Achieve Inbox Zero with Rules in Microsoft Outlook

By November 11, 2011 Productivity Tools 3 Comments

Months back I spent almost an entire weekend hacking my Outlook email inbox to auto-archive itself. My reason for doing this is because I would constantly hear the wonders and benefits of maintaining “inbox zero,” but I could never seem to achieve it on a daily basis. To me, having to manually file every email after I had read or responded to it was an annoying task and interruptive to my email workflow during a busy day. Once I figured out how Outlook Rules worked I set up an if this then that type of automated system using Rules, where after I had read an email I could hit a shortkey and it would be auto-filed into a designated folder.

This first requires categorizing your contacts into groups and then using Rules to associate groups with folders. For example, when someone I had categorized in my contacts as “Marketing Team” emailed me it would come into my inbox and, after I had read it or responded to it, I would hit ALT+A and the email would automatically be pulled from my inbox and filed in the “Marketing Team” folder. The Rules setup to achieve this looks something like:


  1. Sender is in Group Category “Marketing Team”
  2. Message is Marked as Read


  1. Move email to “Marketing Team” folder

I did leave the corporate world a few weeks back to start my own consultancy and since then have moved from Outlook to Gmail to manage my inbox, however I wanted to share the Presi I created below to help other Outlook users understand the Rules technique. If you take the upfront time to categorize your contacts and set up Rules, you will find yourself with an email system that is automatically organized to fit your needs, easy to search and much easier to manage.

About Julia Roy


  • There’s another tactic that will work for both Outlook and Gmail users – assigning tags (either manually or automatically) to various emails. I’ve used Outlook at work for the last decade-plus, and finally gave up on literally creating hundreds of folders to sort various things. Now I just apply tags (and also use flags to color-code current projects) and even with manual application of tags, it’s a lot quicker to categorize things, and a lot easier to find things. And since I’m using Gmail for some of my personal business stuff, tags can be used there also (and Gmail has its own rules facility also).
    Now if only Hotmail would catch up so that my personal personal emails could be similarly streamlined…

  • Bob Rauck says:

    Don’t file – search. I keep about a week’s worth of email in my inbox. Once a week, I’ll take anything older and dump into one of 2 folders: a) incoming and b) outgoing.
    90% of the emails I need on a daily basis are in my inbox and at my fingertips with a quick sort. Anything else is quickly found by doing a quick search on “sender name” or “subject”.
    In the early days of the internet, Yahoo’s approach to search was to categorize and group content into hierarchies:
    That approach died because it’s not effective. Not for search engines, and not for managing email…

  • Hyndsy says:

    Julia – loved the Prezi. I do something similar but not to that extent and it makes me think I can tweak it to make it more streamlined. That said, one thing I do in Outlook is enable the UNREAD MAIL search folder. Because my email is all auto-filtered with my rules like this it assures me I won’t miss anything because regardless what folder an email is in, if it’s unread it will show up there. Great stuff.

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