How I Process my Outlook Inbox

Dec 21, 2011

As you know, in my Outlook Book, I give very specific advice on how to process and empty your Outlook Inbox. That advice includes converting all action e-mails to tasks, filing mail in one folder, and using the Outlook flag tool only for deferred replies that you intend to get to by day’s end. The goal of all this is to empty the Outlook Inbox quickly and to manage any tasks in there responsibly. I have a nice step-by-step process for this that I show in the book (it’s summarized in Appendix C), and for simplicity I keep those steps short.

But it occurs to me that as I follow my own recommendations I hit a lot of gray areas, and so the process I use in my real life goes beyond the simple instructions in the book. To be fair then, I thought I should write down my real-life Outlook Inbox process that extends the steps in the book—doing that may help someone with their own special cases.

So that’s what I have done below—I’ve provided a write up of how I process my mail. Of course, doing this means I have to get into some detail to describe the many subtleties I encounter, and doing that will make this write up a bit long. Also, some of this may seem overly obvious. But so be it! That is the price of being helpful. So I hope this rambling helps you with your Inbox processing.

My Outlook Inbox Process

I have a lot of decisions to make as I scan through my Inbox.

First, if an e-mail is obviously spam or unneeded mail, I delete it immediately. I usually make a quick 2- minute pass through my entire new days’ worth of mail deleting mail based on titles alone. That way I can quickly get my Inbox trimmed down and into a less overwhelming state.

Next, I start at the top of the Inbox again and march down looking at each e-mail one at a time by quickly reading the mail or scanning the titles.  After quickly reading an e-mail, if it’s obvious I don’t need to refer to it again later, then I delete it right after reading it. Conversely, if there is some chance I may need to refer to it again later, I don’t delete it—rather I drag it into the Processed Mail folder immediately. I don’t agonize over whether to save an item or not; if there is any doubt then I save it quickly and move on; I save a lot of mail by the way.

In the old days when I applied categories to mail a lot, I would leave such mail in the Inbox and then categorize it in groups at the end of the day, and only then drag it all to the Processed Mail folder. These days, however, I use Instant Search much more, and only categorize a few items. Therefore group categorization is not so useful and I instead apply categories as I see the mail, and immediately drag them to the Processed Mail folder. In general, nothing sits in my Inbox after I’ve made a decision on it. That’s the purpose of an Inbox—to receive new mail and make decisions about it; not to store things. Store all mail in the Processed Mail folder.

Action E-mails

The next types of mail are those e-mails that have some action for me to take; there are a lot of subtleties here.

If I can take the action quickly—say in a minute or less—then I do the action immediately. Normally that means a quick reply; but it might be a very quick phone call or a quick trip to a website. Once the action is done I toss or file the mail immediately.

If the action cannot be done quickly then I decide whether the action is a longer reply or if it’s something more. If it’s just a long reply, then I flag the e-mail with the Outlook flag tool and I leave it in the Inbox. I commit to making a reply quickly—within a day or so. Later, after making that reply, I remove the flag and move the item to the Processed Mail folder (or I delete it).

If the action clearly is more than just a long reply at end of day—say it may require a bit of effort or research or some time on my part to consider or complete—then I convert the e-mail to a true task; in the title of that task I enter a good clear action phrase and I set an appropriate priority and start date; and then I immediately file the e-mail into the Processed Mail folder.

Gray Areas

Now, here is a gray area. Let’s say I get an e-mail and I’m not sure whether it needs a longer reply or rather may need more thought and potentially more action (or maybe I can even just dismiss it). In cases like that where I am not sure, I usually want to let it sit a bit; it’s amazing how a couple hours of time will often work the question out in my background mind, or through the course of events. In those cases I do this: I flag the e-mail as if it were a deferred reply. Then, when I come back to the e-mail at the end of the day or early next, as I reread it to decide on the reply, if it truly requires action more extensive than just a reply, and I cannot do it now, I convert it to a true task then. Then I remove the flag and file the e-mail away.

Another gray area is this. What do I do about e-mails that are rather long and I don’t have time to fully read them now (and so I don’t know yet if they need action)? The answer is “it depends.” If I think there will be some action required, (I just am not sure yet), then I mark it with a flag. I just make sure I re-read the mail item later that day or early next and fully convert it then when I know (and then I remove the flag and file it). Again, all flagged items must be visited within a day or so (and the flags removed at that time). But if I know the e-mail is just informational (definitely no action other than reading it), then it gets tougher. I definitely don’t flag it… that’s just for potential reply or short-term action mail. What to do really depends on how interested I am in the topic of the e-mail. If it’s something I really intend to read today, then I leave it in an unread status and leave it in the Inbox till the end of the day and read it just before I empty the Inbox. But if it’s not worth reading today, then I might mark it with an appropriate category (Articles is the category I often use, but maybe you could create a category called “For later review”) and in all cases I file it in the Processed Mail folder for later reading when appropriate. Perhaps on a slow day you will group on that category and go through that mail. But more likely you will only revisit this mail during a specific search for it, which is fine. Or I just admit my lack of future time and delete it immediately; some things we know we will never get to, so we might as well cut and run now.

More about Flags

BTW, I know above I have broken my rule about using flags only for deferred replies—I show using them for marking some short-term actions as well. My rule of thumb is this: only flag items that you can commit to attending to within a day or two at most. If you suspect you’re going to wait longer than a day or two, then convert the e-mail to a true task; don’t try to use a flag. Why this distinction? You do not want to let flagged mail (or any mail) sit long in your inbox because after a few days you will forget what the email title means and then you’ll have to reread those items to determine why you kept them in the Inbox, and re-reading mail is a big waste of time. And your Inbox gets cluttered with too much old mail. So just get them out of there. Leave the Inbox clear for processing new mail—that’s the role of the Inbox.

More on this. Longer term tasks need management tools, and the flag tool does not provide them. You need an easily set priority, a start date, and especially a rewritten subject line that you can scan quickly. With those set you can then manage tasks in bulk in the task system, using the MYN principles. You cannot set those easily in flagged mail. (There  actually are ways, but they’re harder and so you won’t use them; and flagged tasks have other disadvantages. So always favor true tasks).

At the end of the day I try to file away all the rest of my mail and I only leave behind flagged mail I cannot yet process. But if a flagged mail item gets more than 2 or 3 days old, then I bite the bullet and convert it to a true task no matter what. To make that possible, I sometimes use creative task names like “Make decision on this email about…” or “consider more fully this email about…” or some such thing. Just find a way to get it converted to a task (with a clear next action in the title) and get it out of the Inbox.

By the way, never leave a flag on an item that you move to the Processed Mail folder; they serve no purpose there and then they clog up your To-Do Bar task list. Remove all flags before you move the mail.

So that’s it! That’s my real life story of how I process mail in my Outlook Inbox. I hope the extra details I show here, and my coverage of special cases, helps you in your e-mail processing. Let me know if you have any cases that don’t seem to meet the above, and I’ll tell you what I would do.


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13 Responses to How I Process my Outlook Inbox

  1. Jay Dunham says:

    If you’re interested, here is my in-box routine:

    I first remove the unread flag from the entire inbox, as as I am moving down the emails I can see if something new comes in. I prefer to review 5-10 at a time and move in groups to my ‘processed’ folder by selecting them and using a keysboard macro which I created (with some help from the ‘net).

    If an email needs a quick reply, I do that immediately. I have an Outlook rule that copies sent email to my inbox. If I expect a reply, I flag my sent email (the one that’s in the in-box–I have my settings set not to create a copy of sent email in the sent folder). This also goes for emails that are not replies. They get a flag and then are moved to the ‘processed’ folder.

    If an email suggests a task, I create that immediately with another keyboard macro, which both creates the task and moves the original to the ‘processed’ folder. The task stays open so I can enter a start date and priority.

    When I get to my last ‘read’ email, my inbox is empty except for new emails received during this process. It’s like playing Tetris, right? So I start again and clean up those.

    Meanwhile, I have a search folder that will show me any email older than 2 weeks with a flag. I open that every day after my initial inbox cleanup to see who hasn’t responded and either forward that email or call the respondent for a followup. Forwarding them the same email showing they haven’t responded for 2 weeks is pretty effective. If I want to give the recipient more time, I either convert to a task with a specific date to followup or forward to myself. I flag the forwarded email, which gives the respondent a 2 week reprieve. If I send an email that needs a response sooner than 2 weeks, I create a followup task instead of flagging the email.

    That’s about it. Like you, I use search for finding things rather than categories. The exception to that are some rules that move certain emails to folders–mainly listservs–that I review from time to time when I’m in the mood.


  2. Jason says:


    Thanks for the extra detail. One extra step that I do (I thought I learned it from you actually) is this: I created a Outlook 2010 quick step. It’s a macro where after reading the mail, it marks read, pops up the category window where you can quickly select what category you may want to add, and automatically moves to the Processed Mail folder.

  3. Manan Choksi says:

    There are emails which have a quick reply / quick action, which I finish and file that email. There are emails which have a long term action or have to wait till a deadline which I put on my task list. My biggest challenge is the emails in between. It doesnt justify the time I create a task and hence lie in my inbox.

  4. Charlie Schneider says:

    My first action is a quick click on the ‘Clean Up Folder’ button, which you find in the Folder-Ribbon in Outlook 2010. This nice feature removes redundant emails from email threads and usually removes 5-10 emails from my Inbox. (I usually receive 50 emails over night)

  5. Stephan Becker says:

    Its funny how similar problems lead to similar solutions.
    I use the MYN approach for roughly 4 years now and by now I came up with the same modifikationen you described here…..
    With that article in my mind I do feel a lot more comfortable with those deviations of the pure approach.


  6. Les Brand says:

    I’ve just embarked on the MYN process and do find it very liberating on seeing inbox empty! However, what process should I be using to manage my Sent items which rapidly mount up, especially with Replys? Most, but not all, of them relate to actions / delegated/waiting fors – would appreciate some ideas/options.

  7. claudio says:

    I found several good tips and tricks in the Linenberger book on Outllook.

  8. Michael Linenberger says:

    If you are waiting for a response to something you sent out, then use the followup process on page 162, 3rd ed of Outlook book. Exactly what that is designed for. If you just want to decrease the size of your sent items folder, that is discussed on pg 338 (step 7) and pg 379.
    Best, Michael

  9. Julio Gutierrez says:

    Hello Michael,

    Been using your system for around a month and I have to say it’s changed my work life dramatically. I also applied some “deviations from standard” in the inbox processing, so here are mine in case they’re helpful for anyone.

    For reference, I am a project manager currently managing 15+ systems integration projects, so you can imagine I receive some amount of email everyday. 😉

    1.- Quick inbox scan for junk or generally trashable email. Delete immediately and without mercy.
    2.- Read each remaining inbox item.
    2.1.- Quick answer? Do it.
    2.2.- Longer answer / not sure / need to find info? Red flag.
    2.3.- Action embedded for me? Blue flag
    2.4.- Need to followup action from someone else? Yellow flag.
    All flagging quickly, less than 30 seconds per email.

    3.- Blue flags: Create the proper tasks under my initials (e.g. Task name would be “JG – Review specs on xxxx”) – Utility of initials later. After task creation, click on flag. Outlook marks this complete, this marks it to myself as “actioned, can be filed”.

    4.- Yellow flags: Create followup task as F: – , e.g. for a followup for a task from John Smith I’d do: F: JS – check if xxxx is done. Remove flag marking email as complete

    5.- All non-flagged email goes to Processed mail.

    6.- I have created a “Processed Sent Mail” folder under Sent Items. Several times a day I review my sent mail and create the proper followup tasks from there using the same system and file all sent mail to the processed sent mail folder. Helps me not to forget any followup of email sent in the middle of the battle.

    7.- At the end of the day I try to have a clean Inbox and clean Sent Items. Instant relief.

    The initials thing can be used if you later on sort your different tasks views by Start Date, then by Subject. You’ll have all your tasks together (JG – … in my case), and all your followups for the different people together by person (F: JS – …), useful when you have to review someone’s commitments, or your own tasks at a glance.

    Even more, I have created a special “My tasks for the next 7 days” view filtering like the “MYN next 7 days tasks” and adding “contains ‘JG – ‘ “. It’s a psichological relief to see that for the next week I have a “reduced” number of actionable items under my name, specially when I normally have e.g. 6 times more followup items!

    Michael, again thanks a lot! Hope this helps someone.

    Greetings from Spain,


  10. Les Brand says:

    Hi Michael, thanks for signposting pages in your book. I have Kindle edition so not easy to find pages but will track those references down. Many thanks. Les

  11. Veronique says:

    Michael, thanks so much for the tips on Outlook for MAC 2011. I am trying to create a task from an email I received and send it to one of my employee. How do I do that?

  12. Michael Linenberger says:

    See this blog entry:
    That shows how you create the task from an email.
    As to “sending it to one of my employee(s),” if you mean send the task, no way to do that in Mac 2011

  13. Sam says:

    If you are using Outlook 2010, you can set Quick Actions to bind some of these actions to keyboard shortcuts (it only allows CTRL-SHIFT-#). I use these to a) set category to @Action and file email in “All Mail”, b) Set category to @Waiting, c) Move mail to “All Mail” folder, d) create task with email as attachment, e) set category to @Read and file in “All Mail”, and f) clear all categories and flags.

    As I work through my inbox, if I can deal with the email in <1 min, I do. If it will take longer, I create a task with the email as an attachment, set the category to the proper context, and give it a task subject that starts with an active verb. I then file the email in "All Mail" with the keyboard shortcut.

    I also have email search folders that look in my "All Mail" folder and only show me emails categorized as @Action, @Waiting, @Read (internal mailing lists and newsletters are filtered out of the inbox on a mailbox rule, set with the @Read category, and marked as read). So I look at emails marked only with a certain category.

    For long emails or ones that require work or a complicated answer, I send the email to OneNote 2010, set the email's category to @Action, and file the email away. Emails from Outlook always get sent to "Unfiled Notes", so I can go back through that "inbox" and process when I can. When I go back to process the OneNote "inbox" I can take notes, make an outline, etc. I can then select some text I've typed and hit CTRL-SHIFT-1 to set a task with the highlighted text as the subject. The task then appears on my Outlook task list with a link to the OneNote item. Once I've done what needs to be done, I find the email in the @Action search folder, reply, and clear the @Action category. The email then disappears from the @Action search folder.

    And finally, I use Autohotkey on Windows to remap my FUNCTION keys to the keyboard shortcuts mentioned above. So I have F13 mapped to "Set @Action," F14 set to "Set @Waiting," F15 to "Make task with attachment," and F16 to "file email into All Mail". As I go through my inbox, I have 4 fingers resting on F13-F16 and my thumb on the DELETE key, hitting one of the 5 as needed … mostly its THUMB to delete or PINKY to file away without marking for action. Sometimes its RING FINGER to create a task with the email as an attachment. After I process the inbox I go through the Sent Items folder and use MIDDLE FINGER to set the @Waiting flag for items waiting on a response from someone else.

    For whatever its worth, I also use OneNote to collect meeting notes. I often handwrite meeting notes in a notebook. In OneNote I create a new entry from the Outlook calendar by right clicking the meeting and selecting "OneNote". The entry pops up with the the meeting particulars and into that page I paste a picture of my handwritten notes. I can then go through and add other thoughts as typed text, adding tasks to my Outlook task list as described above.

    I admit that keyboard shortcuts aren't for everyone, but if you do like the keyboard over the mouse, setting the Quick Actions and creating keybindings using Autohotkey can significantly speed up your inbox processing. Using Outlook in conjunction with OneNote to ensure that every action eventually ends up on my Outlook task list means that I have a few places to look for incoming information and one place to look for my list of tasks to execute during the working part of my day.


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