Triage Your Way to Outlook 2013 Inbox Sanity

When you approach inbox maintenance, it helps to adopt a wartime mentality. That means triage.

The idea of triage isn’t new — it comes from an 18th century French word meaning “separate out.” Most people became familiar with it due to its use in wartime hospitals. Basically, triage means to rigorously prioritize timesensitive tasks.

You can use this battle-tested idea for emails with Outlook 2013.

The 80/20 Rule Applies to Email, Too

The 80/20 rule applies to many things in life. In its simplest form, the 80/20 rule says that 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the input. Studies have shown that with groups of berry bushes, 80 percent of the berries come from 20 percent of the bushes, 80 percent of land in a given area is owned by 20 percent of the population, etc.

This principle, known as the Pareto principle after the economist Vilfredo Pareto, applies to email as well. 80 percent of the workload comes from 20 percent of the volume.

With the triage method of email management, you prioritize that 20 percent.

4 Folders Will Give You All the Organization You Need

So, how do we apply the triage method to email? First things first, you need to create four folders (the numbers are part of the folder names):

  • “1-Today”
  • “2-Next 2 Days”
  • “3-End Of Week”
  • “4-Archive”

These four folders will give you all the organization you need. No more making a new folder for every person or project (the search feature in Outlook 2013 makes it possible to find whatever you are looking for).

As soon as an email comes in, it should go into one of the four folders immediately, based on when it needs to be dealt with. All completed emails go into the “Archive” folder.

These folders are meant to save your sanity, not so much to be exact dates. Review them a few times a day and move messages as appropriate. If
something in the “Next 2 Days” folder will be done today, move it to the Today folder, and so on. Emails can live in the “End of Week” folder longer than a week if need be, but make sure you check these on a regular basis. It’s all about you and the system you form around this mold.

Set Up Your Email Folders

First, you’ll notice the numbers in front of each of the folders. This is done so the order of the folders remains in place. By default, Outlook 2013 places your folders in alphabetical order.

Right-Click on your “Inbox” item in the left navigation and select “New Folder.”
Enter the first folder name: “1-Today.” Save the folder. Do this for each of the four folders listed above until your inbox looks like this:
These should be the only folders you use from now on.

It’s scary, but do it.

(And don’t delete the default folders: “Drafts,” Sent Items,” “Outbox,” etc.)

Once you have all your emails moved into these folders, the organization step is complete.

Now, when you need to find an old email in the Archive folder, you need to understand the basics of search in Outlook 2013.

Search and Rescue: The Email Edition

The idea of a single Archive folder probably seems crazy. But remember that Outlook 2013 can search far better than most operating systems, so less is actually more in this case.

To start, select the folder you want to search (in this case, the “Archive” folder) and click in the search bar.

As you type in the search bar, emails will begin appearing that match the search term. This box will search everything in your emails, including
sender, subject, and contents. Look below for details on refining your search.


A quick note: Outlook does not search sub-folders by default, so make sure you’re
in the proper folder when searching. You can modify this option in the Outlook
2013 search ribbon.

Behold the Power of the Search Ribbon

Typing in the search bar activates the Outlook 2013 search ribbon. This gives you all the tools you need to fine-tune your results.

One of the nice features in Outlook 2013’s search ribbon is the ability to search by sender. Just searching with someone’s name will bring up every mention of their name, including emails they were copied on. To search by sender, click the “From” button in the search ribbon.


This will enter search information into the bar. Just enter the name you are looking for between the ellipses and you’re all set.

Attachments, Subjects, and Categories

What if you know you got an email last week that had an attachment you need, but you forget who sent it?

With Outlook 2013’s search capability, you can also search not by aspects of the email itself. Using the old folder system would make this nearly impossible. With search, it’s easy.

  • Attachments: Click on the “Has Attachments” button in the search ribbon and all messages in that folder that have attachments will appear.
  • Subject line: If you know the words in the subject line but that’s all you remember, click the “Subject” button in the search ribbon and
    Outlook 2013 will use your search term to only look in the subject
    line of the emails.
  • Categories: As you receive email messages, you can categorize them using a color system. This can help keep important information like, login information easy to find. Give every email that comes in with login information a Red category and now select that category in the search ribbon to find all emails you put in that category.

You can also stack these search terms. In other words, you can find emails that have attachments and which are also in a certain category. There are more items in the search ribbon of Outlook 2013. Give them a look.

Keep Trying

Getting yourself a solid system for email management is the first step to achieving Inbox Zero. Sticking to the plan is the hard part, however. If this system doesn’t work perfectly for you, use the pieces you like and ditch the rest. There’s no one plan that is right for everyone. Life is iteration.


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