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Pwn your in-box: Tips from a Microsoft insider

Put your e-mail in-box in check.

A few weeks back at the Web 2.0 Expo, I got to catch up with Amit Mital, general manager of Microsoft's Live Mesh (review), and formerly of Office Live Meeting and BizTalkwho told me some of the ways he deals with the hundreds of e-mails he gets every day. His solution deals with Outlook specifically, but the same techniques could be used to manage an in-box in Thunderbird, Apple Mail, or even Gmail with good use of its labels and filters. With Outlook helper Xobni opening up its doors to all today (story) I thought it would be a good chance to share some of these tips that will keep your e-mail in check.

Mital's approach follows a pretty standard "zero in-box" solution, designed to keep you from having to maintain or parse through an endless inbox full of messages--both read and unread.

Some of the below steps are set up to manage an in-box that gets in excess of 200 new e-mails a day, it can be scaled to an account that gets anywhere from 50-100 new e-mails a day from various people. While Bill Gates has gone on the record saying he uses a three display set-up to deal with deluge, this method will let you get by with just one.

1. Folders: Start new by setting up three folders. Each one will have rules that will help you sort through the influx of mail without dealing with it yourself.

The first one should be just for you, so set up a rule in whatever service you're on that will take e-mails that have been sent to you specifically, have them sent straight to your in-box, and flag them red.

The second folder should be for any messages where you're on a list with other recipients. Mital's got his set up to filter messages that include up to 50 other people. If it's more than that, have it sent to an alternate folder that's to be looked at after direct messages.

The third folder should be for VIP senders. Create a short list of people in your company or inner circle that should go directly to your inbox. People like your CEO, boss, boss' boss, or family members. You can also set it up to give you a desktop notification, just in case you have them turned off by default.

Turn e-mails into tasks by dragging them over to your to-do bar.

2. Delete the old stuff: Archiving is easy, but it leads to massive local files that can make start up and portability a problem. Instead delete or archive items as soon as they're tended to. For everything else, create a smart folder that pulls in any messages older 30 days. Set up a reoccurring calendar event to tell you to check that folder and you'll find you can delete almost everything that's not important or worth holding on to somewhere.

3. Turn e-mails into tasks: Mital's a big user of Microsoft Outlook's to-do bar. To turn any e-mail you get into something that needs your attention, just drag-and-drop it into the "today" category. The list can be prioritized and managed without needing to open another application, and information about what you need to do is often contained solely within that e-mail, which is now linked up to the task directly.

Mital's other tip? Don't leave the office until your tasks for the day are complete, and your in-box is back at square one for the next day's work.

For another take Outlook and its place in the world, check out the rant by Charlie Cooper of about bringing Outlook into the post-1997 era e-mail world.