Organizing Your Email in Microsoft Outlook

If you have an empty email inbox, you can stop reading this post… Outlook email

Still here? OK, then you are probably among the millions of professionals struggling to find a way to efficiently store your emails in a logical (and reference-able) place.

And if you’re like the majority of users, you’ve tried to recreate a digital version of a filing cabinet – similar to the way offices have managed their files for the last two centuries.

The result? More often than not, you spend countless minutes looking through those folders for the email you need – not to mention the two thousand messages still in your inbox that don’t fit neatly into any one folder.

And now your inbox barely functions…

Don’t feel bad – you’re not alone. While folders in Outlook were designed to group related messages together, they have several issues that make them a challenging organizational tool.

  1. For every folder you create, it becomes harder to access every other folder. The longer, and more varied your folder tree, the more difficult it becomes to simply identify the folder you want.
  2. Folders are specific to a given topic or project. Emails are often ambiguous though, meaning you have to choose which folder best fits a given e-mail. If you have one folder for expenses, and another folder for your e-mails from your manager, what do you do when you’re manager sends you an updated expense report?
  3. Most importantly – the choice you make on where to store a message means when it’s time to find the message again, you have to remember where you stored it. Sometimes the way you think about (and look for) the message today is different than how you thought of (and stored) the message a month ago.

So, if folders kinda suck for email management, what’s the alternative?

Step One: Clear the Slate

The inbox is like the Grand Central Station of Outlook. All new emails arrive there first. Regardless of what organizational approach you try to adopt, trying to apply new techniques retroactively to hundreds of old messages in your inbox is a recipe for failure.

Clear the slate, and start fresh.

This doesn’t mean declaring email bankruptcy and deleting all your current e-mails or closing your email account – though I’m also a proponent of that tactic under certain circumstances.

An easier way to start over is to simply empty your inbox. Make a folder (just this once) and call it Unprocessed Messages (or something to that effect).

Then, simply move all the messages in your inbox into that folder. Hint – Click on any individual message, and use the CTRL+A keyboard shortcut to select all your messages. Then just drag and drop them into the new folder.

Let’s be clear -- this won’t solve your organizational problems, but it won’t make them any worse either. Most importantly, you’ll get back control of your inbox, and have a clean slate to build a manageable system.

The Search Folder Experience

Emails have a variety of attributes; subject, sender, date received, attachment, importance – not to mention keywords. We can search our email by these attributes to find messages instead of using folders.

In addition, you can use categories in Outlook to tag your emails, much like Google tags webpages for search. Using this approach, a simple category search can give you the same results as a folder would. Yet because any one message can be tagged in multiple categories, it will show up in various searches – thereby making your messages much easier to find.

And this is where it gets cool --

Outlook’s Search Folders, located at the bottom of your folder tree, are not locations like other folders. Nothing “lives” in a search folder. Rather, they are a saved search that will always show all the messages that meet the specified search criteria. They will automatically include any new messages that meet this criterion – without you having to drag the email messages around manually.

The big advantage here is that any one message can appear in multiple search folders, and will still “live” in its original location (i.e. the inbox, or better yet a “processed messages” folder).

This means you can find the same one message from many directions, a key tenant to good organization.

To make a new search folder, simply right click and choose “new search folder” then identify the criteria you are searching for and name the folder. Outlook offers some predefined criteria, along with the option to create a customized search folder.

Some good examples of Search Folder criteria include:

  • All messages from my boss or manager
  • All messages with Attachments
  • All messages with “Project XYZ” in them
  • Any internal message received in the last 7 days (this folder will update automatically).

Remember – Outlook was designed to be your friend. Work with it, and it will reward you tenfold!

Hopefully these tips bring you a bit closer to having a clean, organized and effective email inbox in 2012.


Alex Mozes is the Director of Training for Learn iT! He manages the Desktop Instruction team and is responsible for all course content and development. His areas of expertise include all levels of Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, Project, OneNote, Act!, Salesforce, MS Office, Time Management and Business Writing. He’s also reads more SF Giants blogs than anyone else here at Learn iT! (even in the offseason), and keeps the rest of us informed of any relevant updates.