Outlook 2003 Confessional

Outlook is my one salvation from sheer chaos.  As I’ve complained before several times before (here, and here), I’m pretty busy.  Outlook is the shining light that keeps me sane.  Having taken an internal course on time management a couple of years ago, Managing Action Using Outlook, I realized I wasn’t the only one overwhelmed by email at Microsoft.  The beginning of the class was a confessional, people were asked “How many unread emails you have in your inbox?” I thought I was bad with 200 unread emails.  One person in the class had 2,000+. I realized I wasn’t that bad off.  The course taught me to two things – see if the email is actionable, if not, do you need to save it, if not, delete it. If it is actionable, can you reply immediately, if not, put a flag on it and describe the task that needs to be accomplished.  The second lesson was to use my Outlook calendar religiously to schedule my time and to color code any events I had..  Here’s my calendar for April – May before TechEd: 

  • Red colors indicate high priority items that you would lose sleep over
  • Dark Blue are regularly schedule meetings
  • Light blue indicates travel
  • Green is a personal event
  • Orange is a customer event
  • Brown is when I schedule time to work on projects

I also love Outlook 2003 Search Folders. I flag all mail that is urgent (red), I need to respond to but not immediately (yellow), will read later (green), special projects (orange blue), and mail I want to remember to follow up on (purple).  The problem is that by flagging mail, I would get a rather large # of emails flagged for follow up.  So I created a search folder with just red and yellow flags and any overdue items.  I called it Hot Flags, meaning that if I even have five minutes in-between meetings, these are the flags I should work on. My goal is to keep this around 20.  As you can see below I’m doing great with unread mail, but I clearly have a lot of actionable mail.

Now onto the confessional: How many unread emails do you have in your inbox? What tips (besides the delete key) would you recommend to stay on top of information overflow?

Comments (16)

  1. mailhead says:

    Work email about 100, but if I can count Hotmail spam, at least another 200 🙂

  2. Jerry Pisk says:

    I usually receive less than 50 e-mails a week at work. But most people I know are like you guys, and I just keep wondering – when do you get any actual work done?

    As for staying on top of those messages – instead of flagging them just reply. I can’t imagine you’d spend more than half a minute or so replying to most of your mail, you have almost 200 messages you need to process on your screenshots, there’s no way you can spend more than couple seconds on each given how full your callendar is. Unless you just work while in a meeting, but then you have even more time to reply.

  3. Hey Jerry,

    Sorry for not making that clear, yes, you should *absolutely* reply to any message that you can respond to right away. The flags are for things like "Review this 100-slide Powerpoint" or "Aggregate five people’s comments from a 1st-draft of a whitepaper". You’d be surprised how much email you can process in meetings, I think it’s the only way anyone gets anything done around here 🙂

  4. Gary Short says:

    I have no unread emails in my inbox *smug look* 🙂

    My top tip for dealing with email is not to automatically download messages every X minutes. Instead, only check your email when you have the time to deal with the messages, even if by "dealing with", you’re only going to flag them for future attention.

  5. Except I never delete email, except for SPAM. Email trails make a good CYA.

  6. Jerry Pisk says:

    Dan, that’s scary, because it means those meetings you go to are useless, since most people are not paying attention anyways 🙁 This is everything I (and possibly other people) don’t like about management, they’re just not doing anything, because they always work on something else.

  7. The one thing I find really helpful is pre-filtering mail via rules into their final endpoints based on any possible criteria I can find. With search folders (most importantly Unread Mail) your Inbox doesn’t have to be the place where all the unread mail aggregates — most of it will have been pre-classified somewhere already.

    The advantage is that you can read your new mail selectively — for example, ignore mail from friends (as a group) or a mailing list for a while while still getting to and responding to mail from coworkers or unfiltered mail in your inbox.

  8. David Cumps says:

    Currently one unread email 😉

    I started dealing with the problem when there were about 50+ unread, now I reply them asap, and if they are valuable (eg: there’s info in it) I dump it in a folder for it, or delete it immediately otherwise

  9. Ilya,

    Good call on mail rules, they are definitely a must do and I use them for all distribution email

  10. Theil says:

    I really like lookout (http://www.lookoutsoft.com/Lookout/) that indexes all your mail and lets you search it like you use Google. It means that I now skim a lot of email and then immediately move it to an Archive folder – I know I can always find the information if and when I need it. Before I used to leave lots of mail in my Inbox, now I only leave unanswered mails that I need to reply to – that keeps my Inbox at about 30 or so emails.

  11. After reading David Allen’s getting things done my Inbox is exactly that, it is new mail that I haven’t looked at. When processing my Inbox each email either gets dealt with, filed, or deleted. If it is something that needs to be done it goes straight into our issue tracking system.

  12. Max Battcher says:

    Unread in Inbox: Usually None; Prefiltering is good. Also, a good spam filter, in my case, is crucial. At the moment I have 400+ Unread in my Spam folder. (Interesting note: Spam folder messages are auto-killed after 24 hours… Spam is awful.)

  13. Todd Spatafore says:

    Dan, I agree with William up there. The in-house management course sounds like David Allen’s Getting Things Done course. He has written a book (there’s a second book with reminders of his key points) and it’s been recommended by many other MSDN Bloggers.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Outlook 2003 Confessional

  15. Peter says:

    Unread mail in Inbox: 0 – spam folder: 300+

  16. Ryann says:

    I am starting to understand how outlook provides the tools that will help me organize my life.

    I work a task based job, and of late I am recieving 25-50 task emails a day and is increasing steadily.

    I had previously flagged some emails that I referenced often (Purple for passwords).I only started flagging action emails within the last month or so.

    I was looking for an alternate flagging system so that my purple reference flags didn’t show up in my "for follow-up" folder (the lower the number the better. Creating search folders is a dandy idea!