Email will steal every spare second of your workday if you let it. That’s especially true for busy executives and IT pros in large organizations, where the torrent of incoming messages sometimes feels like it’s arriving faster than you can humanly process it.
The alternative? Stop processing your email. Instead, train those incoming messages to process themselves — not just in your Inbox but throughout your organization, so that you and co-workers can accomplish more, with fewer distractions.
No, that doesn’t mean creating long lists of rules. Rules, while useful, are just one of many tools you can use as email wends its way from sender to recipient.
Your starting point is understanding where the email volume is coming from and then prioritizing it, so that important stuff floats to the top of your Inbox while everything else gets sorted elsewhere, so you can review it on your own terms.
In this article, I outline five of my favorite triage tactics. The techniques I describe apply specifically to Office 365, but the general lessons can be adapted to any reasonably complete business-class email service, including Google Apps.
1: Send unimportant email to a secondary account
The best way to prevent your work Inbox from becoming overwhelmed by clutter is to reserve it only for business-related mail. For personal messages, set up a secondary account, one that uses a completely different server.
This technique has the advantage of keeping potentially embarrassing personal correspondence from being swept up in the event that your work-related email is ever placed on a litigation hold. It also reduces the likelihood that you will inadvertently reply to a personal message from a work account, or vice versa.
For handling personal messages, I recommend setting up an account at Outlook.com. That option has two advantages:
- You can take advantage of Outlook.com’s excellent Sweep capabilities, which give you powerful message-handling features without having to create cumbersome rules.
- Outlook.com accounts integrate well with Outlook, the email client program in Microsoft Office.
2: Use search folders instead of rules
If you’ve been using email since before the turn of the century, you’re probably accustomed to using long lists of rules to process mail as it comes in. But times change, and so does Outlook. Old-timers who cut their teeth on Outlook 97 should pay special attention to a feature called Search Folders, introduced in Outlook 2010 and refined in Outlook 2013.
Search Folders take advantage of the indexing capabilities in today’s Outlook message stores to filter messages based on criteria you specify. The result is the same as if you had created complex rules to sort messages as they arrived, but the sorting is done on the fly, when you need it.
You’ll find the Search Folders node at the bottom of each account in an Outlook profile (Figure A). Some Search Folders are predefined: Unread Mail, for example, or messages that have been flagged as Important.
But you can also create Search Folders using multiple criteria to help you find a useful set of messages in a pile of unfiled mail. For example, you might create a Search Folder that shows only messages sent or received in the past two weeks from specific people in your organization — your manager and members of your team who are working on a big project.
Search Folders are Outlook’s killer feature, and you should harness that power. (Bonus: Custom Search Folders you create roam automatically between Outlook installations, so you need to create them only once to use them everywhere.)
3: Take advantage of aliases
One of the great advantages of owning your own email domain is that you can create custom addresses, called aliases, to help tag incoming messages for automatic processing. Aliases are ideal for mailing lists, shopping accounts, and automated correspondence, where you can specify the destination address and you rarely need to reply.
Unlike separate accounts, aliases are tied to your main email address. So if your regular work email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, you can create an alias email@example.com and use that alias for email newsletters. Any email sent to that alias arrives in your Inbox as usual, but all you have to do is create a single rule that automatically moves mail with that address in the To: field to a Newsletters folder.
The big advantage? You don’t need to create a rule for each newsletter you subscribe to. Just use that alias as the subscription address and it will automatically be covered by your existing rule. If you already subscribe to newsletters or other automated messages at your main work address, look for a subscription management link at the bottom of the message to change the destination address.
In Office 365 Small Business, for example, click Users & Groups, select a user name from the list of accounts, and then click the Manage Email Aliases link to its right (Figure B). Note that in Office 365 Small Business, Medium Business, and Enterprise accounts, you need to be an administrator to create aliases for a user. If you’re not an administrator, ask your administrator to create aliases for you for specific tasks.
4: Use shared mailboxes for customer correspondence
One of my favorite features in Office 365 is the capability to create shared mailboxes.
A shared mailbox is similar to an alias, in that it looks like an ordinary email address. But instead of being assigned to a specific user account, the shared mailbox can be assigned to one or more accounts and changed at any time.
In the example shown in Figure C, I’ve created a shared mailbox called Support@RealWorldWindows.com. In the Office 365 Users & Groups administration area, I’ve assigned that alias to my regular work account.
The next time I sign in to my Outlook profile, a separate node called Support appears at the bottom of the Outlook navigation pane, away from my normal messages. I can reply to messages using that address and use all the normal message management tricks with that shared mailbox.
The beauty of shared mailboxes is that an administrator can reassign an address on the fly to another account — or multiple accounts. If I normally handle mail addressed to Support, the mailbox can be assigned temporarily to a colleague if I’m out sick or on vacation. If my organization needs round-the-clock coverage, the shared mailbox can be assigned to multiple employees so that someone is always available to handle new messages.
5: Save important messages in OneNote (or Evernote)
Big organizations have retention policies and formal archives to ensure that important messages are preserved for legal reasons. If you run a smaller business, you can use those same policies, but a simpler way to preserve important messages is to save a copy in a safe place.
One of the safest places for keeping copies of contracts, legal correspondence, and other critical documents is in OneNote, the powerful note-taking software included with every installation of Office 2010 and later.
Saving a message to OneNote is ridiculously easy. With the message open in the Preview pane (or in its own window) click the OneNote button on the Home tab. Pick a notebook section to save the message in and then click OK (Figure D).
Your saved OneNote item includes the message body and basic header information, such as sender and recipient and date/time stamp. It also includes any attachments, making it an ideal way to quickly save contracts and drafts of important documents for posterity.