Taming Outlook 2003

Matt over at Life Without Toast was moaning about Outlook 2003, in particular about the Favorite Folders area. As I use Outlook 2003 at work, and in particular couldn’t live without my favorite folders so I offered to write a post about how I’ve tamed them for my usage. This is that post.

Warning: this is kinda long. If you don’t use Outlook just skip it.

Like most people, I use Microsoft Office at work, like most people it’s the one application I use more than any other and, like most people I have no choice in this matter.

So, rather than just put up with it, I’ve slowly been tailoring it’s UI to the way I work. These days I’ve got a pretty good ‘workflow’ that allows me to track my emails, tasks and appointments. My system includes a custom toolbar that allows me to easily flag an email to a particular category, custom search folders so those flagged emails can be easily located, and a few other shortcuts.

Here’s a screenshot of my Outlook setup to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about.

My workflow
Let’s quickly run through how I deal with emails in Outlook. First things first, use that delete key! All emails require one of three (or four) actions. You can either delete it, store it, or deal with it (now or later). However your company may not allow deletion of emails, so if that’s the case you can just leave it in your inbox. For those messages that you need to store (company policy stuff for example) you can create static folders under your Inbox as required.

Tip: Select View > Arrange By > Show in Groups. That will give you sections in your Inbox for Today, Yesterday, Last Week and so on. An easy way to visually declutter your Inbox as you can close the older sections.

The real power starts with those emails that require some action on your behalf. If you can’t deal with it immediately, then you need to store it but make sure it remains ‘visible’. You could put it in a folder under your Inbox but, let’s be honest, how often would you check it?

For any emails that need to be dealt with in the future (within a set timescale usually) I use Outlook flags.

Flagging emails in Outlook
You can flag any email for follow up. Just right-click an email in your Inbox, and select Follow Up, you’ll see a list of coloured flags to choose from.

If you right-click on the column headings at the top of the Inbox and select Field Chooser, you can add the “Follow up flag” column if it’s not already there. You should see your newly assigned flag in that column. This is especially handy as, once you have completed the action required in the email, you can click the flag to mark it as complete.

You can also add reminders to an email when you set a flag, I don’t use this personally but if it’s a crucial email it might be worthwhile.

Tip: You can type in the message box (in the Flag To text box) to create a custom message. Unfortunately Outlook doesn’t remember these so you have to re-type for each email.

However, whilst flagging emails is all well and good, it’s a bit involved and hey, I’m lazy. I can’t be bothered with all that right-clicking nonsense so I’ve setup a toolbar which gives me some additional benefits.

Creating the toolbar
Before you create the toolbar, it’s worthwhile thinking about how you will/do use flags. I figured that all of my ‘actionable’ emails fell into one of four categories, however as Outlook offers six colours to work with then you should be OK as long as you don’t want to create… ohh I dunno.. seven categories!

I use the red flag for “Product” emails, green for “Work” emails, purple for “Misc” and blue for “TechComms” emails.

To create a toolbar:

  1. Right-click on a blank area next to the current toolbars.
  2. In the Customize dialog, select the “Toolbars” tab.
  3. Click New…
  4. Give your toolbar a name and click OK.
  5. The new toolbar is displayed on screen, obviously it’s empty at this point.
  6. Select the “Commands” tab.
  7. In the right-hand “Categories” column, scroll down and click Actions.
  8. In the left-hand “Commands” column, scroll down until you get to the coloured flags.
  9. Drag and drop the flags onto your new toolbar (it should be right next to the Customize dialog.
  10. Once you have all the flags you want you need to add some text (if you want).
  11. On your new toolbar, right-click a flag and select “Image and Text”.
  12. Right-click the flag again and hover over the “Name” section in the menu.
  13. You can type a custom name for the toolbar button, adding an ampersand (&) if you want to include a shortcut key – just place the ampersand before the letter that you want to use. You can then ALT+[letter] to add the flag to an email.
  14. Once you are happy, you can drag the toolbar into your preferred location and close the Customize dialog.

Now, when you receive an email that requires some action from you, make sure the email is highlighted and click one of the toolbar buttons. Great. But now what?

Creating the search folders
The real power in this method comes with using the Search folders. These are kind of hidden away in the folder tree but are very useful. You can use them to store ‘smart lists’ of emails, with each folder holding only emails that meet your criteria. Obviously we are going to use these to give us quick access to all of the flagged emails, with a folder for each ‘flag category. The Search Folders folder is in the folder tree when you are in Mail view.

  1. Right-click the top folder called Search Folders, select “New Search Folder…” .
  2. Scroll to the bottom of the list, select “Create a custom Search Folder”, and click Choose… .
  3. Give your new Search Folder a name (Products, for example), then click Criteria.
  4. In the dialog displayed, select the “More Choices” tab.
  5. Select “Only Items which have:” and in the drop-down list displayed select the colour of flag for that folder (Red for me in this case).
  6. Click OK to close the dialog, and twice more to close all the dialogs and return to Outlook.
  7. Find your new Search Folder, right-click and select “Properties”.
  8. Select “Total number of items” and click OK.

You can now drag your new Search Folder to your Favorite Folders area. Once you’ve added folders for all your flagged emails, you have a very visible and easy to find location for your important emails. I also ‘close’ the Search Folders in the folder list, and you can re-order your Favorite Folders using the right-click menu.

Creating quick shortcuts
One last goodie for you. You can create shortcuts on your desktop (or anywhere else you like) that will create new emails, tasks, appointments or notes. It’s really simple and means you don’t have to open Outlook to bash out a quick email.

You need to create a new shortcut (right-click your desktop), and give the following as the location (unless you have Outlook installed somewhere else). The crucial bit is the stuff at the end:

  • Email: “C:Program FilesMicrosoft OfficeOFFICE11OUTLOOK.EXE” /c ipm.note
  • Task: “C:Program FilesMicrosoft OfficeOFFICE11OUTLOOK.EXE” /c ipm.task
  • Appointment: “C:Program FilesMicrosoft OfficeOFFICE11OUTLOOK.EXE” /c ipm.appointment
  • Note: “C:Program FilesMicrosoft OfficeOFFICE11OUTLOOK.EXE” /c ipm.stickynote

And no, I don’t know why email is “ipm.note”.

And finally
Whilst doing a little research for this post I stumbled across this method of creating tasks from emails (scroll down to the third last post). It requires a particular CDO library to be installed, and that you muck about with some macro code. I’ll give it a quick test at some point and let you know how it works out.

Right, that’s enough of that. If you have any questions, let me know.


  1. i am flagging e-mails by just left clicking on the e-mail, this is setting the flag automatically to red and it also moves the e-mail to a folder called “for follow up”. This is how i want it setup, however, when i left click on the follow up e-mail to unflag it, the mail is disappearing altogether and even bypassing the deleted items tray, never to be seen again, how do i turn this off, stop it from doing this. It didn’t used to do this!!!

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