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7 Microsoft Outlook tips and tricks for better email management

By Jessica Lau · May 25, 2023
Microsoft Outlook logo, which looks like an envelope partially covered by a blue square with the letter O on it, against a blue background.

I've taught students virtually for a local college going on three years now. One thing they don't tell you about virtual education, though, is that managing communications primarily via email can become an unexpected part-time job.

After my first semester of teaching, I spent some time wrangling my Outlook inbox using a few built-in automation tools—and I haven't looked back since. 

Whether you're going for inbox zero or inbox infinity—or you just want to stop dreading your inbox altogether—here are seven Microsoft Outlook tips and tricks for better inbox management. 

Note: There are approximately 16,395 versions of Microsoft Outlook. I'm using Outlook for Microsoft 365, running on a MacBook Pro. Outlook may look slightly different on your end depending on your device or if you're using the web app.

Keep reading to explore all seven tips, or jump ahead to a specific one.

1. Create folders in Outlook to manage your tasks 

When I first started teaching, I created course-specific folders in Outlook, thinking this would be the best way to organize my emails. I was wrong. After a handful of semesters, my growing list of folders became more cumbersome than helpful. 

So I adopted the Getting Things Done® (or GTD®) methodology and modified my folder structure to better conduct email triage. To do this, you first need to create folders and subfolders in Outlook. Here's how. 

Getting Things Done® and GTD® are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company.

  1. In the navigation pane, right-click Folders, and then select Create new folder. Alternatively, you can click Folders to expand your list of options, and then select Create new folder.

    Portion of Microsoft Outlook's home tab view. In the navigation pane, there's a "Folders" dropdown menu with the option "Create new folder" highlighted.

  2. Name this folder "To do," and then click Save

    Expanded view of Microsoft Outlook folders. A new folder labeled "To do" is highlighted.

  3. Right-click your "To do" folder, and select Create new subfolder.

    Expanded view of Microsoft Outlook folders. There's a "To do" folder dropdown menu with the option "Create new subfolder" highlighted.

  4. Name this subfolder "Someday."

  5. Create another subfolder within your "To do" folder, and name it "Follow up." 

Now, when new emails arrive, drag them to the appropriate folder:

  • Inbox. Keep emails that need an immediate response here. You might also leave emails that can be handled quickly (three minutes or less) in your inbox.

  • To do. This is the first stop for non-urgent emails and emails that will require more than a three-minute response. You'll follow up on these items later, but moving them immediately keeps your inbox clutter-free.

When you're ready to sort your "To do" folder (I do this once a day), drag these emails to the appropriate subfolder: 

  • Follow Up. This is for emails that have been put on hold. For example, replies you're waiting for or tasks you've delegated to a coworker.

  • Someday. This is for emails that don't require a response. Instead, they're things you'd like to read or review one day. 

Tip: Automatically generate summaries for emails in your "Someday" folder (or any folder) with OpenAI and Zapier. You can even get a daily digest in Slack, so you can stay on top of your emails—all in one place.

2. Organize your tasks with Microsoft To Do 

I take a lot of pride in meeting 99.8% of all my professional deadlines. (We won't talk about the other 0.2%.) And I owe it all to to-do list apps like Microsoft To Do. What makes this app extra handy is that is integrates seamlessly with Microsoft's ecosystem. So if you flag an email in Outlook, for example, it automatically shows up as a task in Microsoft To Do. 

If you're using Outlook in Microsoft 365, here's how to add your emails to Microsoft To Do to create your task list. (If you're using Tasks in Outlook.com, the instructions are slightly different.)

  1. From the Outlook toolbar, click the My Day icon, which looks like a calendar with a check mark. The My Day To Do pane will automatically appear. 

    Microsoft Outlook toolbar with the My Day icon selected. A portion of the My Day pane visible with an arrow pointing to the "To Do" tab in the My Day pane.

  2. Drag the email you need to address to the To Do pane, and drop it in the Add as a task section. If you want to create a calendar event from an email, you can also drag and drop it in the Add as an event section. 

    Demo of an email being dragged and dropped into the "Add as a task" section of My Day's "To Do" pane.

    By default, the subject line of your email will appear as the task name, but you can edit this by clicking the name. To review the email the task originated from, click the View email icon, which looks like an envelope.

    A task list in the My Day "To Do" pane. An email associated with a task is highlighted, and there's an arrow pointing to the email preview beside it.

  3. To customize your task further, right-click it and choose from a list of options, including Set reminder and Set due date.  When you set a due date or reminder, those dates will appear directly below your task. 

    A My Day task. Under the task name is a due date, reminder date, and email source.

    Need to flag a task as important? Click the Mark as important icon, which looks like a hollow star beside your task. (A filled-in star indicates the task is important.)

If you set a reminder, a Reminders window will pop up in Outlook at the specified time. Not ready to check off the task yet? Hover over the task, and click the Snooze reminder icon, which looks like an alarm clock. 

My Day task reminder window. Beside the task name is an alarm icon and an X.

Once the task is complete, check it off by clicking its Mark as completed icon, which looks like a circle.  

It's worth mentioning that you can also automatically add flagged emails to your task list in Microsoft To Do. Here's how. 

  1. Go to to-do.office.com.

  2. From the toolbar, click the Settings icon, which looks like a cog, and then click To Do Settings

    Microsoft To Do tool bar with the settings icon selected. A portion of the settings pane is visible with an arrow pointing to "To Do Settings."

  3. In the Settings window, under Connected Apps, click the toggle for Flagged email.

    My Day To Do settings with an arrow pointing to the toggle for "Flagged email," which has been turned on.

  4. Back in Microsoft Outlook, click the My Day icon from the toolbar. 

  5. Click the caret beside Tasks, and then select Flagged emails

    Portion of the My Day pane in Outlook. The To Do dropdown menu is visible with "Flagged Emails" highlighted.

Now you can easily review all your flagged emails as tasks in one place.

Flagged emails in the My Day To Do pane with an arrow pointing to the email source, which has been flagged.

3. Create Outlook rules to automatically sort emails 

When it comes to email management, the less manual effort, the better. And this is where Outlook rules come in handy. You can customize rules in Outlook to automatically sort incoming emails to the appropriate folder, including the "To do" folder you created earlier. Here's how to create rules directly from an email.

  1. Right-click the email, and then select Advanced actions > Create rule.

  2. By default, Outlook will prompt you to create a rule to move emails from the sender to a designated folder. To customize your rule, click More options in the Create a rule window, and then click OK.

    Create a rule window in Microsoft Outlook.

  3. In the Rules window, you have a variety of ways to customize your email rule: 

  • Name your rule. Give your rule a clear and concise name, so you can easily understand what it does. 

  • Add a condition. Choose the criteria the email has to meet in order for the rule to run. This can include the sender's name or email address. You can even filter by keywords contained in specific areas of the email (e.g., subject line or body). 

  • Add an action. Indicate what happens to the email if it meets the specified condition. Outlook provides three main action categories: Organize, Mark message, and Route. 

  • Add an exception (optional). Similar to adding a condition, you can indicate specific criteria the email has to meet to be excluded from automatic sorting. 

    Rules window in Microsoft Outlook settings. There are numbered fields for rule customization.

    If you've created multiple rules, you can also check Stop processing more rules to tell Outlook to ignore subsequent rules, even if they apply to the email. 

Once you're ready, check the box beside Run rule now, and then click Save

4. Categorize your emails with labels

Labels (or tags) are a great way to categorize emails for hassle-free searches. I also use them to give me a quick glimpse into who the email's from, so I can quickly determine its priority level. But as with any great organization system, there's a science to it.

The key is to keep it simple. Don't overdo it with the number of labels you create. For me, I stick with three labels: College admin (contracts and other paperwork), Faculty comms, and Student comms

To create a category label, click the caret beside the Categorize icon, which looks like a gift tag, and then click New category.

Portion of Microsoft Outlook's home tab ribbon. The category icon has been selected with an arrow pointing to the "New category" option in the dropdown menu. A list of three existing labels are also visible.

Give your category a name, pick a label color, and then click Save. (Alternatively, you can click Manage categories to create and modify categories.) 

And since you know how to create email rules, you can even automate the labeling process. 

5. Ignore unnecessary email conversations—and keep them out of your inbox  

If I had three email-related wishes, I'd use one wish to remove the Reply all button. In my experience, there are only a handful of occasions when it's appropriate to reply all

But instead of asking folks not to click Reply all (it rarely works), I've found a simple solution to keep these long-running threads out of my inbox. 

Right-click the email you don't need to be a part of, and then click Ignore. In the Ignore conversation? window that appears, click OK to confirm your action. 

Ignore conversation confirmation window in Outlook.

Want to prevent getting future emails on a specific thread? In that case, instead of creating a rule, you can just use Outlook's ignore function. Right-click the email, select Ignore, and confirm the action. This will automatically send future replies to that email thread directly to your Deleted Items folder instead of your inbox. 

6. Draft emails faster with My Templates in Outlook 

Confession time: I used to spend an unconscionable amount of time replying to the same questions from students by digging up a previous response, and then copying and pasting it to the next student. And then I learned about My Templates. 

If you also spend a lot of time replying to the same questions over and over again, My Templates will save you a lot of time. 

Here's how to create a message template (AKA a canned response).

  1. In the Home tab, click New email

  2. Click Message in the email ribbon.

  3. From the Message toolbar, click the More options icon, which looks like an ellipsis (...), and then click My Templates

    Portion of Microsoft Outlook window. In the toolbar of the Message tab, the more options icon has been selected with an arrow pointing to My Templates in the dropdown menu.

  4. In the My Templates pane, click + Template. 

  5. Give your templated response a title, and then draft the message in the composition box. (I find it's easier to draft the message in the body of your email, format it the way you want, and then copy and paste your message into the composition box.) 

    Preview of a templated message in My Templates.

  6. Click Save.

Whenever you need to use a message template, go back to My Templates, and then click your desired template to populate the message in the body of your email. From there, you can edit and customize as needed.

Demo of how to populate a message in the body of an email using Outlook's My Template.

7. Automate repetitive tasks with Quick Steps in Outlook

Let's say I conduct monthly reviews of vendor invoices. My normal process is to review the invoices, forward them to our accounting team, and then create a reminder to follow up with the accounting team a week later to confirm the invoices were paid.

Instead of manually forwarding the emails and creating follow-up reminders each month, Quick Steps allows me to do the same thing with fewer clicks. 

  1. From the Home ribbon, click Quick Steps

  2. In the Quick steps window that appears, click New quick step. From here, you have a variety of ways to customize your step:

  • Name your quick step. Give your step a clear and concise name, so you can easily understand what it does.

  • Choose an action. Indicate what you want to do with the email if the step is applied. You can add multiple action steps. 

Once you're ready, click Save.

Quick steps window in Microsoft Outlook settings. There are numbered fields for quick steps customization.

The quick step I've created allows me to process the last two steps of my monthly invoice review process (forward email and create a reminder task) with just one click. To apply the step to an email, simply click the Quick Steps caret in your Home ribbon, and choose the step you want to take. (By default, once you add a quick step, its name will appear in your Home ribbon, replacing the default text Quick Steps.) 

Portion of Microsoft Outlook window. In the toolbar of the Home tab, the quick steps menu has been expanded to show existing quick steps and an option to "Manage quick steps."

Bonus: Connect Microsoft Outlook to other apps

Microsoft Outlook lets you automate a few processes within the app, but let's kick things up a notch. With Zapier, you can connect Outlook to thousands of your other go-to apps, so you can streamline your business-critical processes. 

Here are a few workflows you can automate right away. 

Add Microsoft Outlook events to Google Calendar

Add Microsoft Outlook events to Google Calendar
  • Microsoft Outlook logo
  • Google Calendar logo
Microsoft Outlook + Google Calendar

To get started with a Zap template—what we call our pre-made workflows—just click on the button. It only takes a few minutes to set up. You can read more about setting up Zaps here.

Related reading

This article was originally published in October 2017 by Jessica Greene. The most recent update was in May 2023.

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A Zap with the trigger 'When I get a new lead from Facebook,' and the action 'Notify my team in Slack'