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Organize Your E-Mail

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Written on January 10, 2002 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine

Last September when we were on holidays in the Rocky Mountains, we met one of our cousins for lunch. Talk inevitably turned to computers, and she mentioned how frustrating it is to find stuff in her e-mail. It occurred to us that even many savvy computer users don't really know much about their e-mail systems beyond how to send and receive mail. We thought you might find a primer of mail features and some tips useful.

This article describes the "how to" for Microsoft Outlook. If you are using Outlook Express (the simplified version of Outlook), many of the features are similar but they may have slightly different command names. Some features are not available in Express. Other mail systems have similar features, so if you find something you think might be useful, use your "Help" function to see how to do it in your software.

File Folders

The success of any organizing system depends on file folders. This is certainly true of paper based systems and it also applies to e-mail. Folders let you keep similar things together, so they are easy to find. You can set up your files in any way that makes sense to you. Folders are often set up by topic or by project. By organizing all your mail into folders you will have both the messages that you sent and those you received in the same place. No more searching through hundreds of e-mails in inboxes and sent items to find what you are looking for!

To show you how to set up a folder, we are going to set one up for all the "joke" e-mails we get that we have decided to keep:

  1. Start Outlook
  2. Click on Mail (the box in the lower left part of the screen)
  3. Open your inbox if it isn't already open by clicking on it
  4. At the top of the screen, click on File, then Folder, and then New Folder
  5. A screen appears where you need to input several things
  6. Put in the name of the folder (i.e. "Jokes")
  7. Make sure the second item says "Mail Item"
  8. Click on "Personal Folders" (the default will probably be "inbox")
  9. Click on OK
  10. Say "Yes" to add a shortcut to this folder on your Outlook bar

A folder will be created that will appear on the left side bar on your screen that says "Jokes".

So now you have a folder for all the good e-mail jokes. The next step is to move the "joke" e-mails to the folder.

  1. Click on your inbox folder from the left side bar on the screen. This will open your inbox
  2. Scroll down the messages until you find the first joke
  3. Make sure joke is highlighted
  4. Drag and drop the e-mail message to the "Jokes" folder on the left side bar of the screen. It will move from your inbox to the "Jokes" folder
  5. Continue until you have moved all the messages you want to put in the folder
  6. You may also have sent some messages that you want to move, so look through the sent items as well

Now, if you click on the "Jokes" folder on the left side bar, you will see all of your jokes organized together. It will be easier to find what you are looking for if you later want to send the joke to someone else.

Sorting Messages

Another thing you can do with your folder (and your inbox and sent items) is to sort within the folder. When you have your folder open and can see your list of messages, they are usually displayed in date order, with the more recent displayed first. You can change the order by clicking a title at the top of the folder. If you want the folder contents displayed by who sent the message, then click on "From". All messages in this folder will then be sorted by who sent the message - so all messages from me to you will appear together. This is useful if you are looking for a message you know I sent you but you don't remember when it was sent. You can sort by any of the titles at the top of the folder just by clicking on them. You can accomplish the same thing by going to the command bar at the top of the screen and selecting "View", then "Current View", then one of the "Sort by" selections.

You can tell how the sort is presently done by finding the little triangle in the column heading of the column being sorted. An upside down triangle ( 6 ) means it is sorted in descending order - for example, if it is in the date column, then the newest message will be displayed first. A right side up triangle ( 5 ) means the column is sorted in ascending order - for example, the oldest message would be displayed first. To change between ascending and descending order, just click again.

You may find it useful to keep your inbox sorted so the newest messages appear first.

Displaying Information

You can also re-size the information displayed. You may want one of the fields to be longer (i.e., the subject line or the "from" name) and some other fields to be shorter (date, size). Put your cursor in the heading area near the boundaries of a field, and when the "cross-hairs" appear, move the lines to where you want them to be.

Try these basic e-mail organizing strategies, and next time we'll look at some more features. Tame that electronic tiger!

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