Re-thinking my emails cont’d

… starting from the point where the story stopped.

After going through the most important tools to keep Outlook organized, and solving some mysteries, I was ready to set up my email workflow. Was I? Really? To be honest, it took me months of trial and error to figure out a workflow that works for me (and I am still experimenting).

No quota warnings anymore

The solution presented itself when I unraveled the mystery of “My Outlook Organizers” account (see Re-thinking my emails). To deal with the Outlook IMAP (“This Computer Only”) issue – the shortcoming of not being able to back up such an account, in particular – I created a new Outlook Data File.pst that I set up as default. All my Contacts, Calendar, Tasks, and Notes items are there, but until now I had not used the email part of this account; the Inbox folder, in particular.

Moving all my incoming emails (from all my IMAP email accounts) from their respective inbox folders to the inbox of what I called “My Outlook Organizers” was a no-brainer. The latter being stored on my computer only, space is no longer an issue! To do this, I simply set up a new rule (for each account) that I added at the end of my existing list(s) 1. Remember, rules are applied to incoming messages based on the order they are in within the Inbox rules list.

Even though Outlook doesn’t have a built-in unified inbox solution, there are a couple of ways to combine and view emails from multiple email accounts in one place. [An] effective method is to use the Rules feature and manually create a Unified Inbox folder where all your emails from multiple accounts would be sent to. You’d just need to set specific rules for each inbox to ensure that all the emails you want to appear in the Unified Inbox folder actually end up there.Helga Zabalkanska

In doing so, I also dealt with another limitation with IMAP accounts: the IMAP protocol doesn’t support the Category properties on messages. There are workarounds you can use to access them (see below), but categories do not sync to the IMAP server, so they will only be visible in Outlook desktop.

I however had to find a (new) way to delete the emails I didn’t want to keep. Using the Delete button (or Ctrl + D shortcut) would move these items to the Deleted Items folders of the current account and I didn’t want to have deleted emails there (but only the deleted tasks, notes, or other similar items). I indeed keep the latter indefinitely but I do purge my deleted emails regularly.

If you want to bypass the Deleted Items folder and permanently delete a message, press Shift+Delete or Shift+Delete icon. You won’t have an opportunity to change your mind later and recover the message.

I first thought of deleting these emails permanently. However, I like to keep my deleted emails around for a couple of weeks (before emptying the Deleted Items folder) – just in case. Here, the Quick Steps feature turned out handy. I simply created a new one, called “Delete”, which moves the item I want to delete to the Deleted Items folder of their original email account.

Categories with IMAP workaround

For better or worse, categories aren’t available via the interface for existing messages–and that’s a problem because that’s where this feature’s real power lies.Susan Harkins

Despite the absence of the Categorize button in the Tags tab of the ribbon (in IMAP accounts), I was able to assign one category to each email using the Shortcut Key feature. When you set up a new category, you can indeed choose to give that category a keyboard shortcut. If you decide to, you have a total of 11 options – from CTRL+F2 to CTRL+F12 – to choose from. Unfortunately, given my keyboard configuration, I only had one possibility: CRL+F7. I decided to use it for my “Ads” category (back then); not the one that I would trash immediately, but those promotional coupons that I was keeping until the end of their validity. The trick here is that after assigning one category to an existing message, you can right-click it in the message window to modify it and/or assign others. It’s a lot of steps, but it was working…

By slipstickcom

sort of! You have to open the message for this trick to work; the right-click will not do anything on the Mail Navigation Pane or the Reading Pane. And, in doing so, you may end up with this error message when you close the message:

This item cannot be saved because it was changed by another user or in another window. Do you want to make a copy in the default folder for this item?

To solve this problem, I’ve tried these steps (a solution proposed by JFH333):

  • Click No on the popup.
  • Click the X in the top-right corner to close the email.
  • Click No when prompted to save the email.
  • Open the same email again.
  • Download the pictures again.
  • Click the icon in the top-left corner again to save the email.

After inquiring about what could be the culprit, I understood that the change in question was about the status of the message: Unread/Read. My first idea was to stop Outlook from automatically marking emails as read. The problem is that when you open the email it will be marked as read anyway. Duh! So, I ended up doing the opposite by setting Wait 0 seconds before marking item as read. You can find this option in View > Layout > Reading Pane > Options…

Whatever! It doesn’t matter anymore thanks to my unified inbox solution.

Folders vs. categories

Until now was using (sub-)folders only in my Archive folders (to organize the emails I wanted to keep) and categories to label each email I was receiving based on the sender (e.g., friend, networking, etc.) and/or the topic of that email (e.g., Bills, Registrations, etc.). Of note, I also had categories for my calendar items (e.g. work, CogitActive, Micro-entrepreneur, etc.). This was not the best approach.

[Folders and Categories] can actually be combined to enhance your email experience even further, providing both an instant way to recognize every email in your inbox and a convenient sorting method that helps keep your inbox clean and uncluttered.Helga Zabalkanska

The idea of using folders and categories together sounds appealing, but how to put theory into practice? I did struggle a bit with that one, but the solution key was to consider the emails and the archived emails separately.

My email account (i.e., Inbox and Sent Items)

The best way to organize Outlook folders is to create folders that help you move through messages quickly. When deciding how to organize email in Outlook, you may want to create filing places for “Follow Up,” “To-Do,” and “Read Later.” You may add a couple of other folders as well, but the point is to sort messages so you can quickly go through several messages that all need the same thing at once.Megan Glosson

In keeping with the Getting Things Done methodology, I have created two new sub-folders under Inbox – namely, Action Required and Read Later – and one under Sent items – namely Waiting For. Importantly, for these three sub-folders, I sorted the emails from oldest to newest (to deal with the overdue items first). Unfortunately, Outlook keeps opening the most recent email (i.e., the one at the very bottom) each time I open these folders.

As you may have already guessed, I added these three new folders, as well as the aforementioned unified inbox, to Favorites. Located at the top of the folder pane, they are now always visible; allowing me to minimize all the email accounts I have and finally see my Archives without scrolling down.

In addition to modifying my folder structure, I have also entirely revised my use of categories to better conduct email triage (see below).

My Archives

I used to have separate archive folders for Received emails (or Archive Inbox) and Sent Emails (or Archive Outbox), each further split into Personal, Professional, Records, and Miscellaneous. This was a disaster when it came to searching for an email. Was I the last to reply to that conversation? Or is the email in the Archive Inbox instead?

That being said, I have some sub-folders for some very specific topics. For instance, I have mentioned earlier 1 that every week I receive emails with newly published work on schizophrenia, among other topics, and that these emails (one per topic of interest) are automatically sorted to my PubMed sub-folder in Archives. In keeping with this idea, I have created (and will add to the list according to my needs) other subfolders for recurring topics (be it a newsletter that I want to keep, emails from a specific sender, or emails belonging to a project).

Of course, the category feature (together with the search function) is the perfect tool to find quickly and reference specific emails. More on this later.

If you find yourself constantly searching for certain types of emails, it might be helpful to create a folder for them. For example, if you frequently need to reference order confirmation emails, you could create a folder called “Orders” and file all of your order confirmation emails away in that folder. On the other hand, if you only occasionally need to reference an email, labeling it might be a better solution. […] In general, using both labels and folders can help to keep your inbox organized and make it easier to find specific emails when you need them.Skiff


My initial use of categories was probably the worst approach possible. But, how to improve it? What categories to use? How many categories should I have?

Before creating and assigning categories, you might think about your structure. How do you want to classify items (people, places, projects, and so on)?Anne Hennegar

Some recommend using categories to sort emails by priority. So, I first thought of using the Eisenhower Matrix approach with the following categories: important & urgent, important, urgent, and neither. However, I discarded this approach quickly; yet, I kept the idea of providing some information about the time dependency of the emails. Other common categories could include projects, type (e.g., Appointments, Purchase confirmations), people, or status (e.g., Completed, Pending). Neither sounds satisfactory.

I also thought of using my GTD contexts (see My OneNote GTD setup 2.0), but I only deal with my emails in a specific context, so it was pointless. In the same line, I have tried categories for the time required and the energy level (to process the emails). But as I did for the priority level (see above), I rejected this approach too.

Good email categories are those that help you streamline your email management and find the information you need quickly. […] The key is to create categories that reflect your workflow and help you manage your emails effectively.James

That was it! I need categories that complement my new folder workflow (see above). Once an email is in the Action Required folder, for instance, what should I need to know about it?

What should I do with it?

When should this be done?

Maybe I could also provide some extra info about the email; something useful now, but also later if I decide to keep it (i.e., archive it).

Three info. So be it. You shall be the Categories of my emails!

Three types of categories

I could have less or more, indeed. Less would not have been a problem; yet, I would not have enough info to know what to do with that email. More sounds appealing; the more the merrier, right? Except that three is the limit!

“Wait! There is no limit to how many categories you can have in Outlook.”
“Yes, but you can only see up to three in the Mail Navigation Pane.”

Which ones?

I thought the When would be the easiest. How wrong! First, I was mixing up Urgency with Importance, aka Priority, and this was going nowhere. Then, I could not find a good number of categories; I was adding some more, then removing them, putting them back… I even reconsidered the possibility of using folders instead. Finding the good ones was another story 2; still, I finally settled on these four categories:

  • NOW
  • Today
  • ASAP
  • Later

in that order of urgency. The NOW category is for these emails that need to be dealt with immediately (i.e., immediately after finishing my triage). The Today category is self-explanatory. The ASAP is for the items that are time-sensitive, but not as urgent as those in the previous two categories. The Later category is for all the other emails.

Note: do not try the “Tomorrow” category; you will never do these items. This reminds me of an episode from a sitcom of the 90s (I don’t recall which one, but it doesn’t matter). The character wanted to date a girl and put a spell on her: “You will accept to date with me tomorrow!” The following day, he asked her to go on a date and she was agreeing to date him “TOMORROW”. He asked every day, but never had his date…

The What category is to know what to do with that email; it’s also a good way to group the emails that will need the same action together. The list is growing based on my needs, but examples are as follows: To Reply, To Do, To Delete (when done); To Browse, To Follow Up, To Watch, To Read, To Review…

The Extra info category is nothing but a keyword. It can be something useful to help me deal with that email while “active” or find it (later) when (and if) it will be moved to the Archives. For instance, I have one called “LinkedIn” for all the notifications I receive from this social media. I can go through them all (once per week at best) in one shot (i.e., logging in only once). Another one is “Coupon”, which replaces the former “Ads” one. It is the perfect example for the action “To delete (when done)” that I mentioned earlier. In that case, the “when done” should be understood as when it expired.

To be continued…

1 I had rules already (before to start this re-thinking). Most were applying categories to incoming emails (mainly based on the sender’s belonging; e.g., friend, co-worker…), but one was already transferring some emails directly to my Archive (to a dedicated folder). Every week I indeed receive a summary of all the newly published work on schizophrenia, among other topics, for me to stay up-to-date. Those emails were automatically sorted to the appropriate folder. They were also categorized, but I have now removed this action because it was redundant with the name of the folder to which they were sent. ^
2 I have tried many approaches (e.g., “Emergency”, “Urgent”, “Timely”, and “No Rush” vs. “Today”, “Tomorrow”, “This Week”, and “This Month”). I also thought of having a “Deadline” category. But if you trust your GTD system, you should not miss deadlines, right!? ^

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