Keeping my email inbox organized as never been an easy task for me. In fact, it’s something I’m terrible at.
Back in 2010 at my first-ever-office-gig, on-premise email was still king and unfortunately, email capacity was at a premium. I would often spend 15 minutes a day deleting older emails, just to ensure my mailbox had space for tomorrow’s wave.
Over the years and gradual transitions towards cloud computing, email storage has become a non-issue. Most free email services come with at least a few gigabytes of storage. Business plans often have much more storage per-user.
Why is this a problem? Because there is so MUCH email coming in, I now find it difficult to separate the important stuff from the noise.
Recently, I’ve overhauled my entire email system with the following goals:
- Anything that isn’t from a client or a co-worker goes into a folder that I can review later
- Delete what isn’t needed anymore
- Automate as much of this as I can
If you’re new to Microsoft 365 or are looking for ideas on how to manage your Outlook inbox, keep reading. I’ll share my secrets with you.
Goal #1 - Direct any non-urgent emails into a folder for later
While this might sound like an ‘Inbox Zero’ process, trust me when I say that my inbox is never at zero and likely never will be. This goal is to ensure my inbox is only for the emails I consider important, and for everything else is stored away until I’m ready to look at it.
Inbound email from known senders are sorted into one of a few folders, such as:
- Newsletters and Forums - anything I’ve subscribed to
- Internal Notifications - anything from an internal, non-Microsoft 365 app
- Microsoft 365 Notifications - anything from Teams, or other Microsoft 365 apps
- Deleted Items - the beginning of the end of my emails (aka stage 1 of deletion)
Everything else, such as internal discussions or emails with clients, go directly to my inbox where I can review them immediately.
’I'll get into the automation of this system later on. Before we get into that, let’s talk about the lifecycle of email.
Goal #2: Delete What isn’t needed anymore
This goal might make some eyes twitch. We all know people who simply don’t delete ANY emails, whether or not it's company policy. I used to be one of them.
My inbox and sub-folders would grow exponentially over years and upon reflection, I found that I needed to retain less than 5% of my inbox. The rest was noise and clutter with no value.
Deletion is the ultimate destination for my emails. Anything worth keeping is archived (and/or exported into another app), so the email can be safely deleted from my inbox.
We have retention policies in place, so emails that I personally delete from my inbox are not actually deleted forever. They will be in a “second stage” mailbox until the policy expires, which could be many years from now.
Now this is where things get interesting. I’m not the type of person who wants to manually sort and delete emails, I want this done for me so I can focus on more important tasks.
Goal #3: Automate as Much as I can
I use Outlook rules to help me sort and delete emails, which keeps my folders and inbox manageable. To create these rules, I use the Sweep tool in Outlook on the Web.
Skip to 5:00 to see "Sweep in Outlook" in action
The Sweep tool is a lovely feature streamlines the rule creation process.
When I receive email from an unknown sender that is neither a client, a coworker, or a manager, I breakout the “Sweep” tool to move all current and future emails to their proper place.
To keep clutter down, I also use the sweep tool to delete some emails after 10 days. It’s something I didn’t know I wanted until I saw this tool in action.
A lot of system-generated emails are only relevant for a short period of time. For example, an email notification from Microsoft Planner may only be useful for a day or two.
Microsoft Viva emails me insights every morning. These emails are irrelevant in less than 24 hours, so why keep them when I can sweep them?
All of these rules can be found and managed in Outlook Settings.
There is even a special spot for Sweep rules in Outlook Settings
With these rules in place, my inbox stays focused. Everything else will remain in a side folder until it is no longer needed.
To keep my folders from getting too bulky, I apply retention policies that will automatically archive or delete emails after a period of time.
|Inbox||N/A||Defaults to organization policy|
|Microsoft 365 Notifications||6 months||Meeting invites, emails from teams, comments from Office docs and more. Any emails that are irrelevant in less than a few days have a special rule|
|Internal App Notifications||1 month||Notification emails that are irrelevant after less than a week. Most key information and required-actions happen outside of Outlook, so these emails can be deleted without a second thought.|
|Newsletters & Forums||1 month||If I haven't read a newsletter or forum post in a month, it's safe to say I have no intention to read it at all. Anything worth keeping here will be saved to my OneNote where I can ignore it for even longer.|
You can assign a policy to a folder in Outlook on the Web by right-clicking the folder and choosing "Assign Policy".
While it’s only been a few weeks with this new flow, my email feels like a usable workspace again. I’m still keeping a close eye on my “Deleted Items” folder to ensure nothing is getting deleted prematurely, but I haven’t run into any major issues.
What do you think of this setup? Let me know what you would change to make it work better for you.
Thanks for reading!