Using Flags to Keep Up On Your Email

Advice from DC The Computer Guy

When it comes to email, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that I struggle with staying on top of it and once I fall behind, it’s really hard to catch back up.

Working out in the field with my customers for so many years, I know I’m not alone in this struggle. Fortunately I’ve found a good way to stay on top of it.

In the early days of growing Clark Computer Services, I’d get pinged from every direction. Not only was I working to bring in new clients by responding to their requests with site visits, quotes, and proposals, but I also had to keep up with my existing client’s needs like ordering equipment and software, while working as a technician.

It didn’t take long to realize that keeping up with email was urgent!

As we all know, managing email can quietly consume your day. In order for me to stay focused I simply couldn’t let that happen. Early on I put an end to the habit of reading email in real time and focused on reading my inbox. Utilizing this strategy, I began each day thoroughly reading through my email from the previous day. I would then scan my inbox throughout the day, looking for emails that required an urgent reply and for urgent responses I’d usually pick up the phone to avoid the slow back and forth of email.

During my thorough read through, I’d find emails that required a reply or needed to be tracked. These could easily get lost in my inbox, so I began to “flag” them. The flag feature in Outlook has been around for years, but I’ve noticed that people rarely use them, and if they do its only for setting reminders. While useful, this powerful organization tool can do so much more. Using the “For Follow Up”, for example, allows you to organize and periodically review your follow up list I’ve always found that follow up is key to winning and keeping clients!

Here’s How I Use Flags

When I come to an email that I don’t need to address immediately – maybe one on which I’ve been CC’d but want to follow up with sometime in the future – I’ll right click on it and then left click on “Follow Up”. From the drop-down menu, I’ll then select one of the follow up menu items to tell Outlook when I want the alert.

Outlook gives you a list of canned dates like Tomorrow and This Week to choose from or you can select Custom if you want to pick a specific date/time to receive the follow up alert.

There is another option listed here which is No Date. This is the option I use 75% of the time because I don’t necessarily want all the alerts. While the reminder aspect of Flags in Outlook can be very useful, since my calendar and flags are used so heavily, I use the alerts sparingly.

Note: I also apply categories to email messages I want to group together in the “For Follow Up” folder.  For example, if I’m working on a project called “Ott Wireless Install” then I create and apply a category called “Ott Wireless Install”.

This next part is the key component of Outlook’s Flag feature for me.

After flagging an email, it becomes available in the “For Follow Up” folder located in your “folder pane”. When you click on the “For Follow Up” folder it populates with the email you’ve flagged and by default it looks just like your inbox.

To make the view more useful to me, I customize it to show me the information I want, further reducing the distractions.

First, I turn off the Reading pane (click the plus sign if you're not sure how to do that).

And then I remove all columns except: From, Subject, Received, and Flag.

Finally, I group all messages by Category.

If you're not sure how to Categorize Emails, do it this way.

Also, if you don't see the For Follow Up folder in your favorites, this is how you do it.

Now I have a view in Outlook that shows the email messages I need to follow up on and it’s organized so that I can see all of the related messages in one place.  This is really helpful, allowing me to quickly scan the email I’ve flagged so that I can make sure that I don’t miss anything.

There are times when I want to sit back and review this list or bring it to a meeting to have it as a quick reference.  This can be easily done with the available print options in Outlook. By default clicking on the print icon will simply print the email that you have highlighted, but you can also print the view or message list instead of a single email. Doing this will provide you with a nicely organized list.

When you click on the print icon and have the print dialogue box in front of you, change the print style by clicking on the button that says “Table Style”.  Now when you click on “Print” you’ll receive a list of your flagged messages – in my case organized by categories – that can now be used as a reference so that nothing gets by you!

Bonus: Flag your sent items as well!  When I’m expecting follow up on an email I sent, I flag it and assign it the category “Did I get a response?” ~ this is how I stay on top of requests made to employees, vendors, and anyone else who I’ve asked to do something!