Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Set up Outlook to work for you

This article is part of a series Best practices for Outlook for Mac 2011. To learn about the specific parts in the series, refer to the See also links at the bottom of the page.

Setting up Outlook for Mac 2011: The layout

The first step in following these best practices is to set up a system to optimize how you use Outlook for Mac 2011. It is considered best practice to have:

For details on how to set up the recommended layout, see the FAQ section at the end of this paper.


It is considered best practice to have:

  • An Inbox for messages that you need to process (deal with). Your Inbox is for messages sent directly to you or that could be important for you to read. If you receive many messages that go back and forth among several different people, change to Conversations view. Otherwise, use the date arrangement (the default arrangement).

  • A single reference folder, under the Inbox, for all reference material that you might want to refer back to later. Nothing is automatically filed (i.e., 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.

    Note: If this folder becomes too large (10,000 items or more), Outlook for Mac 2011 might become slow when switching to this folder.

  • A folder for career-related, private, and personal messages. 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.

    Managers might have a single folder for feedback on their employees called 3-Management.

  • A set of folders for Contact Group messages. All messages sent to Contact Groups (also known as list servers, or mailing lists, or distribution lists) don’t necessarily need to be read. This set of folders is the repository for all of the Contact Group messages that are not automatically delivered to your Inbox. Create a single, top-level folder under your Inbox called Contact Groups, and then create a subfolder for each topic of Contact Groups. Usually, one folder per Contact Group is enough, but if you are on several related Contact Groups, consider having all of the messages delivered to the same folder. Collapse the top-level Contact Group 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 Contact Group, don’t create a folder for it. These messages should go directly to your Inbox.

Smart Folders    

Smart Folders, also known as search folders, are useful for gathering information from across different mail folders. Smart Folders can be especially useful when you need to gather information that is saved in different folders — for example, when preparing for a quarterly meeting.

Smart folders

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

For details on how to set up Smart Folders, see the FAQ section at the end of this paper.


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 messages 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 FAQ at the end of this paper):

  • 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 Contact Group.

  • Contact Groups     Any email message sent to a Contact Group is sent to a Contact Group folder — unless its keywords suggest that it's important to you, in which case it is sent to your Inbox. Multiple Contact Groups that are similar should use the same rule and be filed in the same folder. If you are a member of a Contact Group for which you need to read every message, don’t create a rule for it. Any messages that you must read should go directly into your Inbox.


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

To change these settings, on the Outlook menu, click Preferences, and then click Notifications & Sounds. Under Message arrival, clear all of the check boxes.

Message arrival


Categories in Outlook for Mac 2011 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.

To create categories, do the following:

  • On the Home tab, click Categorize, and then click Add New.

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 Manager).

  • 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:

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

    @Email     for tasks that involve email messages, meetings, or any other aspect of Outlook for Mac 2011.

    @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 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.

    Outlook categories

    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.

    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 @Email category and the 1:1 Manager category.

As you will see, categories help 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 for Mac 2011 or Exchange Server 2010, they will be able to see the categories you set.

See also

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Good time management

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Tame your Inbox with the 4 D’s

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Manage time with a daily review

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Do your work with the help of Tasks

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Find that message!

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Write great e-mail

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Calendars and meetings

Outlook for Mac 2011 Best Practices: Frequently asked questions

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