Outlook 2003 - Clearing Your Inbox

Your priorities … and how you actually spend time

What are your top priorities at work and in life? How do they map to the way you actually spend your time? Does the amount of time you spend managing your email bear any relation to its importance in your life?

If you don't have a strategy for dealing with email, the results can be disastrous:

 1.   Wasted time:

  • How many times do you read and review messages until you finally deal with them?
  • How many hours a month do you spend trying to find messages again?

 2. Stress and resulting fatigue: If your Inbox seems too big to cope with, it probably is causing you stress which in turn creates fatigue. How often do you get a nagging feeling that there are important messages in there somewhere that should be dealt with, but just feel too stressed and tired to try to find them?

3. Missed opportunities, deadlines, etc 

4.  A never ending problem that keeps growing 

Essential Elements of Effective Email Processing

This short course aims to teach you a simple processing method that can transform your email account from a burden into a useful, manageable tool.   There are four essential elements involved:

1. Create a simple and efficient e-mail filing system

2. Schedule dedicated time for processing e-mail once or twice daily

3. Adopt a set procedure for processing items and stick to it

4. Distinguish between Information and Action messages, and process them accordingly

  • Information messages: can you live without it? If not, file it for future reference. 
  • Action messages: apply one of the four 'D's: Delete it, Delegate it, Do it (if it will take 2 minutes or less), or Defer it by converting it into a scheduled task or appointment which can then be prioritised

Below, we take you through each of these elements. We've incorporated quick step-by-step guidance on how to use Outlook to accomplish the tasks required or, in a few cases, links to online guides that provide more in-depth assistance where it may be relevant.

Today is the First Day in the Rest of Your Life!

  • Create a Backlog folder for all messages in your inbox older than today, and move them all into that folder. (We'll do this below.) 
  • Schedule dedicated time for processing all of today's messages every day. (Remember: processing does not necessarily mean answering or actioning each message.) 
  • At end of the day, aim for a clean inbox – don't add to your backlog. 
  • Schedule time to gradually process your backlog, but make a clean sweep of all new messages daily from now
  • Make a pact with yourself: stick to this regime rigorously for 1 month. After 4 weeks you'll have established a habit you never want to break!

Step 1: Create a clear information filing system

To process your email efficiently, you must create a filing system that works for you. There are two principle approaches: 'bare basics' or a folder hierarchy.

'Bare Basics' filing: Many people find that using just one or two folders to store messages works best. All messages are kept in simple date order, but can be sorted at any time by sender ('From'), subject, whether messages have attachments or not, size, etc. Search tools, such as Outlook's search box or Google Desktop, also can be used to locate a specific message.

Bare basics filing example

 To sort messages in a folder:

1. Click on the heading of the column you want to sort by. 

2. Click again to sort the messages in reverse order. 

Note: for further information on sorting your messages, see the Outlook 2003: Organise your Inbox guide| 

Using a folder hierarchy: Other people create a hierarchy of folders and sub-folders to store messages according to topic, source, or other factors. 

Folder hierarchy example

Which ever of these methods you choose, you will definitely need to create a Backlog folder and at least one storage folder in addition to your Inbox. Also, if you use Outlook, you should make use of your Archive or Personal folder, too.  See Outlook 2003 - Manage your Mailbox Quota and Archive| for advice on Archive and Personal folders.

 To create a new folder:

1. Right click on the folder that will hold the new subfolder. (If it is to be a top level folder, right click on the Mailbox at the top of your "All Mail Items" list.)

2. Select New Folder.

3. Type in a name and press Enter.

 To move messages to a different folder:

1. Select the messages you want to move. 

  • To select a block of messages, click on the first message, hold down SHIFT and click on the last one. 
  • To select individual messages, click on the first, hold down CTRL and click on each of the others required.

2. Right-click anywhere on a selected message. A menu appears.

3. Release SHIFT/CTRL and left click on Move to FolderThe Move Items dialogue box appears.

4. Select the folder required.

5. Click OK.


1. Create a Backlog folder in your Inbox. 

2. Create any other folders you will need. You may want to keep your filing system fairly simple at first, and add additional folders and sub-folders only as you find a need for them.

3. Move all messages received prior to today from your Inbox into your Backlog folder.

Step 2: Schedule dedicated time to process email

How many interruptions do you experience each day? For many of us, every day is a series of interruptions with brief moments of concentration. But it's nearly impossible to complete anything when you allow constant interruptions. Make a point of scheduling a dedicated time for processing email each day when you let the phone go to messaging, turn off Instant Messaging, and turn away people who stop by. 

Schedule a recurring daily appointment, marked 'busy' in your calendar  

Of course, you can scan your e-mail during the day for urgent messages or requests from your boss. But many e-mail messages require you to make a decision, and good decisions require focus. Focus requires uninterrupted attention. When you do the bulk of your processing during your scheduled e-mail processing time and not randomly throughout the day, you're a lot more able to focus — and therefore make good decisions.

At first, keeping these appointments with yourself will take discipline. Promise yourself to follow this method every day for a month. Over time, as you see how much better life is with an empty Inbox, you'll become determined to make this discipline into a habit.

Stop Email Interrupting the Rest of Your Day

Once you are done processing your email, don't let email interrupt the rest of your day! Turn off all the various ways in which your computer notifies you of new email.

 Stop interruptions caused by new email message notifications:

1. Click on Tools | Options | Preferences tab | Email options | Advanced Options

2. Click to remove all ticks from the boxes under When new items arrive in my Inbox

Step 3: Adopt a set procedure for processing items

The procedure you choose for processing your email will depend upon how much of it there is. First, though, use the View menu to configure Outlook to assist you. 

Viewing your mailbox folders most efficiently

Open the Reading Pane on the right side of your screen, allowing you to preview messages without opening and closing each one individually. From the View menu, you also can turn off AutoPreview and turn on the Status Bar, which tells you how many items are stored in each folder.

To turn on the Reading Pane:

1. Select View | Reading Pane

2. Select the desired position on the screen.

Normal Daily Email Processing

Normally, you may find it most efficient simply to start from the top and work through the list one item at a time. For each message, first decide whether it is informational or requests action.

If it is informational, can you live without it? Delete it OR file it.

If it requests action, either:

  • Delete it
  • Delegate it
  • Do it (only if this can be done in 2 minutes or less!)
  • Defer it by converting it to a scheduled task or appointment


Do you shudder when you hear the "delete" word? Do you hesitant to delete messages for fear you might need them at some point? Ask yourself honestly: What percentage of information that you've kept do you actually use? If you can honestly say 'most of it', great! BUT for most of us that's not actually the case. So ask yourself:

  • Does the message relate to a current meaningful objective? If not, why keep it?
  • Can youfind the info elsewhere? Remember, for example, that by default any message you reply to will contain the original message you are replying to. Why keep both?
  • Are you likely to refer to it again in the next 6 months?
  • Are you required to keep it (for legal or HR purposes, for example)?

If you can't delete info, file it:

  • Use a simple filing system – don't spend time figuring out where to file it!


  • Forward it with a brief accompanying messageaim to write it in 2 min or less. Aim to use your time wisely.
  • Then delete it or move the message into tasks with a date to follow up. (See Defer it below.)

DEFER IT - Turn it into a task or an appointment.

  • Name the task to clearly state what action is required so that you don't have to reopen the e-mail message to find out. 
  • By following this procedure, you will create for yourself a clearly defined list of actions in your task list that you can prioritize and schedule for action.

When you go through your Inbox and delete the items you can eliminate, do the items that can be done in less than two minutes, and delegate what you can pass on, you end up with only those action items that you need to complete yourself and that will require more than two minutes to accomplish. At this point, you can prioritize that list and then schedule time on your calendar to ensure the priorities get done.

To turn a message into a task:

1. Drag the message onto Tasks in the Navigation Pane. When the Tasks bar (or icon) becomes highlighted, let go of the mouse button.

2. In the Task Window, type a description of the task in the Subject box.

3. Click Save and Close.

Note: if you want to include files attached to the message follow these steps instead:

1. Use the right button on your mouse to click and drag the message onto Tasks in the Navigation Pane.

2. Select Move Here as Task with Attachment.

3. In the Task Window, type a description of the task in the Subject box.

4. Click Save and Close.

To turn a message into a calendar appointment:

This is help for when you will need time to read and/or respond to a message

1. Use the right button on your mouse to click and drag the message onto Calendar in the Navigation Pane.

2. Select Move Here as Appointment with Attachment.

3. In the Task Window, type a description of the task in the Subject box.

4. Click Save and Close

Automating Outlook to Process Email for You

Two types of rules can be created to automate Outlook processing of your email: organisation and notification rules. These will sort, flag, colour code or send a notification to another email address when new email messages come into your Inbox. For example,

  • All messages with course code XXX in the subject go into an essay folder 
  • Create rules to delegate (by forwarding) messages as appropriate 
  • Create rules to delete email (or sort into Junk mail folder) as appropriate  
  • Automatically flag all messages with specific words in the subject 
  • Create rules to colour code messages of particular importance or related to a particular subject  
  • Send an email notification to your mobile whenever you get a message from family members

Creating a rule involves setting a condition, setting an action if the condition is met, and specifying any exceptions which might be relevant.

 To create a rule from an existing message:

1. Right click on a message that meets the criteria you want to set, and select Create Rule(The Create Rule dialog box opens.)

2. Tick one or more of the top 3 boxes at the top to define the conditions under which your rule will be applied. (To have all messages with the word 'database' in the subject line, click to tick the box in front of Subject contains and edit the contents of the box appropriately.)

Create Rule dialog box

3. Tick one or more of the 3 bottom boxes to determine what Outlook should do when the condition(s) above are met by an incoming message.

4. Click OK. (The Success dialog box opens.)

5. Click to tick the box to run your new rule on all existing messages in the current folder.

6. Click OK. (The Success dialog box closes and the rule is applies to existing and all future incoming messages.)

For more detailed guidance on creating rules, see Outlook 2003 - Creating Rules to Manage Your Email|

Processing a Backlog

When you are processing a backlog (such as in your Backlog folder, or when you return from holiday), use the '3 Pass' method.

1. Sort all the messages in your Inbox or Backlog folder by whatever headings are most useful to quickly identify all rubbish messages that can be deleted. Deleting the obvious dross is the quickest way to reduce your backlog.

2. Then, starting at the top, go through all the remaining messages. File, delegate (by forwarding) or action all messages that can be dealt with in 2 minutes or less. (Make yourself stick rigidly to the 2 minute rule; your goal is to rapidly process your backlog, not to deal with each action request now.)

3. What's left gets deferred by turning each in turn into a scheduled appointment or task.


1. Process your Inbox (which should now contain only the messages received today) by following the steps under Normal Daily Email Processing above. Where appropriate, create rules for messages you want to have automatically moved to a specific folder or flagged as soon as they are received.

2. Try sorting your Backlog folder by From. This should help you identify large numbers of messages which can be deleted, immediately reducing the size of your Backlog folder.

3. Schedule a regular time in your calendar to work through the rest of your Backlog until it has been eliminated. 

Further Resources for Managing Your Email Account

Online Inspiration & Resources

 "Empty your inbox: Four ways to take control of your email":

"Inbox Zero" article series:
http://www.43folders.com/izero |

Note: use the progress bar to start 5 min in, and don't bother with the Q/A session at the end of the talk (at the 32 min point). The sections at the beginning and end are fluff and geek talk respectively. The rest is entertaining as well as useful.

Free to Download Outlook Guides and Course Materials

Outlook 2003 - Manage your Mailbox Quota and Archive| covering:

  • Understanding your mailbox quota
  • What makes the mailbox so big
  • Arranging email message by size
  • Display message size field
  • Delete unwanted mail messages
  • Archive your mail messages
  • Work with archived mail messages
  • Delete archived mail messages
  • Compact your archive file
  • Managing your email archives
  • Moving your old archive
  • Creating a new archive file

Outlook 2003: Calendar and Tasks| course materials (zip file, LSE login required) covering, amongst other topics:

  • The Outlook calendar screen
  • Navigating around the calendar
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Scheduling recurring appointments
  • Changing an appointment
  • Scheduling an all-day event
  • Creating tasks
  • Updating tasks
  • Creating a meeting request
  • Responding to a meeting request
  • Tracking responses to a meeting request

Outlook 2003: Email and Contacts| course materials (zip file, LSE login required) covering:

  • Using and activating the Out of Office Assistant on campus, off campus and via the Web

 Outlook courses

Useful to know

Maximum number of email recipients = 200

Maximum message size = 15MB

Mailbox quota for staff and research students:

 350 MB    -     warning sent

 370 MB    -     sending messages blocked

 400 MB    -     incoming messages blocked

Mailbox quota for taught students

 200 MB    -     warning sent

 210 MB    -     sending messages blocked

 230 MB    -     incoming messages blocked

Quick tips for freeing up space

  • Auto-archive your calendar for everything earlier than the last 3 months
  • Sort your Sent messages folder by Icon.  Then scroll down to all the appointment invitations and responses, and delete them all. Do the same thing in your Inbox.
  • Sort your Sent folder first by Sent and then by To. (Messages will now appear sorted first by recipient and, within those to any one recipient, by sent date.) Then scroll through to find family and friends with whom you mostly send messages arranging get-togethers or exchanging chat, and delete all but perhaps the latest (if you need it). Then do the same thing in your Inbox, sorting first by Received and then by From.

Data Protection Guidelines for Email

1. Email should never contain highly confidential information unless adequate encryption is being employed.   Remember, it is all too easy for messages to be:

  • Intercepted by third parties ( legally or illegally)
  • Viewed on a computer screen over the shoulder of the recipient
  • Incorrectly addressed
  • Forwarded by accident or by a recipient without your permission

2. LSE staff, and the email messages and contact information they send and store, are subject to the provisions of the Data Protection Act. 

  • This includes any information about a living identifiable individual, including their name, address, phone numbers, email addresses and expressions of opinion.
  • Such information may not be collected or disclosed to others without the individual's express consent. It must not be kept for longer than necessary for the purpose for which it was collected.
  • By law, LSE must provide personal information held about any person who requests it under the Act. This includes information held on individual PCs in departments and elsewhere throughout the university system. Emails which contain personal information and are held in live, archive or back-up systems or have been 'deleted' from the live systems but can still be recovered, may be subject to such requests.

Email good practice guideline


  • Include action desired in the subject line 
  • Create a set of custom signatures 
  • Make your message clear, concise, well structured (not one long paragraph)


  • Manage interruptions by setting times to receive new messages - how to change settings of email so you're not distracted every few minutes:
    • Schedule specific times to check for new mail and stick to them (no more than once an hour, better = 3 x daily)
    • turn off audio/visual email alerts 
  • Save attachments in a selected folder before editing them: 
    • Not saving risks loss if you attempt to resend without saving first.
    • Save in a location you specify. Otherwise, by simply hitting SAVE, you'll save the file in an inaccessible temp folder which will eventually fill up your profile.
  • Empty the bin regularly: create a rule or a reminder  
  • Aim to open & handle messages just once, then file or delete