Outlook offers a number of benefits, but it tends to throw the occasional obstacle in your path. Armed with the right information and a few tricks, you can smooth the way for your Outlook users — and for yourself.


Whether you support only yourself or an enterprise full of users, you’ll find Outlook challenging but worth it. Most of the time, it’s enough to know where Outlook stores its data. However, as you take advantage of Outlook’s various features, you’ll run into a few peculiar behaviors. Knowing the origins of these behaviors will make your job a lot easier. Here’s a look at some of the common issues that Outlook users are likely to encounter. Note: Specific instructions apply to Windows XP Professional machines in Classic view, using Outlook 2003 on non-Exchange systems.

This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Work with your .pst file

Outlook stores each user’s folders, messages, forms, and files in a special file known as a Personal Folder file. You can save, copy, and even move a Personal Folder (.pst) file, although you shouldn’t move it unless you have a specific reason for doing so and know what you’re doing. Use Windows Search to find the file quickly using the search string *.pst. Usually, this file is on the local drive. However, if you’re on Microsoft Exchange Server, you might not have access to it. In that case, you’ll need to talk with your administrator.

Backing up your .pst file occasionally is a good idea. How often depends on you. But if you get a lot of important mail, every day isn’t too often. To back up your Personal Folder file and all its subfolders, simply export it, as follows:

  1. Choose Import and Export from the File menu to launch the wizard.
  2. Choose Export To A File from the Choose An Action To Perform list and click Next.
  3. Select Personal Folder File (.pst) from the Create A File Of Type list and click Next.
  4. Choose Personal Folders from the Select The Folder To Export From list.
  5. Check the Include Subfolders option and click Next.
  6. Specify a folder and filename for the backup file.
  7. From Options, specify how to treat duplicate items.
  8. Click Finish.

#2: Back up Outlook’s stuff

Outlook’s views — Calendar, Contacts, Journal, Tasks, and E-mail — aren’t always part of the Personal Folders file. You can backup these components separately, as follows:

  1. Repeat steps 1, 2, and 3 from the previous tip.
  2. Choose the Outlook item folder you want to export from the Select The Folder To Export From list and click Next.
  3. By entering or browsing, specify a folder and filename for the backup file.
  4. From Options, specify how to treat duplicate items.
  5. Click Finish.
  6. Repeat as necessary for each Outlook folder.
  7. If you’re on a corporate server, do the following:
  8. From the Tools menu, choose Services and then click the Delivery tab.
  9. From Deliver New Mail To The Following Location, choose Remote Mail and identify your Personal Folder file or choose your Microsoft Exchange Server mailbox, if you want to use offline folders.
  10. Click OK.
  11. Exit and restart Outlook.

#3: Export Outlook folders to another format

Although the right code can help Office applications talk to one another, sometimes it’s quicker to export data. An automated solution is definitely worth the effort if users must frequently repeat the task. Knowing which format to export to is the real trick. You can export Outlook data to another format as follows:

  1. Choose Import And Export from the File menu.
  2. In the resulting pane, select Export To A File and click Next.
  3. From the Create A File of Type list, choose the appropriate file type and click Next. One of the seven types should be adequate for most purposes.
  4. Choose the folder you want to export from and click Next.
  5. Enter the path and filename for the exported file and click Next. Or click Browse to locate the appropriate folder and then enter just a filename.
  6. Click Finish. In this final window, Outlook may give you the opportunity to map fields. Generally, you won’t need to change the wizard’s settings unless you have very specific reasons for doing so.

Outlook exports internal field names. You can change these names in the exported file, but you can’t change them before the export. You can use an export to learn the internal names if you decide to code the solution later. Knowing those internal field names is essential.

#4: Delete folders

Adding folders is so easy that you might add more folders than you actually need. It’s common to create too many and then find you need to cut back a bit. Fortunately, deleting folders is easy:

  1. Right-click the folder you want to delete.
  2. Choose Delete foldername.

That’s it! Outlook will move the deleted folder to the Deleted Items folder, as a subfolder. If you want to permanently delete the folder, right-click the deleted folder (in the Deleted Items folder) and choose Delete. When Outlook prompts you to permanently delete the folder, click Yes. Otherwise, the data in that folder is still in the Delete Items folder, consuming resources. In addition, if a folder contains sensitive or confidential data, it’s visible to anyone who accesses your computer. If Delete isn’t available with a right-click, call your administrator.

#5: Delete a .pst file from a profile

When a user moves on, you should delete his or her .pst file from the local system, as follows:

  1. Close Outlook if it’s open.
  2. From the Windows Start menu, choose Control Panel.
  3. Double-click Mail.
  4. Click Data Files.
  5. Select Personal Folders and click Remove.
  6. Click Close and close the Control Panel window.

Outlook needs a personal folder, so after deleting the current .pst file, create a new one by clicking Add. Be sure to set the new file as the default. Delete a user’s .pst file only when you’re certain that no one will need to access its contents.

#6: Prompt for profiles

Outlook can handle more than one profile. An Outlook profile is similar to a Windows user account; each profile contains settings specific to a single user. However, if you define more than one profile, you must tell Outlook to prompt for a profile, as follows:

  1. From the Windows Start menu, choose Control Panel.
  2. Double-click Mail.
  3. Click Show Profiles.
  4. Click the Prompt For A Profile To Be Used option and click OK.

Now, when you launch Outlook, it will ask you to choose a profile.

#7: Archive to avoid losing data

Outlook has a critical design flaw: If you don’t archive or delete messages regularly, your file will grow too large for Outlook to handle. Eventually, Outlook will choke. If this happens, you can download a crop tool that will reduce the size of your Personal Folders file. Unfortunately, you’ll lose data because this tool removes some to reduce the size of the file.

Avoiding the problem is the best defense:

  • Delete messages you don’t need to keep.
  • Archive items regularly.

#8: Keep up with custom toolbars

Outlook stores toolbar information, including any custom toolbars you create, in a file named outcmd.dat. You’ll find this file in the following folder:

C:\Documents and Settings\username\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook

It’s a good idea to back up this file after you customize the interface. If something goes wrong, you can reclaim missing toolbars by replacing the current copy of outcmd.dat with the backup. You can also use this file to copy custom toolbars to another instance of Outlook.

Windows hides outcmd.dat by default. To view it so you can copy or replace it, you must enable Show Hidden Files And Folders in Windows Explorer by choosing Folder Options from the Tools menu and then clicking the View tab.

#9: Make contacts appear in the Address Book

When addressing e-mail, you can choose from Contacts items — usually. If contacts don’t appear, right-click the Contacts folder, choose Properties, and then click the Outlook Address Book tab. Make sure the Show This Folder As An Email Address Book is checked. If that option is dimmed, choose E-mail Accounts from the Tools menu and then choose View Or Change Existing Directories Or Address Book and do one of the following:

  • If Outlook Address Book isn’t in the list, add it. Then, close Outlook and restart it.
  • If Outlook Address Book is listed, delete it, close Outlook, restart, and then add it.

#10: Use Extended Reminders for multiple Task folders

You can have more than one Task folder, but Outlook recognizes reminders and follow-up flags only for the items in the default Task folder. That means if you set a reminder for an item in a non-default Task folder, Outlook will ignore it. If you must have this capability, consider using a third-party product, such as Extended Reminders.

#11: Clear the search history

The Contact Quick Find feature stores each search. If an item is already in the list, you can select it quickly for a repeat search. But the list can rapidly grow too large to be helpful. Outlook stores search items in the Registry. To clear the list, delete the following Registry key:


Note: Editing the Registry is risky, so be sure you have a verified backup before saving any changes.

#12: Read messages archived to CD

You can back up a Personal Folders file to CD, but the file is Read Only by default. To view the file’s contents, you must restore it to your hard drive first. Unfortunately, if the Read Only property is still set to True, you won’t be able to access items in the file. You can easily reset this property by right-clicking the file and selecting Properties. Uncheck the Read Only option and click OK. After resetting the property, you should be able to access the file.