06:00 AM

Outlook email: rule the rules

By Jeffrey Schoenberger

Email is by far the most used business application. Even though numerous studies demonstrate its distractive tendency, most people also keep email open and running on their computer throughout the day, just inviting interruption by anyone who happens to send them a message.

If you insist on keeping email open – and even more so if you have the app set to alert you when you get a new arrival – I promise you will benefit from a keen understanding of email rules, their creation, and how letting Outlook (or Gmail or Apple Mail) handle some message routing and filing for you will alleviate annoyance and allow you to focus on real work.

Where does your email live?

This used to be a simple question. Fifteen or more years ago, before the advent of broadly-used mobile devices, most email services operated on the POP email protocol (POP being an acronym for Post Office Protocol). It dated from 1984 and, for our purpose today, was designed so that a single computer would retrieve messages from a server. Once retrieved by the computer, the messages were deleted from the server. If you lived in an outlandish world (at least until the 21st century) with multiple computers with email, there was no easy way to keep all computers’ inboxes in sync.

Email-heavy users realized this problem quickly and POP’s eventual successor, IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol), was conceived in 1986. With IMAP, as well as similarly functioning proprietary protocols like Microsoft’s Exchange and Google’s Gmail, the “truth” about your inbox lives on the server. All mail resides on the server and copies are downloaded to each computer or device. The actions a user takes on a device, such as reading, responding to, or deleting a message, are reconciled to the server, which transmits those changes to other devices when those devices check for email.

You can easily imagine the benefit of a server-based inbox because you experience it every day. You check email from your work laptop, iPhone, and Android tablet, and all devices show all your messages, their status (e.g., read or unread), and replies sent from any device.

This history lesson as background serves as an introduction to email rules because an IMAP server (or MS Exchange or Gmail) can hold not just messages and their statuses, but also filing instructions. You could set up a rule to file all emails from a certain listserv to a specific folder and mark those messages read. The benefit of setting up rules at the mail server level means that no specific device or program (e.g., Outlook) needs to run to filter and file email.

Setting up a rule in Outlook for Windows

I expect that Outlook for Windows, connected to Microsoft Exchange via Microsoft 365, is probably the most common environment. I will focus on that for my examples.

Suppose I subscribe to Clio as my practice management system and I want all announcement and other emails it sends filtered into a single folder, to get them out of my inbox. I have two options:

  • Server-side rules, meaning they run whether Outlook is open or closed.
  • Client-side rules, meaning they run only when you have Outlook open. Client-side rules have more options.

A server-side rule to move messages to a specified folder.

1.Click on “File” > “Info” > “Automatic Replies.”

2. Ignore the out-of-office portion and click “Rules…” in the bottom left corner.

3. Click “Add Rule…” in the bottom left corner.

4. In the “From…” field, type clio.com. Check the box next to “Move to” and click the “Folder…” button to select a folder for the system to relocate emails from clio.com.

5. If you need to create a new folder, you can do that on the “Move Message To…” screen. Then click “OK.”

6. Confirm everything is correct and click “OK” again.

7. Click “OK” twice more to close the “Rules” windows.

This Clio rule will run on the server, so you don’t need to have Outlook open on your computer. But you’ll notice that your options are limited on what you can do with the message; basically, moving it, copying it, and forwarding it. If you want more options for rules in Outlook for Windows, you can create client-side rules.

A client-Side rule to move messages to a specified folder

This client-side rule, which reviews and acts on emails only when Outlook is running, will not only move the messages from clio.com to a specified folder, but also mark those messages as read – something not possible with server-side rules created in Outlook for Windows.

1. Select a message from Clio and right-click.