Best Practices: Managing Your Inbox

Best Practices: Managing Your Inbox

Opening your email inbox is like taking a great big bite from a fresh lemon. Some of us like it and some of us despise it. Email is a necessary part of most of our days, and while some messages brighten our lives, the task of managing all that correspondence can leave a sour taste in our mouths.

Microsoft's Focused Inbox tech is meant to make the chore of managing email less onerous, so you can get to the actual work that each email requires. Focused Inbox uses machine learning to figure out what emails are important to you and bring them to your attention.

The Focused Inbox feature has been available on the web at and the Outlook mobile apps on Android and iOS for a while, but this email management tool will soon be available to Office 365 customers and Outlook on other platforms. Although the announcement blog post does not make it clear, we expect that means the full Outlook mail programs on PCs, Macs and the Outlook Mail apps on Windows 10 mobile devices.

The Outlook team goes on to describe other features that are in various stages of availability including @Mentions, Search, Tagging, One-Click Unsubscribe, and Sweep that are intended toi help us with managing our email inbox.

Here's what each feature does, according to Microsoft:

@Mentions: "There’s now a better way to quickly identify action items for team members through email. Simply type the @ symbol followed by individuals’ names in the body of your emails. The @Mention changes the text color and style to call an item to the recipient’s attention."

Search: "Start typing a name or keyword into the search bar, and Outlook provides smart suggestions based on your previous searches and the content of your mailbox."

Tags: "Make your emails more easily discoverable by taking advantage of features like colored Categories, Flags and Quick Steps. Categories allow you to assign a color to your emails, to assign them to a project or work group. Flagging an email will remind you to revisit later, and it will appear in your To-Do bar, Daily Task List within the Calendar as well as the Tasks view."

Unsubscribe: "Easily unsubscribe with just one click, without leaving your inbox."

Sweep: "Delete emails in bulk with the Sweep feature or create a rule for deleting certain emails so you don’t have to do it manually. Tired of receiving a store’s promotion? Sweep and block all future emails with just a few clicks."

Many of you are probably use to seeing a Clutter folder in your Outlook clients and on the web which was used to store email that was detected as non-critical into a single folder that you can access later. That feature will be deprecated in the various clients as the Focused Inbox becomes available to replace it with a Focused and Other folder for your email. At anytime you can ‚Äčteach‚Äč Outlook that an email filed in the Focused folder should really go to the Other folder and vice versa to tweak the machine learning as it learns your individual style and expectations.

Read more about Focused Inbox and Microsoft's Guide to Inbox Management.


You might recall last month that we shared our approaches to working remotely and we thought this week's news from Microsoft about the Focused Inbox and its capabilities to help manage your inbox would be a great opportunity to share how we each approach our own email accounts.

RICH HAY: I use the main Outlook client that is part of Office on all of my devices except for my Windows 10 Insider testing machine where I use the default Mail app from Microsoft. I just like having my calendar and email in one place and unlike Lisa, I keep all of my accounts, both work and personal, setup on all of my devices.

The current Clutter feature in Outlook does a very good job of sorting the junk out of my inbox from what comes in so I usually look in that folder about once a week to clean it out and make sure nothing important slipped through. Of course, I can always move an item from that folder to y inbox which will help the system learn what I consider routine/junk email.

Since I use the Nexus 5X as my daily driver these days I am using the updated Outlook Mail app that has the new Focused Inbox feature and that works very similarly to the Clutter folder that is being replaced.

Triaging email. About 90% of the time I see new email through the Outlook Mail app on Android and so I use that as my triaging tool. I have default swipe actions setup to either delete or archive items. If it is something I will need to take action on then I leave it in the inbox and if it is urgent I will write the email right then on the phone or get on a laptop/desktop if they are close by. Personally, I find the mobile app good for quick replies only. By triaging my email on the phone that means I get back to my main device knowing exactly what should be waiting for me to handle.

Unfortunately, that is where my efforts end because I have a bad habit of only triaging my work related email account and leaving my personal ones to pile up their collection of emails. Although they never get to these epic numbers I see shared on social media, they have been known to reach a few hundred unread emails. I usually tackle those about once every 10 days or so to clean them out and keep moving forward.

Unsubscribe. I totally agree with Lisa on this one. Over the years we all end up on a lot of mailing lists for various reasons. Then after they have served their usefulness we just start deleting the email as it comes into our inbox. Over time these really start to add up and we end up with an inbox full of unread marketing emails. About once a month I will dig through those emails and look for the unsubscribe link that should be included on them and remove myself from the mailing list. Another set of emails that you can target for leaving behind are those from services that already send you push notifications to your phone. No need to have both of them and you can usually unsubscribe with a link at the bottom of the email or go to the settings for your account on the service.

Outside of these few steps my email is really like the wild, wild west and I am the marshal who shows up every once in a while to clean things up and then move on down the trail until I need to come back to town and deal with an unruly visitor once again.

LISA SCHMEISER: I like to keep my work email and my personal email very separate, to the point of using different email clients across different devices. It may seem paranoid, but I have two good reasons for doing so. First, it keeps me focused on what each sender needs from me. Second, it minimizes the odds that I'll do something dumb like send the wrong reply to the wrong sender.

So I use Outlook for work-related email and Gmail for my personal mail. To stay on top of both mailboxes, I use the same general techniques:

Filter mercilessly. Sales promotions are fun -- fare sales from your favorite airline! Reminders to buy season tickets for your local baseball team! -- but they're rarely must-see email. The same goes for automated reports on web traffic or email newsletters that collect interesting and useful links. I use rules in both Outlook and Gmail to winnow as many emails as possible away from my inbox and into other folders.

Sift out unread mail quickly. One of my favorite smart folders in Outlook is the one I have for unread mail only. Although I strive for Inbox Zero, I don't always get there. So having the smart folder automatically sift any unread messages gives me a clear and easy starting point for plowing through email.

(Remember, I only check it twice daily. It interrupts my workflow otherwise.)

Unsubscribe early and often. When I do go through my email newsletter folders, I take note of which emails I read and which ones I keep deleting, even if I subscribed with good intentions. I do not hesitate to hit the "unsubscribe" button.

I am so glad these new features are coming to Outlook -- I'm especially looking forward to test-driving both the Sweep and one-click unsubscribe features.


But, wait...there's probably more so be sure to follow Rich on Twitter and Google+.

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