One of my favorite short cuts is the My Places bar, although I wish Microsoft would stop prefacing everything with “My.” The pronoun isn’t friendly; it’s juvenile. Despite its name, the bar is a great timesaver once you customize it.

The My Places bar first appeared in Office 2000. It’s on the left side of the File Open and File Save As dialogs in Office applications. (In Office 2003, you see it in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, InfoPath, Access, FrontPage, OneNote, Publisher, and Visio.) The idea was that instead of using the Look In control to work through the folder hierarchy, you could simply click an icon, saving several steps. Unfortunately, you couldn’t customize the bar, so users ignored it. Most of us create our own folder hierarchy and ignore Microsoft’s attempts to organize our world.

Office 2003 allows you to customize the bar, so it’s more useful:

  • You can add folders.
  • You can make the icons smaller so you can see more icons.
  • You can move the icons, giving precedence to the most-often used folders.
  • You can remove custom folders when you stop using them frequently.

The one thing you can’t easily do is remove the built-in icons: My Recent Documents, Desktop, My Documents, My Computer, and My Network Places. Removing them takes a trip to the Registry. An easier solution is to give priority to your folders, forcing your folder icons to the top of the bar and the built-in icons to the bottom.

The first thing you’ll probably want to do is to add a few of your most-often used folders. To do so, choose Open or Save As from the File menu in any of the Office applications (except Outlook). Navigate to the folder that you want to add to the My Places bar. Then, select the folder, and choose My Places from the Tools menu in the dialog’s Toolbar. (If My Places isn’t available, you’ve selected the folder in the Look In control, which you can’t do—back up a step and select the folder from the list section.) Office completes the task by adding an icon for the selected folder to the My Places bar immediately.

If you can’t find the new icon, click the black triangular arrow at the bottom of the list (right under My Network Places if the bar is still in default state). The icon’s there, but having it at the bottom of the list isn’t anymore useful than working through the folder hierarchy. One way to expose the icon is to reduce the size of the icons. Right-click the bar and choose Small Icons from the resulting submenu. Doing so doubles the number of icons you can see.

After adding a folder, you can move it to the top of the list, moving the built-in icons to the bottom. To move a menu, right-click it and choose Move Up. Doing so displaces the icon directly above with the selected icon. Similarly, you can move an icon down. Moving icons seems a bit buggy. If Office grays out either command, close the application and try again.

To remove a custom icon, simply right-click it and choose Remove. However, you can’t remove the built-in icons this way.

Keep in mind that Office shares one common My Places bar. Changes will show up in all of your Office applications. It might take a few sessions to arrange your most-often used folders just right, but the effort is small and the payoff can be huge.