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Keeping e-mail organized in Outlook 2003

The trick for dealing with a high volume of e-mail is to stay as organized as possible. In this article, Brien Posey explains his personal sorting system, with the hope that it will give you some ideas on how you can better organize your own e-mail.

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When all is said and done, I get nearly 2,000 e-mail messages every day. My trick for dealing with such a high volume of e-mail is to stay as organized as I possibly can. In this article, I explain my personal sorting system, in the hopes that it will give you some ideas on how you can better organize your own e-mail.

Weeding out the spam

Of course, the first step is to weed out as much of the spam as possible. To do so, I use an Exchange-level antispam product, which provides Bayesian filtering as well as standard keyword, DNS blacklist, language, and IP header filtering.

To prevent false positives, everyone in my Outlook Contacts is on my spam filter's whitelist. I also have the software configured so that anyone I send a message to is automatically added to a dynamic whitelist (that way I can be sure the spam filter won't destroy the response).

Another e-mail management method I use is a keyword whitelist. This technique treats messages as legitimate e-mail if they contain a specific word or phrase. For example, last year I sold my Scarab racing boat through my Web site. At the time, I put the words "Scarab" and "Boat" into my whitelist to ensure that any messages related to someone wanting to buy the boat would make it through the filter.

Using a flagging system

Strict spam filtering gets rid of the majority of the mail that reaches my inbox, but I still have well over 100 messages that actually make it through each day. Some of these messages are spam, some are from readers, some are from editors, and others are from friends and family. To help me to make sense of everything, I use a flag system.

The basic idea is that if a message is from one of my editors, then a red flag appears next to the message. This tells me that the message is probably something I need to deal with relatively quickly. If a message is from a friend or family, I flag it with a yellow flag. That way, I can tell at a glance that it's a message from someone I'm close to, but can probably wait if I'm busy.

The flags are based on rules. Simply select the Rules and Alerts option from Outlook's Tools menu and click the New Rule button. You can then create a rule that assigns a specific color of flag to any message from various e-mail addresses.

If an e-mail message requires me to take future action, I mark it with a blue flag by right clicking on the message and selecting the Follow Up command. Once I have taken care of whatever the message indicates I need to do, I use the same technique to turn the blue flag into a checkmark so I know the task is done.

One thing I really like is being able to sort by flag. For example, I recently took a nice long vacation, during which I did not have access to e-mail. I'm sure you can just imagine how much e-mail was in my inbox when I got home! To help me to figure out which messages were really important, I clicked on the flag column so Outlook would sort the messages by flag color. This meant that anything from my editors was grouped together, and I didn't have to worry about an important message being lost in a sea of spam.

Grouping related messages

Another way I've found to cut down on inbox clutter is to group messages by conversation. For example, how many times have you e-mailed someone, they reply, you respond to them, and the whole thing just keeps going back and forth? If you have a really long conversation with someone, you might have 20 or 30 messages related to the same conversation.

If you select the Arrange By -> Conversation option from Outlook's View menu though, only the most recent message in each conversation is displayed. You can expand that message tree to show older messages in the conversation, but you don't have to. Grouping messages by conversation thread reduces inbox clutter, and makes it a lot easier to locate specific messages.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as the CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer he has written for Microsoft, TechTarget, CNET, ZDNet, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at


Is it possible to sort the messages you have flagged by date/time?
—Bill R.


If I understand your question, you are asking if you can sort the messages by flag, and then do a secondary sort by date/time. I don't know of a way of doing that, but if you only want to sort by date and time, you can just click the header to the date and time column.
—Brien Posey, tip author

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