Outlook Inbox Productivity Tips III: How to Clean

Outlook Inbox Productivity Tips III: How to Clean

This is part III of our Outlook productivity expert tips, aiming to help enterprise employees who are overloaded by email to overcome this hurdle and get productive as well as gain their life back. With step 3, we will cover how the Outlook inbox should be cleaned, as the first parts covered the creation of a unified inbox and appropriating cleaning times.

So you are aware why I feel my tricks can assist, I am an Engineering Manager within the Cortana project at Microsoft and am also battling hundreds of new daily emails. I have had to come up with results-oriented techniques, which have proven successful to me, and I have also been educating other employees in frequent productivity workshops within Microsoft.

You need to go over the steps, decide if you wish to implement them, whether they need to be adjusted for you personally, and make the move.

Rule #3: how to clean your Outlook inbox

As stated in part II, I start with the most historic email and work my way up. I use the Outlook conversation view to very quickly delete all messages in a thread that do not contain attachments and are not leaf-nodes of the discussion. That leaves me with a pretty flat list of messages. Then, for each message, I apply one of the 5 D’s – which must take under 2 minutes to complete.

The 5 D’s:

1. Delete: this is the most fun and frequently used method of dealing with email. So many email messages are there just for FYI, semi-related commercials, social networking messages, automatic build results and the likes. The delete key on my keyboard is the most worn-out of them all. I simply love deleting email. I estimate I delete, without any remorse, ~70% of the email going through my inbox. It certainly takes me far less than 2 minutes to delete a single message and there’s so much fun in doing so.

2. Do it: If you can process an email message in less than 2 minutes, do what you need to do, and then delete the message – that’s what this D is for. Messages like “can you please send me the contact details of John Doe?” or “can you please schedule a short meeting?” that show up in my inbox are perfect candidates for this category. The important piece here is to leave no evidence in the inbox. The original email is no longer there after being processed and handled, in less than 2 minutes.

3. Defer: this is for the things that require your processing but will take more than 2 minutes to complete. I’m trying not to be too strict and allow items of less than 10 minutes to still fall under the ‘do it’ category. But anything longer than that simply requires my time and effort – and that’s not going to be spent during my inbox cleaning session. That’s where the Outlook calendar comes in handy. I select the message and ‘move’ it to the calendar. This creates a new appointment in my calendar with only me in it. It automatically contains the original email message, so I can refer to it when the time comes to ‘handle the task’. Here are some examples of inbox items that fall into this category: “Can you please write a short blog post about how you handle email?”, “Please call the Dr. and set up an appointment”, “There’s a new bug in the system that requires your attention” etc. I believe you get the drift.

The moral of the story is simple: the inbox is your incoming pipeline. You should keep it clean on a daily basis. The calendar is the canvas where you plan your ‘real work’ and activities. If something needs your time and attention, find room for it in your calendar. It’s very normal and highly typical to move things around on your calendar. We all play Tetris with it. It should reflect your plans and priorities. You are a single person – double booking (or worse) on your calendar should be treated as contradicting some basic law of physics.

4. Delegate: this category is for tasks that come in through your inbox, but you really need the help of others to complete. You should not confuse this with “sorry, wrong number” messages which reached your inbox by mistake (they should fall under the ‘do it’ D). Some examples here include “can you please fix bug X?”, “please work with John on project Y”, or “What is the answer to question Z?” In each of these cases, I cannot simply direct to someone else to get the answer or do the task and forget about it myself. In these cases I’m partially or fully responsible for making sure the task gets done, through or with others. Here is where I use Outlook tasks. I do the following: I forward the email to the person who needs to do something (e.g. John in the Project Y example) and CC myself. By CC’ing myself I send a simple message that this is being tracked by me. I then delete the original mail. In a minute or two, the CC’ed message shows up at the top of my Inbox, at which point I ‘move’ it to the tasks folder. This creates a new task with the original email message attached within. I set the due date to sometime in the future that makes sense, say 2 days from now, set the right category (optional) and save & close the task. That’s it. It just removed the thing from my inbox altogether. My inbox gets less cluttered. I now have a task waiting for John to complete, in my Outlook Tasks. When John replies and completes the task, I can use his content to reply to the original email embedded in that task. If John’s a slacker, that task will show up red (overdue) in my tasks view and I can ping him for status and progress while updating the due date a few more days into the future. For me, the tasks folder in Outlook is where I manage other people’s work. I expect them to reply to me with something and it always has a clear due date. With this technique, I can send 100’s of email messages to many different people covering many different topics – all while keeping track of who replied on time and who’s a slacker and needs some follow-up. I do this all without leaving a trace in my inbox.

5. Data archive: this is where most people fail and abuse their inbox. There are many messages that fit the “save for the future” need and kept around. I use other mail folders for that. Some people ‘pile on’ and use a single mail folder for ‘stuff’ and rely on Outlook’s indexing and search features to find their way through. Others are more obsessive (yours truly ) and are called ‘filers’. We create per-topic subfolder and carefully file those ‘things we need to remember’ in the right folder. Regardless if you’re a ‘filer’ or ‘pile on’, just make sure you move that piece of email from your inbox. Remember: your inbox is a pipe and you should make sure it stays clean at the end of each day.

That’s pretty much it. If you stick to the basic rules of unifying your inbox, setting the right stretch of time to clean it, and going through it applying the right rule of ‘D’, you’re pretty much set. As I said above, it takes practice and discipline but once you get it right, there’s really no going back.

With this 3rd step to overcoming email overload in Outlook, I wish you all the luck and happy inbox cleaning.

If you have other Outlook tricks and techniques that have proven successful to you, I would love to hear about them. Leave a comment below.

Eran Yariv
Eran Yariv

Eran Yariv is Group Engineering Manager at Microsoft, leading the Cortana project. His expertise includes big data, user profiling, web-scale services, networking and security. Furthermore, he is an email productivity expert, running frequent workshops and is within the Advisory Board of Knowmail.