Top 5 Keyboard Shortcuts for Emails

If you are solely relying on your mouse while handling emails, this post can help you save some precious time with a few practical tips. In my work, I’m used to get emails on the scale of 100+ per day. With such amount of emails, fast handling becomes critical.


There are many aspects of handling emails fast, and one of them is definitely using keyboard shortcuts. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a freak of keyboard shortcuts – but I do think that using a few practical shortcuts we can all make our email-handling work a bit more convenient and keep up our work energy.

While watching people handling their emails, I have realized that using the mouse for basic operations reduces our work energy and bring us to a point where we either skip emails or minimize our Outlook application altogether and moving to other tasks (sometimes, that’s not such a bad idea…).

So let’s list them:

  • Ctrl-R: reply
  • Ctrl-Shift-R: reply-all
  • Ctrl-F: forward
  • Ctrl-N: new email message
  • Alt-F4: close the email window

Your mission now is using those simple 5 shortcuts in the next 5 days and then decide whether you get a better experience while handling your emails.


Adjusting our Outlook Messages Pane: Sorting

In this post we would focus on the Outlook Messages pane – adjusting it for a convenient and fluent work.

The Messages pane is the 2nd pane from the left. It contains the list of our emails. Our goal would be to view as much emails as we can while including only the mandatory information needed for our work (remember, our screen is the most valuable real estate property in our work environment).

In this post we would focus on how we should sort our emails.


How should we sort our emails?

My first and trivial recommendation is sorting the emails by date. I recommend having the new ones on top. I have never saw anyone looking at it in a reverse order, maybe because most of us don’t use the zero-inbox approach (if you don’t know what zero-inbox approach means, leave it aside for now, we might be back to it later on).

For adjusting your email sort, right click on the Messages pane title, select Arrange By and Date.


My second recommendation is grouping the emails by conversation. This means that all the emails that are related to the same conversation, would appear as a single email message line, with the ability to expand/collapse for looking at the entire conversation. If you are not using it yet, it means you are reading a conversation in a fragmented way – jumping from one conversation to another conversation instead of reading the entire conversation, start to end.

As a side note, fragmentation is our #1 enemy for efficient time management (we will talk more on this along the way).

Not using a conversation approach also means that you probably replying on emails which are not the latest ones in the email conversation. I see it happens a lot to people who are not using the conversation grouping. The reason for this is simple – people usually start reading emails from the oldest to the newest (which is fine), and I believe we just can’t help ourselves from replying on an email that requires our response. Once we start the reply, we do not scroll up in the email list for finding the latest email on that conversation before we hit the Send button.

For enabling the conversation grouping, right click on the Messages pane title, select the Advanced View Settings option and then the Group By option.


My third recommendation is a fine tuning of the conversation grouping – setting the Conversation Index sort as descending. This would place the newest email in the conversation on top. You will notice the difference especially in long conversations.

The way Outlook works is that it shows you the entire conversation, even if the conversation emails are not located in the current folder you are in. For example, if you have conversation of 20 emails and only 5 of them are still in your inbox (while the rest were moved to another physical folder), you would see them all when expending the conversation. Viewing an email at the bottom of a conversation is not efficient because:

  • We need to use our mouse in order to reach it (instead of using our keyboard),
  • It is opposite to the order of the main email sort (we said we usually sorting emails as newest on top)
  • The indentation is so deep we barely can see title information on the newest emails (each email is a bit to the right from the one above it, which means that in long conversation, the last emails are barely shown).

This adjustment can be done using the Group By option.


Adjusting our Outlook Messages Pane: Columns

We would focus here on the Outlook Messages pane, adjusting it for a convenient and fluent work.

The Messages pane is the 2nd pane from the left. It contains the list of our emails. Our goal would be to view as much emails as we can with while including only the mandatory information needed for our work (remember, our screen is the most valuable real estate property in our work environment).


In this post we would focus on which columns we should use.

Which columns should we use?

The Messages pane contains columns (take a look at the top of the Messages pane). I found that Outlook default is not suitable for me. There are a few items that are not really interesting to view.

I found out that the most important items to view are as listed below. I have listed them by the order I recommend them to appear, left to right.

  • Importance: I always like to know if someone set the importance indication on an email. As general note, I believe we should use this indication rarely. However, when someone uses it, I want to be aware of it, as the sender probably reaching out for me for some attention.
  • Icon: the icon can show us whether the message is read/unread, and whether it contains multiple emails on the same email conversation. All of this information is known by other means: read-vs-unread by the bold/regular of the email title line, single-vs-conversation by the small arrow existence in the beginning of the message line. However, the extra information the Icon is giving us is the indication whether the email was replied/forwarded by you – using a small blue/purple arrow on the envelope icon. I find it valuable for me, so I keep this icon.
  • Attachment:  sometimes I am reviewing a long email conversation and searching for a specific email that contains an attachment. Although I am not a fan of attachments, I can not control what others send to me (we would talk later on about attachments vs. links).
  • From, Subject, Received: I believe we have no argument that those are must to keep.
  • Categories: you might not be using them (yet), but once you will, those are a must.
  • Flag Status: for me, those are usually going along with the categories. I never use a flag without a category (again, I would probably talk about this later on, please bare with me).

For all the rest, I got rid of them, and I believe you should do too. If you feel you want to keep am extra column, do so after you have provided yourself a sufficient reason.

For adjusting your view, you can right click on the Messages pane title, select the Advanced View Settings option and then select the Columns option as shown below.



Why should we adjust our Outlook?

I would like to talk a bit on why we should invest time in adjusting the Outlook mail layout for our daily usage.

I would start with a statement that my screen is the most expensive real estate property in my workplace – this is how I see it. After all, I am looking at my screen most of the day (let’s leave the meeting rooms aside for now) and I want to be able to adjust it carefully for including the most valuable information for my work, and optimally clear away all the other unnecessary disruptions.


When I was a software engineer, I used to adjust my development environment application to fit my needs. Actually, in most of the companies I have worked in as a software engineer, the development environment adjustment was one of the first things included in the training program for gaining the maximum efficiency in the daily work.

Once I became a leader, I have started to work with Outlook much more closely, and it became the application I use the most. Unfortunately, no one has explained to me how to adjust my Outlook to get the maximum efficiency in my work. If you have experienced the same, you would probably enjoy this blog. I would share in this blog all the shortcuts, tips and tricks I wish someone had shown me 10 years ago when I first moved to a leader position.

BTW, the practical information I would share in this blog is not targeted only for leaders – anyone can benefit from it. The point is that the more you use Outlook in your daily work, the more benefit you would achieve from this blog.

So back to our topic – we need to treat our screen as a valuable real estate property and take advantage of all its space. You always can buy a bigger screen (depends on how good you are in convincing your boss to spend that extra budget), but there is a limit to the size that is comfortable to view. Moreover, using that approach (buying a bigger screen) you would always get into trouble when moving to work on other environments, such as your laptop, using remote-desktop to your work environment from home computer, etc.

The big question is how much time such adjustments can save. This is a good question and it depends on how bad you are in working with your Outlook. The amount of saved time is not the only factor you would gain. I think the most important gain would be lower barrier for using your Outlook for leveraging your work. The easier it would be for us to use Outlook, the more freely we would use it and leverage its strength. This is the big bonus as I see it.

I hope you are now convinced that you should at least spend some time in adjusting your Outlook environment. In the first few posts I would share a few practical tips on how to adjust your Outlook mail layout for achieving maximum benefit.