Outlook 2013 Clearing Your Inbox


This guide aims to help you transform your email account from a burden into a useful, manageable tool.  It outlines a simple but systematic approach to processing messages, and suggests techniques and shortcuts to help you clear your Inbox and keep it that way.

Tried and tested - adopt what works for you!

Considerable research has been done in the private sector to find a solution to the problem of managing the tsunami of email that can overwhelm your inbox daily.  The steps below, taken together, have been presented by internationally renowned email gurus as 'the answer'.  We suggest that you read through and try them out as a single process, outlined below.  

The most important thing, however, is that you identify and adopt steps that work for you  on an on-going basis.  Building even a few of the steps below into your daily routine can make a real difference.

Consider these key guidelines

1. Create the simplest possible filing system that works for you.
The ability to store and find files efficiently is crucial to successful email management!! Below, we'll show you how to use Outlook 2013's advanced search functions, and two alternative approaches to filing messages you must keep.

2. From today, create a clean slate which you can keep clean by adopting techniques below.  Move everything you cannot realistically process today from your Inbox into a new Backlog folder (see below). Your older messages will still be on hand for you to process gradually until your Backlog is gone, while your Inbox remains clean going forward.

3. Schedule dedicated time for processing email. This is decision time, where you decide what action is needed for each message in turn:

  • Delegate
  • Delete
  • File for reference
  • Deal with it (but only if this takes 2 minutes or less!)
  • Schedule what is left
  •   Note: It is important to schedule dedicated time for this process: 

It is important to schedule dedicated time for this process: 

  • Good decisions take concentration
  • Interrupting other work to read messages as they come in is a great way to procrastinate without actually accomplishing much
  • Processing time is distinct from time spent actioning messages. By following the approach below you will quickly get rid of the dross, freeing time to deal with priority message and other work.

4. Aim to read messages just once.
Then process them according to the guidelines below. Only messages which require more than 2 minutes to deal with should be read no more than twice.

Prep Steps

The tips and techniques below will help you process your email efficiently.  Where relevant, links are provided to online guides that provide more in-depth assistance if needed.

Get up to speed with Outlook 2013's advanced search tools

Outlook 2013 contains powerful advanced search tools, which appear in the ribbon after clicking in the Search box.

To use advanced search tools in Outlook 2013:

1. Click into the Search box above (Ctrl+E). The Search Tools tab opens in the ribbon

2. Type word(s) Outlook should search for to find your message. A list of messages matching this criteria is displayed.

3. If the message you require doesn't appear, look at the options in the Scope group at the left end of the ribbon. By default, your search is limited to the folder selected in the Navigation pane. If needed, click on All Outlook Items or a more appropriate option here to widen your search.

4. If this produces too long a list, in the Refine group, click any of the options which are relevant.

5. In the Options group, click Search Tools and select Advanced Find.  The Advanced Find dialog box opens.

6. Explore the options on the 3 tabs, using any and all that may be useful. Note: on the More Choices tab, you must click in a box to see the options available from the drop down arrows.

7. At any time during the steps above, close the dialog box to close the search.

Give yourself a clean slate by creating a backlog folder

Create a folder specifically to store your accumulated backlog of messages until you can process them. Move all the messages dated yesterday or earlier from your Inbox to this new folder, and vow never to add another. This gives you an Inbox you can aim to clear and keep clear each day going forward.

Schedule time to work through your backlog folder with the aim of clearing it too, within a period you set for yourself, using the techniques below. 

To create a new folder:

1. Display the Folder Pane in Outlook, if it is not shown, by clicking on the View tab, click open the Folder Pane options list and select Normal.

2. In the Folder Pane, right click on the location where the new folder will be created.

3. To create a new main folder right-click on your email address at the top of the pane.

4. To create a sub-folder, click on the folder in which the new folder will be located. For example, if your backlog folder is to be located within your Inbox, right click on your Inbox.

5. When you right-click, a white box will appear into which you must enter the name of the new folder.

Clearing Your Inbox

Create an efficient filing system

A well-designed filing system makes it easier to manage your email. We suggest using the steps above to create either "bare basics" filing 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, subject, size, type, etc. Outlook 2013's powerful Advanced Search facility can be used to find specific messages.

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

Use the reading pane

View message content without opening each message by using the reading pane.

To use the reading pane, select the View tab and click on the drop-down arrow below the Reading Pane icon before selecting either Right or Bottom

Turn off notifications

Don't let pop up notifications tempt you to read email messages as they come in. If you need to be alerted to incoming messages from a specific person, you can create a rule to be notified when these appear (see Automating Outlook below). For all other notifications, follow these steps: 

To turn off notifications:

1. On the File tab, click Options.

2. Select Mail in the panel on the left of the Outlook Options dialog box.

Scroll down to the Message arrival section and click to clear any ticked boxes.

4. Click OK to save your changes and close the dialog box  

Processing Inbox messages: try this approach 

Set aside time specifically for processing new messages a few times each day. Then work through your list methodically. For each message, decide whether it is informational or needs action. (Long messages requiring more than a few minutes to read should be treated as action messages.)

For informational messages:

  • If you can't live without it, read and file it.
  • If you don't need it, delete it.

NB: if you are unlikely to refer to it again in the next 6 months, you probably don't need it unless there are clear legal reasons to keep it. Guidance on good practice in records management, in line with Freedom of Information Act requirements, is available here.

For messages that require action:

Work your way through your list of messages, applying one of the 3 options below wherever possible:

  • Delete it:
    • If the message doesn't relate to a meaningful objective.
    • If you are unlikely to refer to it again in the next 6 months.
    • Unless you are required to keep it e.g. for legal purposes -- then file it.
  • Delegate it:
    • Forward the message with a brief accompanying message within 2 minutes.
    • If delegating requires follow-up, after forwarding it, turn the message into a task.  (See below.) 
    • Then delete it or file it.
  • Do it:
    • If a message can be acted upon within 2 minutes, do it.
    • Then delete it or file it.

Prioritise what remains:

Now you are in a position to prioritise and schedule time to deal with the remaining, much shorter list of messages that warrant your attention. Turn each into a task or calendar appointment, scheduled in accordance with your overall priorities.

To turn a message into a task:

1. Use the left button on your mouse to click and drag the message onto Tasks in the Navigation Pane. When the Tasks bar becomes highlighted, let go of the mouse button

2. In the Task Window, edit the start and end dates, and description of the task in the Subject box to suit.

3. Click Save and Close.  

To turn a message into a calendar appointment:

1. Use the left button on your mouse to click and drag the message onto Calendar in the Navigation Pane. When the Calendar bar becomes highlighted, let go of the mouse button.

2. In the Appointment Window, edit the date, time and description of the appointment in the Subject box to suit.

3. Click Save and Close.  

Quick tips to clear your backlog

Sort messages by other headings 

By default, messages are sorted by the date and time they are received.  Sorting by the other headings at the top of the list, such as From or Subject or Icon, can help you quickly identify large numbers of redundant messages.

To sort by a different heading simply click on the field header desired. Clicking a second time alternates the list between ascending and descending order.

  • Add additional fields to your email folder list to enable sorting by these, too

Outlook adds headings to the top of folder lists by default, but you can add or remove headings as needed. For example, if you save both sent and received messages in one folder, you might find it useful to have both To and From headings displayed.

 To add field headings:

1. Right click on any heading in the list and select Field Chooser.
The Field chooser dialog box appears.

2. Scroll through the list until you see the field required. Click and drag the field until red arrows point to the place amongst the headings where you want the field to appear.

3. Release the mouse button.
The field appears in the headings list.

4. Close the Field Chooser dialog box by clicking on the red X in the upper right corner.

To remove a field heading, simply click and drag it off the headings bar.

Selecting and deleting many messages at once 

  • To delete a block of messages: select the first message, hold down SHIFT and select the last message before releasing SHIFT.  Then press DELETE on the keyboard.
  • To delete messages scattered through a list: select the first, hold down CTRL and click on each of the others required.  Release CTRL and then press DELETE

Moving messages to another folder 

Select a single message or a block of messages using SHIFT, or non-continuous messages using CTRL, as outlined above.  Then click anywhere in the selected area and, keeping the left mouse button depressed, drag the selection onto the folder required, ensuring that the folder name becomes highlighted before releasing the mouse button. 


Group messages by subject using conversation view

By default, replies sent from LSE email accounts include the message being replied to. If all these messages are kept, you'll have many copies of each message in the exchange. By deleting all but the latest, you can free up space in your Outlook folder. Turn on Conversation view to help you identify and delete older messages in ongoing conversations in future.

 To view messages by conversation:

  1.  Ensure the folder in view is sorted by date received/sent.
  2. Select the View tab and tick the box alongside Show as Conversations.
  3. Click on Conversation Settings and select Show Messages from Other Folders.
    A small arrow appears next to messages in this folder which form part of a conversation. The icon also changes to show a stack of envelopes.
  4. Click on the arrow to display all the messages in the conversation.
    If any of them are stored in other folders, the name of the folder appears in the date field.

Automate Outlook to process email for you

Two types of rules can be created to automate Outlook processing of your email: organising and notifying. They can move mail to a specified folder or flag or colour code a message when it arrives and more. For example:

  • Move all messages with Course Code XYZ in the subject into my 2013 Essays folder, including both messages already in my Inbox and any I receive in future 
  • Automatically forward all messages from [a specific email address] with 'Conference Details' in the subject to [a different email address]
  • Automatically move all messages from [a specific email address] directly into my Junk Email folder
  • Notify me of all new messages received from [a specific email address] by opening a pop-up window displaying the words "New Message from XX"

To create a rule based on a message already in your Inbox:

1. Right-click on the message and select Rules > Create Rule

2. Select the appropriate option(s) from the 3 listed at the top of the Create Rule dialog box. 

Note: in the example below, to create a rule for all messages with 'Training Team minutes' in the subject line, click into the Subject contains box and edit the contents accordingly.  If you tick more than one box, the rule will apply only to messages that meet both conditions

3. Select the appropriate option from the bottom set of 3 options.  For example, to move messages meeting the conditions above into a specific folder, click on the Select Folder button and navigate to the folder needed, or click the New button to create a new folder for this purpose.  Click OK until the Success dialog box appears. 

4. Tick the box to automatically apply the rule to all messages already in the current folder.  Then click OK. 

All messages which match the conditions you've set will be moved to the designated folder.  

Note: do not be tempted to create rules to automatically move mail into your Deleted Items folder.  Move it instead into your Junk E-mail folder, and skim the contents every few days before deleting it to ensure that your rule doesn't inadvertently move messages there that you need to read.

For more guidance on creating, changing and deleting rules, see Outlook 2013 - Creating Rules to Manage Your Email.  

Use the Clean Up Folder tool

If you and one other person have been involved in an email conversation which only entailed responses to the original email, it is pointless retaining any of the messages except for the final one.

Use the Clean-up folder option to retain only the last email of a conversation between you and one person (only suitable for conversation between 2 people).

To use the Clean Up Folder tool:   

  1. Left click to select any folder before right clicking on the same folder
  2. Select Clean Up Folder

3. When the Clean Up Folder dialog box appears, click the Clean Up Folder button. 

Going Forward

Use the techniques below to keep your Inbox under control.

  • If you fall behind for a day or two, don't give up!

Use sorting and other methods above to quickly identify the dross, and delete it.  Then, if needed, temporarily shift what you cannot process today into your Backlog folder, and schedule time to work through it over the next few days.

  • Keep refining rules, folders....

Add new rules, and refine old ones, as needed.  Similarly, refine your folder structure to suit your needs.  Over time, you'll end up with an email system which does much of your work for you!