they are not that helpful. Is there a way to do this? Even a way to attach a "sticky" to a message that multiple users can view on their workstations would be great. Can anyone help? We use Outlook 2007 and Exchange.
One aspect that seems off to me is the specific situation of if I flag an email as "Response Needed" and respond to it without clearing that category, the email is responded back to me and it will not show up in the "New Email" Category since the category condition for that email isn't empty. So you'll have to clear the category condition on any email correspondence sent within the organization AND hope nobody else is using categories at all. I am using Outlook 2003.
I was excited to read this idea ... then when I went to implement, I found that there is no "Categories" menu on the Edit Menu for my inbox ... My main inbox is on an IMAP server. Re these ideas only workable when using an Exchange server?
Nice tip, but it doesnt work on iphones, then half the point is gone. Then I have to go back to the old inbox, and moving emails to other folders. Then the question arises: Is it possible to make a rule that moves an email from the mailbox (eg inbox) after you have answered it. Now you have dealt with the email, and it should be possible to automaticly move it to a (archive) folder. Same for making rules for other actions, for example 2 days after read or something. All the rules starts with the moving when you receive the email, which is useful sometimes, but not all the times.
Thanks for the feedback everyone! Rob Schneider - Sorry, categories won't work against an IMAP account. Carsten Pihl - Unfortunately, there isn't a way to set up a Search Folder based on whether or not a mail has been replied to. Tom O'Neill
Hi. This is an excellent blog. I would like more on this topic.
I have found a problem. If someone sends an email to me that already has a category assigned to it, it will never show up in my "New Mail" folder because the criteria for new mail is "Category is empty". The category is not empty and unless I check my Inbox I will not see it.
The resolution I have made is to continue to use the Inbox. Use the categories and search folders you have outlined except for the New mail search folder. When I am done with the message, I categorize it so that the search folders work appropriately but move it to a processed mail folder which is a sub folder of my inbox. Do you have any other suggestions?