How to manage email at work with MS Outlook
Email has become the default for communication for many of us in recent years. It seems to have even stopped us talking to each other. The fact that many email applications have a “conversation” view for your inbox just shows that many will send an email rather than simply picking up the phone or having a video call.
I now I am guilty of this too at times and I have to remind myself to break my bad habits rather than resorting to the “fire and forget” transaction of emailing.
But the problem is not just a social one for me. Email actually impacts my productivity and can really disrupt my schedule if I let it. My previous posts were all based on my routines and GTD (Getting Things Done) principles but there is little point in having such a sophisticated routine if the first thing I do is turn on the chaos that is my email.
The issue for me, as I am sure it is for many of you out there, is that I get a lot of email in my professional life. On average I must receive anywhere between 100-150 emails a day with many of these being complex technical issues or client matters for me to manage. If I am committed to meetings for the majority of the day, then my inbox can run up to several hundred in a few days.
“There is nothing more demoralizing than seeing an inbox that full, one week to the next!”
It gets to the point at times that I wonder what is buried in the inbox. What critical issue or even new client inquiry am I missing by not going through each email. Sometimes I take the view that if it is critical then the sender will contact me in a different way. However, too many people “fire and forget” on important matters nowadays for me to rely on that stance.
I have tried many ways of managing my email, all with differing degrees of success (and failure!), but I thought I would share an approach that I keep coming back to.
Some background first
I should note that each strategy that I have used is often unique to the software tools that I utilize. For example, I would much prefer to use Apple’s mail app but it is still too limiting in its share functions, or what you can actually do with a message once received. I also use Spark app on my Mac and iPhone to manage my various Gmail accounts simply because it has more functionality than Apple mail.
But there is no point in debating which email application to use because I work in the corporate world where the PC and Microsoft exchange rule. Sure I can use my Apple gear to access my Exchange account but my IT colleagues only allow me to use the Microsoft Outlook app to do that.
I have used Outlook for decades now and it is one of the true heavyweights for email, calendar and contacts. But that is my issue. The application has too much going on and tries too hard to be everything I need in my work day.
It ends up getting in the way of managing my inbox and getting my work done.
Outlook it has to be
So to recap, I get 150 emails a day and I have to use MS Outlook to manage them as my default email application.
The answer for me is not to use filters or saved searches or a customized inbox viewer but actually with another Microsoft application called “To Do.”
ToDo app used to be called “Wunderlist” and was an amazing simple and independent app that you could use for projects and tasks and with teams of people. It was also built with an amazing cloud sync that took seconds to bring all of your devices in line. Then Microsoft bought it and for a while it remained a separate application wrapped in Window-esque branding - which as an Apple geek, just put me right off.
But more recently Microsoft integrated it in to Outlook. Now I have decent “task manager” type functionality built in to my default work email application.
Now that got me thinking about how I could manage my email.
So this is what I do
After I have completed my GTD process at the start of my work day (read my previous posts on this), I open up Outlook and work through my inbox. Usually I will have received email from the time I turned off the day before and potentially some messages will have come through earlier in my day.
I quickly scan my inbox for key messages sent to me, those from certain individuals that I know will expect a response from me and anything else that looks like it needs my review.
I then flag those emails in outlook. In times gone by would have simply ended up in outlook tasks and have just moved the chaos to another menu in the application. Only now, with To Do, I now have a clean and simple interface in a separate app but linked to Outlook, that shows me a new “task list” called “flagged email.” The app also tells me when I flagged the message and so in a GTD way, sets the order that I need to review and action each message.
What works great is when I need to reply. I can simply click the “open in outlook” button and it works as a link to open up that specific email for me to respond to.
Once I have responded, I click the message to say its done and it vanishes from To Do as completed but critically stays in my inbox in outlook but just without the flag I added at the start. I get the “kicks” of completing my work to do with the knowledge that the message is safely stored in my system for recall if needed.
I have found this to most efficient way to manage outlook email in a corporate work setting. I would welcome any comments on how to do this better or even suggestions on different approaches to email management.