Scott Hanselman

The Three Most Important Outlook Rules for Processing Mail

December 10, '09 Comments [35] Posted in Personal | Remote Work | Tools
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I'm always looking for new ways to process email more effectively. I talked a little about this at a recent conference in Sweden. The topic of my talk was Information Overload and Managing the Flow: Effectiveness and Efficiency and there's video of the talk at the link there.

I've done blog posts on how my Outlook folders are setup in Getting Organized While Drinking from the (Outlook) Fire Hose and Personal Systems of Organization.

However, lately as the flow of email increases, I've added three new rules in Outlook that have really made things easier for me.

The idea is this. Stuff shows up in your Inbox and you need to process it, right? Not necessarily do it, but decide what to do with it. However all email that shows up in your inbox isn't the same. I segment them like this:

  • Most Important: Email that is sent directly to me. I am on the to: line.
  • Kind of Important: Email where I am cc:ed. I was copied on a mail, likely as an FYI to me.
  • External Mail: Mail that was sent to me from outside my company.
  • Meeting Invites: Just that. Someone wants me to show up somewhere.

So I've got these "inboxes" in Outlook now and I put them in my favorites so they show up at the top of the folder list. These are the emails I'm currently processing that came in overnight.

Inbox, Inbox-CC. Inbox-External, Inbox-Invites

Here are the Outlook Rules to make this happen. The main Inbox folder is the main Inbox. The others are just folders named "Inbox - Something."

Processing Meeting Invites

First rule is to move any meeting invitations to a separate folder. This is an easy rule. Just make sure the "and stop processing more rules" appears at the bottom and that this rule is close the top (if not at the top.)

image

Processing External Mail with an Outlook Rule

This one is a little tricky, so be careful. There's no good "comes from outside my company" rule built into Outlook, so you can make one like this.

"Apply this rule after the message arrives
where my name is in the To or Cc box
  and with @ in the sender's address
move it to the Inbox - External folder
except with "yourcompany.com" in the sender's address
stop processing more rules."

Tricky and composite, but works nicely. Now all emails that are from OUTSIDE go into a single folder. Of course if you are a member of external mailing lists, etc, you might want exclusions here, or more likely a separate Outlook rule for that mailing list that is higher in the list of rules. Remember, rule order matters.

image

Processing Mail To: me, rather than mail Cc: to me

Here I just say "if my name is not in the To box" then send the mail to the Inbox-CC folder. However, I have some exceptions for email from certain people whose email goes to my Inbox always, regardless.

Rules and Alerts (6) 

Last one (a fourth possible rule, yeah, I know) and this one is optional. If I get an answer to a mail that's from a mailing list, I like it to come to my Inbox, not show up in a folder deep in Outlook somewhere.

Now you just have a rule for mail that is sent directly to you. You have to say "move it to the inbox" and "stop processing." This will also bring mail up from your internal mailing lists folders if you've been addressed directly.

Rules and Alerts (3)

There you go, that's my four inboxes with three (or four) Outlook rules.

Inbox, Inbox-CC. Inbox-External, Inbox-Invites

Time to get back to "Inbox Zero" by processing emails sent directly to me first!

Important Notes:

  • The order of Rules in Outlook matters for this system, as does the final "stop processing other rules" step. Without that, you may get duplicate emails.
  • If you're using a mobile phone (iPhone or Windows Mobile) make sure that you've set your phone to Sync Mail from these new folders, otherwise you might miss a meeting invite that never went through your inbox.

Hope someone finds this useful. I have.

Related Links

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009 11:57:17 PM UTC
I personally have rules for each person to put their mail in a folder and also for a "New Message Alert" which notifies me about new mail. I often miss the little toast notification due to me having dual monitors and no sound.
Friday, December 11, 2009 12:46:56 AM UTC
How does the Inbox-CC folder get populated? It looks like the third rule sends your CC mail as well as your To mail to Inbox.
Gwen
Friday, December 11, 2009 1:26:41 AM UTC
Seems like you could do this with a search folder instead, no? Aside from the fact that it would allow emails to be in more than one "folder" at a time, you would also be able to use much more flexible criteria.
Friday, December 11, 2009 1:35:42 AM UTC
Gwen - Sorry, I swapped my screenshots. I've updated the post.

As for Search Folders, yes, I use those also, but I want to have multiple levels of triage with the goal being to have the fewest emails go to my ACTUAL inbox as possible.
Friday, December 11, 2009 2:11:16 AM UTC
Now I get it. It was hurting my brain before. :-)
Gwen
Friday, December 11, 2009 2:36:31 AM UTC
Seeing outlook reminds me of the old days. I'm not trying to bash Microsoft or anything, but ever since I started using gmail my email life has significantly improved. The only feature missing was the ability to access my mail while offline, but that wasn't as significant as all the bad things about Outlook, so I ignored it. Now that there's offline gmail I really don't see a reason to use any other program.
Friday, December 11, 2009 6:17:41 AM UTC
Nice way to manage email scott.
Nishit vaghela
Friday, December 11, 2009 6:20:22 AM UTC
Nice way to manage emails scott. Can u please explain some tips to write signature too?
Friday, December 11, 2009 6:29:46 AM UTC
I also use a rule that says if the sender isn't in my address book, put the email in a folder (called 'probablySpam') If I check it and find something from someone I want to correspond with, I then make sure I add them to my address book.
Maxxx
Friday, December 11, 2009 6:47:09 AM UTC
Hmm, if I send you a mail from Bill Gates <microsoft.com@mydomain.com> then it'll end up in your internal mailbox by the look of it Could get up to all sorts of mischief...
Friday, December 11, 2009 2:36:46 PM UTC
Excellent post! But please explain the "Favorites" part. My eyes got big when I saw that, but when I pulled up Outlook 2007 I'm at a loss to figure out how to set up a "favorites" set of folders. Is this a beta-office thing only?
Mike C
Friday, December 11, 2009 5:53:48 PM UTC
Too bad anything that gets filtered out of the Inbox doesn't show up on a Blackberry!!!! Kills me. Oh well, better to have the BB!
Friday, December 11, 2009 5:55:53 PM UTC
Thank you for an excelent article. If I look for more internet-stuff about Outlook 2007 any suggestions where I can go?

And do you have any clue why my Outlook suddenly starting to import my mail (yep every mail even the ones I have imported before) from Hotmail. Is it some kind of index or counter that is wrong? What do you think?

Best regads and thank you in advance
Rune Lind
Rune
Friday, December 11, 2009 9:26:15 PM UTC
Strangely enough Microsoft's guidance warns against moving meeting invites out of the inbox:

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/outlook/HA103869131033.aspx?pid=CH102499821033

I've noticed issues with meetings disappearing that seem to coincide with using rules on invites like you suggest, but I don't have hard proof.
Monday, December 14, 2009 9:37:16 AM UTC
Great tips, seems like common sense now that you have mentioned it, yet how many people take the time to actually set this up? I certainly will now. Thanks for sharing!
Monday, December 14, 2009 9:37:50 AM UTC
Great tips, seems like common sense now that you have mentioned it, yet how many people take the time to actually set this up? I certainly will now. Thanks for sharing!
Monday, December 14, 2009 11:53:06 PM UTC
Scott,

I am surprised you don't have any "Send me teh codez" filter ;).

fallenprogrammr
fallenprogrammr
Tuesday, December 15, 2009 8:22:23 PM UTC
I bought Outlook 2007 and took it off my computer after about a week. I moved back to Eudora. Much faster, much better feel, built by people that actually use email, back when Bill Gates thought the "Internet" was something to do with hair. . . .

Of course, at work (state of oregon) I am stuck with Groupwise (rhymes with "Poopwise") which probably can do all the fancy shuffling of the deck of emails coming in. State is going to Outlook in the next several years.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009 10:24:45 PM UTC
This is great stuff Scott - I watched your presentation about this (OreDev?) and immediately tried it when I got back to work. I can really see an improvement on how I work with my inbox now...

... now I need to take the time to do it for my personal e-mail :)
Tuesday, December 15, 2009 11:00:39 PM UTC
I love managing my emails. But moving emails to different folders is not a good practice. What if I want to see the sequence of all my emails? What if want to see all emails from a specific person?
What I am trying to say is that Outlook is missing a key feature - Tags. That is the main reason why people are slowly leaving to Gmail. Emails should have tags, many tags and users should be able to see filter emails by tags.
Tags should be added automatically to each emails and manually by user request.
I've searched for some "Tag support" Outlook addons but come out with nothing that's worth talking about.
When will we see tags native in Outlook?

Thanks,
Eylon Yogev.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009 4:14:53 AM UTC
Eylon - Outlook 2010 will keep conversation threads together even across folders. You can move emails all over and the thread is will visible and can be navigated.
Thursday, December 17, 2009 5:38:51 PM UTC
@ Eylon - you can use search folders. They operate much as does gmail. You can also categorize messages manually or by rule so that they fall into search folders....

@Scott - so my present way of managing mail was beginning to fail so with some modifications I am giving your method a shot.
Thursday, December 17, 2009 11:30:01 PM UTC
So.

I don't read Computer Zen for awhile and come back and BOOM! First post, first page value added. That'll learn me.
Friday, December 18, 2009 5:24:52 PM UTC
One thing I don't like about Outlook subfolders is that they are displayed in alphabetical order; so that my "Meeting Invites" folder didn't show up in the middle, I had to name it "1. Meeting Invites." A nice future enhancement for Outlook would allow users to control the display order of subfolders in a tree. (Maybe it's in there already, and I haven't dug deep enough in the menus to find that option.)
Saturday, December 19, 2009 7:21:13 PM UTC
I also use another folder for Listserve (Inbox- CARING). That way I know where all of those emails are and my inbox is not too full for the server.

@Chris- You'll notice that Scott's folders are still in his primary Inbox, just separated out for better processing.
Bob
Monday, December 28, 2009 7:55:03 AM UTC
Wow, you have so many emails~~
Wednesday, December 30, 2009 2:32:58 PM UTC
This might be useful for me in the future when i get more emails, but not right now.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009 4:56:55 PM UTC
If you like this then you will probably like SSW's Rules to better email

It make me think about email more, and I am now on top of both my home and work emails...
Thursday, December 31, 2009 4:34:46 AM UTC
I have similar filters for my mailboxes. Thunderbird checks 4 mailboxes at home, and Outlook checks 2 at work. Both have this type of system and I love it. I almost decided to install Outlook 2010 to test out and start learning before my clients actively use it, but I'm just not ready for it to touch my Exchange server just yet. Exchange 2010 - yea, maybe in about 6 months.
Saturday, January 23, 2010 12:14:29 AM UTC
A very good guide on How to filter items and displays files in Outlook is worth viewing and you can get the same at: http://forums.techarena.in/guides-tutorials/1288162.htm
Sunday, January 31, 2010 7:00:28 PM UTC
Thanks for the lesson, i like the Now all emails that are from OUTSIDE go into a single folder. Of course if you are a member of external mailing lists, etc, you might want exclusions here, or more likely a separate Outlook rule for that mailing list. Thanks software magazzino
Thursday, February 11, 2010 8:37:08 AM UTC
Thanks for the writting articles as If I get an answer to a mail that's from a mailing list, I like it to come to my Inbox, not show up in a folder deep in Outlook somewhere. thanks
annalea buntzen fakta
Wednesday, March 03, 2010 10:20:14 AM UTC
Hey Scott - one suggestion that I've used since I had to start managing ridiculous amounts of mail..

You have a separate folder for meeting invites, but I actually have two folders. One for meeting invites where I'm on the "Required" or "Optional" (To/CC:) and one for meeting invites which are sent to DL's. I find that broadcast meeting invites (company or divisional all-hands - I work in the UK but report to the US so often can't attend these) are far less important than meetings people have specifically invited me too.

Cheers,

JC
Thursday, April 22, 2010 2:47:19 PM UTC
Nice tips, seems like bit common sense now that you have mentioned it, well how many guys take the time to actually set this up? I certainly will now. Thanks for sharing! You are bookmarked....
Thursday, July 01, 2010 7:52:27 AM UTC
That is the main reason why people are slowly leaving to Gmail. Emails should have tags, many tags and users should be able to see filter emails by tags.
Tags should be added automatically to each emails and manually by user request.
Comments are closed.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.