How do I... Use quick flags to keep up with all that Outlook 2003 e-mail?

Any trick or tool that helps you organize your work, your day, or even your life, has to make things easier. Outlook isn't a personal information manager (PIM), but you can use it to organize some areas of your life. One of Outlook 2003's most promising PIM-like features is the quick flag, which serves as a visual clue to a message's importance or content. However, quick flags really show their value when you combine them with Outlook 2003's search folders.

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About quick flags

Quick flags let you tag a message for follow-up. They come in six colors, and red is the default. You can assign meaning to each color. For instance, red could indicate a message of importance that needs immediate attention. Spotting a red flag first thing in on Monday morning might trigger your memory, but simply setting the flag, as shown in Figure A, isn't particularly useful. It's easy to forget what each color means.(If you have trouble remembering color assignments, read tip #5 in "10 tricks for working more efficiently in Microsoft Outlook.") Perhaps more serious, flags scroll out of sight, right along with their messages. To get the most out of your flags, combine them with reminders and search folders.

Figure A: Use colorful flags to tag a message in a way that's meaningful to you.


Reminders allow you to tack on additional information. To add a reminder to incoming or outgoing mail, right-click the flag icon in the message form and choose Add Reminder. In the resulting Flag For Follow Up dialog box, shown in Figure B, you have several options:
  • Flag To offers a number of informational settings: Call, Do Not Forward, Follow Up, For Your Information, Forward, No Response Necessary, Read, Reply, Reply to All, and Review.
  • Due By lets you add a due date and time.
  • Flag Color lets you change the flag's color.
  • Completed lets you identify the message's purpose as completed.
  • Clear Flag removes the flag from the message.

Figure B: Reminders let you add pertinent information to messages. Don't confuse reminders with a calendar entry or task. If you want to use a message as an appointment or task, simply drag it from the message list to the appropriate shortcut button (or icon) in the navigation pane. Reminders display only additional information in the message header, as shown in Figure C. A reminder won't notify you when the due date or time is approaching, the way appointments do. Outlook simply changes the flag's color to the default when the Due By setting has passed. (For this reason, you might not want to change the default color from red, because a red flag is a good visual clue that a message needs immediate attention.)

Figure C: Outlook displays reminder text at the top of the message.

Search folders

Reminders can be useful, but combining flags with search folders lends a true helping hand to your day. Search folders are virtual views that display messages based on particular criteria. Outlook 2003 comes with three built-in search folders:

  • For Follow Up contains all flagged messages.
  • Large Mail contains message larger than 100 KB.
  • Unread Mail contains messages you haven't yet read.

These search folders are helpful, but limited. Custom search folders are more flexible because you define their criteria. For instance, you might use a custom folder to keep up with mail you receive from a specific person. To create a search folder to view all messages from the same person, do the following:

  1. Go to File | New and then select Search Folder.
  2. In the New Search Folder dialog box, you can choose from several predefined criteria. You can also customize the criteria to find a specific word, phrase, subject, and so on. For this example, scroll down and click the Create A Custom Search Folder option. Click Mail From And To Specific People in the Mail From People And Lists section, as shown in Figure D.
  3. Enter an e-mail address by typing it or by click the Choose button and select it from the Select Names dialog box. Selecting a name helps to avoid typos, but you'll have to type it if the name isn't in the list. You can add multiple names.
  4. After selecting a name, click OK. Outlook will copy the name to the Show Mail Sent And Received From field, as shown in Figure E.
  5. Click OK to create the search folder shown in Figure F. To use it, just open it. Depending on the number of messages, this search might take a moment. (Watch the circling magnifying glass icon in the top-right corner of the message list. When it stops, the search is complete.)

Figure D: Select predefined criteria or enter a custom expression.

Figure E: Let Outlook choose names when possible.

Figure F: This custom search folder displays messages from a particular person. You can sort a search folder any way you like, but sorting by flags adds a level of customization that's hard to beat. Simply click the flag icon in the message list to sort the messages according to their quick flags, as shown in Figure G. The search folder filters messages, and sorting by flags lets you arrange those filtered messages in a way that's meaningful to you.

Figure G: Sort search folders by message flags.

Tame your mail

Quick flags and search folders help organize your mail, but combining the two blends the best of both. The search folder lets you limit the messages you view. Sorting those results by previously set flags lets you view messages in a custom order that benefits you.

Susan Sales Harkins is an independent consultant and the author of several articles and books on database technologies. Her most recent book is Mastering Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Express, with Mike Gunderloy, published by Sybex. Other collaborations with Gunderloy are Automating Microsoft Access 2003 with VBA, Upgrader's Guide to Microsoft Office System 2003, ICDL Exam Cram 2, and Absolute Beginner's Guide to Microsoft Access 2003, all published by Que. Currently, Susan volunteers as the Publications Director for Database Advisors. You can reach her at