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.
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.