Just as many offices overflow with piles of paper, the Information Age has caused email inboxes to burst at the seams. It is easy to quickly feel overwhelmed by the amount of information piling up around us with listservs and emails from clients, courts, and colleagues because everyone feels compelled to keep us “in the loop.” Data retention policies often require us to keep these items, frequently leading to electronic hoarding tendencies. Overcoming this dilemma typically requires time and money, both of which are hard to part with on such a seemingly trivial issue. In reality, mastering email overload is a necessity and can begin with some simple Outlook changes.
The first step to regaining control over your inbox is to implement structure rather than allowing it to continue in an amoeba-like state. While most people are familiar with the concept of folders, they struggle with devoting the time to maintain such an organizational system on their own. So why not let technology do the work for us?
Many of us belong to listservs, receive court alerts, or are part of some mass email distribution, which results in an abundance of emails every day. An easy solution to organize this chaos is to establish rules which automatically group and deliver similar items into folders so new emails completely bypass the inbox. Beginning in Outlook 2010, rules are as simple as a right click. For example, right clicking on a court alert allows you to create a rule to automatically deliver messages from that court into a folder labeled “Court.” Now you can easily see an organized filing cabinet of messages and the number of new emails within each folder.
Some emails require immediate attention and therefore delivery to the inbox is necessary. Often the culprit of inbox congestion is messages we do not want to lose or delete, but rarely have time to appropriately file, so they continue lurking in our inbox. A quick remedy is a feature called Quick Steps which allows you to create custom buttons to automatically file reviewed messages from your inbox to a specific folder. By creating a Quick Step for each matter, you can properly file messages in a single click. This is a great method both for cleaning and maintaining an organized inbox.
Another offender of inbox overcrowding is unwanted junk mail. While some emails contain an “unsubscribe” link eliminating future communications, it is important to note this process only works with legitimate senders. In fact, spammers use it to confirm an email address is valid. An alternate option for handling unwanted messages is to classify them as junk mail and block future delivery, which can be done with a right click on an offending message.
Even with a tidy inbox, locating the exact message you are looking for can be difficult, as searching could lead to hundreds or more messages with no quick way to sift through the results. Outlook 2010 has not only improved the speed of searching, but also the ability to maximize search criteria limiting the number of matching results.
Search results can be frustrating, especially when nothing is found in the folder you know the message was filed in, until we realize it was somehow misfiled. Luckily it no longer matters where the message is stored, by simply clicking Search All Mail Items you can instantly search across all folders. While this makes location irrelevant, too many results can still be overwhelming.
The Search tab is a great way to quickly filter such results; adding criteria like sender, subject, date or even attachment. No special query language is needed; simply click the criteria type from the Search tab and type the word(s) you desire to find. This will allow you to find the needle in the haystack in record time.
Finding past messages in a conversation is a cinch with the ability to Show as Conversation in the View tab. This groups all messages within a conversation together allowing you to quickly “drill down” further into a conversation. If you prefer not to group your emails, you can still right click on a message to see related messages. This is priceless when trying to remember what was previously stated or attached earlier in an email chain.
In this world of continual multitasking it is easy to forget to follow up on items that don’t require immediate action. By right clicking the flag icon at the end of any message, you can add a reminder to appear on a specified date and time, which then allows you to view the email and refresh your memory on what you were supposed to do.
Technology is all around us. We can allow it to overwhelm us in a positive or negative manner. Change your outlook, change your life.•
Deanna Finney (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-owner of the Indianapolis-based legal technology company, Modern Information Solutions LLC. Areas of service include traditional IT services, software training and litigation support including trial presentation services. The opinions expressed are the author’s.