Software

Five tips for sorting Outlook mail messages

Conquer Inbox chaos with the help of these Outlook sorting tips.

Outlook downloads most email into the Inbox, which can fill up quickly. Finding what you need when you need it can become a frustrating chore, but with a few easy-to-implement sorting techniques, even the most crowded Inbox can be tamed.

1: Click to sort

You're probably familiar with the click-a-header sort behavior in Outlook. With the Inbox (or any mail folder) open, simply click a column header (From, To, Subject, Received, and so on) to sort by the data in that column. Click a second time to toggle between ascending and descending order. It's a great feature, but it doesn't stop there. You can sort by multiple columns. First, click the primary column's header. Then, hold down [Shift] and click the secondary column's header. If necessary, click a second time to change the sort order (while holding down [Shift].) Continue to add up to four sort columns.

Figure A shows a two-field sort where the primary sort is on the From column and the secondary sort is on the Received column. The triangles to the right of each field title indicate the type of sort. (An up triangle indicates an ascending sort.)

Figure A

These messages are sorted by the From column and then the Received column.

2: Sort by email account

It's not common, but sometimes more than one person shares the Outlook Inbox. (This isn't necessary if you create profiles for multiple users on the same machine.) This arrangement can get messy fast. If you must endure this setup, add the E-mail Account field and sort by it.

Add the E-Mail Account field as follows:

  1. Right-click any header.
  2. Choose View Settings.
  3. Click Columns.
  4. From the Select Available Columns From drop-down list, choose All Mail Fields.
  5. In the Available Columns list, select E-mail Account, as shown in Figure B.
  6. Click Add and then click OK.

Figure B

Click Add to display account information about each message.
Now you can sort messages using the E-mail Account field (Figure C).This isn't the sort of tip many users will need -- but those who do will love it. (If you're using Outlook 2007 or 2010, create dedicated folder sets.)

Figure C

Sort messages by account.

3: Sort by criteria using search folders

Sometimes, you have conflicting needs. For instance, suppose you store messages from specific departments in corresponding folders, but you're working on a project that affects more than one department. Do you store those messages by sender or by project? Thanks to search folders, you can do both -- sort of. The solution is to create a search folder and view all messages that match custom criteria.

To create a search folder, do the following:

  1. Right-click Search Folders in the Navigation pane and choose New Search Folder.
  2. In the New Search Folder dialog, click Create A Custom Search Folder in the Custom section.
  3. Click Choose.
  4. In the Custom Search Folder dialog, enter a name for the custom folder and click Criteria.
  5. Use the Messages tab to specify content. In Figure D, the custom search folder will display any message that refers to the project HR413 in the subject or the body of the message. Using other available options, you can expand or narrow your search. Two additional tabs offer more options.
  6. Click OK three times to create the search folder. Outlook will immediately search for messages that match the criteria you specified.

Figure D

Search for specific content in messages.

Search folders update continuously. Once you create the folder, it always displays the most up-to-date message list.

4: Sort by flags

Flags are an easy way to mark an email quickly and then forget it -- at least for a while. Add flags to incoming and outgoing messages you want to refer to later. Simply click the flag icon (probably to the right). The default color is red, but as you can see in Figure E, there are plenty of options.

Figure E

The default flag color is red, but you can assign several colors to custom categories.

To view all your flagged messages, simply click the flag column header.

5: Delete!

The final sorting tip isn't really a sorting tip at all -- but it can still ease your email sorting misery. Try to reduce the number of messages in your Inbox and other custom folders. On a regular basis -- and every single day isn't too often if you get a lot of email -- spend a few minutes deleting messages you no longer need. Delete unnecessary emails the minute they arrive. Delete messages as you respond to them, unless you need to maintain a correspondence trail. Make this a part of your routine and don't shrug it off. After all, mountains of messages can waylay even the best sorting practices.

About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

16 comments
chris_black
chris_black

Ugg, can't use the Outlook UI (even the 2010). Been using NEO Pro add-in for the past 8 years or so and it has maintained my sanity.

ian
ian

Although we need to have correspondence to get work, it can be one of the biggest time wasters. Having a good system really helps. I have four accounts coming to my In Box.Two are mainly diagnostics and statistics related that don't need too much action, one is personal and gets a lower priority and my main business account which gets most of the action. Each account has its own folder structure. Those messages from standing clients automatically filter into their own folder under the specific account and are automatically flagged. Flags are removed after being actioned. My sent mail is set to Save with the original message. I found this save a lot of time. When working with a client, I only need to look at the client folder where all mail is set by date. All outgoing mail is flagged for follow up. I have Outlook open to Unread Mail and Arranged by E-mail Account which allows me to get new stuff out of the way first and either action it or delete it. I am then able to address my scheduled work through tasks. I have cut down my correspondence time by at least 50% giving me more time to get phone calls and Skype messages out of the way too.

rifhickman
rifhickman

Don't forget that Shift + delete will remove unwanted mail immediately from Inbox without it going into the deleted folder.

RalphHightower
RalphHightower

TobiF and Palmetto offered great tips. I use folders extensively and they are organized like directories. The top level folder is the major category and there are folders under the major folders for filing purposes; example for my Toastmasters related emails: \Toastmasters\Clubs\... a folder exist for each club that I belong to. When sending new emails, I specify the folder where I want to email to be saved. I have the option set in Outlook to save replies to the folder where the email I am responding is located. I try to never reply to an email where it is in my Inbox. I never delete any of my emails. Instead, I archive my emails for the past year to an archive file for that year. The archive also includes the past non-recurring calendar appointments. I archive yearly on my personal machine. When I used Outlook in a corporate environment that had a limit on the mailbox size, I would archive to the current year file on an as needed basis to get my Outlook file back under the corporate limit. I did this for my own personal CYA and that was before Sarbanes-Oxley requirements for record keeping. I just wish my current employer uses Outlook instead of GroupWise.

Ylmilly
Ylmilly

I don't really sort mails, I search for them with Lookeen, when I need them! But I think if you don't use a search tool, these tips could be a big help!

sundar.vvr
sundar.vvr

With a lot of controls as per the so called IT security policy, the sort doesn't work as described in 1) above. We are using Outlook 2007 on XP. The sort order doesn't toggle, holding down the shift key and clicking another column header checks the second choice, and unchecks the first one.

santeewelding
santeewelding

But this is all foreign to me. I use the bloody-sword, Genghis approach. Don't nobody survive it.

TobiF
TobiF

It may well be worth the time to set up a couple of additional folders in your mailbox and then create rules that will automatically move incoming messages to other folders. As an example, if your inbox receives mail from several accounts, then this can be used to put mails from different accounts into separate folders. This can also be used to autodelete the weekly emails from that travel agency that doesn't allow you to unsubscribe.

Berty5446
Berty5446

I think these tips are helpful because I was unaware how to sort e-mails and I am not familiar with Outlook. Sorting your e-mails can save time in several ways. When you need to look at a specific e-mail, it is time consuming to sort through junk mail and mail that is more previous than the one currently being looked for. In the past I had to go look through all the e-mails in search of the one I needed in a short amount of time. This can help you keep more important e-mails more easily accessable

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

SHIFT+DEL will return a 'Are you sure you want to permanently delete this message?' prompt. This can be turned off 2007 and 2010 under Options, Advanced, Others. I know it can also be turned off in 2003, but I don't remember the exact menu path.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Thank you for reminding us of this great tip. I'm sure I knew it long ago, but I'd totally forgotten about it!

ssharkins
ssharkins

I run Outlook on an XP system and it works for me - I have no idea what might be interfering with that behavior.

ssharkins
ssharkins

... all you can do is delete! ;)

ssharkins
ssharkins

I left rules out of the piece though because technically, it isn't sorting -- I suppose we could debate that though! ;) I use them to organize everything though. I don't see how anyone can use Outlook without rules for handling their incoming mail!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If you're like me and don't need to keep e-mails, the Sent Items folder can become a place where conversations go to hide. If I send a question, having it stored in Sent Items costs me visibility; I forget that I'm waiting on a reply because my message isn't in front of me. Instead, I disable the default 'Store outgoing in Sent Items' feature. I've replaced it with a rule that instead puts a copy of all outgoing messages in my Inbox, and assigns a flag. (In Outlook 2007 or 2010 I assign a category color and all it 'Waiting for Response'.) That groups all messages I'm waiting to hear back on.

heidir
heidir

I will do this right now!! How many times do we forget that we sent a question or a request and it doesn't get addressed. I put a flag on it but it still sits in the Sent Items folder. Thanks.