How to organize Outlook email—A step-by-step guide

A cluttered inbox can be distracting and damage your productivity. Learn how to organize Outlook email and manage your correspondence more seamlessly.
While Outlook may not be the most aesthetically pleasing email provider, it offers numerous organization features that let you stay on top of incoming mail somewhat effortlessly. The only issue here is that many users don’t know how to leverage such features because Outlook’s interface is not particularly intuitive.In order to save you from experimenting with the platform’s features, this guide will show you how to organize Outlook email using the most effective ones. You’ll then learn whether creating a specific workflow is worth the effort, taking into account Outlook’s drawbacks.
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How to organize emails in Outlook

There are numerous ways to adapt Outlook to your workflow, so if you don’t know where to start, follow these steps:
  1. Leverage Outlook’s Focused Inbox
  2. Group emails into folders
  3. Use labels to categorize emails
  4. Prevent new emails from threads you no longer need
  5. Automate email organization with rules
  6. Flag important emails

Using Outlook’s Focused Inbox

Focused Inbox is a useful feature that separates the most important messages from the rest. Messages that Outlook deems important will appear in the Focused tab, with everything else going to the Others tab.While this feature isn’t perfectly accurate, it highlights the emails that might require your attention. It’s enabled on the mobile app by default, but you might need to turn it on if you’re using Outlook in your browser.You can do this in a few quick steps:
  1. Click the gear icon in the upper-right corner of the screen
  2. Go to Layout
  3. Choose Sort messages into Focused and Other
  4. Click Save
Source: Outlook screenshot

Creating and organizing folders in Outlook

Folders give you the easiest way to sort emails and reference them more easily later on. They’re particularly useful if you use one account for multiple purposes, such as personal correspondence, work, and school.Outlook offers several default folders, most notably:
  • Archive
  • Notes
  • Scheduled
If you don’t use these folders much, you can create custom ones to personalize your Outlook workflow. To do so, take the following steps:
  1. Go to the left-hand menu from the main inbox and scroll down
  2. Under Folders, click Create new…
  3. Name your folder and click Save
Source: Outlook screenshotTo move an email to a folder, you can do the following:
  1. Open the email you wish to move
  2. Click the Move to button above the inbox
  3. You will see recently used folders, so your new one may not appear immediately. Click Move to a different folder at the bottom of the drop-down menu to see all your folders
  4. Choose the folder you want to move the email to
Outlook also lets you create subfolders for further organization. For instance, your Work folder can be broken down into subfolders like Clients, Projects, Invoices, etc. If you don’t want to create such a hierarchy, you can use another useful feature—labels.

Using Outlook labels to categorize mail

Outlook’s labels—also referred to as categories—let you give each email an attribute that sorts it beyond folders. Categories are color-coded by default, which may not be particularly useful because you need to remember which color represents each category you need.Luckily, you can create custom categories and edit the existing ones by taking the following steps:
  1. Select the email you want to categorize
  2. Click the tag icon above the inbox
  3. You will see the default list of colored categories, so click Manage categories to edit them
Source: Outlook screenshot
  1. In the pop-up menu, click Create category to add more labels or click the pen icon to edit the existing ones
Source: Outlook screenshotCategories will remain color-coded, but you can change their name and choose the color for each label.There has been quite some confusion around Outlook categories vs. folders, as users often mistake the two. Note that these features are separate, so categorizing an email doesn’t move it to a specific folder. You can use both options in conjunction to fine-tune your inbox organization and store messages more neatly.

Ignoring future emails from unnecessary threads

Outlook lets you opt out of threads you no longer need to participate in. This is useful if you’re CC’d on a project you don’t work on anymore or involved in a group conversation you want to leave.Whatever the case, you can use the Ignore feature to stop receiving emails from specific threads. To access it, follow these steps:
  1. Right-click the correspondence you want to remove
  2. Click Ignore
  3. Confirm your choice by clicking OK
All messages from the selected thread will disappear from your inbox and folders you have put them in. The only exception is the Sent folder, from which you’d have to delete the correspondence manually.When someone sends an email to the thread, it will automatically go to the Deleted folder instead of your inbox.

Setting rules to automate incoming mail organization

Rules are among Outlook’s most useful features—they reduce manual labor and can significantly streamline your correspondence if you implement them properly.When you set a rule, it applies to all emails meeting certain conditions. Such conditions include the following:
  • Specific senders
  • Keywords in the subject, header, and body
  • Attachment size
  • Importance and sensitivity
You can decide what happens with the emails defined by these conditions to avoid repeating the same action for similar emails.To create a rule, take the following steps:
  1. Click the gear icon in the upper-right corner of the main screen
  2. Open the Rules tab
Source: Outlook screenshot
  1. Select Add new rule and follow the steps outlined in the window:
    1. Name your rule
    2. Set conditions from the available options
    3. Add the desired action(s) that will automatically trigger when you receive the email
  2. Choose Run rule now if you want to apply it immediately (optional)
  3. Click Save
Source: Outlook screenshotYou can set several conditions and actions, which gives you numerous ways to automate incoming mail. This option is handy for removing junk or spam mail that Outlook’s detection lets through—a notable issue that will be discussed later in this guide.

Flagging emails that require action

You may receive dozens of emails daily, so you might not get to all of them on top of your other work. To make sure you remember to follow up on important emails or reply to them, you can use Outlook’s flags.When you flag an email, it’s highlighted more prominently in your inbox. It’s also added to Microsoft’s To Do app connected to Outlook, which you can find in the leftmost bar of your inbox. This way, you can turn an email into an action you’ll remind yourself to complete.If you only wish to highlight an email, hover over it in your inbox and click the flag icon.
Source: Outlook screenshotIf you want to add a date or time for the reminder, follow these steps:
  1. Open the email you want to flag
  2. Click the down-facing error next to the flag icon above the inbox
  3. Choose when you want to be reminded of the email from the available options
Source: Outlook screenshotAfter you’ve taken the necessary action, you can remove the flag by clearing it from the menu shown above. You can also do it directly from the inbox by hovering over the email and clicking the flag icon again.

Limitations of Outlook’s organization features

While Outlook undoubtedly gives you numerous opportunities to adapt the platform to your needs and workflow, there are a few notable disadvantages you should keep in mind.Firstly, feature availability varies between Outlook as a standalone platform and as a part of Microsoft’s paid 365 workplace. While both versions support the features discussed here, the latter contains some options unavailable to free users.A good example is Quick Steps, a feature that lets you automate some of the main actions you take with specific emails. It’s quite helpful in reducing manual work and streamlining your email experience, but it’s only available with Microsoft 365.Another potential issue is related to the Focused Inbox feature. To separate important emails from the rest, Outlook tracks your email history. Not everyone is comfortable with this, especially privacy-conscious users.This is far from the only reason Outlook is considered too invasive. The platform’s privacy practices and weak security outweigh the benefits of robust organization, as no feature is worth exposing your data and private information to the risks of breaches.

Why your data may not be safe with Outlook

An average email user sends various sensitive information that must be protected while traveling between servers and resting on them. This safeguarding is done through encryption, which turns your email into ciphertext to ensure it’s unreadable to unauthorized parties.There are several encryption types, and the default protocol used by Outlook is far from secure. The platform relies on Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption to protect data in transit, leaving it vulnerable to various attack methods used by hackers.Worse yet, Microsoft creates and owns the encryption keys, which means it can decipher and read your emails.To prevent your email provider and malicious parties from accessing your private data, you need end-to-end encryption (E2EE). The following table shows the main differences between E2EE and TLS:
FeatureTLSEnd-to-end encryption
Protection levelProtects data while it’s traveling between serversSafeguards data all the way between endpoints (the sender and recipient’s devices)
Encryption pointThe email provider’s serverThe user’s device
Encryption key ownership and storageThe email provider owns the key and stores it on its serversThe user creates, owns, and stores the key on their device
E2EE is far superior to the default encryption you get with Outlook. If you need a secure alternative to Microsoft’s solution, Skiff Mail can be an excellent option.
Make no compromisesWith end-to-end encryption, Skiff Mail not only keeps your emails organized but also ensures they remain private and secure
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Skiff Mail—Complete privacy for every user

Skiff Mail lets you regain control of your data and keep it confidential. It’s an end-to-end encrypted email service that safeguards your emails’ subjects and contents using two separate keys:
  • A public encryption key shared with the recipient
  • A private decryption key that remains safely stored on the user’s device and is mathematically related to the public key
Nobody can see your data but you and the recipient you decide to share it with—not even Skiff. Emails are encrypted on your device before leaving it, and they reach Skiff’s servers in their ciphered form. The recipient holding the decryption key is the only person who can decrypt the messages.Advanced encryption is one of the many ways Skiff keeps your account and emails safe. The following table outlines the additional security measures you get when you sign up:
Security measureHow it works
Zero-knowledge loginLets you sign up without leaving personal information like your name and phone number
Secure Remote PasswordEncrypts your account credentials and critical account data
Two-factor authentication (2FA)Gives you an additional account security layer through a one-time code generated by the Authenticator app
Tracking preventionSkiff Mail blocks trackers used to monitor your email behavior
Skiff’s security features don’t require technical knowledge or complex setups—they’re enabled by default, so you can enjoy complete privacy as soon as you create an account.
Source: Skiff

Comprehensive organization and additional features

Skiff is equipped with various features that enable robust organization. You can use folders, labels, and filters to organize your emails similarly to how you would do it with Outlook. The platform also comes with a thorough email search that lets you browse emails’ contents and find precisely what you are looking for.You get multiple aliases that let you manage emails from multiple addresses in one inbox while staying private. Delete the alias when you no longer need it, and you can stop receiving unwanted mail instantly.Beyond organization features, Skiff Mail offers the following:You get all of the above with Skiff Mail’s rich free plan that doesn’t have time limits. You can enjoy cutting-edge security and numerous useful features without any financial commitments.Skiff is an open source platform, so the codebase is publicly available on the platform’s GitHub. You can also read the whitepaper to learn more about Skiff’s security and features.

Create a secure workspace with Skiff’s E2EE products

Emailing is only a part of your workflow, so Skiff ensures your data is protected beyond it. Your free account gives you access to three additional end-to-end encrypted platforms besides Skiff Mail:
  1. Skiff Pages—A secure alternative to Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, and other document editing tools. You can create notes, wikis, and folders while enjoying complete privacy, as your files’ contents and key metadata are encrypted and visible only to you and your collaborators
  2. Skiff Drive—An end-to-end encrypted cloud solution that lets you upload, manage, and share files of all types and sizes. Skiff Drive offers optional integration with the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), the largest decentralized file storage platform
  3. Skiff Calendar—A scheduling app that automatically syncs with Skiff Mail and lets you create shared calendars, send scheduling links, and hold video conferences in a secure environment
Source: SkiffAll of Skiff’s apps are available on iOS, macOS, and Android, as well as Windows and browsers. Thanks to such extensive cross-platform support, your correspondence, files, and data remain safe wherever you are.

Enjoy next-level privacy with Skiff Mail

Getting started with Skiff Mail is easy and only involves three steps:
  1. Visit the signup page
  2. Choose a username and password
  3. Explore Skiff’s end-to-end encrypted products
If you need more storage or additional features like auto-reply or unlimited file version history, you can upgrade to one of Skiff’s three paid plans:
EssentialFrom $3 per month
ProFrom $8 per month
BusinessFrom $12/user per month
Whether you’re switching from Outlook or another provider, Skiff makes the transition easy through one-click migration. You can move your data without laborious manual processes, and it will be encrypted immediately. The transfer will be quick, and Skiff will not store unencrypted copies of migrated data.

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