Microsoft Outlook is the company-issued email client at your place of employment, so like it or not, it's up to you to figure out how to manage your inbox, calendar, and task list every day using it. To make things worse, if you're in IT lockdown without administrator rights to your PC, you can't install special add-ons or software to help your cause. Luckily there are install-free ways to customise Outlook, add keyboard shortcuts, and get your inbox down to zero messages painlessly with a few tweaks to your setup.
My system for keeping your inbox free and clear consists of three folders—Archive, Follow Up, and Hold—and I call it the "Trusted Trio." Before we go on, check out a primer to using the Trusted Trio, which the examples below will use in Outlook.
Set up the Shortcuts pane with the Trusted Trio
Outlook's default sidebar displays all the folders and areas you can store stuff in the application, a distinguished and lengthy list that spans email folders, to lists, to notes, and RSS. First thing you want to do is toss all the stuff you don't need staring at you and just set up the containers you DO want to see. Best place to do that is using the Shortcuts pane. Open the Shortcuts pane by clicking on it on the bottom of the sidebar, or pressing
Cntrl+7. Once you're there, use the "Add new shortcut" link to place the folders and areas in Outlook you care about, like the Inbox, Archive, Follow Up, Hold, Tasks, Calendar, and Sent Items, as shown in the screenshot on the right.
Show the TOTAL (not just unread) item count on your Inbox
To do this, right-click on your Inbox shortcut (that's in the Shortcuts panel, NOT the Inbox itself.) Choose Properties, and in the General tab, check off "Show total number of items." Now you can see all the messages you've got to process, not just the unread ones. This is a nice perk for folks who are out to keep their Inbox total count down at zero.
Configure Move and Copy toolbar shortcuts
As you process the messages in your Inbox and file them using the Trusted Trio, the two actions you perform the most are Copy and Move. Using Outlook's toolbar customisation feature, you can create custom keyboard combinations for each of those actions. Here's how.
- Create a new toolbar. Right-click on any Outlook toolbar and choose "Customize." From the Toolbars tab, hit the "New" button, and name your toolbar anything you want (like "keyboard shortcuts"). Drag and drop your new toolbar to the top of Outlook to dock it next to your other toolbars.
- Add Copy and Move to your new toolbar. With the Customize dialog still open, go to its Commands tab. From the Commands tab, select the Edit category. Then, scroll down the list, and drag and drop "Copy to folder" to your new toolbar. Do the same with the "Move to folder" command.
- Set up the Copy and Move keyboard shortcuts. Now you'll have a toolbar that has two buttons: one text "Copy to folder" button, and one icon, as shown.
First, set that Move button to use a text label by right-clicking on it and choosing "Text only" under "Default Style." Now, with the Customise dialog box still open, right-click on the Copy button and rename it to
&1 Copyas shown here:
Don't forget the &1! Do the same for Move, except use the number 2. Like Copy, change the name to
&2 Move. Your final toolbar should look like this:
Now you're primed to start processing email in Outlook without taking your fingers off the keyboard. What the button titles
&1 Copy and
&2 Move do is map easy-to-remember key combinations to those crucial actions. To empty your inbox, you'll hit Alt+1 (for Copy) or Alt+2 (for Move) to shuttle the message into the right place in your system.
For example, to copy an email to your tasks list, you'd hit Alt+1, then press T to select Tasks. Then you can optionally edit the task or just press Alt+S to save it on the list.
To move a message you're done with, hit Alt+2, then press A to select the Archive folder, and hit Enter and you're done. As you work through your messages and shuttle them into the Trusted Trio, these two shortcuts—
Alt+2—become second nature.
For more GTD-inspired Outlook productivity strategies like this one, check out the Happy Outlook Book e-book, my source for this excellent Move and Copy toolbar tip.
Use Quick Parts to reuse text and images in fast responses
Hammer out repetitive email responses, even with images and formatted text, using Outlook's Quick Parts feature. Your Quick Parts gallery is a set of text snippets and images you use in email, calendar requests, and tasks often: like the company logo, directions with links and a map, or answers to frequently asked questions. While global text substitution apps like Texter can expand snippets into Outlook (as well as all other programs on your PC), Quick Parts works with images, which Texter does not. Check out the Productivity Portfolio blog's tutorial on using Quick Parts.
Helpful Outlook add-ons
What's that you say? You CAN install software and add-ons on your work computer? That's great, because a few other Outlook task-related add-ons can help you get things beyond emptying your inbox done.
- Assign Outlook actions to key combinations with Fingertips
- Sync your Google calendar with Outlook
- Edit auto-complete entries with Nk2View
- Detect private data in attachments with SendShield
What are your favourite Outlook tricks and add-ons for getting through your email quicker? Let us know in the comments.
Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, wishes all email apps could save messages as tasks like Outlook can. Her weekly feature, Geek to Live, appears every Tuesday on Lifehacker AU.