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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
tpetite - When I look at Tools/Rules and Alerts I have a rule called 'Clear categories on mail (recommended)' I didn't create this rule so I have always assumed it was there in Exchange 2007 by default. It does the following: - Apply this rule after the message arrives - Assigned to any category - Clear message's categories If you don't have this rule, perhaps you could create it?
@author: Very nice, thanks! re: Carsten Pihl's post - That gets to a really good question: Is there a way to have rules triggered on some event other than on receipt of mail (or the manual "apply rule")? I would love to be able to apply a category and have that action trigger a rule (like for all in TODO category, move to TODO folder), which would solve the server-based vs. client-based issue with search folders. Actually, truth be told, I would love a hotkey setup where I could be reading an email and hit ctrl-shift F2 to file it in "follow up" or whatever. Anyone know of a process hack for this?
re: chanson42 post - I have created a custom toolbar with three buttons that I access through keyboard shortcuts.
The three buttons are "Copy", "Move" and "Category" I used the following article that explains how to do this under the heading :Configure Move and Copy toolbar shortcuts"
Is there any way to share a search folder with other exchange members? This would be a big help.
Your post has made meetings with staff and groups a breeze over the last year however the reason for my question is that, by being able to share a search folder, those that I have meetings with would always have an 'instant' way of finding out what I'm expecting answers on or the topics that we'll be covering prior to the meeting.
If you can't share a search folder, any ideas on how I could achieve the same results using another method?