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If you tell us email has fallen out of fashion, we’d ask you to have a look at our inboxes. Being able to sort through and organize the mess of messages that arrive daily is fairly key to maintaining workplace sanity.

It’s not just about spam either. Spam still exists, an annoying fact of life, but there are ways to deal with that. It’s the crush of other email we get – updates about software, invitations to events, mailing lists we [got] subscribed to but never remember to unsubscribe from – all of which necessitates some way to organize, sort, and file messages to their proper place, whether it’s a designated folder or the trash.

We’ve talked quite a bit about Outlook, including e-mail basics like composing and sending, ways to add and receive attachments, as well as importing contacts and managing address books. We want to turn our attention now to the bigger picture, by focusing on inbox management.

Mastering Your Outlook Inbox

Outlook has a wealth of features built in to help you filter your mail into its proper places. To begin, if you right-click on a message or mouse up to the Ribbon, you’ll notice there’s a feature called Quick Steps.

If we expand it from the Ribbon, we can see this feature in full.

The first thing to remember is Quick Steps are basically rules (there is a feature called Rules, which we’ll discuss shortly). The second thing to remember is that, unlike Rules, which work behind the scenes without your input, Quick Steps rely on your input to work.

The first thing you will do is select the Quick Step you want to create. Let’s do a simple one to illustrate our point.

In this Quick Step, we select a message we deem miscellaneous and click the Quick Step, which will move the message to the Misc folder and mark the message as Read.

If you click the “Options” button, you can see how the Quick Step is constructed, and you can also edit it, such as adding or removing parts to or from it.

For example, in this screenshot, you could remove the step where messages are marked as Read, so everything is moved to the Miscellaneous folder but its status remains unchanged.

That’s how Quick Steps work, we could spend quite a bit of time showing you various ways they can be created and implemented, but we want to move over to Rules to illustrate the difference.

The Basic Rules of Rules

As we mentioned, Quick Steps are something you act on while Rules function automatically, behind the scenes, according to criteria you specify. When you click the “Rules” button, you should choose “Create Rule…” from the drop-down list.

The primary conditions for rule creation are pretty basic and you may not even need to delve into any advanced options, so let’s go ahead and examine some of their simpler aspects.

In the following image, you see you can route mail from certain senders, or based on the subject, or to whom it is sent. From there, you can have Outlook alert you visually and/or with a sound. You can also move the message to a specific folder, which unlike using a Quick Step, would happen without your input.

If you click the “Create Rule” button, you will see the following wizard dialog appear.

You can also click “New Rule” from the Rules and Alerts window.

Doing so will open the first Rules Wizard window, which walks you through the process.

Rules are surprisingly uncomplicated if you already know what you want the rule to do. Click on “Advanced Options…” and you’ll see what we mean. Not only will you see the options from the basic Create Rule screen, you’ll find a whole new world of other rules you can use.

Imagine then we take the Quick Step we created earlier and want to turn it into a rule. We’d want to select our criteria from the options shown above and then click “Next.” In this case, we’re going to move mail that is sent to our How-To Geek account.

On the next screen, we choose the “move to a specified folder” option and then at the bottom we click on the underlined link “move it to the specified folder.” We’re then shown options that will let us route mail to whatever folder we choose, which in this case is “Misc.”

Upon clicking “Next,” you’ll be asked if there are any exceptions to this new rule. If there are not, then you can click “Next” and you’ll progress to the final screen, where you’ll be asked to name your new rule, whether you want to turn it on, run it upon finishing it, and finally, you’ll be able to review it.

That’s it, click “Finish” and you’re good to go. You can see this rule by clicking the “Rules” button and then “Manage Rules and Alerts” from the drop-down selections.

You can return anytime to change your rule, add new ones, make copies, delete, and other functions. Don’t forget, if you want to keep a rule, but don’t want it to run all the time, you can just uncheck the little box next to it.

If you want to learn more about automatically moving messages to a specific folder, we recommend you check out this article.

Deleting and Ignoring Email Messages

You’ll get a lot of e-mail you don’t want or need, whether it’s forwards from an over-exuberant parent, or straight up spam, keeping your inbox tamed and well groomed will be a big challenge if you don’t know how to use the tools at your disposal.

As you can see prominently displayed on the Ribbon, there’s a section entirely devoted to deleting things, most notable is the big “Delete” button and its giant X. You can also simply select a message or group of messages and click that button or just tap “Delete” on your keyboard.

Let’s look at that Delete section a bit more and see what else it has to offer. Firstly, there’s the “Ignore” button.

What does Ignore do? When you select a message or conversation and click “Ignore,” a dialog box appears.

The difference between this and simply deleting a conversation is that ignoring it will apply to this and all future messages, meaning that if you’re on a mailing list and respondents keep replying all, you will no longer see them, which is pretty darn useful.

The other notable option is the Clean Up feature. Clicking the “Clean Up” button will trigger a drop-down menu with the following options

Whatever option you choose, you will see a dialog that offers the same outcome, all redundant messages will be trashed.

If you click the “Settings” button, you’ll be whisked to the Conversation Clean Up options. As you can see, you can use the Clean Up feature to archive old, redundant conversations to an alternate folder, which is probably the most useful option here. It’s often better to simply archive stuff rather than deleting it, just in case you need to refer to it at a later time.

While these features are great, and we see the obvious merit in them, they’re not going to have much effect on that unholy of inbox scourges: spam.

Spam, Spam Go Away!!

Spam doesn’t get the same kind of headlines it once did because for the most part, modern spam filters do a pretty good job at weeding it all out. If you use Gmail or other webmail services, you likely don’t see a lot of it, which isn’t to say it isn’t there, particularly if you make the ill-fated mistake of consenting to let a company share your address with their marketing partners, or you click the wrong box and mistakenly sign up to be on a distribution list.

The point is, spam still happens, but Outlook gives you ways to hopefully keep it largely under control with junk filters. When you receive a message that is clearly junk or spam, you can select that message then click the “Junk” button for a drop-down list of options. For unwanted messages, you’ll choose “Block Sender,” but for everything else, you’ll want to adjust the Junk E-mail Options.

The more restrictive your filtering level is, the better chance something you actually want or need to see may inadvertently be filtered out. If this happens, you’ll need to treat the affected e-mails using the choices seen in the previous screenshot.

It’s a good idea to spend some time exploring the Junk E-mail Options. You can set up whitelists from certain senders and to certain recipients, while explicitly blocking senders you know you don’t trust.

RELATED: How to Create and Manage Contacts in Outlook 2013

Keeping your inbox lean and mean takes dedication and attention to detail. To be honest, a few well-designed rules can make up for a lot of work, but there’s always going to be new challenges. Remember these tools – Quick Steps, Rules, ignoring, and Junk filters – and you’ll be well on your way to taming your e-mail.

Let’s hear from you now. Tell us about your own favorites Quick Steps and Rules, or how you handle spam. Our discussion forum is open, so lend us your comments and questions.

Profile Photo for Matt Klein Matt Klein
Matt Klein has nearly two decades of technical writing experience. He's covered Windows, Android, macOS, Microsoft Office, and everything in between. He's even written a book, The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8.
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