The Best Microsoft Outlook Tip in the World... ever!

In this, my final posting as Exchange/Outlook Product Manager for the UK, I would like to share with you the most powerful productivity tool in Outlook: the delete key. I'll also share a simple workflow you can use right away to help maintain an empty Inbox while staying on top of important information. I hope you find this useful.

As email volumes continue to grow every email user feels the pressure to stay on top of their workload. But for many, reading every email and diligent filing every message is no longer a viable solution in this data-filled age. We need a new deal. We need more powerful tools to eradicate email-borne stress from our lives.

We need "The Delete Key".


Take this key as my gift to you. It is coloured green intentionally. Think of this button as your green light to a happier, more productive future. Use it wisely and it will pay rich dividends. Here, in true Useful Technology Blog style, is how you can make this key your new best friend:

  1. Set aside time each day to sort through your emails. During this time you will work only towards emptying your inbox. This is known as email triage. You won't action every email at this time but, after completing this triage stage, you will know for sure what workload awaits you.
  2. Sort your emails by conversations with the newest email at the top. Now start at the top. Leave all calendar meeting requests until you have cleared all emails. How can you accept a meeting request until you know what the rest of your workload looks like?
  3. Review your emails in strict date order. No cheating. This is important so I'll say it again: No cheating. You cannot look at the next email until you have decided what to do with the top one. If you break this rule you'll re-enter a dangerous spiral of inefficiency and procrastination.
  4. Now you are ready to empty your inbox. With one hand on your mouse and the other on the delete key, follow this simple system. Looking at email number one, ask yourself:
  • QUESTION ONE: Does this email relate to a meaningful personal objective?
    • If yes, proceed to Question two
    • If no, PRESS DELETE until the entire conversation thread is removed
  • QUESTION TWO: Is this email actionable?
    • If yes, decide whether to DO IT (if it will take less than 2 minutes), DEFER IT (create a task using CTRL+SHIFT+V, T) or DELEGATE IT (either forward the email to someone else to action or create an assigned task)
    • If no, decide whether to DELETE IT (press delete), HOLD IT in a holding folder for later attention when you have some spare time (I call this folder 'not actionable' while others call it 'Someday maybe') or FILE IT (into a deeper folder so you can refer to it at a later date if needed).

If you follow this time-tested process diligently I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised to discover how much of your email you can simply delete. The rest you will have sorted into manageable tasks. Now, after adding your own tasks into Outlook (this is crucially important otherwise your working life would be solely driven by the emails you receive) you will have a complete log of all the things you have decided to do and their deadlines. You can now look at your calendar and those outstanding meeting requests and decide if you would like to accept these appointments. Again, if they don't relate to a meaningful personal objective or are not sufficiently action-oriented it's OK to decline meeting requests. You are, after all, in complete control of your time so don't feel bullied to surrender it without good reason.

Back in the early 1990's my boss would return to the office after a holiday and ceremoniously empty his (at this time paper-filled) in-tray into the bin. He was so right when he said "If it's important, they'll let me know." By deleting extraneous information and concentrating only on what is important to you and your personal objectives you can regain control over the email monster and achieve a happier and more fulfilling work-life balance.

Good luck.