Microsoft Outlook How-to: Use Rules to Gain Control of Your Email

content logoDo you remember way back when, in the early days of getting your first computer, it was actually fun to get e-mail? I do, but I have to tell you it seems like it was a long time ago. If you're like the average computer user these days you have multiple e-mail accounts, receiving dozens or even hundreds of e-mails every day. This on top of instant messaging, cell phones, PDA's, and the myriad of other communication marvels that numb our senses on a minute-to-minute basis. It's no wonder we're having trouble keeping up. The good news is, if you're a Microsoft Outlook user, you can set up 'rules' that will help you regain control of your e-mail.

The following examples were created using Microsoft Outlook 2003 running on Windows XP. The screens and menu locations on other versions of Outlook or on other operating systems may be slightly different than what you see here, but the basic functionality and configuration should be very close to the same.

In addition to using Outlook to monitor multiple e-mail accounts, I also have e-mails forwarded to me from various 'bulk' accounts that our company uses to communicate with various types of people (,,, etc.). If I were to have all of these just dump into a single 'Inbox' folder I would very quickly loose control of the situation. Instead, I use Outlook rules to pre-filter my e-mail for me, and send incoming messages to the appropriate folder automatically. This way I know at a glance if the e-mail is from a personal account, a non-critical bulk account, something from the corporate website, or something from a customer. In this way I can logically 'guess' at the probable urgency level of the e-mail, and focus on those that need immediate attention.

In this example what we are going to do is create a rule that will move all of the e-mails from people we have in our contact list to a separate folder. The idea here is that an e-mail from someone we know is more likely to be more important to us than an e-mail from someone that we do not know. To get started, go to the main menu in Outlook and select Tools -> Rules and Alerts...:


outlook rules 01


This will bring up the Rules and Alerts configuration form. Select 'New Rule...' from the top toolbar and we will get a wizard that will walk us through the process. The first thing to notice is that we have a wide variety of options to choose from using the standard templates, and even more flexibility available should we choose to create our own custom rule. What we want to do is part of the standard templates, so we'll work from here. In the top part of the box we can select the template to start with, we're going to leave it on 'Move messages from someone to a folder'. The bottom part of the box allows us to define the details of the rule:


outlook rules 02


Click on 'Next' to select details for the rule. The first thing we need to do is to tell Outlook what conditions it should be watching for when an e-mail is received. While we can get very specific in determining to whom these rules should apply, in this case we are just looking for any e-mails from anyone in our contact list. To do this we will first un-check the box next to 'from people or distribution list', then scroll all the way down the list to find the option 'sender is in specified Address Book':


outlook rules 03


If we try to click the Next button now Outlook will complain, because we need to first tell it which address book it needs to use. To do this click on the first 'specified' in the bottom box (right before Address Book) to display any address books that we have available, then select Contacts from the Add Address List dialog box:


outlook rules 04


Once we've done that click on Next again. Outlook now knows what to look for when an e-mail is received, all that remains is to tell it what to do with that e-mail if it is from someone in our Contact list. Again, we have a wide variety of options to choose from, but in this case we're going to use the first option and move the e-mail to a specified folder. Leave 'move it to the specified folder' checked in the top box, and click on the second 'specified' in the bottom box (right before folder). This will bring up our list of available folders in Outlook, in this case we're going to create a new folder called 'In-contacts'.

  1. Click on the word 'specified' to select the folder
  2. Click on New to create a new folder
  3. Name the new folder

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Click on OK in the Create New Folder dialog, then OK again in the Rules and Alerts choose folder dialog. Outlook will now have the new folder selected as the target for the e-mails. Click on Next again, and we will be given additional exceptions options. This will allow us to select any cases in which we do not want the e-mails to be moved:


outlook rules 06


In this case we're not going to select any exceptions, so just click on Next. We will now be given the chance to name the rule, let's call it 'In mail from contacts'. At this point we can decide to turn on the rule (default), and we can also choose to run the new rule right away for any existing e-mails that we currently have in our Inbox:


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The new rule is now displayed in the Rules box. Click on OK and the rule will be put into action:


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This was just a single, simple rule to get you started. As we went through the process you may have thought of other ways that you can use this feature to help gain some control over your e-mail. Go ahead and experiment on some additional rules, and don't be afraid to ask if you have any questions.

Additional resources

  • Merlin Mann has a great series about controlling e-mails called Inbox zero over at 43 Folders, definitely worth checking out.
  • Robin Raskin over at Yahoo! Tech has additional information about Outlook rules with some links into Microsoft, along with plenty of other easy-to-understand tech articles. Make sure you check her out!