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Tame Your Outlook Inbox with Subfolders, Rules and Filters

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Getting floods of e-mail doesn’t have to be a nightmare! Instead, the apps that you use to read and send your emails should also be able to help you get them organized and sorted automatically. We've already looked at how to keep your Gmail inbox under control, but in the business world, Outlook is one of the most common email applications. It also has a number of tools to keep your inbox clean, and more.

In Outlook, you can easily find and group messages if you sort them into subfolders, and you can even have Outlook do the sorting for you automatically. Another option is to apply formatting that stands out to messages that are important, with or without sub-folders.

In this tutorial, I'll show you how to use these tools and more to automatically keep your Outlook inbox clean and focused on the email messages that really matter to you.

Screencast

You can follow along with this tutorial using your email accounts you already have setup in recent versions of Outlook for Windows or Mac. Some of the techniques work the same in the Windows and Mac editions, but the 2013 edition of Outlook for Windows has a few more features to make your email organization a bit easier. But once you have everything set up, both editions work well.

Creating Subfolders

Subfolders are the key to staying organized in Outlook, and you can have subfolders of any of your main folders: for e-mail, calendars, contacts, and more. Creating a subfolder takes just a few clicks in either the Windows or Mac version.

In the list of folders on the left side, right-click the Inbox, then select New Folder from the pop-up menu.

Create New Folder dialog
Right-click a folder to create a subfolder inside it

Type a name, then press Enter. The new folder will be listed underneath the Inbox.

New subfolder in navigation pane
Subfolders are nested inside their parent folders

Now you can drag any messages you want into the new folder.

Outlook rules
You can drag messages into subfolders

Tip: to select multiple messages to drag, Ctrl-click individual ones, or select a bunch in a row by clicking the first one you want, then Shift-click the last one.

After you drag, the message will be gone from the Inbox, and if you click the subfolder, you’ll see the message in it. Did you drag the wrong one by mistake? No problem! Drag it back out, again.

Also, if you’d prefer to copy the message rather than move it, hold down the Ctrl key while you drag.

And if you decide later that you don’t want that subfolder after all, you can right-click it and select Delete Folder from the pop-up menu. Any messages in the folder will be deleted, also.

Moving a Message Using a Quick Step or the Move Button

Two other ways of manually moving messages are the Quick Step feature (Windows only) or the Move button on the ribbon bar of both Windows and Mac versions. A Quick Step is sort of like a macro, and there are a few that come ready made with Outlook. In this case, we have to create our own for the new folder.

Creating and Using a Quick Step (Windows only)

First, let’s create a Quick Step: select a message that you want to move, then click the Down Arrow in the lower, right corner of the Quick Steps box.

Lower Down Arrow in the Quick Steps box
Click the lower Down Arrow in the Quick Steps box to create a new step

From the drop-down box, choose New Quick Step, then Move to Folder.

Move message to a folder

In the dialog box that appears, give it a meaningful name, choose the folder you want items moved to, then optionally mark messages as read. Then click Finish.

Outlook quick step settings
In the Quick Step setup dialog, choose which folder to move messages to

To use it, select a message, then click the Quick Step you just created.

New Quick Step available in the ribbon
Quick Steps that you create will appear in the box on the Home tab

This moves the message, the same way as though you dragged it.

The Move Button (Windows and Mac)

Next to the Quick Step group on the ribbon is the Move button. When you create folders or move messages, it usually guesses that you’ll want to do it, again. It’s like a Quick Step that gets created automatically, but requires a couple of extra clicks to use.

Select a message, click the Move button, then from the menu, choose the folder from the list. If the folder you want isn’t listed, choose Other Folder. You can select the folder you want from a folder list.

Folder list
The Move button has some similar ways of moving messages

Although this works, I think it takes too many steps. There’s a much better way.

Creating Rules to Move Messages Automatically

If you get a lot of messages, it can be easy to miss some of those that you want to put into subfolders. Fortunately, the Rules feature can do it for you, when messages arrive. You can create rules to move messages based on who the sender is, what the subject line is, whether you’re in the To or CC field, and many other criteria. As part of creating a rule, you can create a subfolder, so you don’t even have to do it in advance.

Creating a Rule From on a Message You Already Moved (Windows only)

In the Windows version, if you manually dragged a message into a subfolder, Outlook can create a rule to do it again, automatically.

Drag a message into a subfolder that you created. On the ribbon bar, click the Rules button, and notice the first two choices:

Rules button and menu
The Rules button has simple and advanced ways of defining rules

If you select Always Move Messages From… Outlook will always move messages from that sender into the currently selected subfolder.

If you choose Create Rule, you’ll get a dialog box where you can choose additional settings, like whether to move messages based on the sender’s name, message subject, who it’s sent to, and more.

Create Outlook rule
In the Create Rule dialog, you can flag messages based on sender, subject, and recipient

Choose the settings you want, then click OK.

The Rules Wizard gives you even more control. Let’s take a look at how to create a rule in Windows.

Creating a Rule Using the Rules Wizard in Windows

The Rules Wizard has many more conditions for sorting messages, and also lets you specify exceptions to the rules.

There are two ways of displaying the wizard. In the Create Rule dialog (see screen capture, above), you can click the Advanced Options button. Another way is to click the Rules button and select Manage Rules & Alerts from the drop-down.

Think of a series of messages you often receive, like a particular newsletter, that always has some consistent words in the subject line. We’ll move the messages based on those words. You don’t have to select one of the messages to create this rule. You don’t even need any of them in your inbox. Outlook will grab them when they arrive.

In the Rules and Alerts dialog, click New Rule, at the top.

rules and alerts dialog
Bring up the Rules Wizard by clicking the New Rule button

That displays more pre-made rules you can apply.

Outlook rules wizard
The Rules Wizard has pre-made rules, or you can choose a blank one and create one from scratch

To get to the same part of the dialog as clicking the Advanced button above, choose the second-to-last option: Apply rule on messages I receive. Then click Next, on the bottom. That brings up Step 1 of the wizard.

Check the box for specific words in the subject or body. On the bottom of the dialog, click the hyperlink for specific words.

Outlook rule for specific words
When choosing an option in the top part of the dialog, there will be a link to click on the bottom

In the Search Text dialog that appears, type the words that you want to flag, then click Add to add them to the Search list. If you add multiple items, Outlook will only grab messages where all of the items are present. Click OK when finished.

Outlook search text with rule
If you add more than one word or phrase, they all must be present for the message to be flagged

Click Next, and you’ll decide what to do with the messages that get flagged.

At the top, check the box for move it to the specified folder. On the bottom of the dialog, click the hyperlink for specified.

Outlook rules specified folder
There are many actions available, and you can choose several of them, if you want

In the folder tree that appears, twirl open the Inbox, then select the subfolder where you want these messages moved.

Outlook rules folder tree
You can have the rule move a message into any folder

Click OK, then click Next to decide if you want any exceptions to the rule. Make any choices here the same way you did in the previous two steps. Of course, you don’t have to choose any exceptions if you don’t want to. Then click Next to go to the last step.

Give the rule a meaningful name (you can keep the suggested one). If you choose the Run this rule now… option, Outlook will process all messages currently in the Inbox that meet your criteria. The option for Turn on this rule will let you disable and enable the rule at any time.

Outlook rules wizard
You can have a new rule run immediately, or wait for new messages to arrive

Click Finish. The rule you created will now be listed in the Rules and Alert box, and you can disable enable the rules here, without having to edit the rule. To modify the rule later, either double-click it or select it, then click Change Rule.

Click Apply, then click OK. The next time you receive a message that meets your criteria, Outlook will automatically move it into the subfolder you chose. The subfolder will be bolded, indicating that there are unread messages, and the number on it indicates how many there are.

Subfolder containing new incoming message
When new messages arrive and get sorted, Outlook will indicate them

Creating a Rule on the Mac

The Mac edition of Outlook doesn’t have as much detail for creating rules, but it probably has what you need, anyway.

On either the Home tab or Organize tab on the ribbon, click the Rules button, then choose Edit Rules.

Rules button on the Mac ribbon bar
On the Mac, the Rules button is on both the Home and Organize tabs

On the left side of the dialog box that appears, select the type of account you’re using, then click the Plus sign on bottom.

Dialog to create a new rule on the Mac
In the Rules box, choose the type of service you're using, then click the Plus sign to create a new rule

Choose the settings you want, then click OK. Note that one option the Mac edition has that Windows doesn’t is that you can choose how to deal with multiple conditions.

Rules settings dialog on the Mac
In the Mac version, a rule can flag a message when it meets all or just some of the conditions you specify

Filtering Messages (Windows only)

In the Windows edition, if you don’t want to deal with subfolders and rules, you can have Outlook change the formatting of message headers, instead. In the 2007 and earlier versions, you could do this with a few clicks on top of the message list, but starting with the 2010 version, you have to jump through a few hoops. And this feature doesn’t exist at all in the Mac edition.

Select a message from a sender that you want to flag. Go to the View tab on the ribbon, click the View Settings button on the left, then click the Conditional Formatting button in the dialog box that appears.

View Settings dialog with Conditional Formatting button highlighted
To create a custom format for message headers, use the View Settings dialog

In the Conditional Formatting dialog, click Add, type a name for the rule (notice it immediately gets placed at the bottom of the list), then click Condition to choose criteria.

Enter any criteria you want, such as the name or e-mail address of the sender. The more criteria you specify, the narrower the search will be.

Outlook rules filter box
The Filter dialog has three tabs of options, and you can set as many or as few as you want

Click OK to return to the previous dialog, then click Font to choose formatting for the message headers that get flagged.

Outlook rules font box
You can format message headers with any font on your computer

Set the options you want, then click OK three times to confirm the dialog boxes and return to the main Outlook window.

Messages that contain the criteria you specified now have the unique formatting.

Formatted header of a message
Example of a message header with a custom format

Conclusion

Outlook has great features for sorting and organizing mail, although some of the features are hard to find. You can also use any of these techniques to organize mail that you send. For example, you might want a folder that contains all messages that you send with sales proposals or all messages you send to your boss. You can also nest subfolders and use rules on them. This way, you might create a Clients folder, then create individual subfolders in it, one for each client.

If you have any other tips for keeping your Outlook emails organized, or have any trouble creating Outlook filters, let us know in the comments below and we'd be glad to help out!

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