Outlook 2007 Best Practices: Tame your Inbox with the 4 D’s

By Melissa MacBeth

This article is part of a series from Melissa MacBeth's Best practices for Outlook 2007.

 Note    For details on applying these principles, follow the links in the list and inline below to additional articles.

ShowSee links to the rest of the articles in this sequence.

In this article


The 4 Ds

Once you set up your system, you are ready to begin managing incoming e-mail. By making your Inbox the central place for receiving important e-mail, you can go through it with the confidence that each item is something you need to deal with.

For every message in your Inbox:

  • If it isn't important, delete it immediately.
  • If it can be done in two minutes or less, do it (reply, file, call, etc.).
  • If it isn't for you or if you can, delegate (forward) it.
  • If you need to do it, but it takes longer than two minutes (including reading), defer (hold off on) it.

If you need it as reference (even if you have decided to defer it), move it into your reference folder. The goal is to reduce the number of times you touch each e-mail message.

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Delete it

Delete messages that you don't need to read. If it is junk, delete it.

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Do it: The 2-minute drill

It is amazing what can be done in two minutes. But if a message takes longer than two minutes to deal with, defer it. To get a sense of what two minutes feels like, try timing yourself.

Once you have dealt with the message, do one of the following:

  • Delete it if it is something of little consequence.
  • File it in one of your reference folders (for example, 1-Reference).

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Delegate it

Sometimes you receive a message that is really meant for someone else to deal with. In these cases, reply and include the person to whom you are delegating the message on the To line. If you want to follow up later, flag it for yourself before sending. In your To-Do Bar, mark the task with the "@Waiting" category.

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Defer it

Deferring a message means that you will come back to it later, when you have time.

Reasons to defer a message:

  • It cannot be dealt with in less than two minutes.
  • It will take a while to read.
  • It will require a carefully crafted response.
  • It requires additional action in another program (for example, "Need to add to <name> document").

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How to defer a message: Flag it

When you decide that you don't have time to deal with a message right away, you can flag it:

  • If you need to do it today, flag it for Today (just click the flag).
  • If you can put it off for longer, right-click it and flag it for a later date.
  • If you will need to refer to the message more than once and you want easy access to it, drag it to the Later group in the To-Do Bar. If you do not have a Later group, set the flag Start Date on the task to 100 years in the future. (Use this flag rarely so that it does not become an overpopulated catch-all.).
  • If it is something you will need in the short term, flag it No Date so that it appears at the top of the To-Do Bar. Use this group sparingly and clear it out regularly, because it is at the top of your task list.

In addition to flagging a message, you can:

  • Add appropriate categories.
  • Mark the message as read, if it’s not already marked as read.
  • File it to your reference folder (1-Reference).

Once an item has been flagged, it will appear in the To-Do Bar. By flagging it and filing it into your reference folder, you have processed it, and now you can move it out of your view. But because it is in your task list, you can move on to your next message, knowing that you will return to your flagged items later.

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If you want to add information to your flagged items

If the Subject line of a message does not provide you enough context, you can do one of two things, depending upon the amount of information you need to add:

  • Change the name of the task by clicking it in the To-Do Bar. Changing the name of the task will not change the Subject: line of the e-mail message.
  • Create a task with the e-mail message as an attachment.

You can also add a category to help you see at a glance where your next action is. A quick glance at your To-Do Bar with categorized tasks will let you know what is immediately actionable (@Office), which tasks you are waiting on other people for (@Waiting), and what you'll be meeting about (@Meeting).

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When do you deal with tasks you have deferred?

After you process your messages, you can tackle your task list. This is when you respond to those messages that you have deferred.

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Just file it

Sometimes you receive a message that you do not need to act upon, but which you might need at a future date. A good example is a message with instructions. File these messages in your reference folder (1-Reference). Adding a category will make the message easier to find later if you need it (for example, @Project).

To file your message, you can drag it to the appropriate reference folder, or click the Move to Folder command on the toolbar, or right-click the message and click Move to Folder, or press CTRL+SHIFT+V to bring up the Move to Folder dialog box.

Move to folder button on Outlook 2007 menu

After you finish processing your e-mail, you should have a clean Inbox and can switch your focus to your calendar and tasks.

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About the author

Melissa MacBeth photo Melissa MacBeth is a Lead Program Manager in the Office product group at Microsoft. She worked on several time management features for Outlook 2007, including the To-Do Bar, flags, flagging on send, and the Daily Task List. She lives in Seattle and enjoys gardening.

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Applies to:
Outlook 2007