10+ ways to get the most out of Outlook categories

Categories are one of the best organizing tools Outlook offers. Here are some tips to help you master category basics, plus some creative ways to put them to work.

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 Outlook categories are a management tool, similar to rules and tasks. Most users use the colors to visually identify items by people, topic, priority, and so on. However, categories can do much more. You can use them to perform quick sorts, populate search folders, and even narrow a mail merge to a specific category. Understanding category basics will open your eyes to the possibilities.

Where categories are concerned, version definitely matters. In 2003, a category is a simple word or phrase. Outlook 2007 combines textual descriptions with colors. Because of this distinction, trying to cover all versions comprehensively isn't feasible. This article refers to Outlook 2013 (2010 and 2007), but you can apply most of what you learn to Outlook 2003 categories and flags. I've also included instructions for Outlook 2003, where applicable.

Administrators can use group policy to disable categories. So if you can't implement categories, check with your administrator.

1: Getting started

To put categories to use, you need to know how to apply them. To do so, right-click the Categories field and choose a category, as shown in Figure A. If you right-click any other field, you can choose Categorize from the resulting shortcut menu to access categories. Outlook lets you assign multiple categories to a single item and you can assign categories to any item — they're not just for mail.

Figure A

Figure A
 Right-click the Categories field to gain access to categories.

The first time you apply a category, Outlook will prompt you to name it. You can rename a category later as follows:

  1. Click the Home tab, choose Categorize from the Tags group, and then choose All Categories. Or right-click an item and choose All Categories. In Outlook 2007, click Categorize on the Toolbar and then choose All Categories. In Outlook 2003, choose Categories from the Edit menu and then choose Master Category List.
  2. In the resulting list of categories, check the category you want to rename.
  3. Click Rename.
  4. Enter a meaningful name or change the name, as shown in Figure B.
  5. Click OK.

Figure B

Figure B
 Outlook offers several default categories.

When you rename a category, Outlook updates assigned items accordingly. You can add new categories by repeating the steps above, but click New instead of Rename in step 3.

2: Assigning shortcuts

If you prefer keyboarding to mouse clicks, you can create a shortcut key to assign a category. These shortcuts are handy, but keep them to a minimum. Otherwise, you'll have a hard time recalling the right keys when you need them. To assign a shortcut key to a category, do the following:

  1. Click the Home tab. Choose Categorize from the Tags group and choose All Categories. Or right-click an item and choose All Categories. In Outlook 2007, click Categorize on the Toolbar and then choose All Categories.
  2. Select a category.
  3. From the Shortcut Key drop-down, choose a shortcut, as shown in Figure C. Outlook will display the shortcut in the dialog.
  4. Click OK.

Figure C

Figure C
 If you forget a shortcut key, you can find it in the All Categories dialog.

The built-in keys often conflict with mobile devices, including netbooks and tablets that use the function keys for predefined tasks.

3: Assigning a default

If you're like most users, you probably apply one category more than any other. If this is the case, you can assign that category to a Quick Click as follows:

  1. Click the Home tab. Choose Categorize from the Tags group and choose All Categories. Or right-click an item and choose All Categories. Then, choose Set Quick Click. Or right-click any Categories box and choose Set Quick Click.
  2. In the resulting dialog, shown in Figure D, choose the category you'll use as a default.
  3. Click OK. If you've not used the category before, Outlook will prompt you to give the category a meaningful name. Enter a name, and click Yes.

To apply the default category to an item, click the Category field. Don't click the flag. That's part of the follow-up feature, but you can set a default for that too (right-click a flag and choose Set Quick Click). This tip doesn't apply to Outlook 2003 or Outlook 2007.

Figure D

Figure D
 Set a category default for quick application.

4: Being consistent

You probably create new categories as you need them, and allowing the feature to evolve is a sound choice. However, if you fail to apply your categories consistently, searches and sorts based on categories won't tell the complete story. Consider using rules to assign categories as mail arrives or as you reply:

  1. On the Home tab, click Rules in the Move group and then choose Create Rule. In Outlook 2007, choose Rules And Alerts from the Toolbar. In Outlook 2003, right-click a message or click Create Rule on the Toolbar.
  2. Click Advanced Options in the resulting dialog.
  3. In the first pane, choose a condition and click Next.
  4. In the next pane, click Assign It To The Category Category. Doing so will display the master list. Check the appropriate category and click OK to update the link in the lower pane, as shown in Figure E. (In earlier versions, you might have to click the link in the lower pane to access the categories.)
  5. Click OK, then click Next and continue responding to the prompts to complete your rule.

Figure E 

Figure E
 Let Outlook assign categories to mail automatically.

Letting Outlook assign rules will lighten your workload, but more important, Outlook won't forget to assign categories consistently, whereas you might.

5: Being discreet

Outlook strips categories from outgoing mail. However, Microsoft warns that recipients not using Outlook or Exchange Server may still see them. For this reason, I recommend that you not use cathartic category names such as "Idiot Client" or "Problem Child." In addition, don't use names that might share sensitive information. I have no war stories of my own, but Microsoft includes the warning, so I'm passing it along to you.

6: Adding the Categories field

If you don't see a Categories field, you can add it. Right-click anywhere in the title bar and choose Field Choose, as shown in Figure F. Then, drag Categories from the resulting list to the title bar, as shown in Figure G. To move the field, simply click and drag it.

Figure F

Figure F
 You can find fields using Field Chooser.

Figure G

Figure G
 Drag fields to the title bar.

7: Missing categories

IMAP account protocols don't support categories. In this case, the Categorize option, shown in Figure H, won't be available. In most cases, you can convert an IMAP account to a POP3 account, which does support categories. If doing so isn't possible, you'll have to improvise. You could use rules to filter incoming mail into categorized folders. But it's not the same, and category-type rules might conflict with other rules you're already applying. Another option is to tag the subject using a consistent term or phrase and then set up a conditional format (automatic formatting in 2007) based on that tag to color-code incoming mail. This last option isn't available in Outlook 2003.

Figure H

Figure H
 This missing option isn't a bug.

8: Selecting

In older versions, you could select a category by typing the first letter or so in its name, which is helpful when you have a long list. This feature appears to be missing in the newer versions, but it's still there. Once you display the All Categories dialog, start typing and Outlook will select categories accordingly. For instance, if you want to select a category named Waiting, type W. When Outlook highlights Waiting, press Spacebar to select it.

9: Resetting

You can remove custom categories and restore the out-of-box defaults by launching Outlook with the following switch: outlook.exe /cleancategories. If you're using Outlook 2003 or earlier, choose Categories from the Edit menu, select Master Category List, and then click Reset. This action is permanent, so don't do it just to see how it works. I hesitate to offer this tip because someone will unintentionally delete a custom list. However, you can restore categories still in use (see #13).

10: Grouping and searching

Categories are more than just visual clues. You can also use them to group and search items. To group by category, click the Categories header in the title bar. Or you can populate a search folder as follows:

  1. Click Search Folders for the account and choose New Search Folder. Or click the Folder tab and then click New Search Folder in the New group.
  2. Choose Categorized Mail under Organizing Mail, as shown in Figure I.
  3. Under Customize Search Folder, click Choose.
  4. Select the appropriate category or categories.
  5. Click OK twice.

Figure I

Figure I
 Populate a search folder for long-term perusal.

11: Removing categories

Deleting categories once they no longer apply is easy. Right-click the Categories field, choose Clear All Categories, and uncheck the category that no longer applies. Repeating this process for a batch of items would be tedious — and fortunately, it's unnecessary. To remove categories from a group of items, sort by category or populate a search folder (see #10). In a search folder, press Ctrl + A to select all of the items in the folder. In a simple sort, select grouped messages by holding down the Shift key while clicking the first and last message in the group. Then, right-click the Categories field and uncheck the appropriate categories. You can also select Clear All Categories, but use caution. Doing so will remove them all, even categories you forgot you were using and might not want to remove.

12: Selective merging

You probably hadn't considered using categories with a mail merge! In People (Contacts in older versions), assign categories as you would to any other item. When you're ready to merge, do the following:

  1. Click the View tab in People view. Or choose List from the Change View option in the Current View group. Then, click Categories in the Arrangement group. Outlook will group your contacts by categories. If you're using Outlook 2007, choose Current View from the View menu. In Outlook 2003, choose Arrange By from the View menu and then select Current View.
  2. Select only the contacts that you want to merge by selecting a specific category group or groups.
  3. Click the Home tab. Then, click Mail Merge in the Actions group. In Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2003, choose Mail Merge from the Tools menu.
  4. In the resulting dialog, click Only Selected Items in the Contacts section, as shown in Figure J. Doing so limits the merge to the Contact items you selected in step 2. Select other appropriate options for the current merge, as necessary.
  5. Click OK and Outlook will launch Word. Continue your merge from inside Word as you normally would.

Figure J

Figure J
 Be sure to change the default settings so Outlook sends only the selected contacts to Word.

13: Restoring

If you inadvertently delete your customized master list, you can restore it (somewhat), as follows:

  1. Right-click the root folder (Outlook Today, Outlook Data File, or a specific account).
  2. Choose Data File Properties (or Properties in some earlier versions).
  3. In the resulting dialog, click Upgrade To Color Categories, shown in Figure K.

Figure K

Figure K
 You can rebuild some categories if necessary.

This process will reclaim categories currently assigned to items, so it's not a full restoration, but it's a good start.

14: Upgrading

I left this one for last because the information's growing old as more users upgrade. Outlook will maintain custom categories when you upgrade, but it might need a little help from you. If so, repeat the process in #13. Doing so will convert your existing master list and assign random colors to them (if necessary). You'll have to repeat this for each account in your profile. Unfortunately, this process doesn't work consistently in Outlook 2013. If this happens to you, you'll have to assign colors manually (see #1).

Productivity is categorically up!

Use categories to distinguish items in a way that's meaningful to you. Knowing the basics is the beginning. Once categories become routine, you'll find you're working more efficiently and using them in ways you didn't anticipate.

Other tips?

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