Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An Email Organization Scheme for Outlook 2007: How I Efficiently Triage Email

I process a lot of email. (Beautiful pixels take a lot of email to make these days.)

Many emails are in conversation threads. Some emails are very important, and must be responded to, while others I can soak up when I have time or choose to skip over.

I'll discuss the system I use in Microsoft Outlook 2007.

Here's what it looks like:

The mechanics of it:
  • I leave email marked Unread until I explicitly mark it read (CTRL-Q)
    • I turn off automatic marking as read (Menu: Tools: Options: Other Tab: Reading Pane...)
  • I flag message for Follow Up (with times, e.g. Today, Tomorrow, Next Week, or a specific date).
  • I read email from the "Unread or For Follow Up" folder.
    • (You'll find this under your Mailbox tree, in "Search Folders")
    • This displays all messages not yet read, or flagged for follow up.
  • I use a custom view:
    • Make a a new view by copying one and making changes
      • Menu: View: Current View: Define: Copy "Messages with Auto Preview"
    • Group By...
      • (set "Select available fields from" to "All Mail fields")
      • Start Date (Ascending)
      • Importance (Descending)
      • In Folder (Ascending)
      • Conversation (Ascending)
    • Sort...
      • (set "Select available fields from" to "All Document fields")
      • Category (Ascending)
      • Received (Ascending)
      • (say "No" when closing window and asked if you want to show Category field)
    • Other Settings
      • Auto Preview: Preview unread items
      • Reading Pane: Right
    • Automatic Formatting...
      • Only Me
        • Condition: Where I am "the only person on the To line"
        • Font: Underline
  • I make important email folders "Favorites"
  • Our teams use many public folders, and I make them favorite folders for the ones I track
    • (You must make the public folder a favorite public folder, then a favorite email folder)
  • I use several rules to presort items
    • Route emails to topic specific folders whenever possible
      • e.g. sales staff, partner companies, email lists
    • Flag items for follow up later
      • e.g. items I need to review weekly are flagged "next week"
      • Delete means "trash it, I don't need it any more, but just in case keep ~6 months of deleted items"
    • I purge deleted items manually
  • My Inbox means "I haven't bothered to sort this", and accumulates lots of email
    • I don't read out of the inbox, so it doesn't matter much if it builds up
    • I do periodically move everything in the inbox to a folder "_save-generic"

Now, how do I use this?
  • Emails arrive and I triage them.
    • I select the "Unread or For Follow Up" folder.
    • I hit the Home key to get to the top.
    • I scan over the large pile of unread messages, and first at a quick glance:
      • Delete anything obviously not important.
      • Move to Folder anything that should be sorted
        • This greatly improves grouping of items in this "Unread or For Follow Up" view, beyond just filing things away for later.
        • I use the toolbar icon which remembers the most recent folders I've put things into.
      • Mark as read (CTRL Q) anything trivial I can ignore .
      • Flag for follow up anything substantial I can't handle right now.
        • Tomorrow, this week, next week, or a specific calendar day if needed..
      • Anything remaining I need to handle right now.
        • I flag these by just clicking on the "flag", which is effectively "Today".
      • My email I should handle is now all sorted by a follow up date.
      • I hit F5 to refresh the view - hiding all messages marked Read and with no flag.
  • After triage, emails are displayed in groups sorted by the time frame I need to review them.
    • I read emails, and after doing so mark them as read, leaving them flagged if I still need follow up.
    • As emails are dealt with, I delete them if appropriate, or click their flag to mark them as complete (which removes them from this list).
    • I can easily push items futher away in time if I'm getting backed up, or "read ahead" if I'm ahead of things

The major benefits:
  • I can easily push items into the future and not deal with them right now - they'll come back to my view at an appropriate time.
  • Long conversations are all grouped together, automatically. And they can easily be hidden/rolled up from the view.
  • I can easily sort several emails into folders, which groups them together in my view. Thus related emails can be grouped together, even when they have unrelated subjects lines.
  • Public folders allow me to go to that topic at an appropriate frequency (every few hours, daily, weekly), and making them favorite favorites makes them easy to see.
  • New High Importance emails are at the top of the list, while ones I've look at can be pushed down for later.
  • Emails will never "fall through the cracks".

The shock to new users:
  • The email view is padded out vertically quite a bit.
    • True, but the sorting and grouping benefits are worth it when you're tracking dozens to hundreds of emails.
    • You get used to it pretty quickly.
    • For select folders I use a different view that has 1 email per line. You can always toggle 2 views for your need.
  • Explicitly marking all emails as read is a pain.
    • Multi-select and marking entire conversations read at a time helps.
    • This is what keeps emails from falling through the cracks.

- thanks technabob.com for the cc image of the hamster shredder.


  1. did you run that outlook screen cap through the PixelatedMartiniRoller filter? :P

  2. I have a far simpler email triage strategy:

    (1) Write code for a platform with a slow compiler.
    (2) Read all email while compiling.

    ...maybe you just need to write code more often. ;)

  3. FYI, you might want to blur that screenshot a little better. I can read every word of it, including phone numbers, just by squinting.