How To Fight Inbox Overload with Outlook

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It’s a real dilemma: the busier your law practice gets, the more cluttered your Microsoft Outlook inbox will be.

While there are all sorts of tools that can help you achieve Inbox Zero nirvana, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the inbox management features already available in Outlook itself. Here’s how some of those features can help you fight inbox overload.1

Move Routine Emails Out of the Way with Rules

It sure would be lovely to have someone available 24/7 to screen your email, highlight emails that need immediate attention, and move the rest to the side to deal with later. With Rules, you can.

For instance, I’ve created Rules that flag every email received from any uscourts.gov subdomain and moved them into case-specific subfolders based on its case number in the subject line. If one case is particularly hot, you can deal with those emails immediately and leave the rest for later in the day.

You can harness this same trick for moving newsletter subscriptions to a Read Later folder.

The easiest way to set up a rule is to open an email you want typically want to automate. Just right-click on that email and, in the contextual menu that pops up, choose Rule > Create Rule.

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While you can do a simple rule in the Create Rule dialog box, the more powerful option begins with clicking on the Advanced Options button. This will take you into the Rules Wizard.

The Rules Wizard asks you three questions:

  1. Which of your emails need to be automatically handled? For example, these could be emails you receive from certain email addresses or with specific text in the subject line.
  2. What do you want Outlook to do with those emails? Once Outlook spots an email that meets those criteria, do you want to move it to a new folder, pop up an alert, or forward it to another recipient?
  3. Are there any exceptions to the conditions in #1 above? For example, if you’re rerouting emails from the CM/ECF system to your assistant, you wouldn’t want to do that if your assistant is already getting cc’d (his/her email address would appear in the body of the email as a recipient). Those of you who practice in multiple federal districts (some of which do not allow secondary notification emails) will appreciate the convenience of such exceptions.

The Rules Wizard steps you through these three questions with checkboxes to select the available options. In this example, I’ll show you how to move an incoming ECF email automatically in a specific case to another folder and flag it for follow-up.

Step One: Select Conditions

First, will check two conditions: the subject line and the sender.

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With each of these conditions, you’ll need to click the blue underlined text and tell Outlook what specific words or phrases it needs to look for. Here’s where starting with an email like the ones you want to handle comes in handy, because Outlook will automatically take that subject text and bring it into the Rules Wizard. However, to use that text as criteria, you often need to tweak it.

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The second criteria is the sender’s address. It’s the same drill: click the blue underlined text and specify what pattern Outlook needs to look for in the sender’s email address.

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Step Two: What do You Want to do with the Message?

I’m telling Outlook to move that email out of my Inbox and flag it for follow-up so it appears on my To-Do list. The steps are very much like the ones in the previous dialog box. We will click “specified” to pick the folder to move the email to, and then click “follow up at this time” to choose which flag will be applied to the email.

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Step Three: Are There Any Exceptions?

In this particular example, we do not have exceptions. But if you wanted to exclude any ECF emails that were also sent to your assistant, you could check the box next to “except if the body contains specific words” and substitute your assistant’s email address.

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One-Click Email Handling with QuickSteps

Some of you are shuddering right now. I totally get it. The thought of having “the machine” move your emails to heaven-knows-where without alerting you first can lead you to believe an important email will disappear into thin air. If you prefer a more hands-on approach, you can use QuickSteps to achieve the same result without adding too much work.

QuickSteps is, basically, a macro (though Microsoft carefully avoids using that word). A QuickStep lets you click one button to start a series of commands, like marking an email as “read” and moving it into another folder (or forwarding to your assistant).

Look on your Home tab in Outlook, and you will see several QuickSteps Outlook provides to you by default:

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Click on “Create New” to create your own QuickStep.

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There are all sorts of options, and you can choose multiple Actions for the same QuickStep:

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For example, you could make the first Action “Mark As Read,” then add another Action “Forward,” and a third Action “Move to Folder.”

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Depending on which Actions you choose for your new QuickSteps, you can select a whole bunch of emails, click the QuickStep button, and they’ll all get magically handled.

Redirecting Replies to Your Assistant (or Anyone Else)

Ever send out an email to a large group — co-counsel in a case, the Young Lawyers section of the local bar association, whomever — and asked them to send their responses to your assistant, only to have them send an avalanche of return emails to you instead?

To be charitable, they’re probably just too swamped to read your directions carefully. But you can turn his or her inattention into your advantage.

Before you hit send, go to the Options tab and, over on the right, click “Direct Replies To.” Delete your name from that field and substitute your assistant’s (the Select Names button takes you to your Address Book). When done, click Close, then send your email.

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No more avalanche.

Get Creative with Inbox Management

You can probably look at your Inbox any given day and group 90% of the emails into a category (read later, forward to someone for handling, etc.). Avoiding email overload may be as simple as strategically deploying one or more of these tools.

Originally published 2015-03-30. Last updated 2016-03-18.

Featured image: “Young man getting overload with emails.” from Shutterstock.


  1. Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows. 

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  • Paul Elkins

    Deborah, this is a great way to get organized. The problem I run into is that IOS does not notify me (with notifications, banners, etc.) that I’ve received a new email unless it goes to my main inbox. This really eliminates the usefulness of push notifications because I have to manually check my folders. Any thoughts on a solution?