Conquer Inbox clutter

Some people get just a few email messages a day in their Microsoft Outlook Inboxes. But many people, especially those who belong to contact groups, receive so many emails that keeping up with them can be a real challenge. Say, for example, that you’re a member of a photography, gaming, or alumni group, one with several thousand members. You might get dozens of messages a day. If you don’t have time to respond to every message right away, within a few months your Inbox could be stuffed with thousands of messages. Sorting through them all might seem daunting, but learning a few tips for organizing, reducing the volume of, and managing your messages can help you deal with Inbox overload.

Organize your messages

Create rules and folders for groups, persons, or topics

If you regularly receive email from specific groups or persons, or on specific topics, you can create a folder for each group, person, or topic, and a rule that automatically moves all related messages to those folders when they arrive. That way, if you want to find out fast what’s going on with your photography club group, for example, you can read just those messages.

It's easy to create email rules and folders in Outlook 2010. Creating a rule takes only a few clicks. If you're using an earlier version of Outlook, the process is similar.

Outlook 2010 ribbon with Rules command and Always Move Messages to: commands selected

Learn about creating rules in Outlook 2003 , Outlook 2007, or Outlook 2010. Or see the Outlook blog post on the topic.

Reduce the volume of messages

Use the Clean Up command

If you use Outlook 2010, the Clean Up command is an easy way to clear out a large number of email messages quickly. Say you have several thousand unread emails in your Alumni Association folder. The Clean Up command can reduce the count by 35 percent in about four seconds. Here’s how it works. When you click Clean Up on the Home tab, Outlook 2010 evaluates the contents of each message in a Conversation, or in all Conversations in a folder. If an earlier message in a Conversation is completely contained within one of the replies, that message is deleted. In a long Conversation, Clean Up can remove a significant number of redundant messages.

The Home tab of the Outlook 2010 ribbon with the Clean Up command selected

Watch a video about how to use the Clean Up command. For more about Clean Up and other new features in Outlook 2010, see this Outlook blog post.

Search and delete

Sometimes there are specific messages within Conversations or folders that you know you want to delete. You can use Instant Search in Outlook 2010 to do find these messages. For example, say that many messages in your Photography Club Conversations involve people buying and selling items. The subject lines of these messages probably include phrases like “for sale” or “wanted,” or just the abbreviations “FS” or “WTB” (want to buy). If you’re not interested, you can search for messages with these phrases in the subject line, and delete them all. Or maybe you’re interested in only one brand of photography equipment. You could search for unread conversations about brands you’re not interested in and delete all of those.

Outlook 2010 ribbon with Instant Search enabled and Search Inbox text box highlighted

Learn how to enable Instant Search in Outlook 2010. To learn more about using Instant Search, refining searches with the Search ribbon, and creating folders for repeated searches, see this blog post.

View groups of messages as conversations

If you want to quickly review a large number of messages to determine what to delete, you can use Conversations view. Conversations view displays all messages within a conversation together, so you can look at a specific topic in your Inbox. Usually, the most recent message in a conversation contains the previous messages and replies. So to get the latest news on an upcoming contest in your Photography Club, you don’t have to plough through all the messages—just use Conversations view. Or, say you’re not interested in a topic, studio lighting, for example. If you see in Conversations view that the Studio Lighting Conversation has seven unread messages, you can just delete the whole conversation without reading the messages.

View as conversation in Outlook 2010

Ignore conversations

Everybody receives messages about topics that they’re not interested in. If you specialize in outdoor photography, for instance, you might not be interested in studio portraits. The Ignore command in Conversations view can help you ignore these kinds of messages. The beauty of using the Ignore command is that it automatically moves all of the existing messages and future messages in a conversation to the Deleted Items folder. That way the conversations you’re not interested in don’t clog your Inbox.

Home tab on the Outlook 2010 ribbon with the Ignore command selected

Manage your messages

If you want to keep your Inbox from getting clogged again and in need of yet another big, time-consuming cleanup, it’s a good idea to learn ways to stay in control of your Inbox. Here are just a few tips that can help you reduce the time you spend managing messages once you’ve cleaned up your Inbox.

  1. Use conditional formatting to highlight messages sent only to you—not to multiple recipients— and give priority to those messages. This step helps you prioritize the messages that you need to look at first.
  2. Create more rules to automatically move group messages (like forums) to folders. You can review those messages less frequently.
  3. Try not to have more than 30 unread emails in your Inbox at any time.
  4. Identify tasks that you repeat most, and then create Quick Steps for those.

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