Tips to Make Outlook Work for You

Technology was supposed to make our lives easier, but instead of being swamped by paper – many of us are swamped by emails. The result is the same – we can’t find important contact information, individual documents, or entire files. That can lead to us missing deadlines or failing to respond to critical emails.

And it’s not going to get any better. Business emails are on the rise. By the end of next year 143 billion emails will be sent and received EVERY DAY!

How can you make sure you are managing your emails instead of having your emails manage you? Here are a few Outlook tips that can be applied to other email providers as well.

  1. Utilize Folders Clear the clutter and organize your inbox with folders. To get started, right click on your inbox folder and create some new ones. Depending on your field of business and the types of email you receive, you might find it helpful to have folders for different clients, projects, categories, etc. As a project manager, I have a folder for each of my clients, as well as one for internal communication. Sorting with folders helps Outlook more easily search for emails by focusing on a relevant subset.Outlook is more than a filing cabinet. Instead of collecting dust, put your folders to work and make a to-do list. When you receive an email give it a quick scan to determine if it requires action on your part. For emails that don’t need action, move them to their applicable folder. You can do this sort of organizing from both your desktop and your phone. The end result is an inbox with only unresolved emails that require action, whether it be a reply, a deliverable, or follow-up.

  2. Prioritize Your Inbox To-Do List With Categories Now that you have an inbox to-do list, let’s categorize it so you can tell at a glance which emails are the most important for the immediate future. I use the categories “High Priority”, “Low Priority”, and “Pending/Follow-up” but you can personalize categories and visually color code each to best suit your needs.To create categories, click on “Categories” in the Outlook ribbon and select the “All Categories” option. This will bring up the following menu where you can make new categories and rename or delete existing ones.

    If you were to set your categories by client instead of priority, or if you simply want to add reminders for deadlines, right click on an email in your inbox and roll your curser over “Follow-up”. This will give you a selection of pre-set reminder options. You can also select “Custom” and set your own.2
  3. Automate Email Handling with Quick Steps or Rules Quick Steps – Now that you’re both organized and prioritized, “Quick Steps” is a great way to automate some of the process. “Quick Steps” can be useful for handling any emails that always result in the same action. For example, “Ignore message” is a “Quick Step” that I created for when I no longer want to receive the remaining emails in a chain. This is especially useful if you’re copied on an email by mistake, and then everyone on the email chain compounds the mistake by “Replying all”. “Ignore message” puts you back in control of what you’re receiving. To add “Ignore message” to your “Quick Steps” or to create other “Quick Steps”, click “Create new”, and it will bring up the following menu:1
    You can then choose from a list of actions. In the above case, if I didn’t want to delete the messages in the conversation, but I just wanted them moved to another folder and marked as “Read”, I could create a “Quick Step” to do this at the click of a button. Visit the Microsoft website for more detailed instructions.Rules – “Rules” are an alternative option to “Quick Steps”. This is meant more for a specific type of email that you receive and want the same action performed upon receiving it. For example, say you want to sign up to receive FDA updates or emails with the latest TED Talk, but you don’t always have time to review the emails. You can create a “Rule” to filter them from your inbox into a separate folder for review at your leisure.To create a “Rule”, right click on the email type for which you want to automate handling. Scroll your cursor over “Rules” and click “Create New”.2
    Above is an example for the rule I created for Today’s TED Talk. I would like these emails automatically filtered into my “Ted Talks folder”. I checked only the first check box because I know that TED Talks cover all different subjects and I want this rule to filter all of them not just the one from today. To avoid receiving a new email notification or to hear a sound notification for these emails, I left both of those boxes unchecked. I checked the box to “Move the item to folder” and selected “TED Talks folder”. If you click on advanced options, a whole menu of other specifics will be displayed with a preview of your rule at the bottom:

    There are lots of options to specify exactly what you need. Once you’ve created a rule, Outlook will automatically start to handle those emails as you’ve instructed.If you decide a rule needs to be edited or you no longer want the rule, all you need to do is right click on any email, scroll your cursor over “Rules” and select “Manage Rules & Alerts”.4
    As you can see, I’ve created three rules thus far. One filters the TED Talk emails and the other two move emails directly into my Junk folder. 
  4. Use Outlook Calendar and Scheduling AssistantGet the most out of your Outlook calendar by updating it with both personal and work related appointments. Even if you don’t want to provide details about the personal appointment, at least block the time, leave the meeting name generic such as “Appointment” and indicate that you’re busy. This will save you and your co-workers a lot of time when scheduling meetings.The most effective way to schedule meetings is with the “Scheduling Assistant”. Once you’ve clicked “New Meeting” in your calendar, “Scheduling Assistant” will become an option on the ribbon menu to the right of “Appointment”. When you click on it, you’ll be brought to the following menu:5
    Here you can add the names or email addresses of co-workers under the attendee list, and you will be shown the availability for everyone on each day. Note: this will not work for clients or external employees who have a different email domain. With this snapshot of everyone’s schedules, you can avoid all of the back-and-forth emails to determine each person’s availability. The “Scheduling Assistant” is only effective though if everyone’s calendar is up to date and inclusive of both personal and work meetings.

So what are you waiting for? In the time it took you to read this article your pile of emails has only grown! The good news is that now you know how to take charge and get organized so you have more time for everything else.



Loren Edwards is an experienced project manager who has worked on over a dozen FDA Advisory Committee meetings for drugs, devices, and biologics. She assists 3D’s clients with slide development and mock rehearsal logistics. As former head of the KOLLEAD™ Database Intelligence Team, Loren has in-depth knowledge of the Advisory Committees and panelists. Connect with Loren on LinkedIn.