How I Achieved Inbox Sanity

Part of my goals for work in 2015 was to wrangle my email into a system where my inability to find a particular email was not actually a legitimate excuse for not doing something. Because it had actually gotten to the point where things getting lost in my inbox was a regular occurrence, and it was rather embarrassing. I had become an obsessive email checker, because I knew that any important or urgent emails would be lost if I didn’t deal with those immediately, and I spent so much time dealing with those that I never got to the rest. There was one particular email trail from my boss that I completely lost, several times, and I was pretty sure Outlook was just eating it. So in February, I set to figuring out this mess. The system I came up with is probably even better than Inbox Zero; it has helped restore my work sanity.

For years, I’ve been on a quest to get to Inbox Zero, fueled by both my complete hatred of dealing with emails and having read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. The problem was that any system I came up with was terribly manual, so I’d abandon it as quickly as I set it up. And I always felt like Outlook could never work with any sort of GTD process because it was just too limited in it’s functionality. All I wanted in Outlook was Gmail-like labels and I thought I could reach my Inbox Zero nirvana (nevermind that my actual Gmail inbox is and always was a disaster itself).

…just use Outlook.  Use all of Outlook.

I’ve researched GTD and Inbox Zero for Outlook in the past and not come up with anything that helped me, but somehow this time I came across a blog post from an accountant on GTD for Outlook that made me think of things differently. The problem was that I had a very limited view of Outlook’s capabilities and how to make use of them. Once I realized this, coming up with a manageable system was easy; time-consuming, but easy.

Getting Started

I started by writing out, on paper, what types of email I have to deal with. After realizing that most of the types I had written down were duplicates, I ended up with the following list:

  • Do something – anything from a major project to a simple reply, in any time-frame
  • FYI – read it and file it
  • Read later – newsletters and such
  • Delegate – get someone else to do something
  • Crap I don’t even need to see

In many cases, I could do whatever I needed to do to any of those types of emails in under 2 minutes, according to David Allen’s “2 minute rule“. Can this be delegated in less than 2 mins? Then delegate it as I process it, and then it’s done. Can I reply in less than 2 minutes? Then reply as I process it, and then it’s done. I made a commitment that I would stick to the 2 minute rule when processing all email.

Then, I got to setting up a system that would let me automate the processing as much as possible. My process would rely on Categories, Folders, Quick Steps and Search Folders. The initial set up only took a little while, once I knew what types of email I would be receiving. I tweaked it a bit over the next few days, and continue tweaking it as I find things not working for me.

However, the initial email processing took me 2 full business days. My inbox had been exploding for months on end, so there was a lot to go through. I took a couple of days where half my team was on an offsite and things were a little quieter than normal. The pain I went through back in February is totally worth it now, when I can process my email in just minutes today.


My previous processes relied on too many damn folders, and I could never find anything. On the other hand, in Gmail everything is essentially in a single folder, and that’s nearly as difficult to manage. My new folder structure is heavily influenced by the accountant’s system, using the following:

  • Current Month – I’ll get into why I called it this shortly
  • Monthly folders
  • A single folder for everything before I started this system
My Outlook folders


My one exception is a folder for our annual event, Fusion. Eeevvvveeerrrryyyyything related to Fusion for every year goes here, because this is such a big initiative. Although, now that I’m writing this I’ve realized a better way I could do this.

The folder system just makes it a little easier to find emails, if I feel like digging around manually. Most things will be in the Current Month folder, or if I can remember approximately when I received it I can look in that folder.

Tip: Use punctuation in folder names to override Outlook’s default ordering and make certain folders stick to the top.


I was highly under-using Outlook’s categories. Somehow I had it in my head that you could only have a small handful of categories. It turns out, you can have an unlimited number of categories, but you’re limited to 25 colours. When I discovered this, in the accountant’s blog post, I realized that I could have Gmail-like labels in Outlook afterall! So here are the categories I set up, aligning to my types of email with a few extras.

My main categories

  • Delegate – as it sounds
  • Do Something – anything
  • To Read – all those newsletters

Some other ones just to make things easier to find later on

  • EAC – all my emails related our internal environmental committee that I’m on
  • Eloqua – anything dealing with our MAS
  • Payroll / Benefits – as it sounds
  • Purchase Request / Vendor Invoice – sooo many times I need to dig these up for Finance

And a few I have just for my calendar. Mail and calendar share categories in Outlook, so I preface them with a ‘z’ to sort them to the bottom of the list.

My Outlook categories

Quick Steps

Quick Steps is what pulls this all together into a mostly-automated system that makes it easy to stick with. When I mention Quick Steps to people, most of them have never heard of them. But they take up a significant portion of the ribbon in Outlook! Quick Steps are, essentially, macros in the sense that they complete a number of defined actions. They’re not actual MS Office macros in the sense that you have to know how to code in VB.

Outlook Quick Steps in the ribbon

Now as I’m processing my inbox, I just click one of these and a number of actions are completed from adding a category to moving to a folder. Here’s a breakdown of my Quick Steps:


Do This

Anything I have to do anything with. Reply, a project, whatever. I have a week to deal with it (in theory).

  • Categorize as ‘Do Something’
  • Move to ‘! Current Month’ folder
  • Flag message as ‘Follow up This Week’
  • Mark as read

Defer This and Do Immediately are similar, except the Flag is set to ‘Follow up Next Week’ and ‘Follow up Today’, respectively.


I’ve done whatever I have to do, or it was just an FYI; file it and get it out of my sight.

  • Mark ‘Complete’
  • Move to ‘! Current Month’
  • Mark as read


Something I need to get someone else to do, but it’s going to take me more than 2 minutes to explain it to them. But, I want to get to it today.

  • Categorize as ‘Delegate’
  • Move to ‘! Current Month’ folder
  • Flag message as ‘Follow up Today’
  • Mark as read


I’ll get to this newsletter someday. Hopefully within a month.

  • Categorize as ‘To Read’
  • Move to ‘! Current Month’ folder
  • Flag message as ‘Follow up This Month’
  • Mark as read

All of them include moving the email to the Current Month folder and marking it as read. If somehow an email has escaped being marked as read, it will be marked as read. And this gets everything out of my inbox.

Also, this is why I prepend the name of my Current Month folder with an exclamation mark – so I don’t need to change all of my Quick Steps at the beginning of each month. Instead, at the beginning of the month I take everything in the Current Month folder that’s from last month, and move it to it’s own folder.

So, this is how I process my email. It takes just minutes to process now, and I actually get to read and digest everything I am looking at because I’m not spending hours and hours in Outlook.

Search Folders

Now that all the email is processed, I can actually deal with it in some sort of sane fashion. Thus, Inbox Sanity. How I do that is with Search Folders.

My Outlook Search FoldersWhile the normal quick search method in Outlook sucks, advanced search is really powerful, and that’s what Search Folders use to create what appears to be a folder that only contains items of specific criteria. All of my Search Folders, with the exception of the ones that collect emails from specific senders (see above about that missing email thread from my boss – I found it!), have the condition that ‘Flag Status’ is not equal to ‘Completed’, so anything marked ‘Done’ is filtered out. These folders are strictly for action-ing things (except, you know, the boss folders).

The Search Folders all correspond to the types of emails, with some additional filtering for urgency with my ‘Do Something’ email type – today, this week, and overdue. I didn’t create the ‘Overdue’ folder immediately when implementing my system, but I realized it was handy for focusing on that backlog and clearing it out. Also, sometimes I need to do something but I’m held up for some reason, and it slips into overdue status.

When I have time to deal with email, I go to one of my Search Folders and deal with just what’s there.

Crap I Never Need to See

I also completely revamped my rules – I used to have a million for individual things, now I group them into something more maintainable. Anything that I have to receive, for whatever reason, but don’t need to see, get deleted automatically through the rules. Anything I have to forward to another person as soon as it arrives, is done through a rule.

I also unsubscribed from newsletters like crazy when I first set this up and over the next few weeks. If a newsletter made me angry when it arrived instead of excited to read it, I got rid of it.

Other Bits of My System

The other piece of my email sanity is scheduling email time. I have 4, 30-minute blocks in my calendar every day – when I first get in, last thing before lunch, first thing after lunch, and right before I leave for the day – for email processing and what I call “quick wins”. If my email processing doesn’t take long, I can read something from the To Read category or delegate some tasks or whatever. When I first started this processes, I still had such a backlog of email that I needed all 2 hours every day to get through everything. Now I’m to a point where I can miss one or 2 of those blocked periods without completely drowning in email. And I don’t obsessively check email, because I know I will see whatever is new in just a few hours. It lets me concentrate on what I have to get done, and not constantly respond to the latest whatever.

The other thing that’s really helped is turning off email alerts for all but a few types of emails (through rules). I now only get alerts for message marked ‘Important’ or emails from reception that a visitor is there (I learned that one after my poor husband had been waiting for me at reception for 20 mins with flowers for me once because I no longer obsessively check email).

When I need a particular email for reference on a task or project, I’m not interrupted with a slew of alerts, and I can stick to my 4 times a day for processing my inbox.

I will admit that I sometimes don’t have Inbox Zero. Especially in the first few weeks when I was dealing with so much backlog, I did let emails sometimes sit unread in the inbox. Even now, emails build up between my processing blocks so I can never really call it Inbox Zero. But it has restored in sanity and my productivity, and I actually have time to do real actual work while not letting a ridiculous backlog of emails build up. Thus, I dub my system Inbox Sanity.

2 thoughts on “How I Achieved Inbox Sanity

  1. Adam Smith (@MyITGuy_Adam)

    When setting up the Search Folders, how do I control which flag status (“This Week”, or “Today”) is searched for? (e.g. Separating the “Do Something” from “Due this week”.)?

    • Dawn Smith Post author

      Ah! A flag is essentially setting a due date on the email. So, in the Advanced tab of the search folder criteria, there’s a field for “Due Date” and you can filter by various time frames.

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