Microsoft

A bit of discipline can reduce Inbox clutter and keep it clean

Reduce E-mail in Outlook Inbox

Lots of mail in your Inbox doesn't mean you're popular. It means you're unorganized. It might even get you into trouble. Messages in a cluttered Inbox tend to fall off the screen and into a black hole.

The truth is that most of us use our Inbox as a storage bin and that's a bad idea. An Inbox full of mail is oppressive. Trying to manage all that mail is like cleaning your garage-it's hard work that you avoid at all cost. The more you avoid it, the bigger the mess grows.

The hardest part is making all those decisions. Each E-mail requires your attention:

  • Respond to it and delete it (when you're lucky).
  • Keep it to act on later.
  • Keep it for future reference.

Now, you may have a broader list of possibilities, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that you have to make a decision for every message you receive. Managing E-mail is a three-layer line of defense:

  • Delete the old.
  • Divide (and conquer) what you must keep.
  • Let Outlook manage incoming mail.

The first step is the hardest but you must get rid of all those old messages. Create a personal folder and name it Old Stuff or something just as appropriate. Then, sort the messages in your Inbox by the Receive column. Move everything that's older than a month (or a week if you're really drowning) to the Old Stuff folder.The next step is to find some commonality among the messages that are left. For instance, you might receive a lot of mail from family and friends or you might have several messages regarding ongoing projects. Create personal folders to accommodate these categories. It doesn't matter if you get it exactly right the first time. Just start. Later, you can combine folders or add more.

Once you have all the folders you need, drag messages from the Inbox into their respective folders. Next, create rules to download subsequent messages directly into these folders-bypassing the Inbox altogether.

Congratulations, you've seriously reduced the messages in your Inbox. Even better, you've reduced the number of subsequent messages that will ever see your Inbox.

All that should be left in your Inbox at this point is miscellaneous items. Go ahead and deal with them now. The goal is to empty your Inbox. If you find something you can't delete, find a folder for it.

Now, you can't just forget about all those moved messages. Go through the folders and continue to delete as much as you can. Use flags to identify, in some meaningful way, what's left. It might take you a few days to come up with just the right flag system.

Once all your mail is in a folder and flagged, settle on a routine for checking new mail. Everything in your Inbox should be deleted or moved to an appropriate folder. All new messages in personal folders should be deleted or flagged.

By combining flags and search folders you can easily manage the E-mail you must keep. For instance, you might have many folders for current projects, but using just one  search folder you can view all messages flagged for an immediate response. You don't have to sort through every folder. Just view the appropriate search folder.

Keeping the Inbox empty will be easier, but don't expect miracles. Adjust rules or add new ones as necessary. The idea is to let Outlook filter messages into folders, bypassing the Inbox completely.

It will still take some effort on your part to keep things manageable:

  • Quickly pursue new E-mails in the Inbox by deleting them, or moving them and flagging them.
  • Check new messages in personal folders and delete them or flag them.
  • Use search folders to manage flagged messages.

Don't forget about the Old Stuff folder. It might take you several days to get through all that old mail, but none of it's going anywhere. Chances are you'll delete most of it. When you find a message you need to keep, drag it to a folder, flag it, and use a search folder to manage it.

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.

10 comments
Bizzo
Bizzo

I always have about 2000 emails in my inbox, every now and then I delete old ones, normally when I get the "your inbox is over it's limit" message. So anyway, I decide to follow your instructions. I created a personal PST file in a folder in my home drive on the network, and proceeded to copy all mails from my inbox to this file. All well and good so far. I then get an email saying my personal storage "is over it's limit and write access will be revoked". So I drag and drop my PST folder (containing a couple of other pst data files) locally. Half way through the copy, I decide I didn't want to do that, so cancel it. And delete what I'd already copied (using shift-delete obviously!!). Unfortunately, I was in the wrong drive and deleted the original files from my home drive. Oh no! I then look to see what had actually copied, half a pst file that just contained old jokes that I probably didn't mind losing anyway, and that's it. So off goes an email to the helpdesk to restore everything I've deleted!!! Do I win an ID 10 T award??

nzdada
nzdada

I have a correspondence folder for each client and link these to "messages" on the Outlook Today screen. Rules puts inwards mail into the client folder which then shows as unread on Outlook Today. However the sent mail is more of a problem in my case. Outlook rules say you can move an email to any folder after sending but in practice it seems only to copy it which means you still have to go through the sent box manually eliminating all the copies. Maybe a reader has a solution to this?

Meesha
Meesha

We use Lotus NOTES (not MS Outlook) and since we can replicate, archive and do offline work most of the users are in a good place with their email inbox (even their WebAccess internet account). However, there's always a few iconoclasts that pave their own roads and no matter what is done will never walk the same roads as others. To assist us, we set corporate retention policies and other measures that follow best practice (i.e. compliance) and many users say that they apply these processes as best they can to their everyday personal email accounts such as hotmail or gmail. At the end of the day it really is common sense and reflects how an organization or and individual works.

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

My inbox is almost always empty. I have a subfolder to the Inbox called Outstanding issues that may have a couple dozen in it at any one time but no more than that. Everything else is sorted into folders and can be easily found. We have several users that have thousands of emails in their Inbox alone. They can never find anything and are always wasting time and space re-emailing the same @#$% Word document. I've given up trying to train them as they won't listen. We just add more HD's onto the SAN....... EMD

ssharkins
ssharkins

I'm sorry about your mishap and I hope you're able to restore everything you need. If you have a limit on storage, all the more reason to be diligent. The most important housecleaning job is to delete stuff you don't really need and if your mail's not organized that unnecessary stuff falls through the cracks and you forget about it. That's a drain on resources and a draink on you when you're trying to find stuff.

ssharkins
ssharkins

You can save mail in the current folder. For instance, if the folder for Client A is current and you sent Client A a message, the sent message is saved in the Client A folder, not in the Sent folder. This works for all personal folders, except the InBox. Messages sent from the Inbox are still saved in the Sent folder. Would this help you?

ssharkins
ssharkins

I'm prone to clutter. Unfortunately, I'm not like the guys on TV who claim to know exactly where everything is amidst all their clutter. If I don't put things away, I get into trouble. My E-mail's the same way. I've not refined this method to the point where I'm able to completely empty the Inbox, but I only have unique items in there and I find that really makes a difference for me.

TownsendA
TownsendA

The organsation I work at uses Novell's Groupwise, like Lotus Notes it is an e-mail server rather than a desktop solution. As one of your commentators mentioned it has all the good features of a server, with history,backups,offsite storage etc. Many managers get work related e-mails together with magazine type mail - such as what is happening at techrepublic. I attend my work e-mails first and then look at the other e-mails.Keeping the inbox clear is just as important as keeping your letter box clear and we wouldn't let the mail overflow onto the pavements would we? Dont let your e-mail account get the same way.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I like that folder -- says it all and could be helpful, unless it becomes just another Inbox! ;) Can't help you where your users are concerned. Personally, I can't work like that.

Meesha
Meesha

One advantage of using good enterprise email software is the functionaly of RULES and folders. I can set up a rule that says whenever I receive a TechRepublic email with this subject and/or address put directly into this folder (named). These rules also work well when working on projects and need to be filtered from the other day to day minutia; I even have RULES set up for various managers and staff so that I can filter them appropriately (sic). I have a SPAM folder for the odd piece of email that I receive that our SPAM appliance would not necessarily catch but I want to eliminate. RULES and folders together with an excellent enterprise collaboration tool does this and more without a third party bolt on.