Email has revolutionized the way we communicate. It’s estimated that every day there are over 320 billion emails sent and received. It’s an important part of our work life, but sometimes it can evolve into an unruly monster that devours our productivity as it demands more and more of our attention.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. This is especially true when it comes to modern email platforms like Outlook that can make it significantly easier to manage our day-to-day workflow. But like all software, there comes a learning curve. At first Outlook may seem overwhelming, but with this guide, you’ll be well on your way to having a rock-solid approach to your inbox.
Take back your day, your life, with these eight tips to more efficient Outlook email management.
1. Take Advantage of Folders
Most things in life aren’t black and white. Most things are a greyscale, including email. Some emails are relevant to your business or your job, but they aren’t a priority (think: some administrative emails, volunteer emails, and smaller projects with a delivery date weeks away). You might also like to get updates about the latest trends in your industry, so you’ve signed up for an industry-related newsletter.
But reading about the newest software coming in two months doesn’t take precedence over finalizing a contract to be sent to a new client. You also don’t want to sift through a sea of junk mail just to find the newsletter to read during your afternoon break. That’s where folders come in.
Outlook allows you to create folders so you can have specific emails or topics go to the same spot: put all your newsletters together, make sure the most important client, or the one who collaborates the most over email, has their own folder. Just be sure to separate emails that still require your attention from the ones that are just a reference email.
The way you set up a new folder in Outlook is by right-clicking on any folder in the mail panel, then selecting “Add Folder.” You can even nest child folders within the main folder. It’s that simple!
2. Level Up by Using Categories
In addition to folders, you can take it one step further by using Categories in Outlook. The Categories feature will actually color code your mail based on your preferences. Maybe emails from your superior are in red while emails from your favorite client are in blue. It’s completely up to you how you assign color, but this is yet another tool to help you instantly recognize the source of an email. Outlook allows up to twenty-five colors that are used in the calendar or the inbox. Bonus: Outlook also gives you the authority to rename the color to make it super easy on your brain to know what the category color means!
3. Automate With Rules
Would you prefer to not manually sort emails yourself? I’m the same. Luckily, Outlook has you covered with Rules. This wonderful feature called Rules allows you to automatically send incoming emails to specific folders based on some criteria (the simplest of which is address or subject line keyword). Rules provide you the authority to create automatic forwards or auto-responses, and play a notification sound when you get an email from a specific person or company, place an email on your calendar, and more. You can even move emails to a folder specifically for emails where you’re CC’d only, or automatically apply a category based on the address.
The way to create rules is simple. Right click on an email and go down to Rules. When the new menu pops up, select Create Rule and choose the criteria you’re looking to set. From there you’ll specify what should happen when the Rule gets applied. For example, if you wanted to color code emails from your boss in red and put them into an action folder, Outlook can do that every time you get an email from firstname.lastname@example.org. There are a lot of ways to be creative setting up the conditions, actions, and exceptions.
While Rules require you to know what you want Outlook to do with an email before you see it, Quick Steps is giving you the power to tell Outlook what you want the software to do with an email after you’ve looked at it.
4. Be Email Quick with Quick Steps
Quick Steps are one of the most under-utilized gifts from Outlook. While Rules require us to know what we want Outlook to do with a message upon arrival, Quick Steps gives us the control to decide after we’ve reviewed the email. The functionality of Quick Steps is not quite as robust as Rules; however, there is still a lot of power there.
When you find you are frequently moving a message to the same folder, forwarding the same message to the same person, or converting messages to calendar appointments on a regular basis, consider setting up a Quick Step. They are conveniently located in the prime real estate of your Outlook ribbon.
5. Use the Task List
Have you ever felt overwhelmed with email because you have new emails commingled with older emails that are a lower priority or something you can’t do right now? You’re not alone.
Being inundated with inbox clutter can lead to accidentally skipping over an important email or two…or three. Or we may just feel overwhelmed seeing scattered bold emails littering our inbox when we’re just trying to get through the things that are important right now.
Those emails you’ll need to get to eventually don’t have to complicate your inbox, nor do the ones you want to hold on to for future reference. To remedy this, Outlook has the Tasks feature to help with organization and planning.
With the Tasks feature, you can take those emails and put them in their own category. You can do this by dragging an email to the Task icon (look for the checkmark on a clipboard) in the Outlook mail window. This auto-generates a new task with the body of the email included. Now you can remove this email from your inbox without worry because Outlook has it saved in your Tasks.
6. Create Templates With Quick Parts
There comes a time in every professional’s life where they have this realization: “I’ve typed this exact same response a thousand times.” It can be frustrating having yet another email come in asking the same question, only for you to type out, once more, the same message.
But Outlook doesn’t want you to suffer. The Quick Parts feature allows you to create templates where you can craft a response and save it for repeated use later. Of course you won’t only use the template. You’ll likely need to adjust the contact info, some of the finer details of the inquiry, or adjust dates to accurately reflect the situation at hand.
To do this in Outlook, yes, you’ll first have to type out your response, but then it’s easy peasy. Highlight the text you’ve written in the response and click the Insert tab above. Within this menu you’ll see another tab for Quick Parts, and then clicking on that will allow you to select “Save Selection to Quick Part Gallery.” Keep yourself organized by giving this template a name you’ll easily recognize, then hit OK.
There you go! Now you have this template in your email arsenal to keep you on track. All you’ll need to do is click the Insert tab again, select Quick Parts, then the template you want to use. The exact text you wrote will pop up so you can make any adjustments before sending and moving on with your day.
7. Outlook and Inbox Zero are Best Friends
The previous tips and techniques are going to be game-changers for you when it comes to managing your email (and time). So long as you implement those techniques, there’s almost no way you won’t have a more organized inbox.
But it’s not just the technical features and fun benefits that come from Outlook’s platform that lend itself to a healthy inbox. It depends on your mindset – how you approach your emails in the first place. You can create all the rules and folders in the world, but without properly approaching each individual email with the right attitude, it won’t be as efficient as it could be.
That’s why it’s important to incorporate the ideas from Inbox Zero and think of email as a process, not a means to an end.
8. Cut Ties
Finally, if there’s something we all know far too well, it’s that we get junk mail – a lot of it. But it isn’t just the scams or the attempts to get us to see this one weird trick doctors don’t want you to know. Sometimes we accidentally do it to ourselves.
You know that ebook you downloaded but now get daily emails and sometimes more than one daily email from that guru? Are you still interested in those emails? Are you sure? Use Rules and Folders to send them to their own place to clean up your inbox. But if you go to that folder and suddenly realize you have a few dozen unread emails from them because it’s been weeks since you’ve read anything they sent…it’s time to cut ties.
Let go of things that no longer serve you. Marie Kondo your inbox. Does it still spark joy? Keep it. If not, unsubscribe. There’s no reason to have the added heft in your already-full inbox.
Less clutter means your mind will be more free to focus on the important tasks like the report you need to write, or payroll to process, or the big client acquisition (or those videos of cats jumping into boxes because they still spark joy on your break).
Follow these guidelines, and watch your relationship with Outlook grow into a mutually beneficial partnership.
Ready to learn more? This complimentary 45-minute webinar will help you learn how to feel in control of your inbox, be more responsive to important collaborators, and reduce your anxiety and stress. Tame the Email Beast….ARTT™ demonstrates time-saving techniques within Outlook primarily; however, the concept is platform-agnostic. It is about teaching your human habits connected to technology (whether Outlook, Gmail, or AOL Mail…ok, nobody uses AOL Mail anymore, right?).
Register for your favorite date today and I look forward to having you at the program.