Microsoft Outlook is the de facto email and calendaring client in most offices — and it can help manage your tasks and notes as well. Beyond just clicking Send and Receive, there are lots of things you can do to improve your Outlook workflow, such as sharing your calendar and auto-filtering emails.
Get Up and Running with Outlook Quickly
As with the other Office apps, the commands you need to use in Outlook are all there in the ribbon. The left navigation pane is also a critical part of Outlook’s interface, and allows you to quickly switch between Outlook’s different views.
For this guide, we’ll assume you’ve already set up an email account in Outlook and know the basics, such as composing emails and adding a calendar event. If you’d like a refresher, check out Microsoft’s Quick Start guides for Office here.
How to Do the Most Common, Essential Tasks in Microsoft Outlook
Unlike the other Microsoft Office programs, which each have one dedicated purpose (Word does word processing, Excel does spreadsheets, PowerPoint does presentations and so on), Outlook is a multi-tasker. It’s meant to be your all-in-one personal assistant — managing your emails, appointments, address book, notes and tasks in one place. For most people, email, calendar and contacts (or “people”) are the most-used features in Outlook, so we’ll focus on productivity tips for these features here.
Auto-Filter Emails with Rules
Outlook’s rules provide a powerful way to automatically organise the nonstop firehose of email. Outlook can automatically move emails that have attachments to a folder, send desktop or audio alerts from certain contacts and categorise emails based on their content.
To get started with rules:
- Click the Move folder in the Home tab
- Click Rules > Manage rules and alerts
- Click the New Rule… button to get to the wizard shown above
Outlook offers some common rule templates you can use. Select one, and then in Step 2, click on the underlined links to edit the details. If you want to create rule with more criteria, start from a blank rule: Choose either “Apply rule on messages I receive” or “Apply rule on messages I send” and then walk through the wizard.
For example, I wanted to categorise all emails from my Lifehacker co-writers as “Work” and also send those emails to a “Lifehacker” folder. To do that, I started with a blank “Apply rule on messages I receive.” The first condition I selected was “with specific words in the recipient’s address” and I put “@lifehacker.com” as the “specific words” value. Then I checked both the “move it to the specified folder” and “assign it to the category category” options and edited those values.
Other rules you might consider: Moving emails from senders who aren’t in your address book to a “Might Be Spam” folder, flagging all messages that are meeting requests, or combining messages from multiple email accounts into one unified folder.
If you upgrade to a new computer or use more than computer at a time, you can import and export your Outlook rules so you don’t have to recreate them. Again, go to Move > Manage Rules and Alerts. Then click the Options button to import or export the rules.
Use Quick Steps to Organise Emails with One Click
Rules are handy for automatically organising messages when you receive or send them, but often you’ll want to process emails individually. Outlook’s Quick Steps combines multiple actions into one-click buttons to make managing email less time-consuming. It’s like a macro for email handling.
Some default Quick Steps include moving messages to a specific folder and marking them as read, and forwarding emails to a specific contact or multiple contacts. For example, you might use a Quick Step to send newsletters to your “Reference” folder after you’ve read them, or forward messages that another department should handle to the proper email addresses.
You can create your own Quick Steps by clicking on the Quick Steps button in the Home tab, then choosing New Quick Step. For example, I often get requests for “quick” chats or meetings over coffee from PR companies, but I don’t have the time for that. So I set up a Quick Step in Outlook with a standard reply that I can quickly send in just one click. In the Quick Step, I chose Reply as the action and clicked the Options link to enter my canned text.
Combined with an Outlook rule that looks for messages that contain “quick call with” or “quick chat with”, this helps me deal with some of my most frequently received emails in one step.
Add an Email Signature
Outlook not only lets you create an email signature that will be included in every email you send, you can create multiple signatures and choose among them when you compose an email.
To create your first email signature (or modify an existing one:)
- Go to the File menu and click Options.
- Click Mail in the left menu.
- Click the Signatures… button.
- Then click the New button to create a signature or select an existing signature you can edit.
You can format your signature’s appearance, attach a contact card, insert web links, and more.
If you click the “Personal Stationery” tab in this Signatures and Stationery window, you can apply a theme for your HTML email messages and set the default font when composing or reading messages. However, most people prefer not to get HTML messages, so it’s better to leave the defaults as they are.
Finally, if you have more than one email account set up in Outlook, you can choose a different default signature for each account. Alternatively, when you’re composing an email, you can switch between email signatures by going to the Insert menu in the new message window and clicking the Signatures button, which looks like a pen over a piece of paper.
Share Your Calendar with Others
If you work in an office where people use your calendar to set up meetings and appointments with each other, there are a couple of ways you can set Outlook Calendar to show others when you’re busy or free.
If your company uses Microsoft Exchange Server, you can easily share your calendar with another Exchange user by going to the Home tab and clicking “Share Calendar”. In the sharing invitation, enter the email address of the person you want to share your calendar with.
If you’re not using Exchange, you can send your calendar details by email:
- Click the Email Calendar button in the Home tab
- Select the calendar information you want to share. You can choose the default calendar or any additional calendars you’ve created, a specific date range or your entire calendar and the level of detail to include: availability, availability and the event titles in your calendar or the full details of your calendar items.
- (Optional) In the advanced options, choose the email layout (daily schedule or list of events) and whether you want to include details for items marked private and/or attachments added to calendar items.
When you click OK, the calendar will be embedded in the body of an email message as a “Calendar Snapshot” and also included as an ICS (iCalendar file) attachment. If your email recipient also uses Outlook, he or she can open the Calendar Snapshot in Outlook and see your calendar next to their default calendar. However, if you change or add events, the calendar won’t be updated for the other person, so it’s a more limited version of “sharing” a calendar.
And, finally, Outlook 2016’s new Groups feature gives team members a group calendar that everyone can update. It’s only available for Office 365 work or school accounts, however.
Sync or Access Your Google Calendar with Outlook
If you use both Google Calendar and Outlook, you’ll probably want to keep your calendars in sync. The only way to do this right now is with a third-party utility. Slipstick lists a few tools that can do the job here, including freeware Outlook Google Calendar Sync, which How-To Geek describes in detail here. If your company uses Google Apps for work, Google offers a syncing tool for Outlook, which can keep your email, contacts, calendar and notes consistent between Outlook and Google’s products.
However, if all you want to do is be able to see your Google Calendar from within Outlook, you can do that by subscribing to your Google Calendar:
- In Google Calendar, click the arrow button next to the calendar you want to subscribe to in Outlook.
- Click Calendar settings.
- Select ICAL for the Private Address.
- Right-click the URL and click “Copy link address”.
- In Outlook, go to File and click Account Settings > Account Settings in the Info tab (yeah, it’s redundant).
- Click the Internet Calendars tab.
- Click New….
- Paste in the URL you copied.
- Name the calendar and enter a description if you wish.
Once you’re subscribed to the calendar, you’ll see all new and edited events when you select that calendar from the left navigation menu.
Create Contact Groups in Outlook
You probably email the same groups of people over and over again. If you create a contact group, you can not only email all those people at once without having to type in all of their email addresses, you can apply rules to identify and manage these kinds of group emails with ease.
- Click New Contact Group in the Home tab.
- Click Members > Add Members > From Address Book to select contacts. If there’s a contact you haven’t added to your address book yet, select Members > Add Members > New Email Contact.
- Double-click on each name in the address book you want to include in your group or enter in the details for the new contact.
- Click OK.
- Enter a name for the contact group.
Voila! Now you can quickly email all the members of the group or use this group contacts list elsewhere in Outlook, such as creating meeting invites in the calendar view.
What’s New in Outlook 2016
Like the other apps in Office, Outlook hasn’t picked up any radical new features or interface changes. However, there have been some welcome improvements:
- Clutter: Outlook’s “Clutter” feature is designed to help you filter away low-priority email. You have to turn Clutter on in the Outlook Web App and have an Office 365 subscription to use it. Once it’s turned on Outlook will keep track of the kinds of messages you read and the ones you don’t, and it will move unimportant emails into the Clutter folder.
- New Archive and Groups buttons on the ribbon make it quicker to get to these functions.
- Tell Me: As with the other Office programs, the Tell Me box at the top of the ribbon lets you search for the commands you need in Outlook.
- Better touch interface: If you have a Windows 2-in-1 and put it into tablet mode, Outlook’s interface becomes more touch-friendly, with larger buttons to tap.
There’s a lot more buried old and new features buried underneath the surface. Find out more about the newest version of Office on Microsoft’s blog.
Work Faster in Outlook with These Keyboard Shortcuts
Master a few keyboard shortcuts and you’ll get to inbox zero a lot quicker. Outlook has a ton of keyboard shortcuts, but these are some you’ll likely use most often:
- Ctrl+N: Create a new appointment, note, email or task when you are in that view.
- Ctrl+Shift+M: Create a new email message from any view.
- Ctrl+Shift+A: Create a new appointment from any view.
- Ctrl+Shift+C: Create a new contact from any view.
- Ctrl+Shift+N: Create a new note from any view.
- Ctrl+Shift+K: Create a new task from any view.
- Ctrl+E: Open the search box.
- Ctrl+M: Check for new email messages.
- Ctrl+Shift+I: Switch to the email inbox.
- Ctrl+Shift+O: Switch to the email outbox.
- Alt+S: Send a message.
- Up/Down Arrow: Go to the previous/next message.
- Ctrl+G: Go to a specific date on the calendar.
- Ctrl+D: Delete an item.
Also, you can right-click on the Outlook icon in the taskbar to quickly create a new email, appointment, meeting request, contact or task — without needing to switch to the Outlook window.
Additional Reading for Power Users
Love it or hate it, Outlook is a powerful tool that could help you get more organised. Here’s more reading to help you delve deeper into the program:
- 12+ tips and tricks to work faster in Microsoft Outlook: Create email templates and quickly save emails as files by dragging them to Windows Explorer.
- Use a custom Search Folder: Search Folders are awesome; they’re like the smart folders in OS X. Anything you regularly search for can be saved for quick access again later.
- Let someone else manage your calendar and email: Beyond sharing your Outlook folders or other specific items, such as your calendar, you can give someone else permission to read, create, modify and delete items in Outlook.
- Get reminders for missing attachments in Outlook: Never forget to add that attachment to your email.
- Use VBA and add-ins to power up Outlook: If there’s a feature you want that’s missing in Outlook, you’ll probably be able to add it or create a workaround using VBA or third-party utilities. Slipstick Systems compiles many of them and also offers more power user tips.
Some Outlook features are only available for those using Exchange (such as setting up an out-of-office reply), but even if you’re not using Exchange, Outlook still reigns as an all-in-one email, calendar, contacts, notes and task manager.