Outlook 2007 Best Practices: Set up Outlook to work for you

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The layout



To-Do Bar



About the author

The layout

The first step in following these best practices is to set up a system to optimize how you use Outlook 2007. It is considered best practice to have:

  • The Navigation Pane open on the left.

  • Your mail in conversation view, with mail that is sent directly to you automatically formatted in blue.

  • The Reading Pane on the right.

  • The To-Do Bar open on the far right. If your screen resolution is less than 1024 by 768 pixels, the To-Do Bar may be minimized.

  • Cached Exchange Mode turned on.

For details on how to set up the layout, see the Frequently asked questions for this series.

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It is considered best practice to have:

  • An Inbox for e-mail that you need to process (deal with). Your Inbox is for mail sent directly to you or mail that could be important for you to read.

If you receive many messages that go back and forth among several different people, use the conversation arrangement. Otherwise, use the date arrangement (the default arrangement). Use automatic formatting rules to make all messages sent only to you blue.

  • A single reference folder, under the Inbox, for all reference material that you might want to refer back to later. Nothing is automatically filed (that is, with a rule) into this folder. Name this folder "1-Reference." (Adding the 1- will cause it to be the first item under the Inbox.) This folder is created under the Inbox so that you can collapse the Inbox and remove it from view. Set this folder to auto archive annually.

Note:  If this folder becomes too large (10,000 items or more), Outlook 2007 may become slow when switching to this folder.

  • A folder for career-related, private, and personal e-mail. Having a separate folder for personal and career-related information gives you the freedom to search for a message while someone is standing over your shoulder without worrying that a personally sensitive message will appear. Name this folder "2-Personal." Set this folder to auto archive annually.

Managers might have a single folder for feedback on their employees called "3-Management." Set these folders to auto archive annually.

  • A set of folders for distribution list (DL) e-mail. All e-mail sent to distribution lists (also known as list servers or mailing lists) does not necessarily need to be read. This set of folders is the repository for all of the DL e-mail that is not automatically filed into your Inbox. Create a single, top-level folder under your Inbox called "DLs" and then create a subfolder for each topic of DLs. Usually, one folder per DL is enough, but if you are on several related DLs, consider having all of the mail routed to the same folder. Collapse the top-level DL folder so that you aren't distracted by the unread messages in the folders beneath it.

Note:  If you need to read every message on a DL, do not create a folder for it. This e-mail should go directly to your Inbox.

Set your DL folders to auto archive every six months or more frequently if they are temporal (for example, a DL for finding carpool rides should be archived daily).

  • A set of folders for RSS feeds. Much like the set of folders for DLs, RSS represents another set of data that may sometimes have interesting information but doesn't need to be read consistently or with the same sense of urgency as mail sent directly to you. Outlook 2007 creates these folders automatically.

Search folders

Search folders are useful for gathering information from across different e-mail and RSS folders. Search folders can be especially useful when you need to gather information that is stored in different folders — for example, when preparing for a quarterly meeting.

If you receive a large volume of e-mail (more than 200 messages a day), search folders might be a good way for you to parse mail from different senders.

Favorite folders (optional)

Favorite Folders give visibility to folders that are otherwise buried in your mail folder list.

Favorites Folders in Outlook 2007

Favorite Folders, a subset of your mail folders, appear at the top of the Navigation Pane. Using Favorite Folders is not a requirement for this system to work, but if you have a small screen, you can minimize the Navigation Pane and still successfully file your e-mail by dragging messages to the minimized bar, perform common searches, and navigate to the Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks.

It is considered best practice to have the following folders in your Favorite Folders: Inbox, 1-Reference, Sent Items, and Deleted Items.

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The goal of organizing your Outlook is to reduce the amount of unnecessary "noise" in your Inbox and to make the most important items bubble to the top. Rules help this process by moving e-mail into folders based on criteria that you set. Rules filter the messages coming into your Inbox for must-read items only.

It is considered best practice to have the following rules (details on how to set up these rules are in the Frequently asked questions article:

Automatic Replies    Move all responses to meetings that do not have content to Deleted Items. You can see who has accepted by checking the tracking tab inside the meeting window.

.To: Me    Any message sent directly to you or with you on the Cc line is sent to the Inbox and is not processed by other rules, even if it is also sent to a distribution list (DL).

Meeting Requests Sent to Inbox    All meeting requests, even if sent to a DL, should be sent to the Inbox.

Defer Sent Items    This rule delays sending messages by one minute or longer. When using this rule, be sure that your messages have been sent before you shut down your computer.

Note:  This is a client-side-only rule; it will not work on Outlook Web Access (OWA).

Distribution Lists    Any e-mail message sent to a distribution list (DL) is sent to a DL folder — unless its keywords suggest that it is important to you, in which case it is sent to your Inbox. Multiple DLs that are similar should use the same rule and be filed in the same folder. If you are a member of a DL for which you need to read every message, do not create a rule for it. Any messages that you must read should go directly into your Inbox.

Your set of rules should look something like the following when you finish organizing them.

Rules and Alerts dialog box in Outlook 2007

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To-Do Bar

To-Do Bar in Outlook 2007

Date Navigator


A place to type tasks

Task List

The To-Do Bar is the panel on the right side of Outlook 2007. It shows a calendar, your upcoming appointments, and your unified task list, which contains:

  • Messages you need to respond to (flagged messages).

  • Contacts you need to call (flagged contacts).

  • Tasks that come up spontaneously.

The best practice for setting up the To-Do Bar is to:

  • Show a Date Navigator (turned on by default).

  • Show only three appointments if you have a small screen resolution or you do not have many meetings on a given day (default).

  • Show five appointments if you have a large screen resolution or you have many meetings every day (five or more).

  • Show tasks (turned on by default).

The default arrangement for tasks is by Due Date, but you might consider changing the arrangement to Start Date, depending upon how you use flags. If you want to see the tasks that you have pushed out for next week on Monday, arrange by Start Date. If you want to see tasks on the day that they are due, arrange by Due Date.

Default flag

It is considered best practice to set yourQuick Click flag to Today (which is the default).

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If you receive a lot of e-mail or are easily distracted by the notification sound that plays for incoming messages, we recommend turning off the following settings:

  • The new mail Desktop Alert

  • The envelope icon that appears in the notification area (formerly called the system tray)

  • The cursor briefly changing to an envelope

  • The sound that accompanies all of the above settings

If you want to always be notified when a certain person sends you a message, you can create a rule called Play a custom sound when Outlook delivers new e-mail.

Advanced Email Options Save Messages in Outlook 2007

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Categories in Outlook 2007 allow you to manage items in many different ways. There are three main types of categories that we recommend creating:

  • Project (can include people)

  • Topic

  • Location or activity

Categories are not a required aspect of this system, but they will make your life easier if you are diligent about using them. For example, they can help you more easily identify what you can do now and help you group similar tasks so that you can do them all at once.

It is considered best practice to have a category for:

  • Each of your direct reports and your manager for items that you want to review the next time you meet (for example, a category named "1:1 Owen").

  • Each of the major locations or types of activities that you do, so that you can perform bulk actions (a useful part of managing your tasks), for example:

    • @E-mail for tasks that involve e-mail, meetings, or any other aspect of Outlook 2007.

    • @Commute for tasks that you can do on the way home from work.

    • @Home for tasks that you can do only at home.

    • @Meeting for items that you need in order to prepare for a meeting.

    • @Offline for tasks that take you away from the computer, such as making a copy of a document.

    • @Online for tasks that you can accomplish only online or through a Web browser.

    • @Phone for calls you have to make or receive.

    • @Read for tasks that involve just reading — not responding. This category is useful for long e-mail messages or attachments that you need to read but cannot get to right away.

    • @Waiting for messages or tasks for which you are awaiting a response, but there is no explicit next action for you.

      Note:  Using the @ symbol makes the categories stand out in your category list. Marking @ before certain categories helps to keep these categories at the top of your category list and reminds you of where you should be when you are performing this task (for example, @phone is "at the phone.

  • Each important topic or project so that you can easily find messages on a given topic — especially if there is no word in the body or subject of the message that would make it appear in a search.

  • Important items that must be done today and cannot roll over to another day.

Color Categories dialog box in Outlook 2007

Note    You can apply multiple categories to a single item — as opposed to filing, where items can live in only one folder at a time. For example, an important message that you want to discuss with your manager before you respond might be categorized with both the @e-mail category and the 1:1 <your manager's name> category.

Flag categories in Outlook 2007

Your Quick Click category should be the category that you apply most often.

As you will see, categories help messages and tasks stand out in your To-Do Bar, make searching more efficient, and help you get ready for meetings.

Note    Be very careful about categorizing your outgoing messages — your recipients might be able to see your categories! If your recipients are not using Outlook 2007 or Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, they will be able to see the categories you set.

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About the author

Melissa MacBeth photo Melissa MacBeth is a Lead Program Manager in the Office product group at Microsoft. She worked on several time management features for Outlook 2007, including the To-Do Bar, flags, flagging on send, and the Daily Task List. She lives in Seattle and enjoys gardening.

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