Mastering your Outlook inbox

Forget Outlook 2016’s weak Clutter and Focused Inbox features. Instead, use these four simple methods to cut spam, limit incoming email and regain control of your inbox.

overflowing mailbox for spam or email
Thinkstock

The truth is, I hate Outlook. But in the Windows environment, there's no better email, calendaring and contacts package than Microsoft Outlook 2016. When I think about why I hate the software, it comes down to a set of frustrations around key areas like a lack of focus on inbox management, a tacked-on search facility with a terrible user interface, and the absence of two-way syncing with non-Microsoft sources of calendars and contacts.

I've decided to tackle Outlook's annoyances head on. This article focuses on making inbox management much more productive.

To be fair, Microsoft has been trying to address the overwhelmed-inbox condition for the last couple of years. It started by introducing to Office 365 subscribers a feature called Clutter, an automated filtering tool that put emails you were unlikely to open (based on your past behavior) into a separate folder. Clutter was not well received because users were not given a way to fully remove it.

More recently, Microsoft rolled out a feature called the Focused Inbox. This is little more than Clutter inverted so that it highlights mail you want to see instead of mail you probably don't want to see. The difference between them is more marketing than programming. (Microsoft shrewdly implemented Focused Inbox as a view instead of as a mailbox. That makes it much easier to disable.)

Whatever you call it, this functionality is a step in the right direction, but it falls well short of what most users really need. For some users, self-discipline may be the thing that's most needed. No algorithm or set of built-in rules from Microsoft is going to solve the inbox overload problem that many business users face. Only you know what mail is important to you. But if you take that knowledge and leverage Outlook's complexity and power to your advantage, you can boost your inbox management productivity significantly.

The truth is, I hate Outlook. But in the Windows environment, there's no better email, calendaring and contacts package than Microsoft Outlook 2016. When I think about why I hate the software, it comes down to a set of frustrations around key areas like a lack of focus on inbox management, a tacked-on search facility with a terrible user interface, and the absence of two-way syncing with non-Microsoft sources of calendars and contacts.

I've decided to tackle Outlook's annoyances head on. This article focuses on making inbox management much more productive.

To be fair, Microsoft has been trying to address the overwhelmed-inbox condition for the last couple of years. It started by introducing to Office 365 subscribers a feature called Clutter, an automated filtering tool that put emails you were unlikely to open (based on your past behavior) into a separate folder. Clutter was not well received because users were not given a way to fully remove it.

More recently, Microsoft rolled out a feature called the Focused Inbox. This is little more than Clutter inverted so that it highlights mail you want to see instead of mail you probably don't want to see. The difference between them is more marketing than programming. (Microsoft shrewdly implemented Focused Inbox as a view instead of as a mailbox. That makes it much easier to disable.)

Whatever you call it, this functionality is a step in the right direction, but it falls well short of what most users really need. For some users, self-discipline may be the thing that's most needed. No algorithm or set of built-in rules from Microsoft is going to solve the inbox overload problem that many business users face. Only you know what mail is important to you. But if you take that knowledge and leverage Outlook's complexity and power to your advantage, you can boost your inbox management productivity significantly.

Inbox strategies

There are two basic strategies for managing your inbox. One way of handling it, known as Inbox Zero, nearly approaches a religion for some people. Their goal is to make their inbox empty by assessing or reading email and deleting as they go.

A smaller group doesn't bother to delete the messages they've already read or skipped. This second technique relies on unread marks. Instead of trying to clear the inbox of messages, these users are trying to clear it of unread marks. The second method is a little faster, and you get an historical record of all your email. The downside is that your inbox is that historical record.

There's no right answer, and both methods are fully compatible with the strategies presented here.

Stop being your own spammer

The most expedient way to streamline your inbox is by cutting back on the legitimate mail you receive that you don't read. That way you can spend more time focusing on the email that you need to read and reply to.

What percent of your email is important? 20%? Maybe 30%? Let's be optimistic and say that 70% your email is not required reading. Not quite half of that is going to be spam and untargeted mailings that hold no interest. We'll deal with that later.

Consider the balance, some 40% of your email that you never look at or care much about. I'm guessing that most of it is mailings from companies or websites that you're somewhat interested in but have little time to read: content, social media notifications, newsletters, mailing lists, forums, blogs, news, webcasts, white papers, press releases and so on.

Ask yourself: Do I really need all this? And then spend an hour unsubscribing from the mailing lists of companies and groups that send you the most email that you rarely if ever check. Don't unsubscribe from spam; that may get you more mail. Do unsubscribe from any legitimate company that you just don't have time for and likely never will.

The next step is to turn off Outlook 2016's Focused Inbox. It attempts to automatically separate the wheat from the chaff for you. And if you train it, it works pretty well. But what we're about to create goes way beyond its capabilities.

Focused Inbox may or may not be turned on by default in your version of Outlook, and if you aren’t an Office 365 subscriber, you won’t have it at all. My email accounts are all IMAP, and Focused Inbox doesn't seem to work with IMAP accounts unless they're Microsoft accounts: Hotmail.com and Outlook.com accounts essentially connect to Outlook 2016 as if they were Exchange, and so they employ the feature. To turn Focused Inbox off, click the View tab on the Ribbon and then click the Show Focused Inbox button to toggle it off. Done.

Let filters sweep out your inbox

You don't need to be a nerd to use Outlook's mail rules. The comprehensive email package has a powerful set of email rules, or filters, that can help automate the process of making your inbox manageable.

Pick the five largest sources of email in your inbox that you check out or refer to sometimes but that you don't read regularly. You're not ready to part with these email messages, but you don't need them in your inbox either. Then put the power of mail folders and rules to work.

When you're done with this tip, you'll have new folders in your mailbox whose job is to contain lots of email messages from the five specific sources. You'll also have a set of new email rules that will be working in the background to quietly move email from the five sources out of your inbox to their storage folders.

The basic concept underlying mail filters is the identification of a condition (such as the sender's email address or something static in the subject line) that triggers an action (such as "move message to XYZ folder") — also known as if this, then that. Outlook's email rules facility can guide you through the process or even just do it for you. You'll create your best rules with the step-by-step wizard, which helps you pick from a long list of conditions and actions. If you are new to email rules, however, start by letting Outlook create rules for you.

(Note that the steps below are based on Outlook 2016 for Windows, but several earlier versions of Outlook for Windows offer the Rules Wizard in some form. Outlook for Mac does not include the wizard; see this Microsoft support page for help creating rules on that platform.)

You make the rules

No matter what method you use to create rules, the first step is to make destination folders for them. Click either the Mail or Folder icon on the navigation menu (lower left corner). Right-click your email account's top-level folder. It's usually labeled with your name or email address. On the context menu, choose New Folder. Name the folder for the messages that you plan to place there, such as CIO Leadership for any newsletters aimed at IT leaders. Repeat that process until you've got destination folders for all the mail that you're going to move out of your inbox automatically.

Next, you'll need to locate a recent sample email message for each rule that you want to create. If you're on a lot of separate lists from a single source company, you might need one message from each list to cover the waterfront of messages from that company. Or it's possible you can get them all with one email rule using the domain name, if they were all sent from the same address.

To let Outlook create a rule for you, select or open a sample message. From the Home tab on the Ribbon, click the Rules button and choose Always Move Messages from: {Sender Name of the sample message}. That opens a mail-folder-selection window in which you pick the appropriate destination folder. That's it. Repeat that process for each rule needed to move all the mail from your selected sources into the destination folders.

To create more advanced and more reliable rules, click Home tab > Rules button > Manage Rules & Alerts. Click New Rule. This opens a Microsoft wizard that exposes the full power of Outlook’s rules.

Outlook rules wizard - first screen Scot Finnnie / IDG

With the Rules Wizard, you can use a commonly used rule as a template or start from scratch. (Click any image in this story to enlarge it.)

On the first screen, if nothing matches what you’re trying to do or if you’re not sure yet, zip down to the heading “Start from a blank rule” and choose “Apply rule on messages I receive." But, more than likely, the first or third option under "Stay Organized" will be your best bet. Try to stay away from using specific words in the subject line, because subjects are easily changed by the sender — and if a subsequent change doesn't match your condition, the rule will stop working.

Let's say you select the first option under Stay Organized, "Move messages from someone to a folder," and then click the Next button. The wizard continues by showing you a fairly long list of conditions that can trigger the rule, with the entry "from people or public group" pre-checked. In the step 2 window at the bottom, it shows your rule as it's coming together.

To select a specific person that the new rule will apply to, click the blue underscored "people or public group" input phrase. That opens your Outlook contact list to let you choose an email address. Or you can type or paste an email address into the From line. In most cases, the input links open small dialog boxes. For example, the "specified folder" input link opens a dialog box that lets you choose a folder. You would select one of the destination folders you created earlier.

Outlook rules wizard screens Scot Finnie / IDG

The Rules Wizard helps you set actions to perform on an email, such as moving it to a specific folder, if certain conditions are met.

The process is much the same if you choose to start from a blank rule on the initial screen, except no conditions or actions are pre-selected. I frequently use the conditions "with specific words in the message header" or "with specific words in the sender's address."

The next step in the wizard offers multiple actions that you can add, such as flagging a message for follow-up at a specific time, assigning it a category, and marking it as read. There is a subsequent step that lets you set exceptions to the condition. So, for example, the condition might be from a specific person and the exception might be unless you were addressed in the CC field.

The final step in the wizard lets you give it a different name, gives you the option to test it in the current mail folder, and offers the option to create the rule for all of your email accounts. Click the Finish button to save the new rule.

Outlook rules wizard screens Scot Finnie / IDG

As you specify conditions and actions, you can see your rule take shape in the bottom window of the wizard.

To edit or manage your rules at any time, click Home tab > Rules button > Manage Rules & Alerts. Here you can turn rules on or off, change them, copy them, or delete them.

Outlook manage rules Scot Finnnie / IDG

Here you can manage all your email rules or, on the second tab, your alerts.

Social media — in fact, notifications of all kinds — may represent one of the biggest time wasters in your inbox. How you deal with that is up to you. I put most of the bigger social media notifications all in one folder out of my inbox. But I'll admit, there are times when I miss things that I wish I hadn't.

Take these principles, make them your own — and take back control of your inbox.

Create VIPs in your inbox

Ever wish that Outlook could draw attention to messages from your boss, your boss’s boss, your spouse, and anyone important in your life? You may need to fuss with the actions to get them to work, but email rules can give Outlook the ability to identify specific email senders, triggering your choice of various attention-getting actions, such as playing a sound, marking as high importance, displaying a desktop alert, flagging for follow-up today and others. I’ve found that the best way to create such a rule is by starting with the condition "with specific words in the sender's address," and then just use their email address.

Careful you don't make too many of this type of rule or you’ll drive yourself nuts with notifications.

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