Katherine Boehret

How to Tweak Outlook Email To Work for You

If you have a job, chances are you use Microsoft Outlook.

But are you using it to your best advantage?

Despite the popularity of Microsoft Outlook, several of its functions aren’t noticeable unless you dig around in menus or try out keystroke shortcuts. Many of these tricks can be found by reading a user manual, but users would rather be spending their time in Outlook responding to or writing emails.

In last week’s column I reviewed a program called Postbox, which displays email and its contents in unique ways. In that review I mentioned that Outlook, too, has extra functions, but that these aren’t always as obvious as they should be. Below, I’ve compiled a list of what I consider to be some of Outlook’s lesser-known talents. I focused on Outlook 2007, which many people currently use, and I also included a handful of notes about what Outlook 2010—due out late spring or early summer—will include. With any luck, you’ll find a few tips here that make your time in Outlook better spent.

Search Me

Rather than simply entering a word into the Outlook search box, you can help the search engine narrow its results by giving it specific parameters. For example, if I remember that my friend sent an email with “LSU tickets” in the subject line, I can type “subject: LSU” to pull out all emails about the Louisiana university. Or if I want to find all emails from Molly, I can write, “from: Molly.” This works with several other terms including “to,” “sent,” “cc” and “message size.”

Search Folders, shown in the folder list with a magnifying glass icon beside them, offer a way of saving the searches you perform most often. If, for example, you often search for flight confirmation emails, you could make a Search Folder called “Travel” that would contain a constantly updated list of emails containing the names of airlines.


New folders can be set up by right clicking on the Search Folders icon, selecting New Search Folder and following steps to select a type of folder from one of many pre-set types of folders—such as “mail sent directly to me,” “large mail” or “mail flagged for follow up.” Or you can create a custom Search Folder by telling it to search for certain words that appear within specific message fields.

Color Coding

To make certain emails stand out in a large list—like emails from your boss or messages addressed only to you—you can set up a rule that makes the email show up in a specific color. Or you can set certain emails to appear in bold font, or in a specific font type and size. Just think of all the emails from your mom that will never go unnoticed again thanks to red type, 14-point font and underlined text.

Setting up the way emails are displayed can be done by going to the Tools menu, selecting Organize, Using Colors and then choosing specific colors for emails from specific people. More advanced automatic settings for applying font type and size to emails can be added by selecting Automatic Formatting in the top right corner of the Using Colors screen. Click “Add” to create more rules.

Souped-Up Calendar

The Outlook Calendar can be organized to look the way you want it rather than the way it’s set up by default. For example, if you like looking at your day in hourly intervals rather than Outlook’s default 30-minute blocks, you can right click anywhere you see hours shown and select 60 minutes. Other increments are also available, like five, 10 and 15 minutes.

Outlook can also display other time zones right beside your own time zone by right clicking on the listed meeting hours, selecting Change Time Zone and checking the box labeled Show an Additional Time Zone. This is helpful for people who often work with distant colleagues, saving them from making a mistake and not factoring the right time zone for the other person. A Swap Time Zone button here quickly changes from one set zone to another, which could be a boon for people who regularly travel to different places and want their Outlook settings to reflect that they’re working from there.

Like color-coded emails, calendar events can be automatically sorted into pre-set categories like Personal, Travel and Family by setting formatting to look for certain words like Tennis (Personal), United (Travel) and Mom, Dad or Allison (Family). Added events that use these words automatically get labeled with a designated color to give your calendar a visual way of distinguishing different types of activities.

Another useful calendar tip: You can hold Control while selecting certain dates on the small view of the calendar and you’ll see only the schedules for those dates. So if I want to see Sept. 19, 22 and 24, I hold Control while selecting each date to see the three days’ activities displayed in the right viewing panel.

Visual Contacts

All Contacts in Outlook can be labeled with a photo of the person, which you add by double clicking on the small head icon in someone’s contact card and then choosing a photo from your collection. People who work in the same company and use Outlook can add their own photo to their contact and it will show up with their emails.

The top right corner of each contact card shows what a person’s digital business card would look like; this is an image that can be edited and copied using a right click, and then it can be copied and pasted to any email signature.

Looking Ahead

In Outlook 2010, due out next year, Microsoft (MSFT) says it hopes to streamline work in Outlook, creating smarter rules that do more with less manual work.

One example of this approach is that emails in the next version of Outlook will be, by default, sorted into conversations—a little like Gmail’s current system. An Ignore button will move all future emails related to the same conversation into the Deleted Items folder. That will include those with changed subject lines because Microsoft uses a special identifier to know which emails are associated with one another. A Clean Up button moves all redundant replies to the Deleted Items folder, leaving just the most recent message in the conversation.

Another feature is Reply with Meeting, a button in Outlook 2010 that will let users create a meeting out of an email. Selecting Reply with Meeting automatically invites those included in the email to attend a meeting.

The title of the meeting is the same as the subject of the email. If the users are in the same corporate network and they all use Outlook Calendar, this tool also looks for the next available time and date on everyone’s calendar.

Quick Steps, another streamlined feature of Outlook 2010, are one-click shortcuts that simultaneously perform several common actions that people take when handling email. If you select a Quick Step called Reply and Delete, it replies to an email and deletes the original. Users can create their own personalized Quick Steps like one labeled Social that, when selected, marks the email as read, moves it to a special folder and labels it under a certain category.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg.

Write to
Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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