Want to get better control of your Outlook Inbox? Stop using Follow-up Flags.

You know that one of the keys to improving your personal productivity is to gain control of your Inbox.

You put yourself at a huge disadvantage when you attempt to be more organized while maintaining hundreds or thousands of messages in your Inbox, and when it contains items you’ve already looked at – or even finished with – but have left there, meaning that you’ll have to deal with them again later.

For optimal effectiveness, you want your Inbox to contain only new, yet-to-be-processed items, and you want to maintain it at a manageable size.

In the last few versions of Outlook, Microsoft has added several new features in an attempt to help you control your Inbox. But one such feature – one Microsoft often touts as an important aid to managing e-mail in Outlook – is instead a disaster, and you should stay far away from it. I’m speaking of Follow-Up Flags.

Setting a Follow-Up Flag on an Inbox message accomplishes the exact opposite of what you want to achieve. “I’ll just flag it and come back to it later.” Rather than eliminating messages from your Inbox, it encourages you to keep messages there. You typically flag a message when further action is required on it, and then it sits, adding to your Inbox clutter.

In many cases, I’ve seen people end up with so many flagged items that the flag ceases to be a useful distinction at all.

Rather than use this approach which entices you to keep messages in your Inbox, a better solution is to adopt a strategy that supports you in getting mail out of your Inbox. So what should you do instead? Turn it into a Task.

Tasks represent actions you want to take, or actions you’re waiting on from other people that you want to keep track of. Flagged e-mails almost always fall into one of these two categories, and thus they are more appropriate as Tasks.

Turning an e-mail into a Task is easier than you think: simply drag and drop the e-mail from your Inbox onto the Tasks button in the lower left portion of your Outlook window. When you drop it onto the Tasks button, a new Task item opens up, with its Subject and Body copied over from the e-mail.

There are a few variations of this approach, and I’ll discuss them next week. But you can see that turning an e-mail message into a Task – and then being able to remove it from your Inbox – is extremely simple. (Don’t forget that last step – once you create the Task, you want to file or delete the e-mail.)

Yes, this approach does work best if you have a good, solid methodology for using Outlook Tasks to manage your commitments. The More Productive Now approach is one such system, and there are others as well. It’s actually not hard to use Tasks in Outlook, and it provides a great, integrated approach with e-mail – for example, it makes it easy to turn an Inbox item into a Task rather than flagging it!