Many organizations and self-employed workers have Outlook as their email communication and meeting scheduling program. As it is so widely used, it has the advantage of being compatible with most of your clients or stakeholders, but many people are not using the program to its full potential. They are burdened with overflowing inboxes and under-utilized calendars. With a few simple tips, you can turn Outlook into a task tracking, workload lessening program you couldn’t live without.

Managing your Inbox

One of the biggest time sinks in any workday is looking for one email in a sea of them. The simplest way to look for a particular email in your inbox is by sorting your messages. By default, the messages are sorted by date, from most recent to last. If you have an idea of the date the email was sent or received, you can scroll down to that date to look for it. If you don’t remember the date, you can also sort by name to look for the recipient or sender of the email.

For inboxes that are very full, this may be a far too time-consuming process. The search function found in the search bar above the inbox will allow you to target a specific email by allowing you to search for words that were in the subject or body of the email, rather than having to look through every email you may have sent or received from someone. You have the ability to filter your search by your Sent folder, Inbox, or any folders you may have created.

You can create subfolders under your inbox for emails that fit a specific category. Maybe you want to have a folder for emails that are only regarding your sales team, or only emails to and from a major client. You can either choose the Folder tab, then “New Folder” from the menu ribbon or right click on your inbox and choose New Folder. Name the folder appropriately and save all applicable emails there instead of in your inbox to keep related emails in one area. You can continue to create sub-subfolders under your subfolders if that organization makes sense for your workflow by clicking the subfolder you want the new folder to be slotted under and following one of the two methods above.

Rules allow you to file emails automatically by setting rules about what happens with certain messages. From the menu ribbon choose, “Rules”, then choose “New Rule.” You will be given options about what type of rule you would like to set. You can make rules based on who the email is from or if the subject line has specific words. If, for instance, you only ever receive emails from Jane Smith in regards to your work with one major client, you can set a rule that ensures every one of Jane Smith’s emails are automatically sent to the folder you set up for that client. That way you do not have to spend the time finding and moving every one of her emails to the correct folder. You can set up these rules to move your sent emails to this folder as well.

Within all of your folders, you can create email categories by using the Categorize function found in the menu ribbon along the top. By choosing the “All categories” option from the drop-down list, you can rename the categories from the colour names they have by default to ones that work for you: blue for meetings, green for requests, etc. When you receive a message, you can click on it, click on the Categorize button, and then apply the appropriate category. This is useful for those messages that may apply to multiple categories; a meeting regarding a request may get a blue and a green tag. These categories can also be used to filter your emails. By choosing the “Filter Email” option on the menu ribbon, you can choose to only view those emails that are about one specific subject instead of wading through your whole inbox to look for them all.

Calendars for More than Meetings

Outlook’s Calendar function is most commonly used for setting up meetings with clients and colleagues. For those clients who are in a different time zone than you, Outlook is a must, handling the time change without confusion. For meetings with those within your organization, Outlook offers the ability to do a “busy search”, where you can type the name of the person you wish to meet with into the appointment invitation, and check if they are available for the time you selected and what times they are not booked in their calendar. This is of course only useful if the person in question keeps their calendar up to date.

Outlook’s calendar is also useful as a time management tool for you. If you have a scheduled task you must complete, say a set of reports that are run on the first business day of the month, you can set up a re-occurring appointment that will remind you every month to run these reports. Any recurring task can be added as an appointment to your calendar, and a notification can be added, such as a pop-up or a sound that will remind you to perform these tasks. Another way the calendar can help with your workflow is by showing you what tasks you have due each day according to your “To Do List” or Task List”.

Your Task List is created by flagging messages in your Inbox or folders that require action by right clicking, or choosing “Follow Up” from the menu ribbon and choosing a time frame by which you need to follow up on this message, or by choosing “New Task” in the menu ribbon and entering due date for the task. The tasks you choose by choosing New Task in the menu ribbon are not tied to an email. Both types will appear under the “Tasks” section where you can look to see the list of outstanding tasks, whether any are overdue (they will be bright red if so), and determine the priority of their completion. Once the task has been completed, select the message or task, right click or choose follow-up and click “Mark as Complete” and it will be removed from your task list.

A few small changes and a bit of time setting up your rules, and you will save time every day using Outlook’s built-in email functions. And more importantly, you will be less frustrated by being more organized and efficient.