Managing email – Outlook tips for an empty inbox

by Ben Allen on November 23, 2010

Email is as awesome as it is frustrating. Everyone knows email is an amazing tool until you get too much of it.

I offer 5 tips for managing email and recommend a couple of great tools to help Microsoft Outlook users. This is the process I use every day and I’ve managed to get my once bloated inbox down to a manageable daily amount of 30 or less.

Cutting to the punch line then, here are my 5 tips for email management:

  1. Group your email as “conversations”
  2. Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list
  3. File email quickly and easily with SimplyFile
  4. Check email infrequently
  5. When you do check your email – check it properly

Tip 1 – group your email as conversations

If you use Gmail this will be a familiar solution to you. For everyone else… picture the scene. You send an email to 5 people asking for feedback, you get a reply from 3 over a period of time. 1 friend might get back to you in the same day, another a week later and so on. Your 3 replies though are dotted throughout your email as your respondents did not “reply all”. To answer all the feedback you have to spend time searching & retrieving your email in order to maintain the thread of the conversation.

This overhead can be eliminated by using a conversation view. In Outlook this is easy to achieve by creating a “custom view”. Within your inbox, or any folder full of email, go to View – Current View – Customize Current View. You’ll get the following screen:

Custom view dialog box shown within Microsoft Outlook

Click on “Group By” and select “Conversation” and “Ascending”. You’ll end up with this:

Group by dialog box within Custom View options

Click on “Sort” and select “Received” and “Descending”. You’ll end up with this:

Sort view within Custom View

If this all works your email should look something like this:

Conversation view within Microsoft Outlook

Tip 2 – don’t use your inbox as a to-do list

A common objection to a well managed inbox is:

“I don’t want to forget anything I have to do. My inbox reminds me of the things I have to do.”

If this argument sounds familiar it’s likely you have an inbox overload problem! Email is not designed to be a to-do list. You need to use the right tool for the job. A good to-do list has the following properties:

  • Easy to prioritise
  • Easy to categorise
  • Easy to assign a completion date

“Standard email” does none of these things well. If you cannot prioritise your inbox, when it’s masquerading as your to-do list, how can you be expected to prioritise your work? Lots of people I know get bogged down in email because they believe the last email they received is the most important. This is a slow, painful way of getting no important work done.

I suggest you use a good to-do list which has the above properties. Outlook has a good solution built right in. It’s called “tasks” and it can be viewed along side your email inbox.

Oulook window with email, event and task areas marked. Tasks are in the bottom right of the image

Next time you get an email, work out if it’s important and needs a reply or action from you. If it does then add a task to your to-do list and file the email (getting it out of your inbox). Prioritise your to-do list accordingly.

Tip 3 – use SimplyFile to become an email ninja!

SimplyFile is an Outlook plugin and it has been a life-changing tool for me. You can use SimplyFile for many things but there are 3 things in particular that I love.

“File message”

I like filing my email in folders. It helps me keep my inbox clear but it also helps me retrieve my email at a later date. SimplyFile does an awesome job of filing email quickly. Not only does it have a cool “predictive search” feature – making it super easy to figure out where you usually put your email – it also “learns” where you put your email. If it guesses right, filing your email is a one-click job. Sweet!

The screen shot below shows the SimplyFile toolbar in an open email. In this case SimplyFile thinks this email belongs to my “Knowledge base” folder. If I click that button the email will be filed in this folder. Take note of the other buttons. They are mentioned later!

Outlook email with SimplyFile toolbar

“Quick find”

Once you’ve filed email, you need a good way of getting back to those folders. SimplyFile does an awesome job here too. You can pull up a list of your folders and just start typing. The search feature finds that keyword within your folder hierarchy and gets you to your email quickly.

“Task it”

This is like the icing on the cake! If you’re making use of tasks/to-do list within Outlook there is no better way of creating tasks from email messages than the “task it” feature of SimplyFile. It goes like this:

  • Read an email, decide it’s worthy of your to-do list
  • Click “Task it”
  • A task is created in your to-do list, description all filled in, and email embedded into the to-do item!

Is that awesome or is that awesome?

Tip 4 – check email infrequently

Easiest advice to give but perhaps the hardest medicine to take. The urge to check email, if it’s already a habit to check every 5 minutes, is so strong. I’m a believer in working in 60-90 minute slots, without interruption. I recommend checking your email between these slots.

Tip 5 - when you do check your email – check it properly

Instead of dipping in and out of email get your head into your email and do the job right. Delete emails that are not relevant to your workflow, read all email thoroughly, create to-do items, reassess your priorities, make any replies you have to. DONE! The point here is that if you make a real task of managing your email rather than making fleeting and nervous glances every 5 minutes you can get so much more work done and feel in control of your email.

Commitment to improve

I hope these tips are useful and help you get more “real work” done. I’m always looking to improve my own workflow so please leave your own tips in the comments.

Happy email management thoughts projected to everyone!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mandy December 21, 2010 at 9:11 am

I find that many times my day is dictated by the emails I receive. So instead of checking boxes on the “To Do” list, the day concludes with me adding more boxes for the next day – the list gets exponentially longer.

It’s difficult to stop yourself from doing this unless you’re conscious of it. If I open my email as soon as I arrive at work, I start organizing/prioritizing/replying as more emails pour in because others are doing the same. Since I’m already in the check email mentality I don’t want to see the little envelope in my task bar. Lunch rolls around and I’ve only accomplished the menial tasks that came across my desk since 5:00pm the night before.

Sound familiar?

One thing I’ve done to drastically change my day is refrain from opening my email until 10:00am. The emails that I receive after 5:00pm the day before are rarely urgent, and I am able to come in and accomplish what I planned to do. And really, would the spacetime continuum be disrupted if someone had to wait an extra 2 hours? I accomplish so much more by lunch when I start my day this way instead of being tugged in different directions with the “I’ll do this small task then get back to my list” mentality. Emails stop coming in with such speed by that time, so I can quickly get rid of the envelope icon without other emails joining the list and preventing me from moving on. And if I keep my email client closed all morning, I don’t see the envelope icon, hear the inbox alert, see the toast message – out of sight out of mind.

Try it. I don’t even do it every day, probably 1-2 times a week and my productivity greatly increases the days I stick to it!


Ben Allen December 28, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Mandy – great points. I think there is a lot to take away from your comment. Firstly, the envelope icon and alert is a good distractor. Great if you really want to know you have new email, terrible if you actually want to get some work done. Did you know it’s pretty easy to turn off those notifications in Outlook? Furthermore, your point on the advantages of keeping your email closed make total sense to me. Keeping email closed is a great to not be distracted by it :)


Steve Spillane February 24, 2013 at 6:03 am

Hi Ben,
I use outlook and tend to leave emails in the inbox. I will have a look at simplyfile. What I am looking for is a program that will analyse my inbox and tell me how many emails I have from each sender – have you seen something that will do this?


Ben Allen May 5, 2013 at 9:15 am

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the comment. Xobni might help. I’ve not used it but my wife loves it

Check out the features on their website. They seem to include a lot of cool stats at the contact level.

Thanks, Ben


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