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.

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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.

Conquer junk mail with SpamBully

So far, we've addressed 70% of your email. Right or wrong, my assumption is that the remaining 30% is spam that has probably passed through other spam filters, such as corporate, web hosts, and so on. And given Outlook 2016's pitiful attempt at onboard antispam control, Junk Email, corporate users often have little recourse. So, I went looking for something to solve this problem.

There's never been a great horde of end-user antispam products on the market. When you add in my requirement that it must integrate with Outlook, the options dwindle. And the number has been getting smaller in recent years. Some big names, such as Cloudmark, have gotten out. I also prefer a Bayesian solution to one that requires a community of users to identify spam. In a business environment, I don't think the challenge/response method works either. That whittled it down to two or three Outlook plug-in solutions. One of those, SpamBayes, not only hasn't been updated in many years, but there's no support for it. So I crossed it off too.

After downloading, installing and trying the top players, I chose SpamBully, which at its core is a Bayesian spam filter with optional additional layers that aid the process, including the automatic building of allowed and block lists, blocking by real-time blacklist listings, challenge/response and others.

SpamBully integrates with Outlook very well, installing as an Outlook plug-in and becoming a tab on your Ribbon. It has a solid group of settings and options. The program is constructed in a way that focuses on eliminating false positives, the term given to email that is incorrectly classified as spam. That suits me well, and I think it's the better approach for business, where there's no valid excuse for missing an important email.

SpamBully tab on Outlook Ribbon Scot Finnie / IDG

SpamBully integrates with the Outlook 2016 Ribbon.  

One feature that helps eliminate false positives is the Review screen, which shows you how SpamBully has classified borderline messages that it has marked as spam since the last time you reviewed. The Review screen gives you the option to place checkmarks next to false positives, which will send them on to your inbox. The program also has Unsure folder where it places messages that are acutely borderline. It presents these to you as well during the Review process.

Like all Bayesian spam filters, SpamBully requires a bit of work up front. For the first several weeks you'll be training it by saying yes this is spam, no this isn't. But the payoff is worth the effort. According to SpamBully statistics, it's running at a 99% accuracy rate on my system. No community-based antispam product comes anywhere close to that. It helps if you have a collection of 2,000 to 4,000 spam messages in one folder and about the same number of good messages in another folder to help with the SpamBully training process.

Although I had no trouble with MAPI based email accounts, I did notice that when I had a Hotmail account configured in Outlook, SpamBully slowed down the launch of Outlook dramatically. Hotmail runs effectively as an Exchange account in Outlook. There is specific advice on the SpamBully site for how to configure Exchange and Hotmail accounts, but expect Outlook to load more slowly because it processes Exchange-based mail at launch instead of after launch.

I turned off all other spam protections that I've been relying on for years to give SpamBully the full force of my 20-year-old email accounts. It handled the load with aplomb. (If you install SpamBully, you should turn off Outlook's Junk Email features.)

SpamBully options settings Scot Finnie / IDG

SpamBully has extensive settings and filters that you can tweak for the best performance.  

After testing extensively, I turned off SpamBully’s ill-advised Fight Back feature and disabled the Spammer Trick, Challenge List and RBL (Real-Time Blacklist) filtering options. It ran exceedingly well in this configuration, and its system support/requirements are up-to-date with the latest releases of Outlook 2016 and Windows 10. SpamBully has not been updated in several years, but it is supported. It has a 30-day fully functional trial and costs $30 a year to use.

Four steps to inbox mastery

Reduce the amount of email you get, use email rules to move some of it off into storage folders, set up email rules that draw attention to your most important correspondence, and install the SpamBully plug-in to minimize the chaff in your inbox — and who knows? Answering email might even become enjoyable again.

Hey, it could happen.

This story, "Mastering your Outlook inbox" was originally published by Computerworld.

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