Taming the Outlook E-Mail Monster

Over time I’ve read quite a few helpful hints and tips on how to “tame” your e-mail. I have a few I’ve developed over time that I haven’t seen mentioned before, so I thought I’d share.

First, I deal with a lot of different projects at once. One thing I find valuable is to include the name of the project the e-mail is about in the subject line. That helps me later, to quickly categorize my mails. At the very least, make sure to include the project name somewhere in the body of the mail. Nothing’s more confusing then getting cc’d on an e-mail that says “I took care of the files” and not knowing what project the person refers to.

Next comes archiving of your e-mails. Many texts I’ve read tell you to read the e-mail, take action on it, then get it out of your inbox. But what do you do with it when you’re done for the time, but you may want to save it to refer back to later?

I’ve found the best method is to create individual Outlook data files (.pst) files for each project. True, you will wind up with a lot of pst files, but you can easily close them once the project is complete and get them out of your way. You can even burn them to a CD or DVD when you need more disk space yet still be able to open them.

You still have the luxury of creating individual folders within the projects pst file, if you need to subdivide more; perhaps meeting minutes, agendas, coding, and testing might be folders you want.

At one time I just had one projects folder with folders and subfolders galore. The problem was it quickly became cluttered from past projects, and kept growing in size. I found moving each project to its own data file to be much easier to manage.

OK, I hear you asking “What about those e-mails not associated with projects?” Maybe it’s a policy notice, or a confirmation about a software purchase, or just some “congrats you did a good job” e-mail you’d like to hang on to. For those I create an Outlook data file for each year. I then have 12 folders, one for each month.

I am very strict with myself about what goes in here, to keep it from becoming a miscellaneous junk bin. I typically have no more than 20 or 25 messages for any given month worthy of hanging on to.

OK, we’ve all been victims of this next situation. We go off to a two hour meeting, come back, and find thirty seconds after we walked away someone sent out an e-mail and copied the entire department. Half the folks chose to respond, then the other half replied to the response, and before you know it there’s 42 unread mails on the one subject alone, not to mention all the other mail that’s come in. How do you quickly isolate those e-mails for a given project and deal with them?

For that I find Outlook’s Find tool invaluable. In Outlook 2003, select Tools, Find, Find from the menu:


You should then see a new tool area just above your inbox:


In Outlook 2007, the Find feature is turned on and built into the Inbox bar by default:


In either case, simply type in what you want, like the name of your project (remember my first tip?) and hit enter, or click the word Search (2003) or the magnifying glass (2007). The area where your inbox sits will now show only the messages with your search word in either the subject or the message body.

Once you have filtered your box to show only those messages you want, it becomes an easy matter to move them to archive, delete them, or deal with them in some other manner.

When done, simply click Clear (2003) or the X (it pops up where the magnifying glass is in 2007) and your inbox will be returned to it’s non-filtered state, hopefully with a few less messages for you to deal with.

OK, so you have a piece of mail that you want to keep in your inbox for a few days, you don’t want to file it quite yet, but don’t have to handle it right this second. Most common for me are announcements that a database or system will be offline for maintenance. I certainly want to know about it, and be reminded, but don’t need to do anything right now. For this I use the flags.

The very right most column of your inbox depicts a small flag. Clicking on it will turn the flag to a red color. In 2003, you can pick different colors, in 2007 the color is tied to the distance in the future the event will occur.


In either version, one of the menu options is “Add Reminder”. With it, a dialog pops up to let you give a calendar date / time when you need to take action.


In this example, the e-mail was letting me know of a live radio interview being done with a member of one of my favorite bands, Midnight Syndicate (http://www.midnightsyndicate.com). I’m adding a reminder to that e-mail so I’ll be sure not to miss it.

I’ll then basically ignore the message, letting it sit in my inbox until the time comes for me to deal with it. Once the event is complete, be it a database outage, meeting, or special event, I can click again on the flag, to “Mark as complete”. I can choose to archive the message, respond to it, or delete it.

Speaking of deleting, the final piece of advice I can offer is delete, delete, delete. Let’s face it, how many of those messages do you really need? If you are the recipient of a long chain of e-mails, just keep the last one and delete the rest, their contents duplicated in the last one.

Meeting announcements, bake sales, grocery lists from the spouse, are all things which hit the bit bucket as soon as I’m done with them. I’d bet if you’re like me, a good percentage of your e-mail can safely be deleted.

Using these techniques, I’m able to keep my inbox to between 100 and 150 messages, a manageable level. A fry cry from the old days where I might have 2,500 messages in my inbox!

I’m always trying to improve, though, so if you have ideas for taming your inbox please post a comment and share with the community.


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