Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Tame your Inbox with the 4 D’s

This article is part of a series Best practices for Outlook for Mac 2011. To learn about the specific parts in the series, refer to the See also links at the bottom of the page.

The 4 Ds

Once you set up your system, you are ready to begin managing incoming messages. By making your Inbox the central place for receiving important messages, you can go through it with the confidence that each item is something you need to deal with.

For every message in your Inbox:

  • If it isn't important, delete it immediately.

  • If it can be done in two minutes or less, do it (reply, file, call, etc.).

  • If it isn't for you or if you can, delegate (forward) it.

  • If you need to do it, but it takes longer than two minutes (including reading), defer (hold off on) it.

If you need it as reference (even if you have decided to defer it), move it into your reference folder. The goal is to reduce the number of times you touch each message.

Delete it

Delete messages that you don't need to read. If it is junk, delete it.

Do it: The 2-minute drill

It is amazing what can be done in two minutes. For example, many messages can be responded to in 2 minutes or less. But if a message takes longer than two minutes to deal with, defer it. To get a sense of what two minutes feels like, try timing yourself.

After you have dealt with the message, do one of the following:

  • Delete it if it is something of little consequence.

  • File it in one of your reference folders (for example, 1-Reference).

Delegate it

Sometimes you receive a message that is really meant for someone else to deal with. In these cases, reply and include the person to whom you are delegating the message on the To line.

If you want to follow up later, Add or remove a flag for follow up for yourself before sending. Mark the task with the @Waiting category.

Defer it


Deferring a message means that you will review it later, when you have time, and the reasons to defer a message are:

  • It cannot be dealt with in less than two minutes.

  • It will take a while to read.

  • It will require a carefully crafted response.

  • It requires additional action in another program (for example, "Need to add to <name> document")


When you decide that you don't have time to deal with a message right away, you can flag it:

  • If you need to do it today, flag it for Today (just click the flag).

  • If you can put it off for longer, hold-down COMMAND + CONTROL , click the message, and then flag it for follow up for a later date.

  • If you will need to refer to the message more than once and you want easy access to it, set the flag Start Date on the task to 100 years in the future. (Use this flag rarely so that it does not become an overpopulated catch-all.)

  • If it is something you will need in the short term, flag it No Due Date so that it appears at the top. Use this group sparingly and clear it out regularly, because it is at the top of your task list.

By flagging it and filing it into your reference folder, you have processed it, and now you can move it out of your view. But because it is in your task list, you can move on to your next message, knowing that you will return to your flagged items later.


You can add a category to help you see at a glance where your next action is. A quick glance at your tasks that are categorized lets you know what is immediately actionable (@Office), which tasks you are waiting on other people for (@Waiting), and what you will be meeting about (@Meeting).


After you process your messages, you can tackle your task list. This is when you respond to those messages that you have deferred.


Sometimes you receive a message that you don’t need to act upon, but which you might need at a future date. A good example is a message with instructions. File these messages in your reference folder (1-Reference). Adding a category will make the message easier to find later if you need it (for example, @Project). Do this before filing.

After you finish processing your messages, you should have a clean Inbox and can switch your focus to your calendar and tasks.

See also

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Good time management

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Set up Outlook to work for you

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Manage time with a daily review

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Do your work with the help of Tasks

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Find that message!

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Write great e-mail

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Calendars and meetings

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Frequently asked questions

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