Strategies for dealing with email are as abundant as they are diverse.

Inbox Zero is a strategy by Merlin Mann that strives for a 100% empty Inbox.

The opposite end of the spectrum is where people have thousands of emails in their Inbox and are perfectly content to use Search and Flags to locate emails.

As with anything, what works for most people usually lies somewhere in the middle.

We’re going to present a series of ideas taken from both strategies along with some great features in Microsoft Outlook that can help reduce the time you spend working with email.

Tip #1 – Develop an Email Strategy

You may have heard it said that the human brain is great at multi-tasking.  Contrary to that belief, most brains tend to work in series, not parallel.  We’re just so fast at switching between tasks that it gives us the illusion of multitasking.

When working on multiple tasks “simultaneously”, we tend to perform all tasks equally poorly.  All tasks suffer compared to focusing on one task and giving it our full attention.

Constantly checking your Inbox, mobile device, social media accounts all reduce the time and focus needed to perform your primary task with competence and efficiency.

Diverting from the primary task is like stopping on a road trip to take a play a game of chess.  It doesn’t move you towards your goal and it will take valuable time to get back to where you were before you stopped.

It may not sound like much, but it quickly adds up.  Soon enough, you’ll realize how much further along you would have been without all the breaks.

Most occupations do not require immediate responses to emails.  Set aside 10 minutes for every hour to deal with email.  Once that 10 minute period is over, close your Inbox and focus your attention back on the primary task.

Deactivating the Windows Notifications is more liberating than you may expect.  Preventing the email popup notifications for new messages eliminates the distraction and temptation to stray from the preferred path.

To deactivate the Inbox notification popups, click on the Action Center button (lower-right on the Taskbar) and click Manage Notifications at the top of the panel.

In the Notifications & Actions section, you can toggle the notifications off for Outlook and any other programs that may lead to distractions.

If you can’t close Outlook during your email retreat because you need it to complete other business, you can switch Outlook into what is known as Offline Mode.

Offline Mode shuts down any incoming or outgoing messages but allows otherwise normal use of the application.

Sent messages are held in the Outbox until Offline Mode is deactivated, at which point the Outbox messages are sent and any new mail is retrieved.

To activate Offline Mode, select the Send/Receive tab and click Offline Mode.

You can see you are in Offline Mode by the indicator at the bottom of the Outlook window.

Tip #2 – Use an Action-Based Folder System

Folders are a great way to organize email messages.  But as with anything, you can have too much of a good thing.

Creating dozens upon dozens of folders below the Inbox can lead to folder paralysis.  Not knowing which folder to place a message in or knowing which folder a message resides in can hamper your workflow.

Consider creating just a few action-based folders to store emails.  Consider the following…

Read and Decide

After reading an email for the first time, I decide what to do with it.

If it is something I can answer or accomplish right away, like submitting a requested receipt to Accounting, I do it.  Anything I can accomplish in a few minutes I will do to get the task done.

Once finished, I decide if the email message is something I may need to, such as for legal or tax purposes.  If so, I will Archive the message.  Otherwise, I will delete the message.

This will move the message to the Archive folder.  If it turns out that I need to locate the message later, I can use the Search bar to quickly locate the archived message.

So, if the email can be dealt with immediately and quickly, answer the email then Archive or Delete.

Action Folders & Quick Steps

What about those emails that need time to complete, like a request to build a report?

This is where Action Folders come into play.

I create a folder below my Inbox named “Action Required”.  You can create a folder by right-clicking the Inbox or any existing folder and selecting “New Folder…”  Give the folder any name you see fit.

PRO TIP: If you want to start in the “Action Required” folder when Outlook starts, you can change the default startup folder.  To do this, Click File -> Options -> Advanced -> Outlook Start and Exit.  Change the “Start Outlook in this folder” to the “Action Required” folder.

When I encounter an email message I can neither answer right away nor delete, I use a Quick Step to automatically move the email message to the “Action Required” folder.

Quick Steps are single-click solutions that replicate complex, predictable routines.

To create a Quick Step, right-click the message and select Quick Steps -> New Quick Step.

From here you can select an action like “Move to Folder…” and select the folder of interest, like the “Action Required” folder.

When you encounter an email message that requires action at a later point, you can click the needed Quick Steps entry to perform the act.

Flagging Emails

Moving an email to an “Action Required” folder is just adding complexity to your workflow.  To make this process effective, you should consider flagging the message for Follow Up with a set date and possibly a reminder.

If this is a task that requires time to perform, consider scheduling time on your calendar to accomplish the task.  If you’re like most people, if it’s not on the schedule, it’s likely to not occur.

A quick way to schedule time for an email task is to drag the email message and drop it onto the Calendar icon (bottom-left).

This will open a new appointment window and allow you to decide on a date and timeframe which to accomplish the task.

Tip #3 – De-Clutter Your Inbox

Keeping the Inbox free of clutter begins by unsubscribing from any email distribution lists you don’t need.

If you can’t get someone from bombarding you with messages, consider creating a rule that moves their messages to a less-visited folder (i.e., The Trash).

If you are going to create folders to store messages by important people, organizations, events, etc., consider creating Rules in Outlook to automatically route those messages to their respective folders.

To create a Rule in Outlook, select a message and then click Home -> Rules -> Create Rule.

In the Create Rule dialog box, define the criteria that will trigger the move action and set the folder to move the message into.

Triggers can be based on the sender’s name, specific words in the contents, or a myriad of other factors.

Bonus Tip – “Not for Me” Detection

If you receive a lot of email messages where you are not the direct recipient, in other words, you are a member of the CC field, consider altering the color of messages where you are a member of the TO field so you can more readily detect messages that you are a direct participant rather than a casual observer.

To set this customization, select the View tab and click View Settings -> Conditional Formatting.

In the Conditional Formatting dialog box, perform the following steps:

  1. click Add
  2. assign the rule a name
  3. set the Font color
  4. set the Condition

When you receive a message where you are a member of the CC field, the message will appear like the following.

Get Your Strategy in Motion

To summarize this post,

  • Develop an email routine and stop constantly checking your Inbox.
  • Create a folder system that works for you.
  • Apply single-touch rules to avoid re-reading emails.
  • De-clutter your Inbox.
  • Turn off unwanted notifications.

Leila Gharani

I'm a 6x Microsoft MVP with over 15 years of experience implementing and professionals on Management Information Systems of different sizes and nature.

My background is Masters in Economics, Economist, Consultant, Oracle HFM Accounting Systems Expert, SAP BW Project Manager. My passion is teaching, experimenting and sharing. I am also addicted to learning and enjoy taking online courses on a variety of topics.