Keep Your Email Organized with Outlook Search and Sorting Tools

The time you spend getting your email organized may in fact be time wasted, or time better spent acting rather than filing, according to a recent study done by IBM Researchers (PDF). The Sloan School of Management’s Michael Schrage agrees. In his Harvard Business Review article, he says we can all stop wasting our time trying to get our inboxes organized and let the search tools do the work for us.

While it may seem appealing to simply abandon any means of organization in favor of searching. This certainly doesn’t mean that we should. One of the interesting findings of the IBM study was that people often use filing as a means of maintaining their workflow as well as for topic orientated retrieval. So we certainly can’t give up on filing all together. Not all of us anyway.

What many of us can do is use software to do the filing for us, and then use the search tools to find things as we need them. Microsoft Outlook offers a number of ways to optimize both the filing and finding things.

Threading Messages: Conversations

One of the most effective ways users could find items faster, according to the IBM study, was through message threading (grouping messages on the same subject together). In Outlook, this is provided by the Conversation feature. Related emails will be nested together so that conversations are organized. Finding message fragments is no longer necessary since you can simply expand the conversation thread to find any specific message within.

  • To turn on/off conversations, choose VIEW, then check, or uncheck SHOW AS CONVERSTATIONS.  Specify whether to group, or ungroup ALL FOLDERS, or THIS FOLDER.
  • Conversations are indicated by .

Another great feature of conversations is that you can ignore one that doesn’t pertain to you. This will automatically place messages that belong to the ignored conversation into your deleted items folder where you won’t be bothered with messages between colleagues when your input isn’t required.

  • To automatically delete existing and future messages from a conversation from all folders (except Sent Items) select a message, then choose HOME, .
  • To stop ignoring a conversation and move all messages to the Inbox, select a message in the Deleted Items folder, then choose HOME, .

Using Instant Search

Outlook’s Instant Search feature provides a quick way to search the currently selected folder. To use instant search, [Click] , or press <Ctrl-E>, then type your search. Results will populate as you type with your search terms highlighted .

Using the Search Tools

The Search Tools provide several ways to refine your search, or change where your search is being performed.

  • For search options such as expanding what folders are searched, searching only for specific categories, and recent searches, choose SEARCH TOOLS, SEARCH, then select options.
  • To clear the search, choose SEARCH TOOLS, SEARCH, CLOSE SEARCH .

Leveraging Search

As you probably noticed, there are several criteria available on the Search Tools Ribbon. One of the things we can do to make finding things easier, is to use Categories, Flags, and Folders. To bring us back to the IBM article, this would be the act of “tagging”. By tagging our items, we are able to provide additional criteria with our text search.


To categorize an item:

  1. Select the items to categorize.
  3. Select a category. Or, select ALL CATGORIES, check/uncheck categories, then [Click] OK.

To assign a default category, [Click]

To change the default category, choose HOME, CATEGORIZE

To create a category:

  2. [Click] NEW. Type a NAME, select a COLOR, and SHORTCUT KEY, then [Click] OK.
  3. To create the category without assigning it to the selected item, uncheck the category. [Click] OK.

You can customize a category the first time it is used. Or, to change settings:

  1. Choose HOME, CATEGORIZE , then select ALL CATEGORIES.
  2. Select the category to customize. To rename, [Click] RENAME, type a name, then press <Enter>. Select a COLOR and SHORTCUT KEY.
  3. When finished, [Click] OK.


To put a message on your To-Do list:

  1. Open, or select the item, then choose HOME, or MESSAGE, FOLLOW UP .
  2. Select a follow up date, NO DATE, or CUSTOM for more options.

Note: Some options are only available when connected to an Exchange inbox.


To create a folder:

  1. Choose FOLDER, NEW FOLDER .
  2. Type a name for the new folder.
  3. If necessary, make a selection from the FOLDER CONTAINS drop-down list.
  4. Select the parent folder, then [Click] OK.

Organization saves time… and frustration

If you find yourself spending too much time sorting through emails to find what’s most important, it may be time to implement some of the organization strategies from this post. Searching email is convenient, but preliminary work to organize emails can make it easier later whether it’s organizing emails by subject or automatically tagging emails for easier management. It’s also important to setup automatic email sorting before you lose track of your online conversations.