I’ve been a pretty staunch proponent of making e-mails easier to find in Microsoft Outlook by using subfolders. Particularly when you use Rules and Alerts to automate email sorting, it’s an easier way to get closer to the Inbox Zero ideal.
But a recent study from IBM and Microsoft may make me alter my view somewhat. After studying 345 e-mail users, researchers concluded that time spent organizing e-mail via subfolders didn’t pay off in time saved in locating e-mails later. Using the “search and sort” method is actually far more efficient.
In some limited cases, like e-mails received from electronic court filing systems, I still think the subfolder method has some advantages. But the study did make me look more closely at Microsoft Outlook’s Search Folders feature.
Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows.
Setting Up a New Predefined Search Folder
Fortunately, Microsoft Outlook (particularly version 2010, used for this demonstration) makes the process of setting up a new Search Folder easy. The quickest way to start the process is to right-click on Search Folders in your Email folder, then click New Search Folder when it pops up:
You’ll get a New Search Folder dialog box with a list of predefined search folders, one of which may be perfect for you:
Let’s start with a popular choice: mail to and from specific people.
Here’s an important thing to remember: to use this predefined criteria, the sender/receiver must be in that e-mail account’s Contacts folder. If they’re not, now is a really good time to hit Cancel and and add that correspondent to your Contacts.
From here, click the Choose button:
You’ll get a dialog box similar to the one you see when you click the To button when addressing an e-mail. Just click the person’s name in the Address Book, click the From or Sent to button, then click OK. (You can choose more than one name for a single Search Folder, and you could also skip step two above by simply double-clicking on the name in the Address Book.)
Outlook will use the correspondent’s name as a default Search Folder name, but you can always override this with whatever text you choose.
Click OK, and your Search Folder is added to the list.
Setting Up a Customized Search Folder
If none of the predefined Search Folders meets your needs, you can always create a custom Search Folder. Scroll down to the bottom of the list in the New Search Folder dialog box, select “Create a custom Search Folder,” and click Choose:
Outlook will ask you to define the search criteria for your new Search Folder:
You’ll see a Search Folder Criteria dialog box with three tabs, each (from left to right) more advanced than the last. There are a lot of choices here, and if you’re familiar with the Advanced Search feature in Microsoft Outlook, these will look familiar.
For instance, if there are specific numbers (like a case number), words or phrases which will always appear in the Subject line, you can type those in the “Search for the word(s)” field. You could also set up a custom Search Folder for e-mails received today, unread e-mails, or e-mails with attachments, to cite a few examples.
It’s All About Efficiency
The point of all this is not to find another way to over-engineer what you’re already doing. Learning to use features like Outlook’s Search Folders is about finding ways to more efficiently accomplish your daily work. Everyone’s mix is going to be a little different. It’s all about finding what works best for you.