Inbox Overload

It is not unusual for people to have five, ten, twelve thousand emails in their Inbox, and even more in their often-forgotten Sent Items folders in MS Outlook. Outlook has many ways of organizing emails when they arrive, sorting them into folders based on who they’re from, or what words are in the Subject, etc., but emails that arrive other than in the Inbox tend to be ignored. To be noticed by the user, the email needs to arrive in their Inbox. Outlook, however, does not have any convenient feature for filing emails after they’ve been read. Thus, they accumulate in their teeming thousands, scrolled off the bottom of the screen, unnoticed and forgotten.

The big problem with this is that Outlook performance degrades considerably when you accumulate too many items in the ‘standard’ folders (Inbox, Sent Items, Tasks, Calendar). Microsoft recommends that you keep no more than 5,000 items in any one of the ‘commonly accessed’ folders. Outlook examines all of the emails in a folder when you open it, so the fewer items in the folders you frequently access, the more responsive Outlook will be.

Unfortunately, Microsoft recommends dealing with Inbox growth by archiving emails (which confuses the user by moving emails off to…somewhere, where they can’t find it again), or manually filing the emails, which is so time-consuming that most users simply won’t do it.

Ideally, Microsoft would build a more flexible rule system into Outlook, and allow activating those rules by a keyboard shortcut or toolbar icon. For example, the user would be able, in a few mouse-clicks, to create a rule that would move emails from a particular company to a designated folder. After reading and responding to one of those emails, the user could click a button, or hit a key, and the email would be shunted off to that folder. Or move any emails above a certain age to a particular folder. Add-on programs like QuickFile give much of this functionality, but it is a little expansive for such a specialized piece of software and some people are reluctant to add third-party software to Outlook.

Until Microsoft gives us more options, vigilance is the only defense against Outlook grinding down under the weight of email. Right-clicking on an email will present you with the option to Move to Folder (among many other options), and selecting that will give a window where you can select the folder to save to. (The keyboard shortcut CTRL-SHIFT-V will take you directly to the folder selection dialogue; must faster if you can remember it.) Cumbersome, but better than nothing.

Next time you are waiting impatiently for Outlook to open, take a look at how many emails are in your ‘standard’ folders. It might be time to do some housekeeping, grim though the prospect may be.