Image: DenEmmanuel, Getty Images/iStockPhotos

Most of us don’t have a lot of idle time to sit around waiting on email, expected or not. And honestly, most email can wait a while if you’re busy doing something else. But occasionally, an email is important enough that it needs immediate attention. How do you reconcile reality with expectations? You set an alert to display a message telling you the email has arrived. It’s easy to implement, and in this article, I’ll show you how.

SEE: 83 Excel tips every user should master (TechRepublic)

I’m using Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system. (I recommend that you wait to upgrade to Windows 11 until all the kinks are worked out unless you have a specific reason for doing so.) There’s no demonstration file; you won’t need one. To the best of my knowledge, Outlook for the Web doesn’t support the new item alert we’ll be using, but you might try another action.


When you need to promptly attend to messages from a specific person, such as your boss, you can set a rule that will keep you informed. You must be able to identify the need in some way. For instance, you might use a person’s email address or specific words in the subject, as you would when creating most any rule. I’ll be using my online email, to set up this rule—let’s pretend this is my boss’s email address—to create a rule for a custom alert.

How to create the rule in Outlook

Once you have a clear idea of what you need, you’re ready to start creating the rule. In Outlook, select the Inbox where you’ll be receiving these messages (if you have more than one). Now, let’s get started:

  1. Click the Home tab and click Rules in the Move group.
  2. Select Manage Rules & Alerts from the dropdown list.
  3. On the Email Rules tab, click New Rule, which will launch the Rules Wizard.
  4. In the first pane, select the Apply Rule On Messages I receive option (Figure A) and click Next.
  5. In the Step 1 list, check From People Or Public Group (it’s the first item in the list).
  6. In the Step 2 control, click the people or public group link.

At this point, you can choose an address from the list or enter it manually in the From control, as shown in Figure B and click OK and the wizard will close the Address Book window. You’ll choose an address that makes sense to you.

Back in the Rules Wizard, click Next. At this point, we want to identify what we want Outlook to do when an email from hits the Inbox.

In the Step 1 list, check the Display a Specific Message in the New Item Alert Window option, toward the bottom of the list.

In the Step 2 control, click the Specific Message link. (Notice that the email is now part of the rule.)

Enter the message, The boss is calling, as shown in Figure C, and click OK to return to the wizard.

Click Next twice—we don’t have any exceptions to add.

In the last pane, name the rule Message from Boss. Make sure the Turn on This Rule option is checked, as shown in Figure D, but it should be by default.

Click Finish and then click OK to return to the mail window.

Figure A

A wizard will walk you through the process.

Figure B

Identify the email address.

Figure C

Enter a message for the alert to display.

Figure D

Name the rule.

Now that you have a rule in place, you’re ready to see how it works.

Use the rule

To see this rule at work, send an email from the address you specified in step 7. Most likely, it’s your own email. If you work offline or manually control your email, be sure to use the Send/Receive option to send and then receive the new email.

When the message arrives in your Inbox, Outlook will display an alert, shown in Figure E. Outlook won’t display the message on top of the active window. It will, however, cause the Outlook icon on the Task Bar to pulsate, alerting you that you have an email from your boss. If you have multiple alerts, you might not know which one it is, until you review the alert window (Figure E). To read the email, click Open Item. Or close the alert by clicking Close.

Figure E

The alert window will identify the alert.

That works nicely and it’s easy to implement.

Alerts only work when Outlook is open. You can be working in another app, but if Outlook is also open, it will display the alert. If Outlook is closed, Outlook will display the alert the next time you launch Outlook. But what if you’re talking to someone who’s stepped into your office, you’re on the phone, or even reviewing paperwork at your desk?

Add sound

As is, the alert is useful, visually. If there’s a chance you won’t see the pulsating icon, you can add sound to the alert. At this point, the rule already exists, so let’s modify it as follows:

On the Home tab, click Rules and choose Manage Rules & Alerts.

  1. Select the rule (Figure F) and then click Change Rule.
  2. In the resulting submenu, select Play a Sound (Figure G).
  3. In the resulting window, select one of the available sound files (.wav) and click OK. Browse down passed the folders until you see alarmx.wav files and choose one. When you return to the Rules & Alerts window, Outlook will display a small sound icon with the rule.
  4. Click OK.

Figure F

Select the rule you want to modify.

Figure G

Choose an action from the submenu.

Now when an incoming email triggers the alert, you will see the pulsating icon and hear the specified alarm. This alarm will get your attention as long as you are close enough to hear it. It’s up to you to check for an alarm if you step out of your office and miss the incoming alert. If you set multiple alarms, choose different .wav files, using the different audio files to identify the alert. For instance, you might have an alert for your boss and one from your significant other. Using two different .wav files will help you determine whether the alert can wait or not.

Subscribe to the Developer Insider Newsletter

From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays

Subscribe to the Developer Insider Newsletter

From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays