In my daily professional life, emails are a constant. They come in droves, each demanding attention. Initially, without a structured approach to manage them, my inbox often turned into a maze where emails remained unanswered too often. It was clear that the lack of a system was not just affecting my inbox, but my efficiency and peace of mind. This blogpost explains how to implement Inbox Zero for Outlook on macOS.
Jeff Su’s Inbox Zero presented a solution. Jeff runs a great YouTube channel on productivity and I love his work. His methods are always pragmatic, easy to implement, and provide a ton of value. Initially tailored for Gmail, as shown in his YouTube tutorial, Jeff outlined a simplistic yet effective email management system. He later adapted this methodology for the browser version of Outlook, demonstrated in a separate YouTube tutorial. His method boils down to a few simple steps.
Jeff’s Inbox Zero Workflow
The workflow he created is very straightforward. On all items in your inbox:
- Evaluate if an email is actionable. If not, it’s archived or deleted.
- If actionable and can be addressed in under two minutes, following David Allen’s GTD principle, tackle it immediately.
- Otherwise, categorize it as  Follow Up,  Waiting, or  Read Through for later attention.
A standout feature of Jeff’s approach is the use of simple keyboard shortcuts, which accelerates email processing, making the task fluent and less cumbersome. I highly recommend checking out his video tutorials and, while you are on his YouTube channel, his other productivity videos. Again, I love his work!
Tailoring Jeff’s Inbox Zero for Outlook on macOS
My email client of choice (or necessity 🤨) is Outlook for macOS, which has a set of functionalities slightly different from its browser counterpart that Jeff uses in his video. This required tweaking Jeff’s approach to align with the macOS app’s features and possibilities while preserving the core essence of Inbox Zero.
Jeff suggests processing your inbox from bottom to top, with emails arranged newest on top, and he advises disabling Focused Inbox. We’ll decide what needs focus and what not! Jeff’s implementation of Inbox Zero for Outlook leverages Categories. He applies a few more basic settings and I highly recommend checking out his full tutorial. Back to the categories:
-  Follow Up is for emails requiring action (taking longer than two minutes).
-  Waiting is for emails where you await someone else’s response or input.
-  Read Through is for important, longer emails without direct action attached.
In Jeff’s tutorials, these categories are added to the favorites section in the sidebar, a feature not available in the macOS app. I worked around this by utilizing the Saved Searches function. Additionally, the keyboard shortcuts “C” (for category) and “E” (for archive) used in the browser version don’t apply here.
Saved Search as a Workaround
Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how I set up the Saved Search workaround to accomplish Inbox Zero for Outlook on macOS:
- Initiating Search:
- While in the Inbox folder, I initiated a Search by navigating to the search bar in the top section.
- In the dialog box, I clicked on ‘Add more options’ to access more search options.
- Setting up the Search Criteria:
- I clicked on ‘Category’, selecting category  Follow Up from the drop-down list.
- Saving the Search:
- After setting up the search criteria, I saved the search by clicking on ‘Save Search’.
- I ensured that the ‘Search In’ field was set to ‘Current Mailbox’ to confine the search to the current mailbox.
- I repeated the above steps for the other two categories,  Waiting and  Read Through.
- Accessing Saved Searches:
- Now, with the searches saved, I can easily access these categories from the Saved Searches section in the sidebar whenever needed.
To speed up the email categorization process, I created custom keyboard shortcuts through the macOS System Settings to workaround Outlook for macOS’s limitations. Here’s how:
- Accessing Keyboard Settings:
- I navigated to System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > App Shortcuts.
- Adding New Shortcut:
- I clicked on the ‘+’ button to add a new shortcut.
- In the dialog box, I selected Microsoft Outlook from the ‘Application’ drop-down.
- Under ‘Menu Title’, I typed the exact name of the category as it appears in the Outlook menu (e.g.,  Follow Up). Check out the screenshot below!
- In the ‘Keyboard Shortcut’ field, I input my desired shortcut (e.g., ^F).
- I clicked ‘Add’ to save the shortcut, repeating these steps for the other categories.
Daily Workflow for Inbox Zero for Outlook on macOS
With Outlook for macOS all configured, it’s now time to talk about my daily workflow. Here’s how I integrate Jeff’s Inbox Zero approach in my daily workflow. To ensure that I am in control of my email and not the other way around, I designate two timeslots per day to process my email, and two timeslots where I follow up my email. This way I’m not constantly distracted by incoming emails. It’s a big behavioural change but I’m turning off notifications and closing down Outlook during the rest of the day. People can reach me on Teams or WhatsApp if things are really urgent! Here’s my system:
- Scheduled Email Checks:
- I’ve scheduled two specific times during the day to check new emails, allowing me to focus on other tasks and meetings without constant interruption.
- Initial Email Processing:
- During these scheduled checks, I swiftly process new emails using Jeff’s workflow. This is max. 15 minutes.
- Non-actionable emails are archived (using ^ E) or deleted.
- Actionable emails are either addressed immediately if they require under two minutes or categorized for later action using ^F for Follow Up or ^R for Read Through.
- The Inbox must be cleared fully after this phase!
- Scheduled Follow Up Blocks:
- I’ve designated more extensive blocks in my calendar to handle the Follow Up and chase Waiting emails where needed. This ensures that I allocate dedicated time to address these emails.
- Integration with GTD System:
- Major tasks or deferred actions from emails are fed into my basic GTD system running in Apple Reminders. This integration ensures that no task falls through the cracks, despite the inability to drag and drop emails from Outlook into Apple Reminders. This is very frustrating as Apple Mail does support dragging and dropping emails but hey, you can’t have it all. My goal is to have fewer items that move from my Follow Up email into my full blown task management system.
This tailored approach to managing emails has not only streamlined my inbox but also significantly enhanced my daily productivity. And having ‘All done for the day!‘ staring at you at least twice a day is very satisfying!