If you're like me, you often need to jot down notes that are specific to an email conversation. A thread might last for days and with each new message, I gather more information that can't easily be added or tracked by renaming a flag or category. Remembering details isn't a problem for one conversation, but multiply that effort by several and brain fog soon settles in. What I need is a way to annotate individual messages: I might want to track what I've done, what I'm doing, and what I plan to do next, within the context of that conversation. I need to do that for many conversations at the same time. That way I waste far less time waiting for the "...now where was I?" haze to lift.
Unfortunately, annotating an Outlook message or thread isn't easy. So in this article, I'll show you five ways to add meaningful information to a message. If you're like me, you'll end up relying on one method more than the others, but they can all be useful.
I'm using Outlook 2016 (desktop) on a Windows 10 64-bit system. Most of these techniques can be used in earlier versions. There's no demonstration downloadable file; you won't need one. Because flags are limited and categories aren't easily available in IMAP accounts, I'm not covering those options. However, both features are available in Mail. Simply substitute the flag or category name with your note text.
1: Change the subject
Etiquette suggests that you change the subject text when you change the topic of an existing thread. You can use this same technique to display a short note to yourself, but use this method only when you know you won't be replying to the message, because your note will go with your reply.
Open the message, click inside the Subject control, and type your note, as shown in Figure A. Be sure to save the message when you close it. You must open the message; you can't edit the subject in the Preview pane. The original subject was "Schedule QA." With a quick glance, you can remind yourself that you're waiting on more information from Judy before you proceed.
Add a personal note to the subject.
This method has limited use because the note must be short, but you can sort, group, and search for common notes. In the absence of easy-to-use categories and flags in IMAP accounts, it's an easy-to-implement alternative.
2: Modify the message
You can add a note to the body of the message. Again, don't do this if there's any possibility that you might eventually respond to the sender, because your note will go along too. This technique doesn't limit the number of characters, so you can add an in-depth note. You can also search for the note using specific keywords.
Open the message and choose Edit Message from the Actions dropdown in the More group, as shown in Figure B. With the message in edit mode, type your message and save your changes when you close the message.
You can edit a message to include your notes.
3: About Notes
Using Outlook Notes, you can attach a note to a new message you want to send. First, create a note as follows:
- Click Notes in the Navigations Options at the bottom of the Navigation pane (Figure C) .
- In the Notes window, click New Note in the New group and type your message (Figure D).
Open the Notes window.
Type your note.
Once you've created the note, you're ready to attach it to a new message by right-clicking the note and choosing Forward from the resulting submenu. Outlook will open a new message and insert the note as an attachment, as shown in Figure E.
Forward the note in a new message.
The truth is, this option doesn't belong in this article. I include it to be comprehensive—its name is Notes after all. For better or worse, you can't use Notes to annotate an existing message or thread in the same way you'd use the other four techniques. However, a note is a convenient tool for sending repetitive information in new emails; think it as an easy alternative to a template when structure isn't an issue.
4: Track notes in OneNote
OneNote integrates with Outlook 2013 and 2016 to link notes to a specific message or thread. You might find OneNote the best way to track information related to messages because there's no limit to the size of your notes or comments. On the other hand, your notes aren't visible in Outlook.
If this option is available, you'll see a OneNote icon on the Home tab in the Move group. With the message you want to annotate selected, click OneNote to open a dialog for navigating OneNote. Choose a notebook, as shown in Figure F, and click OK. Figure G shows the message copied to OneNote, where you can add notes for future reference.
Select a notebook for sending the message or conversation.
Add notes for messages in OneNote.
If you're viewing messages by conversation, Outlook will copy the entire conversation. You can update your notes by opening OneNote. Working with OneNote takes a bit of practice, but you'll catch on quickly:
- When you launch OneNote, it will display Notebooks. You can create multiple notebooks. You can use one notebook for all email conversations. Or you can create a notebook for each project, client, and so on.
- When you copy an email message or thread to OneNote, it defaults to the Quick Notes section. To change this setting, click the File tab, choose Options, and then click the Send To OneNote option in the left pane. In the Outlook Items section, choose the option that suits your working needs best from the Email Messages dropdown, shown in Figure H.
You can choose where OneNote copies messages.
If the OneNote option isn't visible on the Ribbon, install the add-in. First, click the File tab and choose Options. In the left pane, select Add-ins. Click Go (at the bottom) to see the available COM Add-ins. Check the OneNote Notes About Outlook Items option, as shown in Figure I and click OK twice. Close and relaunch Outlook, and the OneNote button should be available.
You might have to enable the add-in.
5: Add a custom column
My favorite way to add a note to a message is to add a custom note column (field) to the view. It's my favorite because I don't have to select or open the message to see the note. To add a custom field, right-click the header row in the Preview pane (where you sort), choose View Settings, as shown in Figure J, and click Columns.
Access the view's settings.
In the resulting dialog, click New Column (in the center of the dialog). In the next dialog, enter a name for the custom column, as shown in Figure K. In this example, you don't need to change the type or format, but it's good to know that you can; you might want to explore these options later. Click OK. Notice that Outlook adds the custom column to the Show These Columns In This Order list, as shown in Figure L.
Name the new custom column.
Outlook adds the custom column to your view.
You can click Move Up and Move Down to position the column. Move Personal Notes to the top of the list for easier viewing in the Preview pane. Then, click OK. After returning to the first dialog, click Other Settings and check the Allow In-cell Editing option, as shown in Figure M. Click OK twice to return to Outlook.
Allow editing for your custom column.
You might need to increase the size of the Preview pane to display the column headers. Do so by dragging the right border until Outlook exposes the headers. Or close the Reading pane. You can also increase the width of the Personal Notes column by dragging its right border. Click inside a message's corresponding Personal Notes field and start typing, as shown in Figure N.
Type your note into the custom field.
None of these options is perfect. You might work with one or several. In older versions, you can replace a flag or category name with your note text, but both features are limited in IMAP accounts. See Reclaim Outlook categories for IMAP accounts to learn how to use categories in an IMAP account. There are also inexpensive third-party products you can consider; use your favorite search engine to learn more about what's available.
What feature are you using to make your note-taking more efficient and organized? Share your experiences with your fellow TechRepublic members in the Comments section below.
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Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.