Use color to identify mail messages to and from specific people

Want to respond to important people more efficiently? Assign color to their incoming messages so they'll stand out in your crowded Inbox.

Most of us use rules to filter incoming messages into specific folders - having messages seemingly organize themselves is an efficient practice! Another way to increase productivity is to use color to identify specific messages - you can spot them instantly in a crowded Inbox. If you use multiple folders, color can help you distinguish messages within a specific folder. Regardless of why you apply color, it'll help you quickly spot messages that are important to you. Today, I'll show you how to color messages from and sent to a specific person.

Fortunately, this process is much easier than you might think, but instead of using rules, we'll use conditional formatting as follows:

  1. In the mail window, select a folder (or Inbox), click the View tab, and then click View Settings in the Current Settings group.
  2. Click Conditional Formatting in the resulting Advanced View Settings dialog box.
  3. Click Add and give the new "rule" a name - such as From The Boss.
  4. Click the Font button, choose a color from the Color dropdown, and click OK.
  5. Click Condition and then click From.
  6. Find the contact, double-click it to add it to the From control, and click OK four times. (If creating a rule for messages sent, make sure you add the name to the Sent To control.) Outlook will display existing messages from the designated contact in the assigned color. It will also display new incoming messages in red as they arrive.

It's amazing how simple this is, but there are a few gotchas:

  • If the contact isn't in your Address Book, you can enter the contact's email address.
  • The name you're matching must exactly match the name Outlook displays in the From control. If you let Outlook add contacts automatically, this shouldn't be a problem. If you enter them manually, it might, so be careful.
  • You can't use the same rule to assign color to messages from and sent, even though the dialogs offer both options and will even let you specify both in the same rule.
  • Conditional formatting rules apply only to the current folder, but you can add the same rule to multiple folders. Always start by selecting the right mail folder (#1).

To create a coloring rule for messages sent to specific people, follow the above instructions. In #5, click Sent To instead of From.

This technique lets you specify many conditions. For instance, you can assign color to messages that contain a specific word or phrase. The More Choices and Advanced tabs let you set detailed criteria and even use expressions! You're not limited to color either. Via the Font button, you can set a different typeface, size, and so on.

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A word of caution: once you're familiar with this simple but helpful technique, you might think of lots of uses, but go slowly. The whole point is to help you be more productive by helping you spot important messages quickly. Too many different colors, fonts, and so on will have the opposite effect - they will create more stress. So save this technique for just a few rules.


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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