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Office Q&A: How Outlook's recurring tasks really work

If you expect Outlook's recurring tasks to behave similarly to recurring appointments, you're in for a bit of a surprise. Here's a look at how this feature is implemented.

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Outlook's recurring appointments and tasks let you generate many items from one by identifying an interval of time between each item. For instance, if you have a production meeting every Tuesday morning, you can create one appointment that appears on your calendar every Tuesday.

Denise contacted me when she tried to create a recurring task from a recurring appointment. She expected to see numerous tasks—the current one and those in the future—after dragging the appointment to the Tasks icon. That didn't happen. In this article, I'll explain why and shed some light on how Outlook's recurring tasks work.

I'm using Outlook 2016 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can apply what you learn in this article to earlier Ribbon versions. Recurring tasks are available in Outlook Web App. There's no demonstration file.

Denise's solution is easy

When Denise tried to create a recurring task from a recurring appointment, she saw a single task instead of the multiple tasks she expected. Although you can create a recurring task from an appointment, you must set the recurrence options manually. Outlook won't carry them over from the appointment. Denise's solution is to remember to set the recurring properties when she creates a task instead of depending on Outlook to retrieve those properties from the original appointment. It's not hard to do; the trick is remembering that you must take that extra step.

SEE: How to reverse and transpose Excel data with this powerful but simple solution

About recurring tasks

Denise's solution was simple, but it provides a great opportunity to discuss the differences between recurring appointments and recurring tasks. Recurring appointments are static. Outlook generates all the appointments needed to fulfill the series and they remain visible on your calendar until you manually delete them. Recurring tasks work differently. When you set the recurring properties for a task, Outlook displays the original (or current) task. Only when you mark the current task as complete will Outlook display the next one—and only that one—in the series. If that's not what you expect, you might think something's wrong. Even if Denise had set the recurring properties for the new task she was creating, she still wouldn't have seen future tasks!

With a quick example, we can see how this process works. First, create a simple four-day recurring task as follows:

  1. Begin by dragging an email message to the Tasks icon or creating a new task in the Tasks pane. Figure A shows a new task with a start date of Monday, June 5, 2017. For better or worse, Outlook doesn't use the current date as the default; you must manually select a start date.
  2. Click the Recurrence option on the Task tab.
  3. Click the Daily option to the left and then enter 4 in the Every field (Figure B). These options allow you to specify your recurring interval—every day, every four days, once a week, every two weeks, every other Tuesday, and so on. Take note of the Regenerate New Task option; the default is 1, but you can change it. This setting determines how quickly Outlook generates the next new task when you complete the current one. At this point, you could also set an end date to create a range, but for this example, retain the default No End Date setting.
  4. Click OK, then click Save & Close in the Actions group to return to the Task pane.

Figure A

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Create a new task.

Figure B

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Choose the recurrence settings.

In Figure C, you can see the new recurring task for the first date. There are no subsequent tasks as you might have expected. To generate a new task based on this recurring task, you must mark the current task (the one visible in Figure C) as complete. To do so, select the task and click Mark Complete (Figure D) in the Manage Task group.

Figure C

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A recurring task displays only one task, the current task.

Figure D

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Mark the task as complete.

Figure E shows the updated task list. As you can see, the original task is gone and the new task for four days (June 9, 2017) from the first (June 5, 2017) is now the current task. If you don't want to see the new task immediately, set the Regenerate New Task option accordingly.

Figure E

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When you complete a task, Outlook displays the next in the series.

Outlook assumes that you won't want to move on to the next task until the current task is completed. That's not always going to be the case, but that's the logic the feature implements.

Be careful when setting a recurring task at the weekly level. The current day of the week is selected by default. If that's not the day of the week you want, uncheck it. If you select another day of the week without unchecking the default day of the week, you'll end up with a recurring pattern that generates twice a week instead of once a week. It's rare that you'll ever need that kind of pattern, but Outlook will accommodate you if you do.

Stay tuned: In a future article, I'll show you how to reset the interval for a recurring task.

Send me your question about Office

I answer readers' questions when I can, but there's no guarantee. Don't send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. You can send screenshots of your data to help clarify your question. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, "Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what's wrong" probably won't get a response, but "Can you tell me why this formula isn't returning the expected results?" might. Please mention the app and version that you're using. I'm not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at susansalesharkins@gmail.com.

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About Susan Harkins

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.

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