The theme for this month has been email filing and clean inboxes. This week we look at the three common mistakes that result in lost emails and cluttered Inboxes.
Over the last 15 years we have helped thousands of Outlook users get their emails organized and their Inboxes clean.
In this time we have learnt that the main reasons that Outlook users fail to keep their emails organized can be traced to these 3 common mistakes.
1. Filing emails before they have been actioned (or why you shouldn’t use Rules)
Most emails that we get are either for our information or action. Many users in an effort to get organized move emails out of the Inbox to dedicated folders for clients or projects… before the required action is completed.
The problem with this is because of the volume of emails that we all receive on a daily basis, the emails are quickly forgotten and the actions never taken.
What can you do?
Only move an email out of the Inbox if It does not require any action from you (in which case you either delete it or move it out to an archive/client/project folder).
a. You have completed the required action on it (E.g. replied to the email with the information requested)
b. It requires action from you and you have added the action to some kind of action list e.g. your Calendar or Task List.
Tip: This is why we don’t recommend using Rules for filing emails. Rules move emails out of the Inbox before you’ve had a chance to read them.
Instead we recommend using QuickFile for Outlook (for folder based email filing) or Email Tags for Outlook (for tag based filing) which can file most of your emails out of your Inbox at the click of one button… after you have finished reading them.
2. Leaving emails that do not require action in the Inbox
Leaving too many emails in your Inbox can also be a problem, particularly if you use your Inbox to show you what you still need to work on. Too many emails will cause actual work emails to get drowned out… and quickly move off the list.
Ironically, the problem isn’t the emails that you know you have to work on.
The BIG problem is the emails that you think you may work on… when you get the time. These include things people have sent to you for your information, newsletters on things you used to be interested in etc.
Instead of moving them out of the Inbox, we tend to leave them there… for when (???) we have a bit of free time.
What can you do?
I would recommend one of the following:
a. Either flag all emails that actually need your actual action so that they stand out…
b. Or Move out emails that do not need your actual action into another folder called Maybe.
I personally prefer the option of moving emails out of the Inbox because I am less likely to be distracted by maybe tasks. This really helps me to stay focussed on what I need to work on.
Now when I have some free time, I go to my Maybe folder.
Confession: I very rarely go to the MayBe folder. It has thousands of emails in it… and my life is probably much better for not having read them.
3. Forgetting to file Sent Emails
Why do we even bother filing emails (as opposed to simply deleting them once we have read them and taken the appropriate action).
The main reason is that we may need to refer to them later for information. We also need to retain them for legal reasons in case there is some dispute about what was written at some point in time in the future.
… and we normally don’t need just the one email. We need all related emails… incoming and outgoing.
Irrespective of how you organize your emails, it is very useful to file related incoming and outgoing emails together. That way you can see the entire conversation in one place when you need to.
What can you do?
a. Setup a daily or weekly time at which you will file emails out of your Sent Items folder or…
Bonus Tip: Make sure that you file your emails in the way that works best for you
The ultimate purpose of any email filing system is to make it easy for you to find the emails again when you need them.
There are two main ways of filing emails… using folders and tags.
Which method works best for you will depend on several factors, including how your printed files (if you still use them) are organized.
I recommend that you read our earlier post Outlook Email Filing: Folders or Tags to ensure that you are using the best filing system for you… the one that makes your emails easier to find in the least time.
This post continues with the theme of Getting and Staying in Control over Your Email and your Inbox. I am going to show you a simple way you can setup your Inbox to show you only what you need to work on this week… with today’s action emails at the top.
This system does NOT require anything extra. All you need is Outlook to get started.
While a lot of productivity gurus advise that we should NOT use our Inboxes as a To Do list, most of us still do. Why?
Because it still is the place where most of our To-Dos arrive. It’s easier to leave them there than to transfer them somewhere else. However …
The Problem with working from your Inbox is…
The emails do not arrive in the order in which you need to work on them.
Having them all in the Inbox at the same time can be overwhelming because you’re presented with too much information … you see everything that you need to work on… without any way of knowing what you need to work on first.
You can solve the problem using ONE folder and 2 New Habits
Assumption: I am assuming that your Inbox only has emails that you still need to work on. Emails that you have finished with have either been deleted or filed out of the Inbox (last week’s post compares advantages of filing emails by folders or tags in Outlook).
Here’s what you can do to have your Inbox show you what you need to work on this week, with the emails that you need to work on today at the very top.
Setting up the One Folder System
- Create a folder under the Inbox called Later
- Drag and drop the emails that you don’t need to work on this week into this folder.
- Flag (using the follow up flag in Outlook) the emails that you want to work on today.
- Sort your Inbox by the flag/follow-up column so that flagged items will now appear at the top.
Why do I keep all emails for the week (instead of the day) in the Inbox?
Because I can get a quick overview of what I need to work on in the near future by simply glancing at the Inbox…plus it makes the system easier to use if I only need to look at unurgent emails once a week.
Habit #1: Daily Review
You will need to do the following each time you get new emails in your Inbox.
Either delete or file emails that no longer need your attention. Once you complete this your Inbox will only have emails that still need your attention.
Move emails that you will not be working on this week into the Later folder.
Flag any emails that you will be working on today (and unflag any emails that you have changed your mind about).
Habit #2: Weekly Review
At the start of every week, go to your Later folder and move any emails that you plan to work on this week back into your Inbox.
That’s you new Clean Inbox but…
Probably the biggest problem with this system is the need to manually move emails back into your Inbox.
It is easy to forget about the emails that have been moved to the Later folder and as a result miss out on opportunities (and annoy customers) because of tasks being left undone.
You can solve this problem with a simple bit of automation that eliminates Habit #2
eeminders for Outlook addin installs inside Microsoft Outlook and adds a button to the Outlook ribbon for you. Now when you process the emails in your Inbox, you can tell it when you plan to work on an email.
The email will be moved out of the Inbox to the eeminders folder…. and then automatically (magically) returned to the Inbox at the date and time of your choosing.
Don’t worry. Your emails are safely inside your Outlook. You can go to the eeminders folder at any time if you need to “reschedule” an email.
(If you are also looking for a folder based solution for email filing, then we recommend QuickFile Pro for Outlook which has eeminders intergrated in it. Make sure you select the Pro version)
This simple system (ONE FOLDER and 2 HABITS) will unclutter your Inbox and help you get the right things done by removing (currently) unimportant emails that may distract you.
Instead of hundreds of emails, your Inbox will now show you only what you need to work on this week, with the most important emails at the top.
This system does NOT require anything extra. All you need is Outlook.
The only downside is that it requires some discipline in moving emails back to the Inbox again on a weekly basis.
As a result we have also recommended eeminders for Outlook, an addin that can automatically move emails our of your Inbox and then back again on the dates that you plan to work on them.
Eeminders is very reasonably priced and most users will find that it pays for itself within a month at the most.
In this post I look at the two main ways of organizing emails… Folders and Tags. We will look at the advantages and disadvantages of each one so that you can decide which one works best for you.
We will also look at a couple of Outlook addins that you can use for each style of email management if you don’t want to do it all manually.
But before that…
What do we need from any email organization system?
Irrespective of the way we organize our emails, this is what we need.
1. We want to easily see which emails still need our attention.
2. We want to file away emails that we have finished with but need to refer to in the future. Ideally sent and received emails for a project/client etc should be in the same place so you can see them all together.
3. We want to quickly find and retrieve any one filed email or a group of filed emails.
4. We want to do all this without wasting our day shuffling emails around.
Organizing emails either in Folders or with Tags can meet 3 of the above requirements and you can use the addins that we mention below to do it to meet the last requirement.
Let’s look at each of the two methods now…
Method #1: Emails and Folders
The first way of filing that most people use in Outlook is Folders i.e. create folders inside Outlook and then file emails into these folders.
This method works well for most users because most of us are used to folders in the physical world. As a result, this paradigm is easy to understand.
Furthermore, Outlook was designed with folders in mind. It is easy to create folders quickly inside Outlook and then drag and drop emails into them.
Tip: If you have a system of paper folders in the physical world, we recommend that you create a similar folder structure inside Outlook. Having the same structure in both places makes is extremely easy to find emails when you need them.
The problem with folders is that is can be time consuming and error prone to move emails. It is easy to accidentally drop an email into the wrong folder… or to forget to file emails from the Sent Emails folder… and it can be cumbersome to locate folders once you have a lot of folders. Unless…
Automating Folder Filing in Outlook
QuickFile adds a few buttons inside Outlook for you. It recommends folders based on your previous actions. You will be able to file up to 90% of your emails to the correct folder at the click of one button.
It also prompts you (with a recommendation) when you send out emails so that sent emails are automatically filed in the correct folder.
There is a handy Search feature so that you can quickly locate any folder simply by typing a few characters from the folder name.
Users have reported to getting back up to 2 hours each week that was previously lost to email.
Method #2: Tagging Emails
Tagging basically involved tagging (or marking) an email with one or more keywords. The tagged emails can then be moved out of the Inbox to an archive folder.
You can think of tags as being similar to folders… without actually needing to create folders… or you can think of tags as keywords.
You may already have used tags to organize photos (or to organize emails inside Gmail where tags are called labels).
The great thing is that each email can have multiple tags (no more worrying about which folder the email goes into)… and you can easily see all emails with a particular tag when you need to.
Outlook’s built-in search can then be used to find the emails that you have tagged with specific keywords.
The problem with Tags however is that there is no built-in way to do it easily inside Outlook. It is difficult to tag emails and difficult to find them easily later… until now.
Automating Tagging in Outlook
Email Tags for Outlook is a powerful addin that works inside Outlook. It saves time and ensures that emails are tagged correctly by recommending tags (A list of tags is also automatically maintained).
It can automatically move your tagged emails out of your Inbox to an archive folder so that your Inbox only shows you what you still need to work on.
Email Tags can also tag outgoing emails so that they are automatically organized with your received emails.
Best of all it has a powerful search feature to locate your tagged emails later.
How to choose what works best for YOU!
It depends on that nature of your work!
If you are already used to Tags then tagging emails should work well for you, particularly when used with Email Tags for Outlook.
Other people may find Folders easier because it mirrors the concept of folders in the paper world that we have all grown used to.
In our experience Folders work particularly well for people who work with well-defined projects.
We already have thousands of Lawyers, Engineers, Architects etc. using QuickFile for Outlook to save hours of billable time each month that was previously lost managing Outlook email folders.
We hope this post helps you make the right choice to have a more organized and productive Outlook.
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