One key to effectively managing your Inbox is having it properly organized.

When you engage in ongoing email threads or conversations about a particular topic, as most of us do, it can be frustrating to have that conversation scattered across multiple emails throughout your Inbox. I’m sure you’ve spent too much valuable time searching your Inbox for these related messages.

I’ve written before about the Outlook add-in ClearContext and how it provides an elegant solution to this scattered-conversation problem.

If you’re not running ClearContext, though, there’s a good solution built right into Outlook that you can easily set up — you can tailor your Inbox so that it organizes your mail into conversations. All emails regarding a particular subject will be grouped together, while at the same time maintaining these conversations in a date-ordered list so that newer conversations are always higher up in the Inbox.

Here’s how to set up this conversation-based view. This works in Outlook 2007 and 2003.

1. Switch to your Inbox.

2. In Outlook 2007:
From the main Outlook View menu, select Current View > Define Views.

In Outlook 2003:
From the main Outlook View menu, select Arrange By > Current View > Define Views.

3. In the list of views, select the “Messages” line, then click the Copy button. In the resulting window, type “Messages By Conversation” for the name of the new view. Select the This folder, visible to everyone option. Click OK to close this window.

4. In the Customize window that’s now displayed, click the Group By button. Uncheck Automatically group according to arrangement. Set the Group items by drop-down list to Conversation. (Leave the option button set to Ascending.) Click OK to close this window.

5. Click the Sort button. Change the Sort items by drop-down value to Conversation Index. Change the option button to Descending. Click OK to close this window.

6. Click OK to close the Customize View window.

7. Click the Apply View button, and you’ll see your new view in action!

Note that Outlook does base its definition of a conversation on the email Subject, so if you have people who send you messages with vague subject lines like “Hi” and “Following up” — I know YOU don’t do that — those emails may get grouped together when they aren’t truly one conversation. But encountering that issue on occasion is well worth it for the overall benefit you receive, in my opinion.

Also note that Outlook 2010, which is expected to be released in the first half of next year, has an enhanced Conversation-view capability with a number of new features, like the ability to incorporate messages from other folders, clean up conversations, and more. Stay tuned for that.

Try out this Conversation-based Inbox and post a comment below to let me know how it goes for you.

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