A well thought out folder structure based on artefacts (e.g. payslips from Company X go in the Company X folder under the Payslips folder within your Financials folder) is essential for keeping your digital files organised so that you and your significant other (for personal) or colleagues (for work) can locate things easily.

I’ve learned that email is a different beast altogether.

Having a simple workflow for processing your email, combined with the Instant Search operators results in many productivity benefits during your stay and when moving between companies.

As a lot of large corporates run Microsoft Outlook by default, this post focusses on using the Instant Search operators Microsoft Outlook; however you can achieve the same results with any email client.

Work email is highly transient and only viewed by you

Why spend time creating a careful filing system for work emails when you’re going to delete them all after finishing your contract or moving to a new company anyway? Even while staying at the same company you often end up deleting all work emails older than a year, or once a project has implemented.

You’re also the only one looking through your emails, so no need to place things where others can find them, especially when you find out how much faster it is to find emails using the search tools at our disposal.

With a folder structure, you waste time thinking about where to file each email when you’re done with it – this can be a constant drain reducing your decision making willpower throughout the day, making you less productive. You also waste time trying to find emails: did I put that in folder X or folder Y?

The AE Simple Email Workflow

Have a look at the AE Simple Email Workflow. Full Inbox Zero article here is well worth a read.

I actually prefer their newer Inbox Zero workflow diagram, as it shows the path to Trash and the Calendar which you need to utilise to decrease email clutter. Full email challenge article.

There are no folders and emails are put into an Archive folder without any thinking needed after processing them. This eliminates the drain on decision making willpower. The other thing you’ll notice is the use of a task manager. I’m currently just using a single paper list for my major tasks for the day and using the Outlook flags for emails I need to reply to or follow up.

This is a really great system that will make you more productive processing emails. The Instant Search operators make you more productive working with your email archive and faster at finding emails.

Instant Search – setting up Outlook

Change the default search to include all mail items by following this simple guide with screenshots from ExtendOffice.

Now all you need to do is press Ctrl+E and type the query.

Warning: If you’re afraid of personal messages showing in search results while someone is standing over your shoulder, don’t use all mail items by default. As long as you have everything in one archive folder your searches will still be very effective.

The Outlook Instant Search operators

The basic syntax is <operator:keyword>. Here’s what I found useful in the past week since I’ve been using the Instant Search.

  1. from:<name>
  2. from:<name> to:<name>
  3. received:>=1/1/2017 from:<name>
  4. received:11/3/2017..15/3/2017
  5. hasattachment:true
  6. subject:”Project XYZ update”
  7. about:Communications
  8. hasflag:true

Once you find a message, you can quickly search for all other messages in that conversation using:

Shift+F10, then press f, then press c

Or simply right click the email, select Find Related, then click Messages in This Conversation

The query is updated with:

[Conversation]:=”Email subject line”

Using just this handful of operators I’ve dramatically reduced the time needed to find emails, and there are many more operators I haven’t tried yet.

The comprehensive office support article explains each operator with examples.

If you still have any doubts, try this for one week: keep a log of your searches and what you were looking for when you did them. For example here’s my log:

  • search 1: from:”name” about:auto
  • search 2: from:”me” hasattachment:true about:PDF
  • search 3: from:”me” to:name hasattachment:true
  • search 4: from:name received:past month
  • search 5: subject:”important project”
  • search 6: sent:>=date subject:project
  • search 7: from:me to:name about:words
  • search 8: from:name
  • search 9: [Conversation]:=”market report”
  • search 10: from:me subject:words
  • search 11: from:name
  • search 12: from:name received:=date
  • search 13: received:date..date

Some operators appear to work faster than others

I haven’t been able to find much specific information on this, however noticed that using “about:keyword” seems to slow the search considerably while using “from:person” and “received:>= date” and “subject:keyword” are very fast.

A little time investment learning the most efficient way of performing a common task

This is one example of how a small investment in learning the most efficient way of performing a common day to day task can repay itself over and over each day resulting in huge cumulative benefits over the course of your working life.

Another one of these is learning the Excel shortcuts for showing/hiding columns, deleting a selected row or column, quickly formatting the header row for data tables, formatting cells as currency, changing the selection in a formula between absolute and relative referencing using F4, and learning how to use Excel tables.

Yet another is learning to type correctly – this will really pay off every day for the rest of your working life! Or at least until technology input alternatives become the norm.

Aside – Slightly different system for personal emails at work

Workplaces commonly have restrictions on .pst files for information security which can make it hard to get personal emails off your work email when you sometimes want to retain these.

I still like to use a very small number of folders specifically to separate personal emails as this makes it easy to save these when move between companies. There are a couple of quick straight forward methods:

  1. Select all messages in one of your personal folders, then save as .txt using the file menu in Outlook. This article has more detail on saving one or more outlook emails to text
  2. Or, you can select multiple emails and print to PDF using CutePDF Writer.

Further reading on getting the most out of Microsoft Outlook

  1. Very long article however some great ideas in there, maybe read over a few sessions: Best practices for Outlook.
  2. According to this article there is a limit to the number of items you can have in one folder without slowing your searches: Single folder item limit.
  3. Indexing – If your searches are extremely slow, perhaps indexing isn’t turned on: Indexing article.

What’s the next great benefit from efficiently performing a day to day task? Getting serious about learning to use Google search operators correctly?

Let us know if you have other email searching tips or strategies.