Among the top features called out by any gmail fan is the archive button, which acts as a simple dismissal of a message.  Archiving removes an entire email conversation thread from your inbox, while keeping it accessible under all mail, or any number of labels.  It’s an extremely efficient hybrid method between piling and filing, because it rescues the user from obsessive organizing, and later, searching… ‘where did I put that message from the boss, his folder or the one for the project… hmm’.

Today I’d like to share how I’ve setup my Microsoft Outlook inbox to behave similarly to Gmail.  While a quick web search on the subject turns up several results, most focus on Outlook 2007.  And while a new version of Office is just around the corner, Outlook 2010 is and will continue to be the center of communication for the majority of us for some time to come. Let’s dig in.

  1. The first step to bringing agmail-style workflow to Outlook is setting up conversation views.  These allow you to see all emails in a conversation, sent and received, no matter whom the message was from or what folder you moved it to.  It’s especially useful in long conversations that split off into separate discussions from multiple recipients.  One click expands a message to show the rest of the conversation, and each email includes the folder itcurrently calls home:
    Conversation View shows all related messages, no matter what folder the email was moved to.

    Take a look at my earlier blog post for details on setting up conversation view.

  2. Next, set up an archive folder.  Call it whatever you like: this is where you’ll banish emails after they’ve arrived to your inbox, you’ve made eye contact, and decided what to do with it.  In other words, your Inbox lives up to its name and only holds items you still need to take action upon.I’ve setup a Quick Step button to mark a message as read and move it to the Archive folder with one click.  To set up a Quick Step, simply right-click any message, point to Quick Steps and use the New option near the bottom.  Here’s my archive button’s setup:
    My Archive button’s settings. I have an identical Quick Step that also marks a message as “done” with a checkmark. I use it on to-do or assigned tasks so I can quickly find completed chores later when inevitably asked to document their completion.

    Go beyond: make your Archive folder sort by the date you put items there (rather than the date originally received). I wrote about how to apply this to your deleted items folder, so that it works like a real trash can, the stuff you throw away last is on top. But it also makes perfect sense for the archive folder. This tip itself has greatly transformed my email efficiency.

  3. Finally, the All Mail folder. While the conversation view in step 1 allows you to see all items of a single conversation,  this last step allows you to view a chronological list of every conversation, regardless of the folder, er.. label, it’s filed under.  For Outlook, this will be implemented as a Search Folder.Search folders look and feel like a normal folder, but the contents inside them are live search results.  So to view our All mail folder, we’ll setup a search folder that displays content from all other folders.  In the navigationpane, right-click Search Folders, choose New, then scroll to the bottom to create a custom search folder.  Click Choose to give it a name (“All Mail” or “Everything”) then browse to select the folders it should display results from.  I chose everything except my sent folder (sent messages are already shown in conversation view, so including it is not necessary).
    Search Folders behave just like normal folders, but their contents are dynamic. Also shown, the Unread Mail search folder, which always gives a consolidated view of all unread items.

    This new all mail Search Folder is also a great place to begin a search: it will cover all your bases at once, instead of searching in several places to find that one email you lost.

That’s it for the basics.  You can further the gmail paradigm by setting up color-coded Categories that are analogous to gmail labels, and even apply them with incoming email rules to effectively pre-label your email without dumping them into dozens of folders, never to be seen again.