How I Conquered My Inbox with the Trusted Trio

Organizing all of your email is difficult to say the least. If like me, your job requires you to send and receive tons of email every day, organization is not just a good idea, it’s a necessity. In the past I would make folder after folder to organize all of my emails. A folder for each person and project, along with a high priority and low priority folder. Before I knew it, I ended up with more than 50 folders in my inbox, many with sub-folders! At this point I couldn’t even tell you if that important project email from my boss was in her folder, the project folder, or the high priority folder. It was time for a change.

The Trusted Trio

Enter the Trusted Trio. A whole new idea in inbox management. This idea comes from Merlin Mann; the king of Inbox Zero. Inbox zero is basically what it sounds like; getting your inbox to zero messages. His system used 5 folders, but Gina Trapani from Lifehacker altered it to the three we will talk about.

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The Trusted Trio is three folders placed in your inbox. These replace every other folder so that when you are done, you only have these three. This is a fairly straightforward inbox setup, especially with Outlook 2013. Let’s take a look at setting up the Trusted Trio in Outlook 2013.

Follow Up

As I mentioned above, there are only three folders involved here. The first folder is Follow Up. This folder is meant for anything that has come to your inbox and will take more than one minute to complete, but will get done soon enough that it can become an item on your to-do list. Messages in this folder should come and go pretty quickly. If something takes a minute or less to do, just do it now!

Some examples of messages here would be a coworker asking you to look up some information, your mother asking for your sister’s new phone number, or maybe a contest email you received that you need to enter today. Whatever the case, these are items that need done soon and must be added to a to-do list.

Hold

If Follow Up is the folder for quickness, Hold is the folder for the slower moving. Think of the Hold folder as a temporary parking spot for emails that need taken care of in a few days, or are awaiting a response from someone. Basically things that might not be on your to-do list right now, but you still need quick access to them for when they will become to-do items.

Some examples here would be a FedEx tracking number for a package that is coming, or maybe flight information for that upcoming work trip. The idea here is to park emails for a few days, but to review a few times a day to make sure items in there haven’t gone stale, or have just been completed.

Archive

The Archive folder is for everything else. This was the hardest folder for me to start using. When you are done with an email but want to save it for reference later, the Archive folder is where it goes. No more folders for every person or project; but instead the Archive folder gets everything. The idea of putting everything into one folder is scary to say the least. I had nightmares about losing messages in this mass of email.

The key to remember here is that the Archive is far from No Man’s Land. Outlook 2013 gives unparalleled search ability so nothing is really ever lost. We’ll go over that in a minute.

Inbox Zero

Ok, now that you have an idea what each folder is, let’s see how they work with Outlook 2013. The first step is to create the folders in your inbox. I imagine if you need to get a handle on folders you already know this, but just in case, all you need to do is right-click on your inbox and select New Folder.

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Do this for all three folders:

  • Archive
  • Follow Up
  • Hold

Once you have the folders created, it’s time to empty out all the other folders you have. Remember, while it can seem scary to clear out all the folders you’ve grown to depend on, when we’re done here, you’ll be far more organized with far less folders. Just stick with me!

Use these simple questions to determine what goes into which of the Trusted Trio folders:

  • Will the email take less than one minute to complete? – Do it now! Then move it to Archive.
  • Will the email take more than one minute, and should be done sooner than later? – Move it to Follow Up.
  • Am I waiting on a reply, or will this email need attention in the next week? – Move it to the Hold Folder.
  • Is this message about something that has been completed, but might be needed later for reference? – Move the email to the Archive folder.
  • Is this email useful at all, or is it just junk? – If it is just junk, delete it.

That is really all there is to this system. Once you are done moving all of your emails into the Trusted Trio, delete ALL of your old folders, leaving only these three. I know it’s tough, but it needs to be done!

The overall idea here is to keep your actual inbox at zero. Take care of things immediately that take less than a minute, and file everything else where it needs to be. There is no reason emails should stay in your inbox.

Archive – Less an Abyss, More a Library

The scary folder here is the Archive folder. Dumping all your old emails into one folder seems crazy, but next I’m going to show you how to find anything in this folder with the search features on Outlook 2013.

Think of the Archive folder as a library and not a dark hole that emails get thrown into. The first way to search is with the built-in search bar in outlook. Simply type your search into the box. You can click into the box and start typing, or hit ctrl-E to automatically get to the search bar.

Typing a search brings the Search tab of the Outlook 2013 Ribbon to life. This gives you all the power you need to find the emails you want from the archive folder.

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First, choose what folder you want to search. From there, you can choose what your search string is. Are you typing the sender’s name? Maybe it’s a keyword in the email itself. Maybe you only want to find flagged items with that keyword. Whatever the case, this bar gives you the power. If you know someone specific sent you an email with an attachment last month and now you need it, Outlook 2013 makes that an easy search.

  • Type the name into the search bar.
  • Next, select the “Has Attachments” option.(the paperclip)
  • Click the “This Week” drop down and select This Month.

The results are live, so you will see emails coming up as you enter more items to your query. This dropped my list from over one hundred messages to only two. Outlook 2013 took what was once a very difficult query to build to three clicks of the mouse. Just so you understand how powerful this feature is, the query you would have had to type on your own is:

john smith hasattachments:yes received:this month

Now you see why making the Archive folder in Outlook 2013 is far superior to having many folders to store them in. Just type in what you are looking for and Outlook 2013 will find it.

Categories and Flags

Another great feature in Outlook 2013 is the flagging and categories setting. You can apply categories and flags to emails as they come in to make them searchable later. Maybe you flag all the emails that have login information in them, or you give everything dealing with a certain project a blue category marker. This makes them even more searchable later on, as both are criteria you can add to your search.

To add a category or flag to your email, just right-click on the message and select the item you want to add to it.

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Advanced Find

Want to get granular with your search? Click the Search Tools button in the Outlook 2013 Search Ribbon to bring up the Advanced Find window.

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This lets you move from simple clicking to search inside of Outlook 2013 to selecting everything specifically about the message you are looking for. Need to search for normal importance items with no attachments that came from John Smith with yourself on the CC line? Done. If you can’t find it with advanced find, it probably doesn’t exist.

Wrap-Up

A lot of times people say they did something that they are talking about to lend an air of reliability to what they are writing. When I say this let me conquer my inbox, I am telling the truth. With the volume of projects I work on and emails I get every day, the old way of dealing with my inbox was drowning me.

I urge you to use this system and take control of your inbox back from your folders. The Trusted Trio works for me, and I believe it will work for you.

Facts About Inbox Zero

I mentioned Inbox Zero earlier but really didn’t mention what it was. This is an ideology that your inbox should be at zero as often as possible. This helps you to not feel lost in a sea of email and work, while keeping things organized. Here are some interesting facts about Inbox Zero:

    • Merlin Mann, the creator of Inbox Zero ideology puts it best when he says “It’s not how many messages are in your inbox, it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox.”
    • There is a Nerd Merit Badge for keeping Inbox Zero Monday through Friday.
    • If you’re a fan of the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, then Merlin Mann’s website 43 Folders is for you.

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