How I manage my work emails now

Posted on Feb 7, 2022

At my job, we use Webex and Jabber and Microsoft Office 365 for messaging and collaboration, but email is still king. Over the years I have organized my emails by year, project, and client using the various tools that Microsoft Outlook provides: folders (sometimes nested), categories (which are tags with names and color coding), and flags. Recently, I have simplified my filing system to use no categories, no flags, and only four essential folders:

  1. Inbox
  2. Archive
  3. @Action
  4. @Now

Inbox is self-explanatory; it’s where all my emails enter the system. From there, I pick out messages that are really to-do items and move them to the @Action folder. I set up a Quick Step to perform this with a single click or keyboard shortcut. I move every other email1 to the Archive folder. Thankfully, Outlook 365 has a toolbar button that makes this a one-click operation.2

I spend most of my email time looking through the @Action folder, which normally has between 5 and 25 emails in it, for emails related to my next task. From there, I move all emails associated with that task to the @Now folder. I keep those messages in the @Now folder as I perform the task, refer to them as reference material as I perform the task, and reply to at least one of them to complete my task. After I complete the task, I move all the emails in the @Now folder to the Archive folder. If I am interrupted in the middle of a task for more than a few minutes, I will move all the messages in the @Now folder back to the @Action folder.

I try not to let any of the folders, except for Archive, end up with a glut of emails in them for too long. Outlook’s email search capabilities are capable enough to allow me to find anything I need in my Archive folder quickly enough for me not to need to organize archived messages in any way.

Overall, this system has been working well for me and I plan to continue to use it in the future.

  1. Technically, this means every email that does not represent an action for me to perform in response to it. ↩︎

  2. In prior versions of Outlook, such as Outlook 2016, I set up a Quick Step to do this. ↩︎