Start Page: Clear your Outlook inbox, clear your mind

June 29, 2016

WilsonEmail overload is a real problem. Walk around the typical law office and check the unread count of the nearest computer. Or, think through the number of emails you have read and left in your inbox. If only your investment account would grow like your message count.

Unfortunately, leaving emails unprocessed in your inbox waiting for you drains your energy, causes you to procrastinate, and takes up mental capacity. Thankfully, there’s a better way to deal with email. It’s called getting to “Inbox Zero.”

The concept is simple: Act on each email and place it somewhere other than your inbox until it can be handled, archived or deleted. Read on before you ask “why?”

Why strive for Inbox Zero?

The simple answer is because it allows you to be in control rather than be controlled. You get the email out of your inbox and choose when you will respond. Conceptually, Inbox Zero is easy to understand but difficult to implement and maintain. You already have the tools you’ll need. The hardest part is developing good habits and having the self-discipline to maintain your system.

Make sub-folders (or not)

There are a number of methods to keeping your inbox free of email. The first, and probably most popular, is to create sub-folders for messages. This can be a good method but is limited. (Note: This method assumes you don’t need to save your messages into a practice management system.) You will have to spend time creating the folders and then sort the emails into the sub-folders as they arrive.

Another method is to create a set of folders that define the type of email stored or the action required for that email. Sam Glover, writing for lawyerist.com, recommends four folders: “Do Now, Later, Waiting, To Read.”

Another method is to simply archive the message into a folder named Archive. Outlook 2016 includes an archive folder by default, along with a tool bar/ribbon button to archive messages in one click (or by pressing the backspace button). Have an older version of Outlook? Just create a sub-folder named Archive. Archived messages reside in one folder, but with a few added seconds, can be easily organized for later reference using Outlook flags or categories.

Retrieve for reference or response

If all the emails are in one folder, how can you retrieve them when needed for reference or response? Before you archive a message, categorize and/or flag the message(s). These tools are found under the “Tags” section of the Outlook 2016 ribbon.

Applying a flag to an email essentially creates a task in Outlook, giving you a shortcut to access that message when you are ready to respond. This can be very helpful to quickly sort through the backlog of inbox messages, flagging messages that need a response or further review. There are various types of follow-up flags with reminders that you can apply to a message. Look at the options by clicking on the Follow Up button on the ribbon and hold your mouse over each option for a few seconds to read the screen tip.

If you choose to use the archive method, Outlook’s categorize feature becomes very helpful. Applying a category to a message applies that category to all current and future items in that conversation. This is a big time saver versus manually sorting email and all responses into a sub-folder.

You still need to create the categories like you would a sub-folder, but can do so as you go through your email. Click on Categorize | All Categories | New. Categories will sort alphanumerically for easy reference later. You can assign shortcut keys (called Quick Click) to frequently used categories to make this process even faster.

Assign the category and/or flag to the email and then press the Archive button. Done right, the message is organized and waiting for you at a time you choose.

To see your messages, navigate to the Archive sub-folder. Likely, the view is set to show the emails by date with the newest or oldest on top. Not the most helpful if you are looking for emails organized by a specific matter. Click where it says “By Date” and choose “Categories.” Right click on the top category and choose “Collapse All Groups.” You will now see a list of your categories in alphanumeric order. Clicking the disclosure triangle to the left of the category name will expand that category to reveal all the emails with that category applied. You can also search within a particular category using the search tools.

Make it a goal this summer to reach Inbox Zero at least once. You will enjoy the feeling and want to make it a habit. For more information, visit my blog (sethrwilson.com) for a forthcoming screencast on how to set up a Quick Step to do all of this with just a few keystrokes and some additional reference links for this tip.•

Seth R. Wilson is an attorney with Adler Tesnar & Whalin in Noblesville. In addition to practicing law, he helps manage the day-to-day technology operations of the firm. Seth writes about legal technology at sethrwilson.com and is a frequent speaker on the subject. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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