Many of us rely on Microsoft Outlook to manage not only our email, but our lives. It’s one of the few programs I keep open all day, and I can’t imagine my life without it.
In addition to managing my email, it manages my contacts, calendar and tasks. Next week I’m taking a trip to Seattle and Outlook will keep track of my flight schedule as well as details about my hotel, rental car and schedule. I’ve used other tools such as Evernote, but I keep coming back to Outlook primarily for its power and flexibility. There’s no other tool that I rely on more than Outlook, but the flip side is that when it goes down, it causes a lot of grief and lost productivity.
This week, I will take a look a number of ways to tame Outlook and make it a more effective tool. It’s powerful, yet it can be a bit unwieldy to work with at times. Since leaving my corporate job a few years back, I no longer receive hundreds of emails each day. When I worked at Microsoft it wasn’t uncommon to receive 200-400 emails a day. When I’d take a vacation I’d fret about returning to an inbox with over 1,000 messages. It felt overwhelming. Today, I might receive 10 to 15 emails each day, but they are important to me because they are often from clients instead of coworkers who are less likely to cut me slack on a delayed response.
Email is still a critical part of our work whether we receive 5 or 500 emails a day. I’ve collected a number of best practices over the years that I’d like to share this week. You’ve probably heard of some of these tips before but haven’t taken the time to implement them. Others may not be as relevant to your to workflow. But adding even one of these tips could potentially save you an hour or two a week.
Use Rules to Sort Email
Take a moment to look at your inbox right now. I’ll wait.
Did you find more than 50 emails waiting for your attention? If so, I’ll bet you haven’t set up rules to sort your email. Or, if you have rules, they aren’t applicable to how you work today.
I set up rules to route meeting confirmations to a specific folder. Same goes for online purchase confirmation emails. Rules can be especially helpful if you subscribe to RSS feeds or online newsletters that tend to clutter your inbox if left unmanaged.
Below I created a rule for email sent to me from my hosting company. Bluehost sends me a lot of emails because I manage a number of domains and websites for my clients. Making sure that I pay for a domain registration on time is critical, so I route all these emails to a folder that I can address at the end of the week.
Most of my rules focus on moving incoming email to a specific folder from which to manage. But you can apply even more complex rules depending on the message type and importance. Outlook allows you to display an alert, play a sound or even send an alert to your phone when a certain type of email arrives.
I work with a number of clients each day, and keeping track of them and their associated projects can be tricky. To assist me, I’ve created a number of rules that look at the subject and body of the email and then sort it into folders. I’ve found that creating similar rules for my outgoing email can also save time when I’m trying to track down a specific response I made to a project participant.
If your inbox is full of emails that could be sorted into folders automatically, go to your inbox, right click on an email and select Rules and then Create Rule to get started. It’s quite self-explanatory, but Microsoft includes a step-by-step guide for managing, creating and deleting rules. I’ve found that rules work best with emails I’d like to save, but seldom require any action or response. I’m not an Inbox Zero zealot, but I feel better closing down for the day knowing my inbox is empty or nearly empty, and rules go a long way towards achieving that goal.
Reduce Size of PST File
If you’ve been using Outlook for more than a few years, it’s not uncommon to have a PST that’s 5GB in size or larger. Outlook used to have problems managing PST files that were larger than 2GB, but new versions are able to handle PST files that are 50GB or more. But that doesn’t mean you should allow yours to grow that large. The larger the file, the longer Outlook will take to load and the more likely you are to run into corruption issues. And having a single point of failure is never a good idea.
This is where archiving your email can help. In short, archiving moves your data from the Exchange server to your local machine or network drive. I set up my email so my PST consists of my last two years’ worth of email, and then I archive everything older. I’ve found that two years is enough given the type of projects I accept. If you work on projects that last longer than a year, you might need to modify your archive schedule. Some companies have policies that dictate how long email is held on the server before it’s archived. Outlook has an auto-archive feature as well if you need to automate the process.
But before you archive your email, there are steps you can take to reduce the size of your PST. The first thing I recommend is to take a look at your Deleted Items folder.
If this is your first time here you might be shocked at what you find. All the emails and files you see here contribute to the size of your PST. If you don’t need them anymore, right click on Deleted Items and select Empty Folder. If you feel confident that those emails you delete are actually the ones that should be deleted, you can set Outlook to automatically empty your Deleted Items folder when you close out of Outlook. This setting is found under the Advanced tab in Outlook Options.
Another way to reduce the size of your PST file is to eliminate duplicate emails. Say you send an email to staff members with a few attachments. You will now have a copy of that email in your inbox and another copy in your Sent Items folder. If there’s not a compelling reason to keep the forwarded copy, you can go ahead and delete the copy in Sent Items. I went through a stretch where I sent large PowerPoint decks back and forth between team members. If the deck includes pictures or video, your PST file can grow quickly in size, and you probably don’t need to keep every version of the deck.
A quick way to free up space and get rid of these large emails is to sort your Sent Items folder by size. I was able to clear up nearly 1GB worth of space in under a minute by deleting old emails with massive attachments I no longer needed.
Use the “Clean Up” Tool
This is one of my favorite Outlook tips. Although it’s unlikely to free up as much space as the previous tip, this step not only reduces space but it reduces clutter too. It’s called Clean Up and it’s brilliant in its execution, but a bit confusing as to what it actually does.
Clean Up is found right off the Home tab and comes in three forms: Clean Up Conversation, Clean Up Folder and Clean Up Folders & Subfolders.
What Clean Up does is look at your conversations (some call these threads) and analyzes the content of each message. If a message is completely contained without one of the replies, the previous message is deleted.
Clean Up Conversation reviews the current conversation and deletes redundant messages.
Clean Up Folder reviews all conversations found in a specific folder and deletes redundant messages.
Clean Up Folder & Subfolders reviews all conversations in a selected folder and any subfolders, and deletes redundant messages.
I can’t tell you handy this Outlook feature has been to me over the past couple of years. It’s been especially helpful while working on larger projects where the group uses email to collaborate on documents or approve web copy or whatever else requires group participation. If you have a boss that uses “reply all” a lot, you will love this feature.
Use Conditional Formatting Rules
We’ve probably all received a visit from a boss asking why we haven’t replied to their urgent email. Maybe it got pushed down to the bottom of your inbox by less important messages. Or maybe you just failed to see it when it arrived. Conditional formatting helps you make important email stand out so you don’t miss them.
I used to work for a guy who demanded a reply within 30 minutes to his email or he came looking for me. I used conditional formatting to change the font color of his emails to red so I never missed them.
You’ll find the various options for conditional formatting under the View Settings ribbon icon under the View tab. Here I’ve applied a specific font and color to email sent to me from my boss.
It’s easy to get lost among all the various options available. I usually leave the default properties alone and apply a font and/or color changes to draw my attention to those emails from senders who require immediate attention. I’m careful not to apply this to too many people or it loses its effectiveness.
Always Back Up
It helps to know exactly where Outlook saves your PST file. For users running Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 10, you’ll find this file at drive:\Users\user\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook as long as the default options were used during installation. But it could have been installed elsewhere.
The first thing to do is to open up Account Settings and look under Email Account to see exactly where Outlook is saving your PST. In fact, if you’ve been using Outlook for a long time on the same computer it doesn’t hurt to do a wildcard search for “*.pst” and see what shows up.
Now that you know where your PST is being stored, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to back it up to an external drive. Make sure you’ve closed out of Outlook before doing this. My PST is important enough that I add it to my backup routine by saving it each week to my cloud storage provider. Your company might have a network share you can use as backup as well.
Of course, many of you manage Exchange Servers where backup is even more critical. A product like StorageCraft ShadowProtect GRE allows you to recover or migrate user’s mailboxes, folders, messages and more. I’ve deleted entire Outlook folders a few times, and I wish our IT department had had this in place at the time.
You probably don’t give a lot of thought to your inbox until something goes wrong. I’ve found that by archiving my email each year, I can reduce the size of my PST file and speed up Outlook at the same time. I see too many people who used Exchange for a decade and have generated one massive PST file. Too often these same people end up with a corrupt file, and are unable to access many years’ worth of email and contacts.
It never hurts to ask your IT department what would happen if your PST file gets corrupted or if you were to delete a folder’s worth of email. That should give you an idea of how prepared they are to handle some common scenarios. Over the years I’ve found that keeping my PST as small as possible by taking the above steps has been well worth the effort.
What tips or tricks do you perform that make Outlook work more effectively for you?