Outlook flags and rules

By Wesley Hartman

Q. My email is a disaster. With junk mail from websites and receipts from purchases, it’s difficult to find the client communication I need; I spend too much time clearing that unread number. What are some tips I can use to manage my inbox?

A. We can all agree that email has become our primary tool for communicating with clients, but over the years our inbox gets messages from all over the place. To help manage this, I want to talk about two simple tools that are available in Outlook desktop and Outlook online. The screenshots reference the online version of Outlook using Office 365 as an email provider.

First is the simple act of flagging an email for follow-up. Hover over the email you want to flag and click the flag icon (see the screenshot below).


I treat the flag as a reminder of something that I need to do but want to do later. When you are ready to tackle those emails that require more thought, just apply a quick filter. Click Filter at the top of your email list and select Flagged. Now you can focus on just those emails that require more thought-out responses or research. If there is an email you cannot address at that moment, then leave it flagged for when you are able to address it (see the screenshot below).


A flagged email will stay there as a reminder. Once you have addressed the email, click the flag again to unflag it.

Before moving on to our next tip for managing your inbox, here is another suggestion: Try closing your email for one hour a day to focus on any other work. In our connected world, sometimes it is best to disconnect from communication and focus on other tasks. After you have completed the task in that one hour, open your email. You will get a flood of email, but with this newly arrived email, focus on managing the recent arrivals to your inbox and make decisions on each message.

If an email is junk, trash it. If you can respond to the email with just a sentence or two or something you can delegate, then reply/delegate and move on. If it takes more work and thought, flag it for later in the day.

Now for something more advanced. Let’s set up some rules in Outlook to automatically manage part of our inbox. Just like using rules in QuickBooks to categorize transactions, I use rules to help manage the simple decisions of my inbox such as deleting junk mail from companies or forwarding purchase receipts from vendors to the bookkeeper. This makes me more efficient when I do open Outlook to go through emails. Start by finding an email from a domain that you want to delete. From there, right-click and go to Advanced Actions > Create rule (see the screenshot below).


The most common rule is to move an email from the inbox to a different folder, such as Deleted Items. From the dropdown, choose Deleted Items, then click OK (see the screenshot below).


After your rule has been created, you can choose to run this rule now. If you have a packed inbox that you want to start cleaning up, check that box and click OK. This will start processing the emails.

Let’s create one more rule. I purchase equipment for our staff, and I need to send the receipts to the person who manages the books. Find a receipt that you want to forward. Right-click on it and go to Advanced Actions > Create Rule. This time, click on More options. In this screen, we have a few options. The first line is just the name of the rule. The second line is your conditions. In our case, we are processing any email from receipts@XYZCompany.com. Next, click on the dropdown menu for Add an action and select Forward to. Enter the email address that you want to send the email to. Additionally, we want to move it to another folder for recordkeeping. Click Add another action and select Move to in the dropdown menu. I have a folder I use for receipts called Receipts, so I will select that. The rule should look something like what is shown in the screenshot at right.


Click Save. You will end at your Rules list with the two newly created rules.

If you are using Office 365 for your email hosting, it is best to create rules in Outlook online. Rules will sync to Outlook desktop if you use the desktop version. If you use Outlook to download emails from a different host like Gmail, you can create the equivalent rules in Outlook desktop, but they will be available only on that installation of Outlook desktop. Other email hosts might have rules that you can set up, but creating those rules will be unique to their system.

About the author

Wesley Hartman is founder at Automata Practice Development and director of technology at Kirsch Kohn & Bridge LLP.

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