Treat Outlook as a management system, and you can bring order to your email chaos. Here are four strategies for long-term organization and productivity.
- You can't find an important message.
- You've asked for more information and then forgotten you asked.
- You let an important message with a time-sensitive request get too close to that great black hole called "Gasp! I forgot!"
This chaos takes over when you fail to look at Outlook as a management system. If you're going to use email to share information you need to get your work done, you must move beyond the Mail window. Once you put Outlook's other tools to work for you, you'll find managing your mail a snap—and ultimately, you'll find you're more efficient and productive overall.
Version notes: I'm using Outlook 2007, 2010, and 2013 on Windows XP (yes, some people are still using it) and 7. When necessary, I specify a version, but you should be able to find your way around without specific step-by-step instructions. There are no instructions for Outlook 2003.
1: Search scope
It's happened to most of us: You need a message but you can't find it. You probably know that you can enter a search string in the Search control, but Outlook searches only the current folder, as you can see in Figure A. What if you can't remember where you stored the message?
Figure A: An Outlook search defaults to the current folder.
Outlook 2007 users must remember to select All Mail Items, shown in Figure B, in the Mail pane before searching. Doing so will update the display above the Search control. With a quick glance, you can see how narrow (or broad) your search is. In Outlook 2010, click the Search control to display the contextual Search tab. Then, choose the All Outlook Items in the Scope group shown in Figure C. Outlook 2013 offers the option in a dropdown, as shown in Figure D.
Figure B: Use All Mail Items on the Search tab in Outlook 2007.
Figure C: Outlook 2010 offers scope via a tab.
Figure D: Use Outlook 2013's dropdown to specify scope.
You can force a broader search scope by changing the default as follows:
- Choose Options from the File menu.
- Select Search in the left pane. In the Results section, click the All Mailboxes setting (Figure E). In Outlook 2010, choose All Folders.
- Click OK.
Figure E: Choose All Mailboxes in the Results section.
If you're still using Outlook 2007, choose Options from the Tool menu, click the Preferences tab, and then click the Search Options button in the Search section. At the bottom of the dialog, click the All Folders option in the Instance Search Pane section and click OK.
2: Usage folders
When searching, Outlook doesn't care where the message is stored; with the right scope (#1), you can find everything. Folder structure offers a second level of support that many users fail to use to its potential. Typically, users name folders by projects, clients, and so on—they give them names similar to the way you might file a physical piece of paper in a physical folder. There's nothing wrong with that, but it only goes so far. Instead of physical files, think of folders as piles of paper where everything's related to something: process immediately, do later, and so on. Who the paper belongs to is less important than what you plan to do it.
I recommend that you think about the way you actually use your messages. Do you reference them often? Do you use them to create appointments? Do you refer to them on a specific schedule or while talking on the phone? When you start thinking about how you use your mail, you'll suddenly see new possibilities for folders. For instance, you can save a step or two by going straight to your "Tomorrow morning" or "First Thing" folder instead of searching for individual messages you need first thing on any given morning.
You'll probably find that you refer to usage folders more frequently than name folders. I recommend that you keep these folders at the top of your Inbox by adding a priority prefix to the folder's name. For instance, you might name your usage folders 1-Morning, 2-Boss, and 3-Personal. Those values force Outlook to sort these folders to the top of your Inbox, as shown in Figure F. Or skip the values and add them to your Favorites list.
Figure F: Add numbers to force folders to the top of the list.
3: Flexible categories
One of my favorite Outlook features is Categories. They're an added layer of identification and specification. You'll use them similar to usage folders (#2), but they're more flexible because they stretch across folders and you can assign many categories to the same message.
Similar to folders, categories depend on your needs and how you use your mail. By assigning categories, you can view messages by category—across folders—even if the category term itself isn't in the message. For example, you might create a category for your boss or department head(s). Taking this further, if you're a publisher, you might create categories such as Acquisition and Contract. If you're an editor, you might use categories such as Production and Copy-edit. Also consider creating categories such as First Thing, At The Phone, Final Steps, and From Home.
Can you see how these types of categories can make you more efficient? You have to come up with the list and you have to remember to apply them as mail arrives. To do so, right-click the message and choose a category, as shown in Figure G. Or choose All Categories to see the entire list.
Figure G: Don't forget to apply a category when an email arrives.
Perhaps my favorite custom category is Waiting On Author, which I apply when I send a request for more information. That's right—you can apply a category to an outgoing message, as follows:
- In the message window, click the Tags dialog launcher (the small arrow in the bottom-right corner of the Tags group).
- In the Delivery Options section, click the Categories dropdown and choose a category (Figure H).
- Click Close. By default, Outlook won't display the new category in the message window, but if you look at the message in the Outbox or Sent folder (Figure I), you'll see it.
Figure H: You can choose a category from this list.
Figure I: Outlook will show you the category in the Outbox or Sent folder.
Every morning, I quickly review outstanding issues by combining the Waiting On Author category with a search folder. At a glance, I can see who needs a slight nudge without worrying about the folders where these messages are stored. Nor do I have to search for each message individually.
To create a search folder based on a category, do the following:
- Click Search Folder in the Navigation pane and choose New Search Folder.
- In the resulting dialog, thumb down to the Organizing Mail section.
- Select Categorized Mail (Figure J).
- Click Choose and select the category (Figure K).
- Click OK twice to populate the search folder.
Figure J: Choose Categorized Mail in the Organizing Mail section.
Figure K: Select your category from this list.
Using categories, you can review the same message in different ways depending on how you need the message at any given time because you can assign more than one category to the same message. When a category no longer applies, remove it.
My advice when relying on categories is to be consistent and thorough for the best results. If you want to rely on rules, you can. Use metadata or a consistently used term to categorize messages as they arrive. If you use the search folder often, add it to your Favorites list for quick access.
To learn more about Outlook Categories, read 10+ ways to get the most out of Outlook categories. Then, read Pro tip: Combine Outlook Categories with a Word mail merge for a practical and helpful use of Categories.
Organizing mail will free up time that you can use to actually do your job—and that's where tasks come in. You probably know that you can add meetings and other appointments to your Outlook calendar, but you can also track tasks. For instance, your boss might send a message asking for your input on something before meeting with a client. Your boss didn't specify a meeting with you— just requested information. You can move this message to the task list. Then, you can return to your current task—the mail.
You can turn a message into a task as follows:
- Right-click the message.
- Choose Follow Up and then assign an appropriate flag (Figure L). If you choose Custom, you can specify the actual date.
- After assigning a Follow Up flag, Outlook will display the task in the To-Do list (Figure M).
- If the task doesn't show up, right-click the To-Do bar and choose Options. In the resulting dialog, check Show Task List, and click OK.
Figure L: Assign the desired flag.
Figure M: Your task will appear in your To-Do list.
Unfortunately, this process isn't as easy in Outlook 2013 because IMAP accounts in Outlook 2013 don't support them locally. Previous versions required a PST file, but Outlook 2013 doesn't. You must add a PST file to your profile (and doing so is beyond the scope of this article).
If you're using Outlook 2013 or you need more customization, drag the message to the Tasks shortcut at the bottom of the Navigation pane. Outlook will open the message in a Task window, where you can specify a Due Date and more.
After creating a task, you can move its respective message to a more appropriate folder. To quickly access it, double-click the task to open the message. You don't have to remember where you moved it or search for it.
You can categorize tasks as well. A message category is also part of a new task. Or you can assign categories to the task by right-clicking it and choosing Categorize. To sort your tasks by categories, click Arrange By Title and choose Categories.
Control the chaos
All the tools reviewed in this article require a bit of thought and up-front work, but they're worth it. Outlook is a management system, but it works only when you put those tools to use.
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