A little housekeeping, some configuration tweaks, and a few best practices will prevent problems and keep Outlook humming.

Many of the client crises I fight as an IT consultant involve Microsoft Outlook. Occasionally, issues arise due to hardware failure, such as a hard disk going bad, but most Outlook errors are self-induced. Here are 10 steps to follow to keep Outlook running smoothly.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Don’t click on attachments

It should go without saying, but I still encounter clients every month who infect their machines and cripple Outlook (and other applications) because they absentmindedly click on executable files and other attachments received in email messages. One of the best defenses against email borne viruses and infections is to simply avoid clicking on attachments or hyperlinks received within email messages.

2: Empty the trash

Outlook stores messages, including large attachments, in one file (typically known as the Personal Folders File, which uses a .pst file extension, or Offline Folder, which uses an .ost file extension). That storage file includes the Deleted Items folder. When users fail to empty the Deleted Items folder, deleted email continues contributing to gargantuan mailbox sizes. Regularly empty the Deleted Items folder.

Better yet, configure Outlook to automatically empty Deleted Items when exiting the email application. To do so, click Tools, select Options, click the Other tab, select Empty The Deleted Items Folder Upon Exiting, and click OK.

3: Archive mail

Microsoft set default mailbox quotas at two gigabytes in Exchange 2007, which is actually larger than prior platforms. That said, I regularly encounter clients whose Outlook.PST files or Exchange mailboxes exceed five and even six gigabytes. That’s a recipe for reduced performance, if not data corruption and disaster (lost information).

Outlook performs optimally when using smaller information stores. Regularly archive mail by clicking File and selecting Archive. Or configure auto-archiving by clicking Tools, selecting Options, clicking the Other tab, and clicking the AutoArchive button to configure appropriate settings. This will create separate, standalone archive files and maintain reasonably sized mailboxes.

4: Minimize add-ins

Incompatibilities introduced by third-party search tools, security applications, and other software frequently cause trouble within Outlook. Worse, these add-ins are often difficult to track down and isolate as the cause of intermittent Outlook errors. Minimize the use of third-party add-ins to encourage better Outlook performance. To manage your add-ins, choose Options from the Tools menu, click the Other tab, click Advanced Options, and then click Add-In Manager. In Outlook 2007, click Tools, select Trust Center, and highlight Add-ins.

5: Avoid large attachments

Whenever large attachments are sent via email, there’s a risk that the recipient’s email server (or even the sender’s server) will refuse to process the message. Messages with attachments larger than five megabytes are often discarded by many email servers. Avoid including attachments, especially those larger than three megabytes. Remember, when messages with attachments are sent, the attached files remain within the Sent Items folder, thereby contributing to larger database stores. Send too many file attachments, and the Sent Items folder alone can quickly grow to an unwieldy size.

6: Abandon stationery

Stationery, or the pretty templates Microsoft includes within Outlook to make messages appear more attractive, only complicates an already complex communications medium. Simplify the process be removing unnecessary graphic elements, which place a processing load upon recipients as well (unless they use text-based email readers, in which case they’ll never even see your stationery anyway).

7: Eliminate third-party spam software

I’ve seen Outlook become so corrupted by third-party spam applications that the only solution was to uninstall the third-party email filtering software, uninstall Microsoft Office, and reinstall the Microsoft suite. Save yourself the hassle. Leverage Microsoft Exchange and Outlook’s built-in junk mail filtering tools or turn to a trusted external spam solution, such as that offered by Postini.

8: Perform mailbox maintenance

Occasionally, Outlook’s storage file becomes corrupt. Microsoft includes the Inbox Repair Tool with each copy of Outlook. The utility analyzes the mailbox storage file for errors. Scan.pst and Scan.ost (for Personal Folder files and Offline Folder files, respectively) can identify and correct issues with data and directory structures, headers and lost folders, and lost items. Users should consider running the file monthly, if for no other reason than it offers the option of creating a backup file as part of the repair process.

9: Trim/forward multiple accounts

Most users process just one or two email accounts within Microsoft Outlook. Others manage eight to 10 separate email accounts. That means that every time Outlook performs a send/receive operation (and many users configure their machines to perform this operation once a minute), Outlook must initiate and complete communications with 20 servers (10 outgoing servers and 10 incoming servers for each user account). That’s a lot of network traffic, especially if most of the email accounts aren’t necessary.

Reconsider how many email accounts are really required. If several legacy email accounts are still set up in Outlook but are no longer used, remove them. Choose E-Mail Accounts from the Tools menu, select View Or Change Existing E-mail Accounts, click Next, and then select and remove the obsolete account. In Outlook 2007, click Tools, select Account Settings, highlight the unnecessary account, and click the Remove button.

Alternatively, if multiple email accounts are required, consider whether there’s an opportunity to consolidate several using Gmail. Users can create free Gmail accounts and forward several email accounts to a single holding account. For example, if a user receives email for info@ companyname.com, support@ companyname.com, serverstatus@ companyname.com, sales@ companyname.com, customerservice@companyname.com and similar addresses for the same domain, all those separate email accounts could be consolidated by pointing them to a single email address (such as administrative@companyname.com).

10: Simplify signatures

Logos, badges, business cards, and other fancy graphics are unnecessary within email messages. They may display improperly within recipient’s email clients, or they may not display at all. Worse, graphical signatures lead to unnecessarily bloated email message sizes.

Stick to fundamentals. Configure Outlook to paste your name, title, company name, and contact information within every message. (Select Tools, choose Options, click the Mail Format tab, and click the Signatures button to access signature settings.) Just do so using simple text. Such contact information is critical and should accompany each email message you send (whether you’re creating a new message or responding to another). But don’t clutter messages, mailboxes, and server queues with unnecessary graphics and other superfluous elements.

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