Taming the email monster – Microsoft Outlook best practices

I receive upwards of 100-150 emails per-day and a lot of people have asked how I manage my inbox.

For email I use Microsoft Outlook 2007 Apple Mail.app and Microsoft Exchange. As much as I complain about Email it is a love/hate relationship.  Email is always the first application I open followed by a web browser.

No real innovation in email in a decade

In my opinion email presents such a great opportunity to innovate and I don’t get why that hasn’t happened.  Microsoft’s Outlook product is ripe for such innovation.

Common Questions

Do you use Clear Context?
No. While I believe it’s intent is to do much of what I prescribe it’s not nearly as aggressive as I like; although I know plenty of people that it works perfectly for.

What about SPAM and unsolicited email?
People are constantly worried about publishing their email address and getting SPAM. While it’s true that you may get more SPAM it doesn’t take a whole lot of work to get your name on a spammers list.

I’ve published my email address publicly now (rhoward@telligent.com) for years. It’s actually something I started doing as an evangelist when I was at Microsoft. I remember lots of my friends and co-workers at Microsoft being shocked that I would publicly give out my email address. Now it’s common practice.

As for getting unsolicited emails, people are pretty respectful of what is appropriate to email.

Email Tips & Tricks

My tips & tricks that I’ve picked up for dealing with lots of email really have all come from other people – I’ve just combined a lot of them together. They are surprisingly straight-forward and simple:

When it comes to managing my inbox I make use of Microsoft Exchange Rules, Folders, and Views extensively.

Tip #1 – Only mail to me shows up in my inbox
I communicate to everyone the I work with that I treat email where I’m on the ‘to:’ line and email where I’m on the ‘cc:’ line completely differently.

If it’s important and you want me to look at it put me on the ‘to:’ line, otherwise I don’t even promise to read it.

My mailbox has a folder called “__cc: Rob Howard” any emails that I am cc:ed on are moved by a rule to this folder. I’ll scan through emails that I’m cc:ed on several times a day but that’s about it.

In other words I’ll scan the subjects, read the ones that look interesting, and then delete everything or move interesting items to my “Sent Items” folder (more on that in a minute).

Only email that is sent directly to: me (and not from a distribution list or other automated source) ends up in my actual inbox. You would be amazed at how much noise this removes.

Tip #2 – An inbox for internal and an inbox for external
I don’t use this as diligently as I used to.  Mainly because I’ve found that good filtering and rules are good enough for controlling what comes into the inbox.  Of course it helps to have an assistant that can look through these emails as well.

Nevertheless, since this was part of the original post I want to share it:

Email that is sent to me from people in our Exchange Global Address List (GAL) and email that is sent to me from people not in the GAL is also treated differently.

If an email is to: me but comes from someone within the Telligent GAL it ends up in my main Inbox. If an email is ‘to:’ me but comes from someone not found in the GAL it goes to a folder called “_Inbox (Customers)“.

Again the idea here is to help prioritize what I’m looking at.

Note, the use of the underscores in front of folders is only to control the sort order.

Tip #3 – A rule for everything else
All other email, whether from an internal list such as our Telligent Product Discussion List, other external email lists such as those from Google, Twitter, Facebook, and just about anything else gets an Exchange rule to send it to a folder.

This keeps the noise from all the various discussion lists that I’m part of out of my inbox.

Keep yourself sane with email rules

I also use an explicit “Delete” rule. Some mail just doesn’t get stopped by Postini or gets flagged as junk. Those get moved by my “Delete” rule directly to the deleted items folder.

Tip #4 – Conversation View
Both Mail.app and Microsoft Outlook have a view option called “Conversation View”.

To enable Conversation View in Microsoft Outlook: right click on the header of the mail grid and select “Customize Current View” and select “Conversation”.

To enable it in Mail.app: select a folder, such as your inbox, and click View and select “Organize by Thread”.

Conversation view organizes threads together. So if a reply comes in for a thread that is already in your inbox you get to see all threads together.  Below is a screen shot from Mail.app that shows a threaded view for an internal discussion about Developer Reviews:

Rather than reading every message separately you can read all the messages together, delete older ones and only keep the most recent (something I do often), or just delete the whole thing.

Tip #5 – Read, Unread, Delete or Archive
Outlook has flags for setting different status information about emails it also supports follow-up notifications. I don’t use any of these. Instead all email exists in one of 4 states:

  • Read – Email that is marked as ‘read’ in my inbox is considered ‘completed’. It will either be moved to an archive or deleted. If I read an email and need to go back an take action on it I leave it’s state ‘unread’.
  • Unread – Email that requires action. Using this I can quickly glance at my inbox unread number at any moment and know that I have new actionable emails.  This is especially useful once you apply the other filtering rules because the unread count only applies to the inbox.
  • Delete – I keep mail for about 3-4 weeks in my “Deleted” folder anything older than that I delete every Monday.
  • Archive – see tip #6.

Tip #6 – Archive and Search
Anything that I send or anything that I want to keep I move to my “Sent Items” folder. Every couple of months I move everything from Sent Items to a backup PST file organized by year (each year gets a new PST file). I’ll even occasionally move other mail that I have read and want to save there too.


7 Comments

  1. Good to know about Rule #2 I will always add you at the TO line instead of the cc ;-)

  2. Rob

    Nice article… I have a similar list of things that matter to me

    http://www.ssw.com.au/…/RulesToBetterEm

    Adam

  3. Jeff Green

    I have some of the same rules, but what would be nice is for Outlook to give you an option to delete all but the latest entry of the conversation. Any suggestions?

  4. I’m looking for advice on the archiving you describe here. I’m doing the same thing (saving each year’s data in a PST). Since each of my PST’s is 1-2GB and I now have seven years of archives, I’m wondering if it’s bogging down performance in Outlook 07. Searching is fine but I’m seeing slow start up and often performance hickups that I wonder if it’s related to all the PST’s I’m opening. Any advice?

  5. How’d you do the ‘NOT "Telligent GAL"’ in Rule 2? I’d be interested in knowing that.

  6. I like your ruthless approach, but potentially, the archiving bit can still result in a lot or big PST’s. These have to be on the local PC and thus generally do not get backed up (PC off at night) or on a server – get backed up, but not Microsoft recommended and slow for the client.

    I’m thinking outside the box here – literally – by dragging messages completely outside of outlook. For a lot of company’s, most of their work has a job or client related folder structure on their server. Related messages can be dragged out of Outlook to their respective folders on the server. That way, you keep a small mailbox, you don’t have the worry of where to put the PST, any one who looks at the ‘job’ can also access all the related correspondence, it all gets backed up and finally when the job or client is finished with and the data is archived off the server, all the mail goes with it. How about that?

  7. Thanks. Great advice, and quite practical. I had never used ‘conversation’ grouping, but will in the future!