Back to basics: Two simple Outlook rules to reclaim your workday

Back to basics: Two simple Outlook rules to reclaim your workday

Years ago, I found this cartoon:


In the 1990’s, once you got an email it was a fun and enjoyable experience. “Someone is thinking of me!”, and you really set time aside to craft a considerate and careful response. Things shifted, email became ubiquitous and sort of transformed into a medium that could handle anything.

Now, we all have 220 unread emails. But nobody is sending letters anymore. The last time I wrote a physical letter (with a pen, on paper) was in or around 2014 to my wife.

I get to see a glimpse of people’s email behavior occasionally during virtual meetings. Someone is sharing their desktop in anticipation to present or show something, and their Outlook might be open for a brief second. I don’t care about that, but I do care about the magic number that is shown after Inbox – for some, it shows 573 unread emails. If it’s more than 0, I get anxious – for the other person.

As we are all very busy working mostly remotely now and bombarded with Teams and Zoom calls, notifications from Yammer, Slack, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Signal, and TikTok, it’s easy to ‘let go‘ of emails. Yet, we still receive a massive amount of email, too.

MyAnalytics, as part of Office 365, provides me with interesting statistics on my productivity and wellbeing. For emails, I get roughly 100 per day. I send, on average, 7 emails each day I work. That is about 2100 emails received each month. I don’t want for all of those to land in my Inbox!

So, I did what I usually do when I need clarity about the way I work. I reset all settings in Outlook and started fresh. Turns out, I needed just 2 rules to wrangle my Inbox back in order:

  • Rule 1: Where my name is not in the To: box. I get a lot of emails sent to distribution lists, thus my name is not set as a recipient. I redirect all of these emails to a subfolder.
  • Rule 2: Where my name is in the Cc: box. Almost the same, but this traps all those emails where someone thought “Let me send an email to 10 people and let me copy these 20 people, just in case.” I then redirect these to a subfolder also.

What happens then? Now my Inbox is easy to manage, as only the email that is directly meant for me, lands there. Obviously, the issue is mostly diverted to another folder now. But I now have clarity and confidence that they can be skimmed quickly through, as for each item I don’t have to think “but what do I write in response.”

I still get about 100 emails per day at work. But only about 10 of those land in my Inbox now. With such a simple approach it seems one can reclaim time, focus, and energy for more pressing matters.