Best Practices for Outlook
June 4, 2021 7:00 AM   Subscribe

This guide will change the way you organize your email, for the better. "This article was written by the product team that created Microsoft Outlook for the best possible reason — our customers asked. Outlook is designed to be used by a wide audience with many work needs and styles. Although there's no one "right way," there are a few ways of working in the program that we know to be easier than others. We hope that by being aware of the best practices, you will have the best experience possible using Outlook."

I send this to my direct reports, it replaces a 4+ hour Outlook training course. It's so satisfying to have control over your emails again. Any time I deviate from this strategy, I later ignore it. But why aren't all these settings on by default!?

I hope by sharing it here, you can save a bit of time and stress everyday and everyone will be that much more happy and efficient! Using a tool effectively is fun.
posted by bbqturtle (101 comments total) 133 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh my gosh, you are a scholar and a gentleperson. I am overwhelmed and have likely untreated ADHD and am just generally turning into a slime mold from all the suboptimal pandemic work circumstances and all I want ever is for someone to give me the quickest reader's digest version of how to force the behemoth of O365 to work for me instead of the other way around. I feel like I'm permanently being jerked around by my technology, but Outlook is definitely a big source of that angst. I can't focus on videos, and I have a really hard time making time and focusing on training courses.

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. Best of the web right here.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 7:30 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


This guide will change the way you organize your email, for the better.

Sounds promising...

This article was written by the product team that created Microsoft Outlook

Sigh.
posted by flabdablet at 7:42 AM on June 4 [42 favorites]


why aren't all these settings on by default!?

Because the product team that created Microsoft Outlook really sucks at making tools that work in obvious ways and is really good at hiding the most useful settings in the most obscure little corners of the UI.

I loathe Microsoft Outlook precisely because I have had to waste such incredible amounts of time helping people who are stuck with it figure out how to get the beastly fucking thing not to trip them up every time they need to do anything more complicated than reading the most recent email in the inbox, in ways that aren't going to waste endless amounts of time for somebody else.

Any other mail client, with the possible exception of Incredimail, wastes less time.
posted by flabdablet at 7:47 AM on June 4 [20 favorites]


Any other mail client, with the possible exception of Incredimail, wastes less time.

May you be condemned to an eternity* using Lotus Notes.


* any time longer than about 30 days is approximately equal to an eternity
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:53 AM on June 4 [27 favorites]


May you be condemned to an eternity* using Lotus Notes

Wait, Lotus Notes still exists?
posted by Dr. Twist at 7:54 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


My previous employer was using lotus notes until about 2014 or something and holy cow it was bad. It really feels like it’s a database-backed application platform, and you’re not supposed to use it for email, that’s just the example app it comes with to give you ideas for your own database-backed applications you’re meant to develop on it, like IDK custom inventory management tools or whatever.
posted by aubilenon at 8:02 AM on June 4 [12 favorites]


Because the product team that created Microsoft Outlook really sucks at making tools that work in obvious ways and is really good at hiding the most useful settings in the most obscure little corners of the UI.
...
This article was written by the product team that created Microsoft Outlook

Hmm...
posted by Glenn Grothman at 8:02 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


In 3 or 4 years, after society has collapsed and we're scrambling around on the husks of crashed airplanes and large cargo ships somehow deposited hundreds of kilometers inland, looking for a meal, fresh water or a still legible copy of Readers Digest, people will mutter that the big mistake, that started everything, was people being forced to use 'Enterprise' software, because something-something-certified-best-practice.
posted by signal at 8:03 AM on June 4 [27 favorites]


Turning off all notifications, noises, popups, everything, was the best thing I ever did with email. My productivity went up significantly with this one small change. Nothing is so important that it cannot wait an hour or so until I check my email, and if it really is then pick up the phone, although the best productivity button on my phone is - "make busy." I reserve that for when I really need to focus on something without any distractions.
posted by caddis at 8:14 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


I loathe them for moving the search box into the header and because their 'Top Results' function adds noise without being useful 99% of the time. I can try and remember other reasons if pushed.
posted by biffa at 8:22 AM on June 4 [15 favorites]


Wait, Lotus Notes still exists?

I have two client companies that independently use it. Bad things happen with meeting invites.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:25 AM on June 4


As someone with 2,318 unread emails in my Outlook right now, I am very, very grateful for this post. And am trying to find my discipline / motivation grooves after losing them through personal tragedy in addition to covid last year. Utterly in a rut - this guide is a very nice step.
posted by glaucon at 8:32 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Outlook has existed for nearly 25 years and likely some parts of it are even older. There has always been great pressure to add new features and make Outlook connect to every one of Microsoft's services. They are also disincentived to remove features because with so many global users, there is some amount of people somewhere using those features. Likewise, radically transforming or simplifying the desktop experience is hard because there are hundreds of millions of people who know how the current product works and are hesitant to change. That's not to mention the bazillion articles, books and corporate support documents that are written for the current product.

With that said, Microsoft has been slowly working on an Outlook replacement. Effectively it will be taking the current Outlook On The Web experience and giving it a desktop wrapper and providing things like offline support, etc.
posted by mmascolino at 8:35 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


It's been over a decade since I had to use Outlook and I have not missed it once.
posted by GuyZero at 8:38 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


The only thing I slightly miss about Outlook was integrated mail merge, which still feels pretty hacky on everything else I've used.

I have to admit that my email was probably much more organized using Outlook, but that was primarily because of the mostly-useless search function - if I didn't organize it right away, it was potentially just fucking lost.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:43 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


I sent the link to my wife to read when she has downtime at work, so she can switch it out for the other documentation she's been going through in her downtime. Maybe she'll find something useful. Outlook is the emacs of email. It has literally every feature, somewhere.
posted by fedward at 8:52 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


In my experience, search doesn't work worth a damn in outlook, lotus notes or gmail. I have no idea why this is so, since search hasn't been rocket science since the 1970s.

The most annoying thing is that search seems to default to "any or none" of the words in the search phrase in all of these programs. Grrrrrr!!
posted by monotreme at 8:58 AM on June 4 [10 favorites]


In my experience, search doesn't work worth a damn in outlook, lotus notes or gmail. I have no idea why this is so, since search hasn't been rocket science since the 1970s.

It does work well in Gmail, though - esp. if coupled w/its Labels function. I forward anything important from my work email to my personal Gmail for long term findability for this reason.

Dealing w/Outlook every day, all day, is a consistent, grating lowpoint of my work (we used to use Gmail, which I was very happy w/). Case in point: last week, for no apparent reason, all of of my saved calendars were stripped out, and I had to go back and manually re-add them using a tool which, crammed down into the bottom corner of the calendar interface, is nearly unusable on a laptop.

Coming from MS Support as it does, I'm very skeptical, but will give this a look.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:04 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


One thing to note for users who use rules very heavily (like, excessively): The online version of Exchange imposes a size limit for the rules on a mailbox. Not a limit on the number of rules a mailbox can have, but a limit on the total size of the rules. There is no way (that I have been able to find) to see the current size of a mailbox's rules. I have only run into this a handful of times, and it can be increased from the default, but there is a maximum allowed value which I have seen a couple people crash into.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 9:05 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


As someone who has, in the past, been responsible for facilitating employee workshops on things like "best practices" for using various email software, this is a truly LOVELY resource. It combines all the most useful tips into one spot. I'm going to share this link with my coworkers.
posted by Annabelle74 at 9:11 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


There's a section on Categories. I like categories.

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

Nope.
posted by readinghippo at 9:17 AM on June 4 [23 favorites]


The only way to win the game is not to play the game. Outlook is the hottest of stinky garbage.

Former Outlook administrator here.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 9:24 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


I have been slow to shift to Outlook because it is soooo obstreperous, so I will be reading this with interest.

Playing World of Goo had a therapeutic effect on my email experience. YMMV.
posted by childofTethys at 9:24 AM on June 4


This article was written by the product team that created Microsoft Outlook

I groaned internally the first time I read that too. But, after going through most of the steps on this, I sure think they know their product well, and how people actually use it, and how they should use it. Common things like "Don't use folders, just have one folder for "everything you'll never need to look at again" and your inbox, are unintuitive (don't use this feature we made!) but save so much time sorting emails! Either you'll need to respond (inbox) or you don't (catch all).

And the other 100+ tips and tricks in there. Like, every single line takes 5 minutes to grok and implement [why should I make emails sent to me blue?] [HOW do I make emails sent to me blue?] but it's just so satisfying once you have blue emails, and conversations, and everything just set up perfect.
posted by bbqturtle at 9:27 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Sorry if my above comment was flippant to folks who's workplaces force them to use Outlook.

Just seeing this article about using Outlook sent me back to the time when I too was trapped, and I was physically angered and triggered. I'm still shaking a bit. It's really awful.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 9:28 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


"A set of folders for RSS Feeds." AKA "A set of tools for hunting wooly mammoths."

Methinks the article has not been updated in awhile.
posted by ITravelMontana at 9:33 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


AKA "A set of tools for hunting wooly mammoths."

Still a heavy user of RSS, and I just got a request from a faculty member to create a guide to using database RSS feeds + alerts for current awareness for graduate students taking mass media law classes ... dinosaurs still roam the earth (or at least teach at large public universities).
posted by ryanshepard at 9:40 AM on June 4 [14 favorites]


With Gmail, I completely abandoned any attempts to organize beyond the base inbox, spam, deleted, archived and starred tools once I started playing around with these...
posted by jim in austin at 9:40 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


fedward: ...Outlook is the emacs of email. It has literally every feature, somewhere.

Zawinski's law says: “Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.”

So, perhaps, it's reversible? Every program that can read mail eventually expands to do everything.
posted by SunSnork at 9:42 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


I... actually quite like Outlook. I missed it when I worked for a place that used Google Suite and I’m glad I work for a place that uses it again now.

Maybe my #1 reason for this is the ability to easily save an email thread as a file on your computer - not as a pdf, which is all Gmail lets you do, but as an actual openable, forwardable, answerable email. That has come in handy many many times over my various careers.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:43 AM on June 4 [14 favorites]


My current company switched to Outlook from Lotus Notes 6 months ago. You may not love Outlook but I promise, it's not the worst thing out there.
posted by beandip at 9:57 AM on June 4 [7 favorites]


you know what's great about Outlook?

.pst files.

and by great I mean a big pile of steaming turd.
posted by chavenet at 10:13 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


I stopped reading at "Name this folder 1-Reference. (Adding the 1- will cause it to be the first item under the Inbox.)" because THIS IS A HACK. THE FUCKING SOFTWARE DOESN'T LET YOU ORGANIZE THE FUCKING FOLDERS THE WAY YOU WANT AND THE GOD DAMN BEST PRACTICE DOCUMENT HAS TO RESORT TO A FUCKING HACK.

Fuck these people, in conclusion.
posted by disconnect at 10:15 AM on June 4 [42 favorites]


Effectively it will be taking the current Outlook On The Web experience and giving it a desktop wrapper and providing things like offline support, etc

This will go well considering right now Outlook is 2.25 GB of RAM whilst Photoshop is using 1.1 GB.
posted by nathan_teske at 10:19 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


You'll take away my Outlook folders from my cold, dead hands.
posted by double bubble at 10:30 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


Pst files are the worst solution for local email storage except for all other solutions which have been tried.
posted by JDHarper at 10:37 AM on June 4 [14 favorites]


Wow, that's a lot of tips.

Personally I've found Ducky Sherwood's advice to be really helpful: set up rules to sort your email into prioritized categories, without hiding stuff in different folders.
posted by russilwvong at 11:00 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


A: Top-posting.

Q: What's wrong with Outlook?
posted by genpfault at 11:09 AM on June 4 [17 favorites]


As a programmer, I found gsuite/gmail search worse than useless. Searching for a non-English string like "TR069_V2_ENABLE" would almost always return not-found, even when I could see one of the emails containing that string in my inbox! Fortunately I haven't been forced to use gmail in recent years.
posted by monotreme at 11:17 AM on June 4 [7 favorites]


So, let's talk about the time I archived e-mail before leaving a job, only to learn that Outlook on a PC can't import the archives created by Outlook on a Mac. For that you have to trust to third-party that's inevitably sold through a super-sketchy website. It's mind-bogglingly stupid. Also, as has been noted several times above, it's kind of impressive how terrible the search feature in Outlook is. If it were up to me I'd switch to Gmail in a hot second.
posted by wintermind at 11:19 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


I find the search feature so useless I have taken to using nonsense words (which I turn into white text on my white background just under my signature) to tag emails I know I'll need again - and I keep a document that tells me e.g. to search on "shazam" when I want the emails relating to candidates for the surgical fellowship I administer. It's a stupid hack but it does work, and not one person who receives these emails has ever noticed.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:40 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


I'm in the group of people who don't mind using Outlook. I would hate using Gmail to do my work. Like the rest of the Google suite, it is much more approachable for new users but it doesn't match Outlook for responsiveness and lacks many features we use on a regular basis. You definitely have to invest time in learning Outlook well to get the most out of it though.

Worst archaic feature of Outlook is easily the Address Book, though.
posted by ecreeves at 11:45 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


1000% the best thing I ever did with email is to stop filing. Like many in IT I get too much email (250k last year...) Rules take care of most, and the rest is either in my Inbox or moved to the "not inbox" folder and I trust that search will find me anything that I ever need to find. Literal hours of my life saved every day once I gave up on worrying about putting things in well-organized folders.
posted by mincus at 11:52 AM on June 4 [10 favorites]


Came for the Lotus Notes comparison and hate, was not unsatisfied.

I remember it used to crash so spectacularly and uncleanly that it came bundled with additional software, ZapNotes, whose job it was just to clean up after the crash so you could start Lotus Notes up again.
posted by meowzilla at 12:03 PM on June 4 [5 favorites]


Can you configure Outlook to reply correctly nowadays, or does it still refuse to do anything but corporate-style reply-first?
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:03 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Either you'll need to respond (inbox) or you don't (catch all).

I'm kinda peeved that everyone thinks everyone else uses folders the same way. Or that emails are only "respond to, or not."

I look in my folders quite a bit. All the applications for a scholarship into one folder as they come in - then I collate the info from the folder after the scholarship deadline. Same for many other projects I'm working on - group all the emails together to be processed (not replied to) at a later date.

The only thing worse than (desktop) Outlook is (web-based) Outlook. Actually, I know that's not true because my husband has to use Lotus Notes for many years and his coworkers were always sending emails in pink daisy fonts and shit.

There's a new Outlook I was prompted to switch to, but I switched back right away because I didn't have time to figure out how to stop my inbox looking like exploded garbage.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 12:30 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I'd LOVE to drop folders - I truly do spend too much time filing - but that would rely on all my colleagues using subject lines and suchlike worth a damn that i could ever feel confident in finding anything.
posted by ominous_paws at 12:34 PM on June 4 [6 favorites]


Either you'll need to respond (inbox) or you don't (catch all).

I'm kinda peeved that everyone thinks everyone else uses folders the same way. Or that emails are only "respond to, or not."


Seriously, this thinking would be bonkers wrong for my workflow. I need folders, I need to categorize certain items for many reasons and might go back to an email at any time. I hate Outlook and their poor search but at least folders helps to locate things quickly.
posted by tiny frying pan at 12:38 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


Categories = tags. Set your folders to view by categories, and make a button on your ribbon to collapse all.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:44 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


And do this for all things dating back 2 years? Sounds like too much of a headache. As well as...have no idea what you're talking about. What is easy for some...
posted by tiny frying pan at 12:51 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


GCU Sweet and Full of Grace: First message only with the built-in autoreply. You can set up a rule to do replies that will happen every time but it's pretty janky.

I've found Outlook's search features have improved a lot since the bad old days of 2007 and 2010. So started going with the gmail style "Inbox" and "Archive" model, with rules to filter out automated alerts into folders. And I try (oh how I try!) to get that inbox down as small as I can.

I find for me that having a bunch of folders means my brain fuzzes out when I look at the list. Much like people who keep elaborate bullet journals, I wish I my brain organized that way, but I never find the payoff to be worth the time it takes to do that organizing.
posted by JDHarper at 1:09 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Outlook on the Mac is so b0rked that you can't move from reading one message to the next using keys, whereas on Windows it's Control-[. You really have to close the message and then open the next one.

Go back to hell, Microsoft, for telling people to work around your shoddy products instead of fixing the obvious head-slapping flaws.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:30 PM on June 4 [6 favorites]


Came for the top-posting hate and was not disappointed. Is this a Linux user group circa 2003?

Everything-that-isn't-Outlook = wrong in business circles. Unless an email is sent from Outlook, you can guarantee that there's a corporate user somewhere who gets your message as an unreadable smear.

The only thing I slightly miss about Outlook was integrated mail merge

I think they've screwed that up or lost it completely. Doing anything from templates is now lots of clicks in super-obscure menus.
posted by scruss at 1:35 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Outlook on the Mac is so b0rked that you can't move from reading one message to the next using keys, whereas on Windows it's Control-[. You really have to close the message and then open the next one.

People read individual messages in their own window instead of just using the preview pane?

You guys, I’m starting to think my own personal experience might not be universal.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:41 PM on June 4 [15 favorites]


I groaned internally the first time I read that too.

If I ask Sir Alex Ferguson what the best football team in the world is, I shouldn't be surprised when he tells me.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 2:41 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Preview pane renders HTML -- and if you believe you might get spam or phishing emails, then you don't want to give that message a chance to assemble itself.

As in the movie "Aliens," I want to cleanse all BEC threats from orbit with nuclear fire.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:37 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]


People read individual messages in their own window instead of just using the preview pane?

I often open in their own window emails that I can't deal with immediately but need to answer that day, so they sit there reproaching me until I deal with them.
posted by joannemerriam at 3:57 PM on June 4 [16 favorites]


I recently created a rule that sends email to the Clutter folder if it has the text "unsubscribe" in the email body. It is literally the best. I look once a week to make sure there's nothing I actually want to deal with, otherwise trash it all.

Also I've been working for 10+ years and I can't believe this is new to me: "if you are one of five people who receive a question and you want to answer it, move the other four people to the Bcc line and write something such as "Bcc'ing Joe, Jeff, James, and Jennifer. Here's the answer…" Future messages will then be between only you and the original sender." I know Reply-All is bad, but it felt like that was the only way to handle this scenario (which happens a lot at my job) and now I feel like a dumbass.
posted by Is It Over Yet? at 4:12 PM on June 4 [21 favorites]


I recently created a rule that sends email to the Clutter folder if it has the text "unsubscribe" in the email body.

You are a GENIUS. Just implemented this and it seems to work. I added some conditionals to filter out emails with "tracking", "USPS", etc. to make sure it doesn't catch shipment notifications. Thank you!!

Also, spent the morning implementing some of the tips from the FPP. Setting up my inbox with one big "archive" and establishing automated search folders where needed does seem to improve my workflow so far.
posted by Emily's Fist at 4:24 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Yeah some of my job (as a high school year level coordinator) was that I'd get notified of stuff recorded in our school management system automatically with no way to unsubscribe. First step was to filter out all of these messages from my inbox so I wouldn't miss any important emails from my principal, and they'd be in one place. Then filter out messages that I put on the system (thanks, dumb program, for emailing me that I'd recorded a new note). Then I filtered out stuff that I didn't need urgently (sometimes I'd get tagged in good stuff kids were doing and eh it's nice but gets in the way of fire fighting).

And then I still needed to comb through the system itself what was going on because sometimes you'd get a flustered teacher who would record an incident report without tagging in coordinators...

This month officially marks my year off work, and pandemic wise who knows how my plan to do relief teaching will work out ... But email. Email is a massive part of my job.
posted by freethefeet at 6:37 PM on June 4


I've used everything from Pine to Elm to Mutt to Eudora to (Mac) Mail to Thunderbird to Postbox. All e-mail clients suck in some way, and none of them are really all that much better than the others.

At my current job we're full on Microsoft 365, and I love the fact that I can flag an e-mail in Outlook and have that show up in To Do so I can create a task. I also love Conversation view, and first thing Monday morning I'm going to figure out that conditional formatting trick to have e-mails directly to me in blue and e-mails from my boss in green.

I also move things into folders, either manually or with a rule. I sort of get the "dump it all into one inbox and search" method, but I like having things separated out so I know where to look for them. As someone else mentioned, I can't always rely on someone using a subject line that makes sense.
posted by ralan at 6:50 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]


Anyone who has suffered through the atrocity of search in Outlook should look on search in Thunderbird and despair. It is so much better in so many ways, I don’t know why every mail client on the planet isn’t stealing the interface. Seriously, go try it. It’s astonishingly good. Thunderbird’s message filters also crush Outlook (much simpler to configure, you can have “or” and “and” logic, and you can change rules while reading email to see them in action as you create them! - I hate that Outlook locks up when the settings or filters windows are open, goddamn multithread already, it’s 2021!!!)

Search on web client - Gmail does the same stupid shit Google does, where when you put in some terms (code, operators, etc) it thinks it’s smarter than you and helpfully ignores your entry to search on something else. Which is fine for a lot of people but not being able to force search to ACTUALLY be verbatim at times is just fucking insufferable.

I’ve used Thunderbird for over 2 decades. It’s great. Work forces me to use Outlook, and I’ve come to terms with it over the past 6 years. A d now my academic appointment is changing my mail options to web only - no ability to use anything other than Gmail web client for HIPAA reasons - so I’m fucking thrilled. I’ll keep Thunderbird for my personal mail but my two work accounts are stuck on the two worst options for me now. Yay.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:07 PM on June 4 [7 favorites]


I love Outlook so much. Can’t wait to spend some time tomorrow with my laptop and morning tea going through these tips! What a Saturday.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:21 PM on June 4 [7 favorites]


Also, Outlook filters?

1. Shit I have to read and respond to (based on sender - e.g. from my boss or direct reports): goes in a folder.
2. Shit I have to know about but not necessarily respond to: goes in a different folder (based on sender / group or keywords)
3. Shit I most likely can ignore: goes into a folder, scan subject lines, if important I read, otherwise all marked as read
4. Shit I know I can ignore - stuff I’m copied on, autoreplies, mailing lists that are required for all staff but are just pointless - goes in a folder. That folder gets right-clicked and I select “delete all” at least once a day.

Anything I can’t auto-filter using the above stays in my inbox.

Net result is that I end my day with 95% or more of my mail handled. “Mark all as read” is used heavily, because “read” = I’m done with this forever.

I’d follow advice not to bother sorting mail in Outlook if the search functions worked worth a damn, but they don’t. If you use this awful program and don’t use mail rules, start learning about them, they are lifesavers.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:23 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Outlook mostly makes me tired, it’s just a bunch of additional crap that I have to deal with. Gmail was fine. I mostly use the other MS dumpster fire, Teams, when we had to switch from Slack.

The bigger challenge I find is dealing with the weirdness of outlook calanders. I found Maintain Calendar Harmony, a self described “wall of text” from the Cornell University IT department to be remarkably helpful to understanding how exchange calendars actually work and how to avoid some of the biggest pitfalls.
posted by rockindata at 8:12 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


I read this article when someone posted it in an AskMe question, and it’s been open in a tab on my phone for... a year?

I’m in a pretty email heavy job, and I’ve moved to a 3 folder system - in box means I haven’t seen it, or I need to act. In progress means I’ve acted, and may need to follow up in the future. Done means I will probably never look at it again. I was very wary of doing this, but turns out it’s... fine.

I’m going to start colouring my email blue on Monday!
posted by Valancy Rachel at 10:10 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


RSS-using dinosaur here, please enlighten me on what I should be using instead?

(No, I don't use Outlook for RSS feeds, not that crazy. Current reader of choice Feedly)

Thanks for the good first post, this thread moved me from lurker to member.
posted by lrose at 10:46 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]


Still better than Teams, where everything seems to turn into a rolling 20 person chat.
posted by kersplunk at 11:10 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


at my last job I (who had been defaulted into customer service tasks based on femaleness/lack of seniority/failure to say no/idk) had a folder called "Peter's Problem" into which I would drag everything that I had determined to be Peter, the sales guy's, problem

cannot recommend this highly enough

even if you don't work with Peter that doesn't mean your emails aren't his problem
posted by taquito sunrise at 2:51 AM on June 5 [8 favorites]


Just remember the sage advice of the Magic 8 Ball: "Outlook is Bad."
posted by bitslayer at 3:02 AM on June 5 [6 favorites]


Turning off all notifications, noises, popups, everything, was the best thing I ever did with email. My productivity went up significantly with this one small change. Nothing is so important that it cannot wait an hour or so until I check my email, and if it really is then pick up the phone, although the best productivity button on my phone is - "make busy." I reserve that for when I really need to focus on something without any distractions.

Very key. I have an email heavy job but I do at least manage to contain the damage to a 10 minute period every hour rather than constantly being bleeped and blooped at.
posted by atrazine at 3:53 AM on June 5


Just remember the sage advice of the Magic 8 Ball: "Outlook is Bad."

The text is , "Outlook not so good." I've always loved the phrasing.
posted by mikelieman at 5:02 AM on June 5 [9 favorites]


A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
posted by signal at 5:51 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I still miss Entourage. Being able to flag a bunch of emails, contacts and docs as associated with a particular project was awesome. (The crashes destroying your entire email store, not so much.)
posted by neilbert at 6:45 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I have mostly neutral feelings about Outlook. It functions ok, but also has some really irritating aspects. Many (maybe even most) of the suggestions in the link won't work for me*, but there are a number of things that I'm going to try implementing and see how it works.

* Like others have said, putting all the emails into one folder and using search would not work at all for the ways I need to track and use emails.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:16 AM on June 5


I love Outlook so much. Can’t wait to spend some time tomorrow with my laptop and morning tea going through these tips! What a Saturday.

Folks, I think there may be a need for an intervention here.
posted by simra at 8:28 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]


But seriously, I use Outlook in my day job and Gmail for a couple volunteer projects, and while I use similar strategies for both, I much prefer outlook and its idiosyncrasies over gmail.

That said I will never find a solution for tracking to-follow-up emails. I secretly call the flagging feature the flag of shame since I know months later I’ll get around to digging out flagged emails and realize all the things I failed to track.

Smart search folders are a nice idea but I use them too infrequently and they take forever to populate when you open them after a long interval.
posted by simra at 8:39 AM on June 5


I used to use and support GroupWise and it was pretty functional in 2000. Delighted to be mostly done with Outlook, using it occasionally for a very part-time job. It always feels bloated.

My Best Practice for email is to view it as text only. I do not want or need your purty email decorations and logos, and can view pictures of dogs if they are sent to me.
posted by theora55 at 9:18 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I forward anything important from my work email to my personal Gmail

Probably not the best idea, generally speaking...
posted by Jubal Kessler at 9:32 AM on June 5 [4 favorites]


A 60-page best practices guide is like a pencil that weighs ten pounds.
posted by storybored at 10:09 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]


MetaFilter: a Linux user group circa 2003
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:29 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


I might try the reference folder strategy. I mostly use outlook like this already, but I don't have a reference folder. I abuse 'mark as read/unread' liberally to make unread status = I need to do something with this or haven't seen it yet, and read status = saved for later searching, but essentially done with this. Seems like the same thing, but I'll give it a try and see if it's nicer.

There is no deleting, ever, except when ordered for e-spill (classified info, PII) reasons. I never know when someone's going to dispute something that seemed unremarkable from a long time ago.
posted by ctmf at 1:33 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Eh, and I might give outlook tasks another try. I do a pseudo-gtd thing with a table of tasks and metadata like action/waiting/someday status and project association, so it's pretty finely filterable/sortable. But it's an excel window I have to keep open all the time and remember to save, so I've had a few minor accidents with that. Email integration and drag/drop would be nice, but not if it ends up being harder to use.
posted by ctmf at 1:36 PM on June 5


ctmf, if you have access to To Do (part of the Microsoft 365 suite of applications) you might find that easier to use / manage than just Tasks in Outlook and your current Excel method. I frequently flag e-mails, and those show up in To Do - I can create checklists, set reminders, set due dates, etc., for each item.

I keep To Do open on my desktop all the time, and I've just gotten into the habit if managing my tasks there.
posted by ralan at 3:32 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I think the article presents a good set of approaches for coming in cold. If I were introduced to modern office email today, I'd ..., well, I think I'd feel like an old man trying to grok Twitter. (I am, and I've not yet been able to.)

It's a lot of stuff I've been overthinking since whoever I was working for at the time "upgraded" from cc:Mail. I don't really see much here that's more helpful to me than my Delete key. I started learning back in the Usenet days to recognize and ignore posts with stupid subject lines: blank, [unspecified] "help", [group title], greetings, newbie asking for tips before reading even the first article, etc. I delete noise (as opposed to signal) from my work inbox with such abandon, it's really not worth the trouble to configure Rules.

I delete not-explicitly-to-me messages originating above my grandboss: If it matters, I'll get it through other channels. I delete the copy-everyone-for-CYA messages: On the off chance there's something to reference, it's retrievable from the trash for weeks beyond that potential. Most automated messages are trashed by Rule, but I delete the garbage that occasionally slips by. I delete, by Rule and on principle, high priority messages from that small handful of people who seem to have "High" set as their default. I delete, because fuck you, anything prefaced with "Please Read:". If it's important to me, the rest of your subject line will make that obvious.

Everything that's left becomes a pretty good list of what's going on and what I need to do.

All that said, Outlook lacks a really important piece of functionality. You can't automatically respond to a meeting invitation.(*) A good 60% of the noise to which I do have to respond just puts system updates on my calendar. They don't often directly affect me—and never without the timing and impact information coming from elsewhere when they do—there's no expected attendance, and no one pays the least mind as to whether the event does appear on my personal calendar. But when I come back from a week of vacation to an inbox of 200 emails, it's those dozen or so that take my unneeded attention.

(*)I'd love to be corrected on this. I've Googled, and I don't think it's just the way we're configured. I think it's actually not there.
posted by phrits at 9:02 PM on June 5


Pretty sure you can do this, phritz! It’s in your File > Options > Calendar settings and set it to automatically accept all meeting invites. But then you may also need to set some rules for your inbox to move those emails somewhere—they don’t automatically disappear even if you accept things on your calendar (manually or otherwise).
posted by iamkimiam at 11:28 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I'm seriously confused by the Outlook hate. I probably don't use a lot of email features, but my current job requires me to use Thunderbird, and it still makes me want to scream every time I use it in any way.
The search is so mind-bogglingly, astonishingly, stupidly bad. The edit window is a catastrophe. Some formats from pasting cannot be undone. Ctrl Z works in entirely unpredictable ways. All emails I send and receive look utterly unprofessional, because there are formatting bugs which either can't be undone or aren't visible in the edit window. All menus are named in mysterious ways. Upon right clicking an email I get a bajillion options I don't want or need, yet I need two clicks to mark an email as read. The search footer width doesn't auto-adjust to screen size, so I cannot close it without extra wrangling. It is heartbreakingly ugly. The whole thing seems to have been programmed by one guy in the 00s on one of those freeware pages.

In short, I would cry with relief to be allowed to work with Outlook again.
posted by any_name_in_a_storm at 2:21 AM on June 6 [2 favorites]


Upon right clicking an email I get a bajillion options I don't want or need, yet I need two clicks to mark an email as read.

Easiest way to mark an email read/unread in Thunderbird is a single left click on the read/unread status dot in its inbox line.

Paste Without Formatting (keyboard shortcut is ctrl-shift-V) might save you a bit of grief as well.
posted by flabdablet at 3:09 AM on June 6


The rule I want to be able to program is basically: If [category] is over x days old, then [action]. It’s trivial to set a date and delete everything before that, but I want a rolling rule to, say, delete newsletters that I may or may not ever read but will become dated or obsolete, without having to clear them out periodically. Or something that I will need only in the next two weeks, like the receipt for an Internet order until it arrives and is deemed satisfactory, and then not at all. In my ideal world these rules would run in the background once or twice a day, quietly clearing out cruft.

In other news, I hate the Microsoft (née Office) 365 ecosystem. I don’t want your stinking cloud. I live somewhere with sketchy internet, so I get endlessly screwed by accidentally saving something to OneDrive.
posted by carmicha at 3:28 AM on June 6 [2 favorites]


With that said, Microsoft has been slowly working on an Outlook replacement. Effectively it will be taking the current Outlook On The Web experience and giving it a desktop wrapper and providing things like offline support, etc.

Well whoopee shit.

Microsoft made a profit of $15 billion dollars last quarter, and has well over $100 billion in cash in hand. They can make Outlook work yesterday or fuck off.
posted by howfar at 8:17 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]


the current Outlook On The Web experience

Does Outlook On The Web yet provide a way to flick-pass an identical copy of an incoming mail to somebody else - that is, a copy that will look exactly the same in their inbox as it did in mine, just as if it had been bcc'd to them by whoever sent it to me?

Last time I had to touch OWA was years ago, and it didn't have this, not even as a filter rule action. Closest it could do was forwarding, which crapped up the subject line and re-parsed the mail body, usually to its detriment. Has it improved?
posted by flabdablet at 8:50 AM on June 6


I'm far from a MS fan, but I think most of the hate directed at Outlook should, properly, be directed at email itself.

Here's the core problem. Email was invented in the late 1970's and was based on assumptions that were reasonable for that time but are wrong in every single particular in the modern era. Because it was designed to solve problems of that time, not to predict the future and solve our modern problems.

The assumptions that went into email were:

1) No one will ever use email for anything but short (less than 5,000 words or so) text only messages.

2) After being read those messages will be immediately discarded.

3) The internet is small and everyone knows everyone else.

4) The single most important thing is to guarantee that email is delivered at all costs because the internet is wonky and routing is a hard problem that hasn't been solved so email servers need to act as routers and pass email along to other servers.

You'll note that none of this is true in the modern world.

We want email to be a general parcel delivery system like the name implies, we want to be able to send 600gb video of our weddings to Aunt Marge and we want our email to look kind of nice not just blobs of text.

Business wants to keep email forever, make it easily searchable and indexable, and use it for important business stuff where records must be retained.

The internet is vast, there are malicious actors sponsored by hostile governments, no one knows anyone else, and we **REALLY** need email to be secure, senders and recipients to be authenticated and authorized, and we need to be able to tie any given email to any given actual real account somewhere so we can end spam.

The internet is rock solid, delivery is trivial, having routing be handled by your email server is absurd, and there is never any need at all for my email server to act as a middle man and pass along email from someone outside my organization to someone outside my organization.

So, yeah. Outlook sucks. I'm totally in agreement. I work with Outlook daily, I try to make it work for my users, and it's kludgy and so damn many important things are hidden behind bizarre hidden interfaces.

But the real problem isn't Outlook. The real problem is that we're trying to do 2021 stuff on a protocol built in 1978 to solve 1978 problems and SMTP is just not up to the task.

Clearly we need an email replacement that will do what modern people need.

The problem is in the modern world the odds of getting a vendor neutral, universally agreed on, replacement are about nil. Every company that's in a position to develop a real email replacement wants to make it their proprietary thing and make a bazillion dollars out of it.

So we're stuck, and I predict we'll still be using the creaky, antique, SMTP protocol in 2121...
posted by sotonohito at 11:58 AM on June 6 [3 favorites]


Not even remotely adequate. I receive at *least* a thousand emails a day. I don't need to read them all, but I need to have many of them. Most of them come to distribution lists, and using rules and folders sort of works. I currently have well over 20,000 unread emails. What I actually need, is a way to get people to stop sending me unnecessary crap. Which isn't going to happen until someone in management decides that we should inventory all the systems we have in place, what units/departments they affect, and where all the dependencies are, and notify as such. You're doing database maintenance on a system that doesn't touch anything I'm responsible for? I probably don't need the change control form, the approval, the notice that work is about to begin, the notice that work has begun, the notice that the work is ongoing, the notice that work will be finished soon, the notice that work has finished, and a corresponding email from someone in management saying "Thanks" for every single one of those.
posted by mrgoat at 3:08 PM on June 6 [2 favorites]


That said I will never find a solution for tracking to-follow-up emails.

In Gmail there is now a native Snooze functionality. Or you can use Boomerang, which is slightly more powerful and available in Outlook as well.
posted by bashing rocks together at 9:39 PM on June 6 [1 favorite]


With that said, Microsoft has been slowly working on an Outlook replacement. Effectively it will be taking the current Outlook On The Web experience and giving it a desktop wrapper and providing things like offline support, etc.

News to me - I wonder if this means they will have a more functional OWA experience. I've started using OWA (I guess they call it "Outlook on the web" now) most of the time this past year due to a not-ideal work-from-home setup (long story) and have been rather disappointed in the experience. The basics are fine, but things like rules and conditional formatting either aren't available or just never work. As it is now it doesn't even come close to the desktop experience.
posted by photo guy at 12:21 PM on June 7


i haven't read all the comments, but i really like outlook. sure, i think the rss folders are absurd and i HATE the way my org manages outlook and multiple inboxes. but on the whole i like it and am glad to have it. probably because i have been using it for over 20 years?
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:21 PM on June 7


probably because i have been using it for over 20 years?

That, plus I have an additional excuse. On government computers with numerous government-developed applications, Outlook is one of the more pleasant experiences by comparison.
posted by ctmf at 2:59 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


The rule I want to be able to program is basically: If [category] is over x days old, then [action].

I found a new thing today! This may only be available in the browser version of Outlook (and I wish it had more options like Rules), but you can use Sweep to handle email by sender. It has a couple of options like move to another folder after 10 days (the other folder can be trash!), or move all but the most recent one.

I also just found Retention Policies! On a per-folder basis, you can tell it to delete stuff after 1 week, 1 month, etc. It also seems to be browser only and there might be more or fewer options depending on your Exchange admins.

I combined these 2 today to keep only the most recent Company Newsletter in my Inbox, move the others to a Company Newsletter Archive folder, and after 6 months delete. My Inbox is clean(ish)!!
posted by Is It Over Yet? at 8:28 PM on June 7 [3 favorites]


Thanks so much for those suggestions, Is It Over Yet?! Unfortunately those features aren't available for all current editions of Outlook, but they give me hope that one day we will all be able to sweep and set retention policies. Sigh...
posted by carmicha at 7:50 AM on June 9


any_name_in_a_storm: "I probably don't use a lot of email features, but my current job requires me to use Thunderbird, and it still makes me want to scream every time I use it in any way."

any_name_in_a_storm, I sent you MeFi Mail... I don't fully get why Thunderbird features I love are impossible for you to deal with, but I had some suggestions that may help you live with the mail client being forced upon you. Sorry, it's long, but I promise there are some good tips there. (And yes I agree with you, the Tbird "compose" window can be a hot mess.)

I still hate Outlook though. It is just full of so many stupid UI decisions. Why for example does Outlook not let me right-click on a name and just pick "copy email"? Why is that function buried in a floating popup window multiple clicks deep, and why does the window automatically disappear if I accidentally click off of it? Why does it let me add a nickname to a contact, and then REFUSE to use that nickname to match on when I am composing mail? What's even the point there? Why does it have a global address book, but default to looking only in my local address book when I'm searching for an unknown contact? Why, when showing me a column view of possible matches from a global address book, WHY won't the stupid program let me SORT the results by the columns provided? Why won't it show me WHICH email is selected for a person who has multiple emails to choose from? Why does it allow me to send mail on behalf of another user, but (outside of mail header search hacks!) has zero ability to filter "on behalf of" email in any way whatsoever? Why do message filters not allow me to use the email address, so that people with multiple email addresses can't get mail filtered differently? (I mean, that's an edge case, but CHRIST it is annoying!) Why does it save my message filters on the Exchange server, but no one thought that syncing preferences in the same way was worthwhile, so I have to set the goddamned program up from scratch every time I log into a new machine? Why the almighty hell is it impossible to set filters on a shared mailbox, so all of my coworkers tasked with monitoring our generic catch-all office email have to filter everything that comes in by hand?

What horrible person designed this torture device? And WHY is it so popular? I will truly never understand.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:17 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


Is It Over Yet?: "I also just found Retention Policies!"

Yeah I am aware. It seemed useful until I tried it. Federal job, mandated retention period per National Archives and Records Agency is 6 years, good luck trying to get Outlook to automatically do this for you. 6 years is not an option. Just like the stupid limitations on search time frame, if it's not one of the pre-defined ranges, you can't do it automatically.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:20 AM on June 11


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