6 Microsoft Outlook Features for a More Organized Inbox

6 Microsoft Outlook Features You Should Be Using

Microsoft Outlook has been around for decades now, and in that time has established itself as the most widely used email application in the professional workplace. Anyone reading this article almost definitely either uses Outlook actively at their current job or has used it in some capacity in their career.

Outlook is great for sending, receiving, and organizing emails, and many people use Outlook for years with just these most basic functions, and it serves them well. However, there are a wealth of features in Outlook that can help you save valuable time by better organizing information and automating tasks.

In this article, we are going to review 6 Microsoft Outlook features that you can start using today to organize your inbox and be more productive. Though there are many more features that we could cover, these 6 provide a good starting point in using Outlook more effectively.

1. Categories

This first feature, aptly named “Categories”, allows you to classify messages in your Inbox and other folders into different categories.
When viewing emails in your Outlook list, you’ll notice on the Ribbon at the top of your screen, there is a Categorize button that looks like this.

(Note: You can also access this button if you right-click an email, as well as within a single email if you double-click it to open it in a new window).

By default, Outlook has several Categories already created, named for the colors associated with them. If these work for you, then great! But Outlook allows you to go deeper and customize the Categories. To do so, click on the “All Categories…” menu option.

On the screen that follows, you can click any Category you want, rename it, assign it a different color, and even assign a Shortcut Key, which allows you to quickly set a message to that Category by using the keyboard shortcut you choose from the list. You’ll also notice that you can create brand new categories from this same screen.

In my example, I renamed the Green Category to “Informational”, the Blue Category to “Technical Requests”, and I also created a brand new category called “Blog Articles”. I also assigned a different Shortcut Key to each of my categories so that when I am in my email list, I can quickly press this keyboard shortcut to categorize them accordingly.

Now, once we know how to set Categories, we also need to know how they can be used.

When you set a Category on an email, you’ll notice it appears at the top of the email directly under the Subject line.

If you want it to show up in your list view, go to the View tab on the main screen, click on View Settings, and click the button for “Columns…”.

Then, find Categories on the list on the left (Available Columns), and click the Add > button so it appears on the right (“Show these columns…”).


Your screen should look something like this.

Click OK to accept your changes, and when you get back to the list view, you’ll notice the colors corresponding to the Categories you choose will appear in your list of emails.

2. Follow-Up Flags

The next Microsoft Outlook feature called “Follow-Up Flags”, is another way to help stay organized by marking messages, particularly in the case where there is some action needed from you in response. You aren’t always able to answer every email or do every task immediately, so you can use Follow-Up Flags to keep track of when you need to respond. This way you can plan your days and make sure you don’t miss any follow-ups.

Like Categories, you can add a Follow-Up Flag either from the Ribbon under the Follow Up menu, or you can right-click the message and get to the same menu.

From there, you can choose either a preset flag, or you can choose a custom. For example, if I wanted to mark something that needs a follow up tomorrow, I would choose the Tomorrow flag.

When you add a Follow Up Flag to an email, it shows a yellow highlight in the list so that you can quickly visually identify it.

There are additional options you can access if you choose a Custom flag. As you see here, you can choose a Start date, Due date, and even set a Reminder at a certain date and time. These are all intended to help you keep a timeline and not miss any obligations.

The flag feature gets especially useful when you see how it integrates with Tasks in Outlook, which is accessed by clicking the Tasks icon  in the same row as the Mail, Calendar, and Contacts icons.

Every time you mark an email with a flag, it shows up in your Tasks list with the information you specified in the flag. As you process through your emails, if you add flags to the items that need follow ups, you can refer to this Task view for a running to-do list where you can check items off your list. In either the email list view or the Task view, if you click on the flag icon on a particular item, that item will be marked as Complete and will then no longer show on your active Task list.

3. Arrangements

The next feature, called Arrangements, is a View option that lets you show your list of emails under different organizational headers. To access Arrangements, go to the View tab in the Ribbon. There you will see the top of the list of available Arrangements, and if you click the expand arrow, you will see even more options.

By default, most Outlook clients are set to the “Date” Arrangement which lists emails chronologically by the date they were received, but you can choose any of these other options that might be useful to you like Categories and Flags which we’ve already discussed. The below screenshot shows my list under the Arrangement of “Categories”, and you’ll notice there is a different header for each of the Categories I’ve set. (The top of my list, which isn’t visible in the screenshot, displays all the messages that have no Category applied).

You can quickly switch between the different Arrangements and observe how they change your list to see what might be useful to you.

4. Searching

Another important and robust feature in Outlook is the Search function, which can be accessed from anywhere in Outlook on the very top Title bar. Once you click the Search box, another ribbon appears with many different options for refining different search criteria.

Again, you’ll notice options here for the first two topics discussed in this article: Categorized and Flagged. You can use this to quickly find messages with a particular Category or Flag applied, and you can also combine these criteria together for a more specific search. Maybe you want to find messages with a specific Category that you have Flagged for follow-up, like this message.

Another nice thing about the search function is that you can search inside a single folder, a set of folders, an entire mailbox, and even in all the mailboxes you have open in your whole Outlook. This way, no matter how you choose to sort your emails, you can quickly find all messages with your chosen criteria.

When you run searches, your criteria are saved and able to be recalled later, so you can click the “Recent Searches” button and choose a set of criteria you’ve used recently. This can be useful if need to do the same searches frequently.

There are many other options available in the Search ribbon, so I encourage you to be curious and try different things out.

5. Quick Actions

These last two features are designed to help you save time by eliminating clicks in your workflow, so it makes sense that they both have “Quick” in the name.

The first, called “Quick Actions”, are buttons that appear in your email list when you hover over emails, and offer a quick way to do certain things to your messages. By default, when you hover over a message, you will see a Delete button and a Flag button, like here:

You can use these Quick Actions buttons if you prefer, or you can change them by right-clicking an email and clicking “Set Quick Actions”.

This gives you a few other options to change one or both of the Quick Actions that display, or you can disable one or both of them entirely by choosing “None”. In my example, I chose to keep Delete as #1, but changed #2 to Move (moves message to another folder of my choice)


6. Quick Steps

Quick Steps are kind of like Quick Actions but accessed differently and offer many more options for automation. While Quick Actions perform a single action from the short list of available actions, Quick Steps can perform multiple actions of different kinds to the selected message.

From your list view, in the Ribbon you will find an entire section for Quick Steps. Start by clicking the expand arrow at the bottom-right of that section to bring up the Manage Quick Steps dialog box.

I use Quick Steps to quickly move emails to certain folders in my mailbox, so the only ones that appear for me in this screenshot are basic Move actions. To add a new Quick Step, you can click the New button, where you’ll see a list of preset options to get you started, or you can choose Custom to start from scratch.

To dive deeper into Quick Steps, I’ll demonstrate creating a more complex one with multiple steps.

Suppose my goal is to have a button that I can click that will do the following:
1. Apply the “Technical Requests” Category to the message.
2. Set an Importance level of “High”.
3. Create a new Meeting.
4. Move the message to the “Kite Tech” folder.

To start, I choose New > Custom to get a blank Quick Step. At the top, I name my Quick Step “Technical Requests”.
Then, one-by-one, I add the actions I want to take, and click the “Add Action” button each time to begin a new action.
For my first action, I choose a “Categorize message” action, followed by the appropriate Category.
My section action is “Set importance” with the option of “Importance: High”.
My third action is “New Meeting”. Here, there are a lot of options I can choose, like the meeting participants, subject, and location. In my case, I’ll leave all these blank so that each time I get a blank meeting request and can fill in whatever information I want.
And finally, my fourth action is a “Move to folder” action with the proper folder selected, called “Kite Tech”.

If I want, I can even assign a keyboard shortcut to activate the Quick Step, as well as a tooltip to provide a description of what the Quick Step does when the mouse hovers over it.

Once I click Save, the new Quick Step is available in the ribbon, and all I need to do is select one or more message that I want to apply it to, and either click the Quick Step, or press the assigned keyboard shortcut. All these steps would have taken me several clicks and concentrated effort, and by using a Quick Step I have made it effortless.

As a busy professional, it is likely that your inbox gets extremely busy, even overwhelming at times. If this describes you, then I hope you can use these Microsoft Outlook features to help you stay organized and keep your mailbox and busy schedule under control. Outlook is full of features that help with productivity, so as you become more comfortable with the features I discussed here, be curious and find others so that you can continue to learn and improve.

The team here at Kite Technology is passionate about helping users and organizations leverage technology to improve their productivity and operate more effectively. If you would like to learn more about how KiteTech’s Managed IT Services can help you boost your company’s performance, reach out to schedule a call! We look forward to learning more about your company’s needs and learn how we can help you meet your business objectives. 

Picture of Daniel Gilbert

Daniel Gilbert

Chief Operating Officer
Kite Technology Group