Email Organization in MS Outlook

I have worked in big IT companies for more than 15 years now and received huge amount of emails from people or systems.
Over the time I switched many times between Microsoft Outlook (in further text MSO) and Lotus Notes looking for the “right- system” which would simplify my daily work.
I had tried many MSO plugins, but I ended up inventing my own system, which functions only in MSO environment. For what reason?
Rather than to keep up with all system and plugin updates and do it all over again each time it falls apart, I left the whole plugin idea.
Also, I found myself being sick and tired of creating new directories, so I decided to dig deeper into the rules and categories in MSO.

I aimed to:

  • minimize amount of incoming emails
  • support fast processing and sorting
  • simplify search
  • maintain zero inbox and also zero state-of-mind at the end of the day
  • to avoid being disturbed by notification flow.
  • highlight important emails in the list

Step one: Reducing of Incoming Mails
I realized that I had been receiving way too much unsolicited email messages, in which I was not particularly interested. As I know where to go for the information I need, I opted out of unnecessary subscriptions.  
Second step I made was the decision not to be notified via emails, which are sent by all possible applications. Again, when I know that I need to be notified about something, an application itself can do this directly.
I keep kindly reminding my colleagues about netiquette. I really don’t have to be part of every communication, so I regularly ask to be excluded whenever it turns out to be irrelevant to my job.
Application of the above mentioned rules resulted in lowering the amount of emails by 30-40%.

Step two: Inbox & InboxCC Folders
I still felt too overwhelmed by the flood of emails to be able to orientate myself and focus on the most important ones.
That is why I decided to add another InboxCC to current (default) Inbox.
InboxCC is simply a filtering folder, where email messages are fed automatically using preset rules. It holds all “CC: Recipient emails“. In other words all, that wasn’t sent TO: me directly.
If you need to redirect informative emails distributed by your employer (i.e. regular reports, system notifications, internal marketing and so on), it does the trick. I personally managed to cut additional 10-15% emails down.

Step three: #Waiting folder
If you know GTD (Get Things Done), you know where this is coming from.
In order to keep Inbox empty, you must take care of every actionable email. They can’t stay there untouched. So when email reaches my Inbox (email addressed TO: me😊), I do a quick check. If I can respond to it, I do it immediately. Should the sender respond back, I put myself to Bcc: and get it moved to #Waiting folder (a simple MSO rule will do this for me automatically).
When an email is sent to group of people, where I’m one of many in TO: (and it’s unclear whether I’m supposed to reply to it or not), I just read email and react only if I see that question or request is directed to me. When I’m not asked for response then I archive it.
The above explained approach helps me to process around 50% of emails.

Step four: Archive & Categorize
As you may already suspect, I archive non-actionable emails as fast as possible. I don’t keep sub-folders in MSO, I create email categories instead.
Using categories helps great deal to sort through the whole Archive.
Say – Customer Tesco, Country UK, Region Northern Europe would come with three categories: P_TESCO, UK, _NE.
P_ stands for Project. I use it to indicate Customer name as a first in a convention, so that i know that it is followed by country and region references.
There are two ways to add categories:
It can be done automatically – you create a MSO rule, that sorts emails by domain e.g. or by reference word stated in the subject e.g. Tesco.
If it doesn’t work, you need to do it manually. 😉

Step five: Notifications
All notifications disabled – it’s as clear as that. 😊
It’s me, who decide when my mailbox should be checked. It’s essential if you want to stay focused on important work and minimize distractions.

Step six: Projects
I use temporary folders in MSO for emails, which are related to specific project such as planned conferences or meetings. I store all infos in it.
The biggest advantage of this for me is that it works as a reminder (of upcoming projects) too. Doing this I offload my Inbox by collecting all related information in one designated place.
Previously I tried to maintain specific category per project instead of folder, but then it was very hard for me to maintain the same process on mobile. That’s why I stick to folder, it enables me to see it on mobile without any technical issue. Once the project has finished, I simply move all emails to Archive and delete the folder.
All emails are handled manually, only I know what is important regarding that project and what is worth to store for later. In this case any automation would possibly create additional “Inbox” which would need my regular attention. This is really is a no-go area.

Step seven: Important emails
I realized recently that even when I setup above mentioned tweaks & tunes, I’m still receiving 50-100 emails a day in my Inbox (not talking about InboxCC, where its usually another 100-150 emails). I had to implement another logic related to prioritization. Main idea was to keep emails in Inbox and just highlight important ones. Therefore I used Conditional formatting function.

  1. VIP – created new formatting marking emails from management with red color, followed by sorting rule which keeps those VIP emails in Inbox even when Im on CC.
  2. TO: Me – formatting emails sent only to me (noone else on TO: line) by  underlining them

Grande finale
To sum it all up. I have only the following folders in Outlook:

  • Inbox
  • InboxCC
  • #Waiting
  • Sent Items
  • Archive

Plus 20-30 rules set-up in order to automatically sort email communication.
And again, can’t stress that enough, notifications are off.

Let me know what you think about it. How does this work for you?  In case you come up with any improvements that could make our office life better, please don’t forget to share them.