Re-thinking my emails

On a new email account, you’ll want to keep your inbox organized to prevent a mess of unread emails, spam, and sponsored promotions. We encourage spending time early in your setup process to figure out a workflow that works best for your use case.Skiff

Of course, I didn’t know that when I created my first email address back in 1996. Fast forward to the present time and, despite my many attempts, I didn’t yet figure out a workflow to keep my e-mails organized. Granted I was deleting and/or archiving them (with some sort of organization), but since that fateful summer of 2020, I have been overwhelmed (and never managed to catch up). My inboxes – as explained elsewhere, I have had five mailboxes not so long ago 1 – are now overloaded (I am receiving quota warnings daily); not to mention that many of those emails have never been read! It is time to tackle this Augean task.

When I started reading David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, I thought I would be able to handle these dozens of potentially important e-mails amid [my] hundreds (or even thousands) still not dealt with. However, the idea (in GTD) is to get those in-trays and e-mail systems empty without necessarily having to do the work now; there is nothing about how to organize your mailbox.

The in-tray, especially for paper and e-mail, is the best that many people can do in terms of organization—at least they know that somewhere in there is a reminder of something they still have to do. Unfortunately, that safety net is lost when the piles get out of control or the inventory of e-mails gets too extensive to be viewed on one screen.David Allen

If I want to reach Inbox Zero 2, I need first to figure out how to process my emails easily and rapidly to return my inbox to zero every single time. I also need a better organizational system to archive the one I want/need to keep. I have to take back control.

Prologue

It is worth mentioning, before starting, that I am using Outlook to manage my emails – both at home and at work. Not the Outlook web version nor the mobile app, but the one coming with Microsoft Office 2013 (at home). So, what will come next might not apply to your situation.

That being said, my Outlook (at home) was not looking like any other Outlook 2013 version (nor the one I have at work). There was something more than my email accounts, something I could not understand, something called “My Outlook Organizers.” It took me a while to figure out what it was, but now (during the preparation of this post) I realized its importance; hence, this prologue.

When I set up my computer (a long time ago – this is why I could not remember what I did back then), I had to deal with only two email addresses: an old one and my current personal account. Setting them up in Outlook was not a problem, but when I wanted to set up a backup for my computer, I encountered a problem… with one of them! Not with my old account, still using the Post Office Protocol (POP) protocol, but with the other one that was running on the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) system.

Beginning with Outlook 2013, there are changes in how IMAP accounts are handled. Instead of using two data files, one for IMAP email and one for your calendar and contacts, Outlook 2013 uses an .ost file for IMAP accounts and stores appointments, tasks, contacts, and notes in the IMAP data file, in folders labeled “(This computer only)”.Diane Poremsky

IMAP and “This computer only”

Unlike POP protocol, IMAP uses two-way synchronization. Any changes you make to the emails will be synced to the mail server, thus allowing you to access everything on different devices. Everything but “This Computer Only” folders, which are not synced with the server; they are local only, hence the label.

However, as explained by Diane Poremsky – a Microsoft Outlook Most Valuable Professional – it’s really not in most user’s best interest to use the IMAP .ost file for calendars and contacts. Indeed, you can’t backup the .ost and easily recover the appointments and contacts from it. You need to export the folders on a regular basis to back them up. Moreover, you also won’t be able to set a range of flags and reminders or use Categories on the items stored in the IMAP .ost file.

Besides, It’s not recommended to keep data in “This Computer Only” folders because if Outlook can’t find/open the .ost file, it will create a new one and sync the email folders with the server. The ‘This Computer Only’ folders will be empty (hence data is lost).

Importantly, this not only applies to Contacts and Calendar folders but to all folders which are marked with “This computer only”, including Tasks, Notes, and Journal folders.

If you decide to make backup copies of your IMAP ost-file, note that this only can be used on that computer with that specific mail account in that specific mail profile. If you were to back up your ost-file and think that you can restore it after recreating your mail account or mail profile, you sadly are mistaken and just lost your local data.Robert Sparnaaij

There are many solutions to eliminate the Outlook IMAP (“This Computer Only”) issue, but I assumed I opted for this one (back then):

By contactgenie

So, now that I know what is this “My Outlook Organizers” account – and how important it is for my backup – I need to use it (instead of leaving it unused, as I did until now, or even worse deleting it, as I ill-advisedly considered).

How to organize emails in Outlook

Inbox zero might be the elusive goal, but it can seem nearly impossible to get there with thousands of previous emails clogging up your inbox. In order to create some calm out of the chaos, you need to learn how to organize emails in Outlook.Danielle Zunenshine

Folders vs. categories

One way to organize your emails in Outlook is to move them to specific folders. Like physical folders, email folders contain email messages; they are digital filing systems that let you drop messages into them so you can easily locate them and deal with them later. There are several default folders, such as Drafts, Sent Items, Deleted Items, etc., but you can create personal folders. Importantly, they can be nested (in sub-folders).

You can also organize emails (within a specific folder) using Outlook categories. Categories, also known as tags or labels in other email clients, let you assign colors to certain messages, so they stand out in your inbox, and so you can quickly group and view all the messages assigned to a category. There are 25 colors to choose from, but you can also decide to leave it ‘blank’. As opposed to folders (and labels in Gmail), they do not allow sub-categories. However, multiple categories can be applied to an email message. Interestingly, they can be applied to many Outlook items (beyond emails).

Folders are a way to organize how you store your emails, while categories are a way to organize emails visually in your inbox using color codes.

“Given these premises, which one should I use?”

Folders provide a more traditional method of organization, where each item can only be in one folder at a time. The problem is that if you make your folders too general, you still have a lot of emails to sort through. If you make your folders highly specific, your folder lists can get quite long. Not to mention the wasted time to figure out in which folder an email should go. A major limitation of this type of email organization is that an email may fit into multiple folders.

Categories are a more flexible and faster alternative to having separate Outlook folders for different topics or subjects. Unlike separate folders, you can have the same email or item in different categories.Office Watch

Indeed, categories not only allow you to scan your inbox (to decide what to do with each message), but they also make it easier to find the messages you need (by using the search function). So, categories can help you organize your emails with the utmost efficiency. There is a big problem, though! Outlook connecting to a mailbox with IMAP doesn’t support categories. Indeed, the Categorize icon is only available for users using a POP or Exchange email setup. If you use an IMAP setup this option isn’t available.

Rules

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

Outlook allows you to set rules about how emails that meet set criteria should be handled. Rules are almost infinitely customizable. There are a variety of options you can set for each type of rule you create. Specifically, you can create any custom rule based on a condition, apply a specific action, and even create exceptions for the rule. Once a condition is met, Outlook will perform the action without prompting or intervention from the user.

Create your folders and categories and then add automation to automatically file certain emails into their homes.

Outlook rules are a great way to stay on top of your emails – they can set up your inbox so it organizes itself!Nitzan Solomon

Importantly, rules are applied to incoming messages based on the order they are in within the Inbox rules list. You can arrange the order in which the rules you create are applied to messages coming into your inbox. Unfortunately, you can’t run inbox rules on existing messages. A new rule is applied only to messages you receive after the rule was created. Another limitation is that Outlook rules will only run on emails in your inbox, not other folders.

Quick steps

What would you say if instead of tedious multi-step processes you could accomplish your email routines with a button click? It is what Outlook Quick Steps are all about.Svetlana Cheusheva

Quick Steps in Outlook are a kind of shortcuts that let you perform a certain sequence of actions with one click. They indeed apply multiple actions at the same time to email messages, helping you quickly manage your mailbox. For example, if you frequently move messages to a specific folder, you can use a quick step to move the message in one click.

Outlook includes a collection of ready-made Quick Steps that bring instant efficiency without any changes. These default Quick Steps are designed to help users easily perform common and useful actions. But you can customize any of the default Quick Steps or even create new ones to make a Quick Steps gallery of actions that you take most often in your mail.

Using Quick Steps in Outlook, you can tap into a productivity treasure trove, as it automates repetitive tasks and saves you from manually doing them.

Beware, Quick Steps cannot be undone by using a menu command or a keyboard shortcut like Ctrl+Z. This is because Quick Steps can contain actions such as Permanently Delete that are not able to be undone.

Favorites

If you’re an Outlook power user, the Favourites list can quickly help you switch between your most regularly accessed folders. It’s easy to switch out, remove, and re-add folders you need, but you can also disable the feature entirely if it’s getting in the way.Ben Stockton

Favorites, located at the top of the folder pane in Outlook, contains shortcuts (more like mirrors, actually) to your frequently used folders. For instance, if you have multiple accounts set up in Outlook, you could list all of your inboxes there for easier access.

Depending on which version you are using, Outlook may automatically add the following folders to your Favorites list: Inbox, Sent Items, Drafts, and Deleted Items. However, you can remove them and/or add any other folder to the section by dragging and dropping it there. You can also remove Favorites entirely by removing all of the folders from the list. With no folders in the list, the Favorites section will disappear entirely until you decide to add a folder to it again.

Beware, Ensure you remove folders from the Favorites instead of deleting them. When you remove a folder from Favorites, the original folder in the folder list remains. Deleting a folder from Favorites deletes the folder and its contents from Outlook.

Outlook Today

It took me a while to figure this one out too. But eventually, I understood, that the view I was seeing in “My Outlook Organizers” was actually Outlook Today. This view can be customized (a little) and you can choose if it is the first page displayed when starting Outlook.

The Outlook Today view is a handy way to get a quick interactive summary of your calendar, tasks, and messages for the current day.Microsoft

In reality, it looks outdated and it seems that Outlook Today is a deprecated feature and may be removed from future versions of Outlook. The To-Do Bar was created to replace Outlook Today (and display upcoming appointments and task while viewing any folder). However, I found this interesting idea:

By Pluralsight IT – Training Archive

My system

Knowing the right tools and approaches was an important step to allow me to create an effective system for getting more done in much less time. But getting there was another story paved with trials and errors…

To be continued…


1 As you may know if you follow this blog, I decided to get rid of one of my two GandiMail inboxes when I moved to Skiff (see Replacing GandiMail with a new email service); bringing the number of accounts I have to deal with to four. ^
2 Inbox Zero is a rigorous approach to email management that aims to keep an inbox empty, or almost empty, at all times. This productivity strategy seeks to declutter your mind by decluttering your inbox through methodically deleting, sorting, or otherwise clearing incoming emails. ^

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