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How to Organize Your Outlook Email Inbox Efficiently

This post is part of a series called How to Use Microsoft Outlook (Essential Tutorial Guide).
How to Create Rules in MS Outlook to Auto Sort Emails
MS Outlook Calendar: How to Add, Share, & Use It Right

If your Microsoft Outlook inbox is cluttered and full of messages, chances are that you'll miss an important message. As a business owner, missing a message could be disastrous. It could mean lost business. And even you don't own a business, nobody wants to overlook an important email. 

You can learn how to organize Outlook so that it's more efficient. Microsoft Outlook includes several tools that you can use to make your inbox more organized, if you know what to do. If you're just getting started with Outlook or if you're not current with it, you may not be using it to its full capacity.

In this tutorial, we'll show you how to organize your outlook email. We'll explain how folders and categories work. We’ll touch briefly on the Focused Inbox tool. Finally, you'll learn how to organize email in Outlook using the Archive and Delete features.

Learn Helpful Email Organizational Tips & Strategies

Before we tackle to topic of how to organize Outlook, don't forget to sign up to the Tuts+ Business newsletter and grab our free eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Inbox Zero Mastery. It's packed with inbox organization strategies and killer tips for managing all your incoming email more efficiently.

Free eBook PDF Manage Your Inbox

Now let's move on to learning about folders and categories in MS Outlook:

How to Organize Your Outlook Email Inbox with Folders (Video)

Watch this quick screencast tutorial to learn the basics of how to use folders in Outlook quickly:


Or walk-through the detailed written steps below for more information on how to organize your Outlook inbox.

What You Need to Know About Folders & Categories

If you want to learn how to organize emails in Outlook, you need to understand folders and categories. These are the main tools that you’ll use to get your inbox under control.

Microsoft Outlook Folders

Folders appear on the left of your Inbox beneath your email address (this is also called the Navigation Pane). There are two types of folders:

  1. Default folders. Default folders are standard with your MS Outlook software. Default folders include Drafts, Sent Mail, Deleted Items, Trash, Spam and so on. Some versions of Outlook may also have a Clutter folder, although this is being phased out.
  2. Personal folders. These are additional folders that you create to prioritize your messages. It’s important to be careful not to create too many folders or you could become confused about which folder to use.

For examples of each type of folder, look at the desktop version of MS Outlook inbox below:

MS Outlook Ribbon
The Microsoft Outlook Ribbon appears above your inbox.

Important: Microsoft has several current versions of Outlook available. Your screen appearance and functionality could very slightly depending on which version you're using and how it's configured. Most of this tutorial is based on the latest version of Outlook as installed on my desktop. However, we’ll take a look at Outlook.com to highlight certain features.

Notice the folder labeled From My Boss. This isn't a Default folder. Rather it's a Personal folder that I added for this example.

Microsoft Outlook Categories

You can use categories to color code your messages. For example, you can apply the red color category to messages that are urgent, the green color category to messages you're ready to act on, the purple color category to meetings, and so on. You'll want come up with your own system. 

Categorizing your inbox with color coded categories allows you to scan your inbox quickly to decide what to do with each message.

You’ll use the Categorize icon to customize and use categories. The Categorize icon appears in the middle of the Ribbon towards the right side: 

Microsoft Outlook Categorize icon
The Categorize icon allows you to color code your messages.

Note: The Categorize icon is only available for Microsoft mail users using a Pop or Exchange email setup. If you use an IMAP setup this option isn't available.

1. How to Use Folders

Folders in Outlook are fairly easy to use if you know what to do. Here are some of the basics to using folders:

Step 1. Create a New Folder

To create a folder in MS Outlook, click Folder tab from the Ribbon. Then click the New Folder icon. The Create New Folder dialog box displays:

Create New Folder dialog box
Use the Create New Folder dialog box to add folders and keep your emails organized.

Type the name of your new folder in the Name field. Click on the folder where you want to place the new folder, and click OK when you are done.

In this example, I created a folder called Memos and placed it under the From My Boss folder. Here’s what the folders look like now:

Outlook inbox showing new added folder
You can add a subfolder beneath an existing folder.

Step 2. Rename a Folder

You can change the name of a folder once you’ve created it. Select the folder you want to rename by clicking on it. Click on the Rename Folder icon in the Folder tab. You’ll notice that a box appears around the folder name:

Rename an existing folder in Microsoft Outlook
Use the Rename Folder icon to rename an existing folder in MS Outlook.

Type a new folder name in the box. When you're done typing, press the Enter key on your keyboard. Your new folder name is saved.

Step 3. Move a Message to a Folder

Once you’ve created several folders, you're ready to start putting messages into them. Return to your main inbox to view your messages:

Email ready to organize in Outlook
Here's how to organize mail in Outlook by moving messages into folders.

Click on a message to select it and simply drag the message into the folder of your choice. In the example below, I dragged the "Project estimates" email to the Memos folder:

Open folder showing a message inside
As you can see, the "Project estimates" message is now in the Memos folder.

Step 4. Delete a Folder

Occasionally you may find that you don’t want a folder you’ve created. When this happens, you can easily delete the folder. 

Click on the folder you wish to delete in the Navigation panel (on the left) to select it:

You can delete a folder from Outlook
Here's how to organize your Outlook email inbox by deleting unneeded folders.

Click the Delete icon in the Ribbon. (It looks like an X.) The folder is deleted.

Caution: If you delete a folder, any messages in that folder will also be deleted.

2. How to Use Categories to Get More Organized in Outlook

Let’s take a closer look at how to customize and use categories to organize your inbox.

Step 1. Rename a Category

By default, the categories are named by color. To rename a category click the down arrow to the right of the Categorize icon. From the drop-down menu select All Categories. The Color Categories dialog box appears:

The Color Categories dialog box in Outlook
You can color code your messages in Outlook to organize them.

Place a checkmark next to the color you want to rename and click the Rename button. Type over the default name of the category to rename it. Click the OK button when you're done renaming the categories.

Here’s an example of some renamed categories:

Renaming color categories in Outlook
Name each color category to organize your Outlook inbox

Your own custom categories may be different.

Step 2. Delete a Category

After you’ve customized your categories you may find that you’re not using all of them. If that happens, you can delete the unused category.

To delete a category, click on the All Categories option in the Categories drop-down menu. The Color Categories dialog box opens:

How to delete an unused message category in Outlook
You can delete Outlook color categories that you don't use.

Click the checkbox next to the color you want to delete. In the example above, I’m deleting the Orange category because I’m not using it. Click the Delete button.

When a prompt appears asking you to confirm the deletion click Yes. When you're done making changes to the categories click OK. The Orange category no longer appears on the Categorize drop-down menu and you won’t be able to apply it to an email message.

Step 3. Apply a Category to a Message

Once you’ve customized your categories, you’re ready to start applying them to messages in your inbox. To apply a category to a message, click on the message to select it. Click on the Categorize icon. The Categorize drop-down menu displays:

The Categorize drop-down menu
Use the Categorize drop-down menu to apply categories to email and organize your inbox.

Click the category you want to apply to the selected message. The category is applied to the message. You’ll see the category color as a square to the right to message sender in your inbox. In the body of the message itself it appears below the sender name. 

Here’s an example of an inbox with categories applied to all the messages: 

Microsoft Outlook inbox organized with categories
With categories applied to your messages you can tell at a glance what to do with each email.

A message may have more than one category applied to. To apply an additional category to a message, select the message and click on another category in the Categorize drop-down menu.

Step 4. How to Remove a Category from a Message or Change It

Over time, the category of a message may change. You can remove a category from a message or change it. Here’s what to do.

To remove the category from a message, click on the message in your inbox to select it. Click the Categorize icon. From the drop-down menu, click on the category that is currently applied to the email to remove it:

Removing a Category from an email in Outlook
You can remove an assigned category from an email.

You can apply a new category to the message from the Categorize drop-down menu or leave it uncategorized.

To remove all the categories from at once from an email message that has more than one category, select the message and click the Clear All Categories option from the Categorize drop-down menu: 

Clearing the categories from an email with more than one category
Use the Clear All Categories option to remove all the categories from an email with more than one assigned category.

3. How to Use a Focused Inbox

Microsoft is in the process of rolling out a new feature called Focused Inbox to Outlook users. Whether or not you currently have access to Focused Inbox depends on the version of Microsoft Office you're using.

If your version of Outlook was using the Clutter folder to sort out unimportant messages, that feature has been rolled into the new Focused Inbox. Your existing Clutter folder will become a regular folder when your system is updated to the Focused Inbox feature.

The Microsoft Outlook Focused Inbox is designed to organize your inbox automatically. When it is activated, your inbox is divided into two tabs

  1. Focused tab. Emails sorted into this tab are the most important and require quicker responses. 
  2. Other tab. Other email is sorted into this tab for you to deal with as you get a chance.

I don’t currently have the Focused Inbox feature available on my PC desktop yet. However, it's available in many Web versions of MS Outlook right now. That includes this free version of Outlook email I've got from Outlook.com. Here’s a look at the Focused Inbox with the Focused tab open:

Focused tab on Outlookcom
Outlook.com has the Focused Inbox feature available now.

To switch to the Other tab from the Focused tab, simply click on it:

Other tab on Outlookcom
It's easy to switch Focused Inbox tabs.

As you can see, in this example the Focused tab contains schedule notifications from my Outlook Calendar while the Other tab includes less important routine product announcements. The Focused Inbox feature put these messages in the appropriate folder automatically without me having to decide which message goes where.

Outlook.com is a free web-based email services from Microsoft. To learn more about Outlook.com, review this tutorial where it's compared with Gmail:

4. How to Archive or Delete Old Messages & Clean Up Your Mailbox

Most of us save too many emails, and this can make for a messy inbox. Another way to organize your Outlook inbox is to archive or delete old messages.

While both archiving and deleting emails removes messages from your inbox, it’s important to understand the difference:

  • Archive. Sends a message to an Archive folder. The Archive folder is intended for older messages that you intend to save. When you archive an email, you can easily retrieve it at a future date.
  • Delete. Sends a message to the Deleted Items folder (it looks like a trash can). If the Deleted Items folder is emptied, it may be difficult to retrieve the message. Delete is typically reserved for emails you don’t expect to need in the future.

MS Outlook also has a Cleanup Tool. You’ve probably gotten one of those messages where a bunch of previous messages are copied at the top. You may also have each of those previous messages in your Outlook inbox. When you apply the Cleanup Tool to a conversation or to a folder or subfolders, the tool removes those duplicate messages.

However you do it, removing messages your mailbox can free up space in your inbox. To properly organize your inbox, it’s important to learn how to use each of these tools:

Step 1. Delete Old Messages

It’s easy to delete an old email. Simply click on the email to select it:

Deleting an old message in MS Outlook
Here's how to organize your Outlook email inbox by deleting old messages.

Click the Delete icon in the Ribbon (it looks like an X). The message is moved to the Deleted Items folder.

To permanently remove a message from your email, click the Deleted Items folder to open it. (It’s in the Navigation Pane on the left and looks like a trash can). Click the message again to select it. Click the Delete icon to permanently delete the selected message.

Caution: Some permanently deleted messages may be able to be recovered from the server if they are still in the Deleted Items folder, but it’s also possible you won’t be able to recover an email after you delete it.

Step 2. Manually Archive Messages

A less permanent way to remove old emails from your inbox is to archive them. To archive an email, click on the message to select it. Click the Archive icon in the ribbon next to the Delete icon:

Archive icon in Outlook
Using the Archive icon is another way to keep old messages from cluttering up your inbox.

If you’ve not used the Outlook Archive feature before, you’re prompted to create an archive folder. Click the Create archive folder button. Outlook creates a new folder titled Archive and sends the email you selected to it:

Archive folder in Outlook
Store old emails in your Archive folder to organize your inbox.

In the future when you archive an email it’ll go to this folder.

Step 3. Set Up Archive Parameters

You can also change MS Outlook’s automatic archive settings. Click File > Options to open the Outlook Options window:

Setting up the AutoArchive feature in Outlook
You can set up Outlook to automatically archive messages.

Click the Advanced option from the Navigation pane on the left. Then click the AutoArchive Settings button. The AutoArchive dialog box appears:

Defining automatic archive parameters
Use the AutoArchive dialog box to define archiving parameters in Outlook.

Use the check boxes to select the archive options you want to choose. Click OK on the AutoArchive dialog box when you're done. Then click OK on the Outlook Options window.

Step 4. Use the Outlook Cleanup Tool

Emails have become more conversational. If you’ve taken part in an email conversation where you and a recipient have replied back and forth in a series of message, you know what I mean. When you reply to an email, your reply appears above the original messages and all earlier replies. Unfortunately, all of that replying can fill up your folders—making it harder to find those messages you need.

Outlook has a solution with the Cleanup Tool.  This tool removes redundant messages, so it removes earlier messages that don’t include the latest reply. You haven’t lost any information, because all your earlier messages are included in the latest message.

Let’s see how it works. In the From My Boss folder below I have two message that are all part of the same conversation. The first message has the subject line “New Work.” The latest message has the subject line “Re: RE: RE: New Work:”

Example of a conversation in Outlook
Replies to messages can take up room in your Outlook inbox.

You can use the Cleanup Tool to clean up a conversation, a folder, or a folder and subfolders. In this case, we’ll use it to clean up the From My Boss folder.

Click the folder to select it. Click the down arrow on Cleanup Tool icon. (It’s on the Home tab to the left of the Delete icon.) You’ll see the Cleanup drop-down menu:

Cleanup drop-down menu
Select the Clean Up Folder option to remove redundant messages in a folder.

Select the Clean Up Folder option on the drop-down menu. A prompt appears warning you that redundant messages will be deleted. Click the Clean Up Folder button on the prompt. The original message is deleted:

Redundant message removed from folder
Removing redundant messages can organize your Outlook inbox. 

The original message is deleted because it’s redundant with the latest message. This is particularly helpful feature if you’ve got a lot of email conversations in your inbox.

Note: Email messages that contain a different element—perhaps a reply from a different recipient or an attachment—won’t be deleted because they don’t meet the requirement of being redundant.

5. Organize Your Email With Better Inbox Management

You're less likely to have a cluttered MS Outlook inbox if you're following good email management practices. Learn how to reduce your email inbox clutter with our free eBook: 

Free eBook PDF Manage Your Inbox


Now that you've learned how to organize Outlook using folders, your email inbox should already be less cluttered. You've also learned the basics of using Microsoft Outlook categories and understand the importance of archiving or deleting old messages.

As a business person, you'll appreciate being able to use your Outlook inbox more efficiently because it's organized. Best of all, you won't have to worry about missing an important email message.

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