I don’t know about you, but one of my least favorite chores is folding the laundry. Even though I know that leaving my clean clothes in a laundry basket creates problems—my work shirts get wrinkled, and I can never find socks that match—I still end up putting it off for days.
For many government employees, their unsorted email inbox is something like my unfolded laundry basket. Even though keeping every email you’ve ever received in your inbox creates issues, and even if you’ve already set up an email filing system, it’s difficult to find the motivation to sort your emails. But don’t lose hope! If you use Microsoft Outlook for your work email, there are tools available to you that make cleaning up your inbox less of a chore.
First, a Note
Before reading this blog post, you might want to review our other post on setting up an email filing system. Also, if you don’t know how to sort your emails into folders manually, see these instructions from Microsoft. Once you have some folders set up and you know the basics of sorting, you’re ready to try out the solutions below.
One fast way to sort emails is to set up Quick Steps for the folders you use most often. In Outlook, the Quick Steps feature lets you create custom buttons that perform certain actions. By setting up Quick Steps that move emails to folders, sorting your inbox becomes speedy and—dare I say—fun.
To use Quick Steps, you’ll need to open Outlook in the desktop app (unfortunately, the Quick Steps tool is not available in the Outlook Web App or the mobile app). From there you can create the Quick Steps you want and arrange the buttons how you like.
What makes the Quick Steps tool extra powerful is the ability to add multiple actions to a single button. You can do this by setting up a Custom Quick Step. For example, you could make a Quick Step that marks the email as read and clears any flags or categories you may have assigned at the same time it moves the email to a folder. If you frequently receive emails that need to be forwarded to someone else, you could set up a Quick Step that moves your copy of an email to a folder (or deletes it) and forwards the email to someone else. There are many options available, so it’s worth taking time to explore them and see what settings might work for you.
Once you’ve set up your Quick Steps, cleaning your inbox is as simple as selecting the email you want to move and clicking the Quick Step button for the folder you want to move it to. Before you know it, you’ll be zooming through your inbox like a sorting superhero.
Quick Steps can help you sort emails one by one, but what if you have a lot of emails to sort? The Rules feature in Outlook can help you move batches of emails from your inbox into folders and can be set to make certain incoming emails skip your inbox entirely.
Like Quick Steps, Rules work by identifying emails that meet certain criteria and performing one or more actions on those emails. The difference is that Rules work automatically once they’re set up—no button pushing required. When you get a new email, Outlook will check to see if there is a Rule that applies. If so, Outlook will execute the Rule. When you make a new Rule, you can also choose to run it on emails already in your inbox, which is a great way to sort a lot of old emails at once.
You can set up Rules from the Outlook desktop app or the web app and, as with Quick Steps, there are many options to choose from. For instance, you can make a Rule that puts any incoming emails from a particular sender into a folder. This is a great option for emails that you’re certain will always be categorized the same way, such as list-servs, automatic updates from software products, or emails from your HR department. You can also set up a Rule that moves incoming emails with particular words in the subject heading into a folder. So, if you are a manager, you could instruct your employees to always put “Leave Request” in the subject line when they request time off and make a Rule to automatically route those emails to a Leave Requests folder.
If you decide to use Rules to automatically sort your emails, be aware that you’ll need to keep an eye on your individual folders for new items that have bypassed your inbox. It is also a good idea to periodically review any emails that you’ve set to auto-sort just in case they need to be sorted a different way. Overall, Rules are a great way to clear out clutter from your inbox and prevent clutter from being created in the first place.
You’re on Your Way!
With these tools at hand, I hope that you can find the motivation to sort your email inbox. And who knows, maybe someday they’ll invent an automatic sock sorter so that my laundry can be as easy to organize as my email.
Do you have any tips for sorting your email quickly? Share them in the comments below!