Outlook is the errant child of the Office set—and all that power can often yield a mess. We want to love Outlook; the potential is fabulous. But in practice, we often find Outlook difficult to handle and we make mistakes. After all these years, most of us know we shouldn't write in all uppercase letters and it's a good idea to use spell check. So in this article, I'll share a few ways to keep Outlook in line that you might not think of yourself.
I'm using Outlook 2016 (desktop), but you can apply these items to earlier versions. There's no demonstration file. Some will apply to the browser edition and some won't.
Note: This article is also available in the free PDF 30 things you should never do in Microsoft Office.
1: Use the Deleted Items folder as storage
The Deleted Items folder stores emails that you won't refer to again. If you're part of a large organization with IT support, someone probably deletes the contents of that folder regularly, and without your knowledge. Trying to retrieve an email from that folder is similar to trying to retrieve the Christmas present you accidentally threw out with the wrapping paper, after the garbage truck has left the neighborhood. Move messages to a temporary holding folder for awhile if you like, but don't depend on the Deleted Items folder.
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2: Leave Desktop Alert enabled
Most of us (all of us, if we're honest) can't do two things at the same time and be good at both. That's why I recommend that you disable the Desktop Alert. It will distract you every time new mail arrives. If you stop what you're doing to check for that important message you're waiting on, your productivity goes down quickly. To disable this feature, click the File tab, choose Options in the left pane, and then choose Mail. Uncheck the Play A Sound and the Display A Desktop Alert options in the Message Arrival section (Figure A). Trying to work with those constant interruptions is madness.
Disable these distracting features.
3: Misuse Ignore
The Ignore feature lets you opt out of a busy conversation that doesn't apply to you, but be careful. This feature removes the current conversation and all subsequent messages in that conversation to the Deleted Items folders. That means if someone in that conversation sends a message only to you, you will never see it.
If you understand the feature, it's safe to use. You can always reclaim the conversation:
- Select the Deleted Items folder (see #1 first).
- Select any message in the conversation you want to recover.
- Click Ignore in the Delete group.
- Click Stop Ignoring Conversation (Figure B).
Stop ignoring a conversation.
4: Use stationery
Outlook stationery applies background patterns to your message. You might think it's cool and acceptable. It's unlikely your recipients will agree. You can't control their settings, so what you think is eye-catching and effective might be a nuisance to them. At the very least, it distracts from your message; rely on your words to communicate instead.
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5: Check email first
Email can negatively affect your productivity if you pay it too much attention. If you start your day by checking your email, you might devote most of your morning to taking care of other people's needs instead of your own. Start your day by working on your own projects, and check your email once you've completed something on your own to-do list.
This change of habit won't be possible for everyone. But if you can put off email for a while, try it. I can almost guarantee that your mornings will be more productive.
6: Send email immediately
By default, Outlook sends email immediately, which is a terrible idea. I can think of many reasons not to send email immediately, but here are only a few:
- You have time to read and edit one more time. (I catch most errors after letting a message sit for a while.)
- You avoid playing email tag. Give the discussion time to settle so you can respond succinctly and only once.
- When you're part of a controversial discussion, you need the time to respond reasonably and not in anger.
To disable the automated send feature, do the following:
- Click the File tab, choose Options, and then choose Advanced in the left pane.
- In the Send And Receive section, click Send/Receive.
- Uncheck the three options under Setting For Group "All Accounts" (Figure C). Or uncheck one or two—it's up to you.
Disable Outlook's automatic send feature.
Once you disable these options, you—not Outlook—will be responsible for the timing of sending and receiving mail, using the options in the Send & Receive group.
7: Depend on recall
If you send a message you want to withdraw, you can try Recall, but don't hold your breath. It seldom works. If you want to try, here's how:
- Open the message you hope to recall.
- In the Move group, click Actions and select Recall This Message from the dropdown.
- In the resulting dialog (Figure D), choose one of the delete options and click OK.
If the recipient opens the message, you can't recall it.
Now, this feature is great in theory, but the reality is, it will probably fail because:
- The message must be unread.
- You and the recipient must be in the same Exchange organization.
- The recipient must be using Outlook.
- The message must be sitting in the recipient's Inbox—if a rule moved it to another folder, you can't recall it.
In addition, you can't recall a message sent to a specific recipient if you sent the email to several people. You must recall it from all or none. One last warning: If the recipient has read the message but not marked it as read, Outlook will send you a positive recall report—you won't know the recipient read the message!
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8: Use a glitzy signature
When creating a signature, stick with the basics. Here are a few things pointers for automated signatures:
- Keep graphics to a minimum.
- Stick to one or two fonts and colors.
- Use web-safe fonts. If the recipient's system doesn't have your preferred font, your signature could end up a mess.
- Don't include promotional attachments, personal mottos, or legal disclaimers.
9: Trust third-party products
There are a lot of useful third-party products, but they can play havoc with Outlook. If Outlook stops performing as expected, the first thing to check is a recently acquired add-in for Outlook, or any other software for that matter. Most are great, but read reviews and check with other users before installing.
10: Forget to back up
Nothing's guaranteed with electronic data. While it seldom happens, it's possible to lose email, contacts, and appointments during a meltdown. If your organization is on Exchange Server, this probably isn't an issue—someone's backing up Outlook for you. Still, it wouldn't hurt to check on the policy, just to be safe. For the rest of us, exporting is the way to "back up" Outlook data:
- Click the File tab, choose Open & Export in the left pane, and then select Import/Export.
- In the resulting pane, choose Export To A File and click Next.
- Choose Outlook Data File (.pst) and click Next.
- Select the account to export. Be sure to check Include Subfolders (Figure E); then click Next.
- Click Browse to choose a destination, enter a filename, and click OK. If you're updating a previous backup, use Options to specify how Outlook handles existing items. I recommend using a couple of flash drives and keeping one offsite.
- Click Finish, and Outlook will begin the export.
A backup can save you a lot of heartache.
You can password-protect the file if you like. To reclaim the data, use the same process to import the backup file.
Send me your question about Office
I answer readers' questions when I can, but there's no guarantee. Don't send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. You can send screenshots of your data to help clarify your question. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, "Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what's wrong" probably won't get a response, but "Can you tell me why this formula isn't returning the expected results?" might. Please mention the app and version that you're using. I'm not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.