It’s been a while since I’ve written about managing your inbox, and if you receive anywhere near the amount of mail that I do, every little bit of advice helps.
Stop getting lost in your e-mail inbox and keep your messages more organized. Forget spam; the frequency of incoming messages and the ability of our ISPs and hard drives to store gigabytes of them means that we need some serious tools to remain in control.
Experts may tell you to follow up on messages within five minutes, but some of us live in the real world. We need flags for reminders and categories to help organize.
Most of the following tips are for Outlook 2007 but are also available in older versions (albeit in either a different location or with different options). Do some exploring, or press F1 if you are having trouble finding anything. You might even find a hidden gem not discussed in this article.
On the far right side of each message in the Message pane is a small flag symbol. To help you keep track of which messages need a follow-up, turn on their flags. By default, clicking the flag icon changes the flag color to red and causes Outlook to place a “Follow up” note just below the sender’s name and e-mail address in the header. You can also right-click the message header and choose “Follow up” there as well.
There are more flag shades – “Today”, “Tomorrow”, “This Week”, or “Next Week”; right-click to choose this and other options to set. For more labels, choose “Custom” and click the down arrow to reveal a menu of options ranging from “For Your Information” to “Reply to All”. If you want Outlook to place a reminder for this follow-up in the “To-Do Bar”, check the “Reminder” box and choose the date and time.
To the left of the flag icon for each message in the “Message” pane is a grayed-out box. This is the “Categories” box, and you can change its color to provide a visual clue about the message, the sender or something else entirely. Right-clicking the box reveals your choices, which are a list of colored icons with labels. You can assign multiple categories to each message, and you can use categories as simple visual cues or to sort your messages according to their categories.
Category labels include useful, and obvious, choices such as “Crucial”, “Urgent”, “Semi-Urgent” and “Important”, but unlike the flag labels, category labels are completely customizable. Just right-click the “Category” icon and choose “All Categories” to get the “Color Categories” popup. Here, you can rename the existing categories, reassign the icon colors to different categories and create new categories. If you use a certain category regularly, you can also assign it a shortcut key.
Now that you’ve started using these new tools, let’s put them to work. One of the reasons to assign flags and categories to your e-mail messages is that Outlook lets you use them as search criteria. You can use these in standard searches, or you can create a Search folder for types of mail you need to find regularly. Right-click the “Category” icon and choose “Create Category Search Folder”. Scroll to the bottom of the resulting popup box and highlight “Categorized Mail”, then press the “Choose” button beside the “Category” field to select which category you want to base your search on. The context menu for flags contains no such search option, but the “New Search Folder” pop-up box, available from the “Category” icon, will let you perform a search among flagged messages.
I receive an enormous amount of e-mails on a daily basis, but there are really very few that I have the time to read, so I started to look for an easy way of letting Outlook help me find those that I need to read. Using a small setting in Outlook I am able to have certain e-mails color-coded. For example, if you have a boss (which most of us do), you want to make sure that any e-mail that he or she sends you is read right away; one way of making sure that you get to his or her email before any others is by assigning a color like red to anything that you receive from his or her e-mail address. This way, you can jump directly to the red messages in your inbox without having to read the sender’s name.
With the e-mail address you want to color-code selected in your inbox, click on “Tools > Organize” – the top portion of Outlook should expand with “Ways to Organize Inbox”. Click on the “Using Colors” tab and assign your colors to senders. This will let you instantly handle the most important items in your inbox first.
Outlook’s Rules Wizard can be your best friend or your worst enemy. You can sort messages automatically from a specified sender to an existing folder and move messages containing certain keywords in the subject or body of the message. But watch out: messages that automatically go into folders can easily be missed! Before you know it, you’ve missed 30 important e-mails. You can find out more about the Rules Wizard by using either Outlook’s “Help” (F1) or my best friend, Google.com.
When these messages are sent to the subfolder, the folder’s name will be changed to bold print and the number of new messages will be displayed next to it. Unless you’ve set this folder to handle unimportant mail, you should check it right after going through the messages in your inbox. Also, if you want the folder to appear higher in your list of subfolders but the name begins with a letter from the tail-end of the alphabet, you can pin it to the top of the list by adding an exclamation point to the front of the folder name, like this: “!VIPs”
If you find your Rules Wizard latching onto mail that you didn’t intend it to, review your rules and fine-tune it to handle these special exceptions. These can include messages sent from a certain person or messages sent with “High Priority”.
Until next time, stay tuned for more tips!