5 Tips to Better Manage your Email

Thursday Feb 2nd 2012 by Ronald Pacchiano
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Adopting these simple email management tips can make your work life easier and more productive.

Last month’s column focused on basic file and folder organizational tips. This time, we're going to tackle another organizational area that challenges many small business owners and employees: email management. People who struggle with this issue tend to have years worth of mail cluttering their inboxes. As a result, locating a specific message when needed becomes an arduous and frustrating task.

We'll review five simple, yet effective email management tips. All of these suggestions are pretty straightforward, but adapting these guidelines will almost certainly make your life easier and more productive.

Organize Email Using Folders

Descriptive folders and sub-folders are essential tools for keeping your emails organized and manageable. Within your Inbox you can create various folders for storing different types of email. You can label these folders however you like, but folders are typically organized by sender name or category.

For example I keep the receipts for all of my online purchases in a folder called Purchases. Within the Purchases folder I have sub-folders for the Vendor (i.e. Amazon or Buy.com), plus I have another folder called Returns for managing any returns I need to process. I store invoices from each vendor in their respective folder. By using logical descriptors it becomes very easy to locate exactly what you’re looking for.

Not only does this structure make it easy for you to locate your messages when you need them, but it also makes it easy to archive old folders you no longer use. In Outlook 2007 you can create a new folder by going to the Menu bar at the top of the window and clicking on File > New > New Folder. In Outlook 2010, go to the Folder tab in the Ribbon, move to the New group and select New Folder.

Delete Unneeded Email

Many people seem to have an aversion to deleting email. While on the surface this doesn’t appear to be a bad thing, over time it can create a number of problems for you. Microsoft Exchange, for example, assigns a limited amount of space for individual mailboxes. Once it fills up, you will no longer be able to send or receive mail.

Even if your mail is not hosted on an Exchange server, but instead stored locally on your PC using a standard POP3 account, Microsoft Outlook limits the size of your mailbox PST file to 2GB. The closer your mailbox gets to this 2GB barrier, the more likely the chances are that you will start to experience reliability problems.

You can avoid most of these issues by simply being diligent about deleting unneeded messages. If you stop and look, you might be surprised to see how much superfluous mail you accumulate in just a couple of weeks. Common types of junk mail include jokes from friends, shopping newsletters (like promotions from Amazon or Buy.com), and even those daily or weekly news bulletins. You should purge all of these from your system as soon as you’re done reading them.

Archive Old Mail

However not all email is junk email, and there will of course be some you will undoubtedly want to hold onto. These could include bank and credit card statements, client invoices or email subscriptions. In order to avoid having this type of mail accumulate and overwhelm your mailbox, you need to get in the habit of moving this mail to a local archive.

By transferring this mail to a local archive you end up removing it from you mail PST file, thus keeping it small and manageable. Keeping your mailboxes uncluttered will make it easy to find what you need while keeping your mailbox in good working order. The only downside of this is that if you need to access your mailbox remotely, any mail stored on a local archive will not be accessible.

In Outlook you can archive mail in one of two ways. The first way involves you manually dragging a folder or message from your mailbox to the Archive folder. This folder can normally be found directly beneath your personal folder.

The second way is to use the AutoArchive feature built into Outlook. This is usually configured by default, but it can be somewhat optimized to better suit your individual needs. This link takes you to directions for configuring AutoArchive for Outlook 2003, 2007 and 2010.

Use Mailbox Rules for Managing Incoming Email

Sorting email can become a burden, especially if you are constantly inundated with it. However, most email clients, such as Microsoft Outlook, allow you to establish mailbox rules that automatically route email from certain users to a specific folder within your mailbox.

It works like this; on a daily basis I receive multiple newsletters from TechRepublic. When the newsletters arrive, I have a rule in Outlook that automatically routes that message from my inbox to the TechRepublic folder. Instead of cluttering up my inbox with dozens of weekly newsletters, they are all stored within the TechRepublic folder, easy to find and ready to view at my leisure.

This automated routing can greatly help you keep your mailbox considerably more manageable and with minimal effort on your part. Here are links to instructions for configuring mail routing rules for Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010.

Searching and Sorting

Even using the above mentioned tips, the sheer volume of mail you accumulate could make it difficult to find what you're looking for when you need it. To help simplify this task, most email clients incorporate various methods for searching or sorting your inbox.

Microsoft Outlook includes an Instant Search Pane near the top of your mailbox, which lets you quickly locate any email using just a few keywords contained within the message you’re looking for. For example, say you were looking for an invoice for a DVD you purchased from Amazon. Just go to the mailbox where you store your invoices, enter the DVD’s title in the Instant Search Pane, and within a few moments your invoice should be found and displayed.

Another technique involves changing how your email is sorted. Typically most people sort their mail by date received, but by clicking on your mailbox’s "Receive" heading you can modify the view to display them in either ascending or descending order. Messages can also be sorted by username, allowing you to quickly see all of the messages being sent from a specific person. This is useful should you need to find a message from let’s say your company’s accounting department. Various other sorting parameters are also available.

In fact, in Outlook 2010 you can sort sorting messages in a Conversation format. Using this format, messages with the same subject line get grouped together, with the newest message at the top of the thread. As additional messages arrive, the entire conversation moves to the top of your inbox, keeping the entire conversation easily accessible. This links provides instructions for configuring the Conversation feature on your system. Duplicate information within the conversation can be filtered out in order to make the conversation thread easier to read by using the integrated Clean Up tool.

Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist and a contributing writer for Small Business Computing.

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