In Outlook 2007 any e-mails that look like they're part of the same conversation get a pair of tiny arrows at the top. This allows you to quickly jump back to the original e-mail or the previous message in the thread. This system is less disruptive than changing the whole view to Conversation and then back to Date - and it works with messages that are filed in different folders.
Outlook 2007 also adds simple time-management features. These include categories and coloured flags (see Figure 1), merging, flagged items showing up in the Tasks list on the new To-Do bar, and the option to right-click and assign a task to Today, Tomorrow, This Week or a specific day.
You're likely to find dozens of tasks and flagged messages you've never done anything about because they soon scrolled out of sight, pushed down by newer messages. Out of sight really is out of mind.
If you don't want to wait for Office 2007 to sort yourself out, there are time- and information-management tools you can add to Outlook. Snarf - the Social Network and Relationship Finder - is a free tool from Microsoft Research (see Figure 2). One day it might be part of Outlook, but for now you can download it from http://research.microsoft.com/community/Snarf.
The first time you start up Snarf it analyses your mail to work out the people you e-mail the most. That information comes in handy later on, since e-mail from your most frequent correspondents is likely to be your greatest concern.
You can see various views that pick out mail that's sent only to you, mail that has several other people on the CC list, who you're corresponding with the most, or unread mail across all your folders rather than just in the inbox. These are all ranked by who Snarf has calculated you talk to most. You can open individual messages or see a whole conversation threaded in one window, which is something that Outlook simply cannot do. Or you can flip the view around to see mail from people you never usually hear from.
At this stage Snarf is a very simple tool, but it's a good way to catch messages you might have missed when your inbox is full and you have only a few minutes to check.
It makes getting back after a holiday less painful, too. Future plans include letting you choose whose e-mail you care about most yourself.
ClearContext on the other hand, is a more sophisticated Outlook add-in that already lets you do that. Again, ClearContext goes through your mail and looks at your contacts to work out who's important to you - see Figure 3. You can tweak the priorities, but it usually picks out the people whose e-mail you need to watch out for very effectively.
When mail arrives from those contacts you see it at the top of the folder, even if it's not the very latest message. This is handy for catching up quickly when you get back from lunch. Messages just to you are colour-coded in red. If you're comfortable with the program you can change your inbox view.
Or you can have a folder with the ClearContext view and leave your inbox the way it is. Create projects (one by one for existing folders) and you can file e-mails, tasks and appointments together. You can also create a task or schedule an appointment from the ClearContext taskbar rather than fiddling around dragging the message into the calendar folder. You can even defer an e-mail, so if you want to deal with it at 4pm on Tuesday it will show up then as if it was a brand-new e-mail.
Version 2.0 of ClearContext is in beta now. When it's done, there will be a free version (ClearContext Inbox Manager Personal Edition), which prioritises e-mail and colour-codes it, ClearContext Inbox Manager, which also groups e-mails into the project they're related to and ClearContext Professional Information Management system, which lets you schedule tasks - or delegate them to someone else. Get the free version from the Cover Disc of the September 2006 issue of PC World Magazine or from www.clearcontext.com.