The search for the perfect Personal Information Management (PIM) software can easily become a quest akin to the search for the Holy Grail. In today’s ultra-connected world, we are inundated daily with bits and pieces of information. E-mail pours in—many of us get hundreds of messages per day. When we aren’t sorting through the spam looking for the nuggets of real information, we’re out there surfing the Web or scanning the newsgroups for facts, figures, tips, tricks, and other pieces of data to increase our knowledge or enhance our lives.
The problem: how to organize all this data so that it will actually be useful to us. There are a number of good e-mail clients, newsreaders, scheduling tools, contact managers, and integrated PIMs on the market. However, almost all Windows users already have free access to Microsoft’s Outlook Express, and many also have the more potent Microsoft Outlook installed as part of the Microsoft Office suite. In this Daily Drill Down, I will discuss how to put these two tools to work for more efficient management of e-mail.
What’s your Outlook?
Microsoft’s products can be used to manage many aspects of your information, but both the scope of data that can be managed and the ease of use depend on which Outlook you’re using. First, you must determine whether to use the freeware Outlook Express application that comes with Internet Explorer (built into the Windows 98/NT4.0/2000/XP operating systems) or “Big Outlook” that is included in Office 97, 98, 2000, and XP. I will first look at the differences between Outlook and Outlook Express and then briefly discuss some version differences.
Outlook vs. Outlook Express
Both Outlook and Outlook Express function as excellent e-mail managers. Both allow you to create subfolders in your inbox and create rules to filter incoming messages and sort them into the appropriate folders. Both mailers include spell checkers, easy reply and forwarding, and receipt of HTML mail (this feature can be turned off if desired). Both provide a contact list/address book for keeping up with much more than just e-mail addresses. Both include a search function that allows you to locate a message by the To or From field, subject line, or message text. Both let you customize the appearance of your messages, add automatic signatures, and use digital certificates and encryption for security of your mail.
That’s where the similarity ends. Outlook is billed as a full-fledged personal information manager—and with one exception, it is. Unlike Outlook Express, it allows you to create sophisticated calendars with appointment reminders, maintain running task lists, save and sort notes, and record selected actions in a journal. It is fully integrated with the other Office products, and you can even use Word as your e-mail editor. In fact, with Outlook you can manage all the folders on your computer.
The only important function Outlook doesn’t have is that of a newsreader. For reasons known only to Microsoft, even if you are using Outlook for everything else, you still must use Outlook Express (or third-party software) to download and read NNTP postings. The oddest thing about this is that, even though Outlook has no news reader and calls Outlook Express for that function, if you set Outlook Express as your default news manager, the next time you open Outlook it will notify you that it is not your default news manager and ask if you would like for it to be.
There is another important difference between Outlook and Outlook Express if you’re on a local area network (LAN) that has internal mail (for example, using Microsoft Mail or Exchange). Outlook Express can be configured to send and receive only Internet mail. Outlook 98/2000 can be installed in one of two modes: Internet Only or Corporate. In Corporate mode, you can use both your internal and Internet mail accounts. Outlook 2002, when it is released, will do away with the mode distinction and will support both Exchange-based LAN mail and Internet mail, but it will drop support for Microsoft Mail.
If you only need to manage Internet mail accounts and newsgroups, Outlook Express works fine; if you need calendaring and task management, or you want to be able to create custom forms and macros, you’ll need Outlook (but you’ll need Outlook Express for news). While in this Daily Drill Down I focus on using Outlook, I’ll also explain how some of the same tasks can be accomplished with Outlook Express.
Outlook 97 had many shortcomings. It was cumbersome and difficult to use, and I don’t recommend it for information management. Microsoft vastly improved the product with Outlook 98 and fine-tuned those improvements with Outlook 2000. The soon-to-be-released Outlook 2002 (part of the Office XP suite) adds several more long-awaited features, such as the abilities to color-code calendar appointments and use AutoCorrect as you type e-mail. The examples in this Daily Drill Down use Outlook 2000; most tasks are performed the same way in Outlook 98 and 2002.
How’s the view?
The first step in making Outlook or Outlook Express more functional is to configure the view settings. By default, Outlook displays the shortcut bar in the left pane, while Outlook Express displays the folder list there. If you create subfolders for sorting your mail and organizing your information, you’ll want to display the folder list in Outlook, as well (see Figure A). To do so, select Folder List from the View menu.
To display the Outlook Bar (which is turned off by default) in Outlook Express, select View | Layout.
I always use the Preview Pane (turned on and off via the View menu in Outlook or via the View | Layout dialog box in Outlook Express) for e-mail, as shown in Figure A, so I can read messages without actually opening them. Some prefer the AutoPreview feature, which summarizes each message, as shown in Figure B.
You can also customize how your mail, calendar, tasks, etc. are displayed in Outlook using the Current View selection on the View menu. Choose Customize Current View to define fonts, select column fields to display, choose to group items by category, sender, importance, and several other criteria, and select filtering options.
What do you want to organize today?
IT professionals and other knowledge-based workers accumulate a great deal of information via e-mail and newsgroups. Outlook and Outlook Express can help you keep this information organized and accessible. In the following sections, we’ll explore:
- How to manage your mail, including the large volumes associated with mailing-list membership.
- How to keep a journal record of important e-mail transactions and other documents.
Making mail manageable
E-mail is the killer app of the century; it has revolutionized the way we communicate. But because, compared to “snail mail,” it is so convenient and inexpensive, we tend to get a lot of it. It can be difficult to sort through the spam, electronic newsletters and announcements, forwarded jokes from friends, personal messages, and business correspondence to find what we’re looking for. Filtering makes this much easier, but creating a good mail-filtering system requires some thought and planning.
By default, all incoming mail goes into the Inbox folder. Many people create subfolders under this folder. If you get a lot of mail, you may want to go further and create other first-level category folders (folders on the same level as your Inbox), with more specific subfolders under them. For example, as a writer, I send and receive e-mail from various book and magazine publishers and editors. I’ve created two first-level folders called Article Writing and Book Projects. Under each, I have a folder for each organization for which I write. I have another category folder called Lists and a separate subfolder in it for each mailing list to which I belong.
To create a subfolder, right-click the folder in which you wish to place it, select New Folder, and type a name for the subfolder. You can also select the type of items the folder will contain, as shown in Figure C (in this case, mail items).
|You can create subfolders within the Inbox (or any folder in the folder list).|
I created a subfolder called Answer, to which I move messages that require an answer but which I cannot get to immediately. This keeps them from getting “lost” in the Inbox or in their respective subfolders. You can set a time for Outlook to remind you to reply by selecting the message in the right message list pane, right-clicking, and selecting Flag For Follow Up. Then you can select a date and time in the Due By drop-down box, and Outlook will pop up a reminder. Flagged messages will be marked in the message list.
There are two ways to create rules to automatically filter incoming mail into your newly created folders. The first is to select Rules Wizard from the Tools menu. The wizard will walk you through the steps of creating a rule. Once created, each rule can be separately enabled or disabled by checking or unchecking its box (see Figure D).
|You can create rules to filter incoming messages into specific folders.|
Rules are normally used to move messages from a specific sender to a specific folder. Outlook allows you to do much more, though. You can also move messages based on content, flag messages from specific senders, assign categories to messages, move messages you send, or have Outlook notify you when messages arrive that are marked Importance: High.
Outlook can filter messages by many criteria, but you must understand what field is used to set up filtering correctly. A common complaint is that “I made a filter for messages from <name of list> mailing list, but it doesn’t work. They still go into my Inbox.” Most often, the rule was not made correctly.
Study the headers on messages from your mailing list. Depending on the configuration of the list server software, often messages in the From field contain the original sender’s e-mail address. This means that if you create a rule to move messages coming from MyMailingList.com into the MyMailingList folder, list mail won’t go there because each list message has a different sender name (the list member who posted it to the list). You’ll often find that the To field on list messages has the list address, rather than your address. To make the rule work properly, you must tell Outlook to use the To field instead of the From field to filter messages.
To display the abbreviated message header with each message, right-click the bar separating the message list and preview pane and check Header Information. To display the complete Internet headers (including the route taken by the message from sender to recipient), double-click the message to open it and then select Options on the View menu in the message window (not the View menu on the Outlook menu bar).
Off to see the Rules Wizard
Using the Rules Wizard, you can also filter by specific words in the recipient’s or sender’s address, in the subject line or message header, or in the body of the message. You can filter messages that are flagged for action, marked for importance or sensitivity or assigned to a category, or that are in a specific file-size range. Outlook will also filter based on suspected junk-mail status or adult content and will even intercept those Out Of Office replies and automatically send them to the Deleted Items folder.
Once you’ve set the criteria for messages to be filtered, you can select an action to apply to those filtered messages, including the following:
- Move the message to a specific folder.
- Move a copy to a specific folder (leaving the original in your Inbox).
- Delete the message.
- Forward it to a particular e-mail address or forward it as an attachment.
- Automatically print it.
- Redirect it to another e-mail address. (Unlike in forwarding, the From field will have the original sender’s address instead of yours.)
- Reply using a specified template (a predefined boilerplate message) or have the server reply using a specific message.
- Notify you using a specific message or by playing a sound.
- Automatically flag the message for follow-up in a specific number of days or mark it with a certain level of importance.
- Start an application.
- Perform a defined custom action.
You can also set exceptions. For example, you might set a rule to play a sound upon the arrival of all messages marked Importance: High, except when a particular name is in the From field. Or you could set a rule to print all messages from a particular sender, except when the file size is in a certain range. The flexibility to automate the management of your mail is almost endless.
To automatically delete specified messages (for example, from a particular sender) when they arrive, create a rule to move those messages to a folder, and select the Deleted Items folder.
Outlook Express allows you to create rules similarly to Outlook by selecting Tools | Message Rules | Mail, although there are far fewer sorting criteria and actions available.
Creating rules the easy way
If all you want to do is create rules to move messages to specific folders, there is a quicker and easier way with Outlook. Click the Organize button on the default toolbar or select Organize from the Tools menu. In the drop-down window, choose to create a rule for messages sent to or from a particular address and select a folder into which the messages should be moved (see Figure E).
Color your messages
Another very useful Outlook function is the ability to color-code messages. For example, I have several IT newsletters that are filtered into the same folder, but I can quickly locate specific newsletters within the folder because their names are displayed in different colors, as shown in Figure F.
To color-code messages, select Using Colors in the menu at the left of the Organize window. This lets you highlight specific messages within a folder. For example, if all messages from a particular magazine go into one folder, but I want to be certain I don’t overlook messages from the editor in chief, I can color-code his or her messages based on the From field.
Looking for love (or any other word in a message)
Even if you have set up sophisticated rules to filter your messages into folders and color-code specified messages within those folders, there may be times when you need to find a message but don’t know who it was from or when it was sent. For example, suppose that all you remember is that the sender offered to pay you $5,000 to write an article on biogenetic engineering using recombinant DNA technologies. You can search for keywords like “biogenetic” and “recombinant” or even “$5,000.” Use the terms that are more likely to be unique to this message.
A simple search can be conducted by clicking the Find button, typing the keywords in the search box, and clicking Find Now. For a more narrowly defined search, click the Advanced button in the Find window. You can choose to look for the keywords in Subject Field Only, Subject Field And Message Body, or Frequently Used Text Fields, and you can specify messages sent by a particular sender, to a particular address, or at a particular time (see Figure G).
|The Advanced Find function allows you to search for keywords in messages.|
You can narrow the search further by:
- Searching only those items that are read or only those unread.
- Searching only those items with attachments or only those without attachments.
- Searching only those items of a specified importance level.
- Searching only those items of a specified size.
You can also select whether or not the case should be matched. (That is, should a search for keyword “biogenetic” return results for messages containing “Biogenetic or BioGenetic”?) You can also search by categories if you have assigned messages to categories.
There is another way to find messages from specific senders or with specific subject lines or sent on a specific date. You can simply click the column header by which you want to sort. For example, if you click the From column header, messages will be rearranged alphabetically by sender. If you click the Subject column header, they will be rearranged alphabetically by subject line. And if you click the Received column header, they will be rearranged chronologically by date received. This works with both Outlook and Outlook Express.
Hanging by a thread
Another way to organize your messages (especially useful for those received from mailing lists) is to sort by conversation thread (subject). This lets you easily follow the responses to an original message without searching through the entire message list. To do so, select View | Current View | By Conversation Topic. Now messages will be displayed as shown in Figure H.
|Sorting messages by conversation thread is especially useful for organizing mailing list posts.|
Expand the conversation header to see the messages in that thread.
In Outlook Express, the selection is View | Current View | Group Messages By Conversation. A big advantage of this view option is that you can delete all the messages in a thread in just one action. To do so, right-click the conversation header and select Delete.
Both programs let you change the view on a folder-by-folder basis, so you can display your mailing list folder sorted by threads while your Inbox is still displayed as individual messages sorted chronologically.
Sorting it all out
The View | Current View menu offers a variety of other ways to sort your messages. For example, you can group all messages by sender, or view those received over the last seven days, or all those flagged for follow up, or all those that are marked as unread.
You can even display a message timeline for a particular folder, as shown in Figure I, although it is somewhat unwieldy if you have a large number of messages in the folder.
If you choose to display the Advanced toolbar (View | Toolbars | Advanced) in Outlook or the Views Bar (View | Layout) in Outlook Express, you can quickly switch back and forth between these different views whenever you like.
Keeping a journal
One advantage Outlook has over Outlook Express is the ability to keep a running record of e-mail messages you send to selected recipients, using the Journal function. This is especially useful if you conduct important business via e-mail because you can track when you sent particular messages.
In Tools | Options | Preferences, click the Journal Options button and specify items to be recorded, as shown in Figure J.
|You can set the Journal Options to automatically log sending of specified e-mail.|
You can also record other Outlook tasks in the Journal, as well as the creation, modification, or deletion of documents created by other Office applications. The Journal will display recorded entries, as shown in Figure K.
You can also make manual journal entries (for example, to record a phone call or fax, or an e-mail message that you haven’t set to be automatically logged). Select File | New | Journal Entry and fill in the information fields.
Share and share alike
Not only can you organize your mail as described in this Daily Drill Down, with Outlook, you can also share your mail folders (on a folder-by-folder basis) with others on your network. If you’re using Outlook 98 or 2000, you can install the Net Folders component from the CD. You can also download the component for Outlook 98 from the Microsoft Outlook Web site. Once installed, this allows you to click on a folder, select File | Folder | Share This Folder, and select the names of users to whom you want to give access and the level of access you want them to have (from read-only to full authorship permissions).
If you are using Outlook as a client to a corporate Exchange server, you can create public folders on the server that can be shared with other users on your network. One big advantage of Exchange is the ability to open your Outlook folders from any computer that can log on to the network, and you can have it open on multiple computers simultaneously. Without Exchange, your Outlook data is stored in a .pst file on your local hard drive, and this file cannot be opened simultaneously on two computers.
Your Outlook data—whether stored on the server or in a local .pst file—should be backed up regularly. After spending hours or even days creating folders and rules and fine-tuning Outlook to organize your data perfectly, you don’t want to lose the configuration and have to do it all over again after a computer crash.
In Outlook Express, mail is stored in .dbx files, which can be copied to a removable disk or other backup location.
Organizing a heavy flow of incoming e-mail can be challenging, but Microsoft’s e-mail clients, Outlook and Outlook Express, make it easier by providing user-friendly filtering, color-coding, viewing options, and other advanced features. In this Daily Drill Down, I have discussed some methods for putting Outlook or Outlook Express to work for you to make managing your mail a simpler and less time-consuming task.
The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.