10 tips to help your users work effectively in Outlook

Outlook might be the busiest application in the Office suite because it does so much. But the downside of all that functionality is that easy tasks aren't always intuitive, and some menu commands are buried under layers of choices. To be productive in Outlook, users must be able to see and view the data they need when they need it. Here are some tips to help them take advantage of various Outlook features and shortcuts.

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

#1: Toggle the navigation pane

Outlook 2003 breaks the e-mail window into three panes: the navigation pane, the message list, and the reading pane (preview pane). The navigation pane takes up a lot of space considering all it does is list folders. If you spend most of your time reading e-mail in the Inbox or a few personal folders, you rarely need the navigation pane. Put that third of a screen to better use reading mail. Hide the navigation pane by pressing Alt+F1. When you need it, press Alt+F1 to display it.

#2: Open new windows

Switching back and forth between Outlook windows (Calendar, Inbox, Contacts, etc.) is sometimes necessary depending on your tasks. If you find yourself switching a lot, stop. Open each application in its own window and use the Taskbar to move quickly between them. Simply right-click on an item in the folders list and choose Open In New Window. Open as many applications as you need. To move back and forth between them, simply click the appropriate icon on the Taskbar. That way, you always return to a window exactly the way you left it.

If the Taskbar isn't available or it's crowded, use the Alt+Tab shortcut to cycle through the open applications. To close a window, simply click its Close button. Choose Exit from any File menu to close all open Outlook windows at once.

#3: Limit the message list

The message list displays information about each e-mail message. Seldom do you need it. All you really need is a way to select the message, and one line will do the trick. To reduce the number of lines Outlook uses to display the message information, choose Arrange By from the View menu and select Custom. Click Other Settings and deselect the Use Multi-Line Layout In Widths Smaller Than option. Then, select the Always Use Single-Line Layout option. Click OK twice.

If you want to see more information, choose Arrange By from the Views menu, select Custom, and then click Fields. Select the appropriate value from the Maximum Number Of Lines In Multi-Line Mode option.

#4: Free up more space in the message list

If you arrange incoming mail by date and time received, the date appears above each day's group of messages. That means you probably don't need to repeat the date in the message list. By removing the Received field in the message list, you can free up space. To completely remove the Received field, simply drag it to the right of the screen. You can add it back whenever you want by right-clicking any column header, choosing Field Chooser, and selecting Received from the All Mail Fields category. Alternatively, you can grab either edge of the field and reduce the size until it nearly disappears. That way, you can still click that almost invisible slice to sort the message order from newest to oldest and vice versa. (You can also sort the list by clicking any of the column headers -- From, Subject, Received, Size, and Flag.)

#5: Scan messages quickly

Reading messages can be time-consuming, and it can sometimes be difficult to tell which messages are important and which you can delete. Use the reading pane instead of opening each e-mail message. That way, you can read it, skip it, or even delete it, with only a few keystrokes. If you find after a quick glance that you don't need to read the rest of the e-mail, delete it or press the down arrow to jump to the next message. If you want to read more, press Spacebar. When you reach the end of the current message, pressing Spacebar jumps to the next message.

#6: Speed up downloading mail

A lot of e-mail comes in HTML format, complete with snazzy graphics and pictures. These messages take longer to download than text. However, you don't have to give up the HTML formatting to save downloading and scanning time. Instead, simply don't download pictures unless you really need them. From the Tools menu, choose Options and click the Security tab. Click Change Automatic Download Settings in the Download Pictures section. Select Don't Download Pictures Or Other Content Automatically In HTML E-mail and both of its options. Click OK twice. Not only will e-mail download faster, you can scan messages more quickly because Outlook won't retrieve pictures when you select the message.

When you want to see pictures, right-click a picture placeholder and choose Download Pictures or simply click the message banner at the top of the message. When you close the message, Outlook will prompt you to save changes. If you click Yes, it will save the display of pictures in that message. If you click No, picture display will again be suppressed the next time you view the message.

#7: Resize panes

Most application windows are divided by different panes. Usually, you can increase the size in one by reducing another. To do so, hover the mouse pointer over the border that separates the two panes. When the double arrowed bar point appears, drag it to resize the adjoining panes. If the border won't move, you can't resize it.

#8: View more folders

If you have many folders, you can increase the view of the folder list by removing the application shortcut buttons at the bottom of the navigation pane. The border between the shortcut buttons and the folder list has several gray dots. Simply drag that border down, to push the shortcut buttons out of view and increase the number of folders you can see and quickly access. The same shortcuts are available at the bottom of the pane as icons, so you really don't need them anyway.

#9: Group tasks by importance

The TaskPad helps you track tasks. By default, Outlook sorts tasks by importance. To mark a task's importance, use the drop-down list to the left under the exclamation point. Like other views, you can quickly sort tasks by clicking a field header (Subject, Status, and so on). What isn't as obvious, but is just as easy, is sorting tasks by their originator. To sort tasks by the person who created them, choose Arrange By from the View menu and then choose From. Just remember that an Arrange By setting stays active until you change it.

#10: Edit tasks without opening them

Double-clicking a task (in the Tasks folder) opens the task in a new window. Often, doing so is unnecessary because in-cell editing lets you update a task directly, without opening the item. A single click puts you in edit mode; however, each cell behaves differently. For instance, the Status field will display its drop-down list, and the Due Date field will display a calendar. In addition, you don't have to choose New from the File menu to open a blank task form. Simply double-click a blank row or press Ctrl + N.