Back from holiday to a mountain of email? How Outlook rules and triage can help sustain Inbox Zero

I just came back from a marvellous holiday on the west coast of Ireland. Sun, sand and surf, great craic with friends and folk music in every local pub. And no internet access. So no temptation to read my work email. And that helped me to break my previous habit of quickly scanning my email every day on my phone even while on holiday. Every day I used to delete insignificant notifications etc, just leaving the ones that needed my attention when I got back.

So of course this time I’ve come back to a mountain of hundreds of emails. Maybe you have the same after your holidays.

How can I deal with them most efficiently? I want to triage them quickly, automate some of that, and perhaps save myself some time every day in future.


Not all emails are equal. My attention is usually grabbed by the most recent rather than the most important. So to get past that well-known cognitive bias, I have since March been using a new system of Email triage: when your Inbox needs more time than you have available. I handle items in the inbox just once. There are only a few options

  • Delete
  • Scan it and archive it (drag to the Academy folder in my case) – no need for complex folder structures because search finds everything easily
  • Deal with it immediately, but only if it can be done inside a minute
  • Drag to For action – core job actions (possibly posting some notes or starting a draft reply, see below. Possibly add to my main To Do list in OneNote)
  • Drag to For action – social and collaborative actions

It works really well, and I’ve been keeping to Inbox Zero for months. Today, just after my holidays I noticed a bit of repetition in what I was doing and added a tiny piece of extra automation to it.

Outlook rules

What are your favourite Outlook rules? I very rarely look at mine, and found a dozen obsolete ones from years ago that I deleted. Here are two I added today that others might find useful:

I participate a lot in social media in BT, so I get notifications when there is new activity. I quite like seeing them, but don’t like them interrupting my flow of work. So I’ve added a new rule to move them automatically to a secondary inbox subfolder which I’ve called Inbox – notifications. Here’s the rule – you might like to copy those email addresses. When I set it up today, it moved all the notifications from my holiday pile. And it will continue to do that for me every day. The rule runs on the server, so it will also stop most of those appearing on my main inbox on my phone.

Having done that, my intention is to only review that folder once a day, and triage it as well, deleting most, and replying online to the ones that I feel I can contribute to. I wonder if I will stick to that?

Now my core favourite folders (part way through processing my holiday backlog) are:

The plan today is to get the two Inboxes to zero, and then work through the core job actions before tackling the social and collaborative actions. OK it might take more than a day.

What rules do you use in Outlook that others might benefit from copying?


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