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How to Organize Your Inbox in Outlook for a More Efficient Workday

June 17, 2021

How many times has an important email gone unanswered because it slipped to the second or third page of your inbox? If your answer is something along the lines of, “So many times I’ve lost count,” you’re far from alone. The “out of sight, out of mind” problem plagues most of us when it comes to managing our email. With the constant, steady stream of new messages flooding our inbox on a daily, even hourly, basis, it’s no wonder some fall through the cracks. We get so many emails that, according to McKinsey, we spend 28 percent of a normal workday, or 2.6 hours, reading and answering emails. Add that staggering statistic to the fact that both physical clutter and digital hoarding can have a significant impact on mental health, and the argument for organizing your inbox — to an extent — becomes pretty clear. 


Below we share several ways to quickly tidy up your inbox in Outlook. These tips may take some time up-front, but then should hopefully save you time in the future. As you’ll see in our final tip, however, embracing the clutter may be the most efficient solution. 


Use folders and categories  

Before you can organize your Outlook inbox, it’s important to know the distinction between folders and categories. Folders are similar to the folders you might use on your computer to organize files into helpful groups. Outlook provides some default folders including Drafts, Sent Mail, Spam, Trash, and Deleted Items. To create additional, more specific folders, follow these simple instructions: 


1. Select the Folders tab

2. Click New Folder

3. Name your New Folder

4. Click OK to create or drag into an existing folder to create a subfolder


Categories allow you to further organize your emails through color-coding to flag messages as urgent, low-priority, personal, etc. To create a category, follow these steps: 


1. Click on the inbox tab and select Categorize

2. Select All Categories

3. The categories are by default named after their color. You can either select one of the existing color categories and rename, or create a new category

4. Now back in your inbox, select an email, click on the Categories button, and choose the relevant category 


Choose favorites

If you don’t want to lose track of important messages, “favorite” those folders that you want to stay top of mind and at the top of your to-do list. To do this, right click the desired folder and choose “Show in Favorites.” This will keep the folder at the top of your Outlook Navigation Pane for easy access. When this folder is no longer top priority, simply right click again and choose “Remove from Favorites.”


Flag important emails for yourself and recipients

We’ve all experienced forgetting to reply to an important email because the flood of daily emails is simply too much to keep up with. Important emails, even with the use of folders and categories, can still slip through the cracks and get lost in the deluge. When you receive one of these important emails but don’t have the time to respond in the moment, a flag can help keep the message top of mind by increasing its visibility in your inbox. A flagged email will appear in your Outlook To-Do Bar, your Tasks, and in the Daily Task List in the calendar, ensuring that it won’t get overlooked. 


Flagging an email is easy. Each email in your inbox has a grayed out flag next to it. When you click it, the flag will turn red. Now that your message is flagged, you can right click the flag to set a reminder to follow-up. To flag an email for a recipient to ensure a quick reply, follow these steps: 


1. Write your email and save it as a draft.

2. Then click the Tags button in the Messages tab and select Flags.

3. Select Follow up and click Custom.

4. Select Flag for Recipient and select the date for the reminder. 


For more info on using flags, check out Microsoft Support


Let Outlook automatically file emails for you 

If this is all sounding like a lot of extra work for a slightly tidier inbox, then you’ll be happy to know that Outlook can do most of the work for you. Outlook allows you to create rules in order to automatically file emails into designated folders as they come in. This is a great way to keep yourself from becoming distracted by emails that don’t fall into the top-priority or urgent category. Rules can be based on a specific sender or a certain word or phrase in the subject line. Follow these steps to set up a rule: 


1. Right click on an email from your inbox. (Don’t click into the email first.) 

2. In the dropdown menu, click on Rules and then Create Rule. 

3. From here you have several options. You can choose to always send emails from a specific sender to a designated folder or to filter by subject line, select Subject Contains and then enter a phrase.

4. All emails that contain your indicated phrase in the subject line will then be sent to the folder of your choosing. For example, you may indicate that all emails containing the words “Receipt” or  “Payment Confirmation” be sent to your Finances folder. 

5. To select a folder, you can either select one of the default folders from the dropdown menu, New Folder, or Move to a different folder. 

6. To apply the rule, click OK. 

7. Now sit back and let Outlook organize for you!


An alternate strategy: Keep the inbox clutter!

Yes, you heard us. A perfectly acceptable alternate strategy to the organizational tips described above is to embrace your inbox clutter. Some people need to use folders, categories and flags for peace of mind, but now that your Outlook inbox (and other inboxes like Gmail) have a search bar, you can find most any message by simply entering a few key search terms. This method doesn’t help with keeping high priority messages top-of-mind (for this we still recommend using flags) but for some individuals, it can replace the need to create personalized folders in addition to Outlook’s default folders. If you find that organizing your inbox is actually cutting into your productivity rather than improving it, keeping the clutter might just be your best strategy. 


Feature photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels


Related reading: 

Office 365 Features and Benefits for Your Small Business

14 Windows 10 Tips & Tricks to Optimize Your Workflow

What to Do If You Receive Blackmail in Your Inbox


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