Re-thinking my emails concl’d

… starting from the point where the story stopped.

Figuring out my categories was not an easy feat (and I am still adding to the list), but there were more difficulties still to be solved, before to benefit from a fully automated workflow.

Order matters!

There’s no way to change the order on category list so the more common ones are at the top. Microsoft locks you into alphabetical order (yes even in Outlook 2013). The workaround is to use a trick that been around since the days of DOS, put an underscore, dot or some other characters before the text, so it appears at the top of the list.Office Watch

It was quite simple to understand that, if you add the categories manually, the first you add will end up last (i.e., on the right), the second in the middle (duh), and the third will be first (i.e., on the left). It would not be a problem to remember this kind of gymnastics; still, what if the categories were to be added automatically? I had to come up with a solution that 1) would add my three categories (see Re-thinking my emails cont’d) always in the same order (i.e., What, Extra info, and When) and 2) would list the When ones in a meaningful order (i.e., NOW, Today, ASAP, Later).

Similar to the other settings, I had to experiment for a while (starting with the recommended workarounds that did not work, obviously) before coming up with an effective system.

‘ What
_ Extra info
< NOW
< Today
> ASAP
> Later

It goes without saying that ‘ What should be understood as ‘ To Do, ‘To Read, ‘To Reply… (see Re-thinking my emails cont’d). The order within this category doesn’t matter; it will be alphabetically. The same applies to the _ Extra info by the way. But, as I mentioned earlier, it was important for me to have the When category ordered in a specific way.

“But what about the order they are listed in the Categorize drop-down?”
“Oh, that! I ignored it completely. First, there are only 15 there (or fewer depending on your Outlook version). Second, Outlook automatically displays the most recently used here, so there is no point trying to mess up with this.”

Colors – is this important?

Outlook Categories is a feature offered by Microsoft Outlook that lets users visually organize or color code messages in their inbox for better organization and easier retrieval.James

Exactly, their main purpose – at least in my system – is to help me decide what to do with an email (see Re-thinking my emails cont’d) while going through my triage folders (i.e., Action Required, Read Later, and Waiting For). In other words, I need them to be color-coded and; hence, easily visually identified.

“So, how did I pick my colors?”

There are (only) 25 colors to choose from and as you can imagine, I have (or will have soon) more categories than available colors. Now, given the determined position – I know that the first relates to When, the second to Extra info, and the last to What – I could have easily doubled my possibilities.

Instead, I chose 1) to reserve 4 meaningful colors for the When, 2) to use the so-called “dark” colors for the What, and 3) to keep the remaining (more) flashy colors for the Extra info. I have also decided not to overdo the categorization (the Extra info, in particular).

Although there is no limit to the number of categories, too many can pose a problem. You end up getting an unwieldy category list and tend to overthink things.Anne Hennegar

At some point, I thought of using additional categories for my GTD contexts; not the actual contexts, but the areas. As explained in My OneNote GTD setup 2.0, Taking advantage of the three colors of the OneNote tags – blue, yellow, and green – I divided my contexts into three areas: Work, CogitActive, and Life, respectively. Although it did not make much sense to use them for my emails, as an Extra info category, I needed them (at least) for my calendar. Three colors less!

To sum up, I have 4 colors for my When, 8 dark colors for my What, and 3 colors for my GTD areas; leaving me with 10 for my Extra info. That is a total of 25 colors – perfect!

Automated as much as possible

You might not have time to move emails from your inbox to other folders or apply categories manually. In that case, creating rules is the best way to organize Outlook emails. Once you create a rule, it will run on every new email in your inbox.HubSpot

Let me explain. In the past (I have removed it now), I had a category called “PubMed” for the weekly emails with newly published work on schizophrenia and other topics (see Re-thinking my emails cont’d). Those emails were (and still are) automatically sorted (based on the sender) to the PubMed folder in my Archives, so having a category PubMed was a pointless duplicate. On the other hand, I received (too many) notifications from LinkedIn (probably because I don’t have the time to log in). While I could have Outlook sorting them to a LinkedIn folder, the better approach was to 1) have them move to my Action Required folder and 2) categorize them as ‘ To browse + _ LinkedIn + > Later. Here, the Extra info _ LinkedIn category makes sense.

Rules

Both! For some reasons that I could not comprehend, some emails (e.g., not all the emails from LinkedIn) were not being handled by the rule and were staying in the original inbox without categories applied to them either. So, I decided to apply the same rule (as applied to the original inbox) to the unified inbox. For this to work, I also had to remove the exception (stipulating not to include these emails) from the rule created to transfer all my emails to the unified inbox (see Re-thinking my emails cont’d). Even though rules are applied in the order they are ranked, without this exception, I was having duplicates indeed (e.g., for the emails that should be moved to the PubMed archive). Unfortunately, despite all my efforts, some emails still slip through the cracks. I found a (two actually) solution here. Specifically, instead of using the “from sender” option (with LinkedIn), I used the “with specified words in sender’s address” option (with @linkedin.com).

To sum up, as soon as something becomes recurrent, such as notifications from LinkedIn, I create a new rule to handle it automatically – i.e., to sort it to the proper triage folder (and apply categories if necessary). I still have to process the emails afterward – for example, to browse them (in the case of LinkedIn notification emails) “later” – and this is where the categories become so handy. As for my Extra info categories, they are, like my rules, created as needed.

One last word about applying rules. You may experience some hiccups but do not give up. After a few trials and errors, you should manage to accomplish what you want. The gain of productivity is worth the time invested.

Quick steps

For instance, when I receive an email with a promotion code, if I were to apply a rule that would categorize it as ‘To delete (when done) + _ Coupon + > ASAP and send it to the Action Required, I might not see it immediately and miss the sales opportunity. Here, instead of using rules, I have created a Coupon Quick Step which categorizes the email the same way as the rule would have done (and moved it to the Action Required folder as well), except that, like this, I see what the email is about! Moreover, I might not care about the offer at all and trash the email immediately instead.

For info, to rearrange the order in which the Quick steps are displayed in the Home tab, go to Manage quick steps and select the up or down arrows of the Quick step you’d like to move.

Flags and reminders

Flags make it easier to find and track email messages in Outlook. You can flag messages for yourself, as visual reminders to take action later. You can also flag messages that you send to other people, to direct their attention or track their responses.Microsoft

I did not mention flags – aka Follow Up – in my initial post about Outlook tools; this was a mistake. This feature is definitively more useful than having a deadline category. Indeed, you can add a flag that automatically reminds you of the message for the time you select. This is particularly useful for the emails in the Waiting For folder, but also for the time-sensitive ones (those with a deadline, in particular) in the Action Required folder.

You can select one of the default options – Today, Tomorrow, This Week, Next Week, or No Date – or select the Custom… button to choose a start and end date. More importantly, you can set flags with reminders, so that you receive a pop-up reminder (similar to your appointment reminders) for that message on the specified date.

As with tasks, categories, and other Email features, it is best to use follow-up flags selectively and not overuse them, or you start to dilute their use. I also encourage people to experiment with flags and determine how they fit best within your own inbox processing and triage routines.Michael Einstein

Bonus tip

Although my new email workflow is doing well with all incoming emails, I still have my original Inboxes, as well as my previous Archives, loaded with emails unprocessed (or badly referenced in the latter). I have tried to go back in time and process these emails every time I have an extra minute or so (at the end of my email Time Block), but this was not working well. The situation was even worse at work – where I don’t have this unified inbox. Why? Because, as opposed to the unified inbox that I can bring back to zero every single day, my inbox at work still had thousands of old emails in it.

I thought that eventually, I would manage to clean those folders – one email at a time – but not only was I wrong, but it was also affecting my new workflow. It was like if these old emails were acting as magnets (to the new ones); I ended up not processing the new ones anymore. Fortunately, I remembered one of the tips from this video (that I shared with you in a previous post):

By Wendy Neal

GET A FRESH START

When you remove the clutter from your email inbox using inbox zero you can easily see when new incoming emails come in that require your attention. You are much less likely to lose important communications in a sea of emails with an empty inbox, and you can keep your inbox better organized with this method.Catherine Heath
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