Perhaps no other Office app lends itself to customization as much as Outlook does. But with all that flexibility often comes confusion and frustration because users don’t always know how to help themselves work more efficiently. Changing Outlook’s out-of-the-box settings can help you reduce repetitive tasks and help you work a bit more efficiently via the interface. Here are some useful tweaks to make.

Note: This article covers 2007 and 2010; the instructions for 2007 will often be similar for Outlook 2003, but this article doesn’t include specific instructions for 2003.

1: Opening folder

When you launch Outlook, it displays Outlook Today view or moves straight to a specified folder. Opening to your preferred folder can eliminate a few clicks and put you right where you want to start your session. To specify which folder Outlook selects when launching, do the following:

  1. Click the File tab and choose Options (under Help). In Outlook 2007, choose Options from the Tools menu, click the Other tab, and skip to step 3.
  2. Choose Advanced in the left pane.
  3. In the Outlook Start And Exit section, click Browse. In Outlook 2007, click the Advanced Options button in the General section and click Browse.
  4. In the resulting dialog, select the folder you want as the default. Figure A shows a secondary Inbox selected, but your view will be unique to your system.
  5. Click OK. Figure B shows the new setting.
  6. Click OK again.

Figure A

Select the folder you want Outlook to select when launched.

Figure B

Check the setting here.

The next time you launch Outlook, it will open to the window specified in step 4. Your default window can be your Inbox or the Calendar, Tasks, or Contacts window. If you create a custom Inbox, you can specify it (as shown in Figure A). The default window can be almost any Outlook folder.

2: Custom address book

If you save addresses in a custom address book, making Outlook default to that address book will allow you to access your contacts with just a few clicks. To make a custom address book the default, do the following:

  1. On the Home tab, click Address Book in the Find group. In Outlook 2007, click the Address Book icon on the Standard toolbar or press [Ctrl]+[Shift]+B.
  2. From the Tools menu, choose Options. The default setting is Start With Global Address List (GAL). If yours is different, someone has already changed it. If you’re on Exchange, the GAL is usually members of your organization. This list won’t contain the contacts you add yourself. Your contacts are personal to you and are in the Contacts list.
  3. If you want Outlook to default to your contacts, click the Start With Contact Folders option. Or click Custom to make a custom address book the default and set the order of reference using the arrow icons to the right.
  4. To set the actual default address book, select the appropriate book from the When Opening The Address Book, Show This Address List First drop-down (Figure C). In Outlook 2007, it’s the When Sending Mail… option.
  5. Click OK.

Figure C

You can control which address book Outlook uses as the default.

3: Message format

Most users know that they can send email in different formats:

  • Plain Text uses text characters with no formatting, so it’s compatible with all email clients.
  • HTML applies HTML formatting. Most clients can handle HTML, but they don’t always render the HTML coding by default.
  • Rich Text allows simple text formatting that’s specific to Outlook.

Mobile technologies are quickly displacing this setup, but for now, many users still prefer Plain Text because it’s less trouble — many lists and Web clients don’t allow anything else. You can set this default, as follows:

  1. Click the File tab and choose Options under Help. In Outlook 2007, choose Options from the Tools menu, click the Mail Format tab, and skip to step 3.
  2. Choose Mail in the left pane.
  3. In the Compose Messages section, choose Plain Text from the Compose Messages In This Format drop-down, shown in Figure D.
  4. Click OK.

Figure D

You can set the default message format.

You may want to let the default setting handle most of your messages, but you can easily change the default for individual messages. In the message window, click the Format Text tab and choose the appropriate format in the Format group.

4: Appointment interval

Calendar view defaults to 30-minute intervals. If you maintain a different schedule, you might want to change the default interval as follows:

  1. Right-click the timebar in the day or one of the week views.
  2. Choose one of the intervals shown in Figure E.

Figure E

This shortcut is the easiest way to reset the default interval.

5: Appointment reminder

Outlook reminds you 15 minutes before a scheduled appointment. If you often change the reminder time when you create appointments, change that default reminder to better suit the way you work, as follows:

  1. Click the File tab and choose Options under Help. In Outlook 2007, choose Options from the Tools menu, click the Preferences tab (if necessary), and skip to step 3.
  2. Choose Calendar in the left pane.
  3. In the Calendar Options section, choose the appropriate reminder time from the Default Reminders drop-down, shown in Figure F.
  4. Click OK.

Figure F

Don’t work around the default — set a reminder time that best reflects your scheduling needs.

You’re not limited to the listed times, either. For instance, if you want a three-minute reminder, enter “3 minutes.”

6: Name order

When you click To in the message window to access the default address book, Outlook displays contact names in First Name, Last Name order. If you have a long list, you might prefer to see contacts alphabetized by last name first. To make this change, do the following:

  1. Click the File tab. In Outlook 2007, choose Account Settings from the Tools menu and skip to step 3.
  2. In the resulting window, choose Account Settings from the Account Settings drop-down.
  3. Click the Address Books tab.
  4. Choose the appropriate account (probably Outlook Address Book) and click Change (just above the list of accounts).
  5. In the resulting dialog box, click the File As (Smith, John) option in the Show Names By option, shown in Figure G.
  6. Click Close twice.
  7. Exit Outlook and reopen it. Outlook won’t recognize this change until you do.

Figure G

Display contacts by last name first.

7: Reading pane

The quickest way to see more message text in the Reading Pane is to display less data about the message in the header section. To reduce this section to a single line, do the following:

  1. In the Mail window, click the View tab.
  2. From the Change View drop-down, choose Single, as shown in Figure H.

Figure H

Reduce the header information to a single line to free up space in the Reading Pane.

Outlook 2007 users have a very different route:

  1. With the Reading Pane open, choose Current View from the View menu. Then, choose Customize Current View.
  2. Click the Other Settings button.
  3. In the Other Options section, uncheck the Use Compact Layout option.
  4. Check the Always Use Single-Line Layout option.
  5. Click OK twice.

8: Work week

The default work week displays only five days — Monday through Friday. If you work a nontraditional week, you can change this default to display the days you need, as follows:

  1. Click the File tab and choose Options under Help. In Outlook 2007, choose Options from the Tools menu, click Calendar Options in the Calendar section, and skip to step 3.
  2. Choose Calendar in the left pane.
  3. In the Work Time section, check the days you want to include in your work week. You can include only a few or all seven. Figure I shows a work week that includes Monday through Saturday.
  4. From the First Day Of Week drop-down, choose the day that represents the first day of your work week.
  5. Click OK.

Figure I

Your calendar will accommodate your work week schedule.

9: Download interval

Outlook downloads mail at regular intervals, but you can disable that feature or change the default interval. Do so as follows:

  1. Click the Send/Receive tab. In Outlook 2007, choose Options from the Tools menu, click the Mail Setup tab, click Send/Receive in the Send/Receive section, and skip to step 3.
  2. Click the Send/Receive Groups drop-down in the Send & Receive group and choose Define Send/Receive Groups.
  3. Enter the interval in minutes to the right of the checked Schedule An Automatic Send/Receive Every option to change the interval. You can also uncheck the option to disable the feature and download your mail manually.
  4. Click Close.

10: Months in To-Do

Many of us schedule events well beyond the current month, but the To-Do Bar displays only the current month. With just a few clicks you can display the current and future months, as follows:

  1. Click the View tab. In Outlook 2007, Choose To-Do Bar from the View menu.
  2. Choose Options from the To-Do Bar drop-down in the Layout group. In Outlook 2007, choose Options.
  3. In the Show Date Navigator section, enter the number of months (up to 9) to display in the Number Of Month Rows option, as shown in Figure J. (Enter 0 to display no months.)
  4. Click OK.

Figure J

Entering 3 will display the current and next two months in the To-Do bar.