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5 tips and tricks for Microsoft Outlook

When it comes to the pain of email, Microsoft Outlook is both part of the problem and part of the solution. The gargantuan program contains so many features, functions, settings, and capabilities that it's nigh on impossible to learn them all. If you spend any real time scanning all those buttons and menus in Outlook, chances are you have no idea what half of them do.

We know in our hearts that Outlook is capable of helping us manage email better. We know there are secrets to unlock in the program. But where? And how do we put those solutions in place? Figuring out the answers, the language Microsoft uses to describe them, and teaching yourself how to leverage them just takes too long.

Here are five such solutions spelled out in plain English so you can implement them quickly and easily. They cover some of the most common problems many people face when using Outlook for business email.

1. Never miss a message from your boss/client

This tip is aimed at people who have very messy inboxes, the kind of people who miss important incoming messages because they're buried within the clutter. The feature you want to use here is called New Search Folder.

A search folder is nothing more than a saved search, and I think one of the best uses for this feature is to set up a search for an important name or email address, although you can use them for a variety of different purposes.

Start in the Folder tab in Outlook and choose the second option from the left: New Search Folder. You'll face a long list of choices, and I think "Mail from and to specific people" is one of the most valuable options, as is the very last one: "Create a custom Search Folder."

Follow the prompts and enter your parameters. When you're finished, the new Search Folder(s) will appear at the bottom of the left pane. You can optionally have it also appear in the top of the left pane in the Favourites section by clicking "Show in Favourites" (in the Folder tab). Once it's set up, don't forget to dip into that folder a few times a day to keep an eye on those important messages.

2. "Unsubscribe from" a thread

How do you gracefully ask to be removed from a very active email thread that you're on accidentally? Answer: You don't. Instead, you mute and delete it.

Highlight a message from the thread that's problematic. In the Home tab, look for the button called Ignore. When you select it, Outlook confirms that it will delete the selected conversation and all future messages on that same thread. It will also automatically move any previous messages from that thread to the trash, as well.

Be careful, though, because the ignore feature works by scouting out messages by subject line, so if you ignore a thread once but the same subject lines recurs, Outlook will continue to automatically trash the messages.

3. Set up a customised group of people to email

If you email the same set of people frequently, you can set up a custom distribution list. I have long thought the distribution list feature should be simpler. There are a lot of tricks to using it correctly that are not intuitive. For example, it's generally called "distribution list," but the button you need is called New Contact Group.

Start by going into the Contacts section of Outlook. In the Home tab, look for New Contact Group. When you click it and it launches, the first thing you'll see is "Name." That's where you come up with a name for your list. To add people to your list, click the button called Add Members, and choose the address book or other option that's applicable. When you find the person you want, you have to use a button at the bottom of that window that says "Members ->" (I told you it would be confusing).

From this window, you can change the address book you're accessing. In a business setting, often your own contacts from outside emails will be kept separate from your company's address book, so toggle between them to find what you need. If all else fails, you can exit this window and go back to the Add Members button and look for "New Email Contact," which lets you simply type in someone's email address.

After you save your group, from then on you can use the name of the group in the To field of any email to send a message to those people en masse. To update your group, go back to the Contacts section, find your group, open it, and use these two buttons to make adjustments: Add Members and Remove Members.

4. Automatically empty the trash when quitting

If you constantly find yourself trying to claw back precious space in your email program, setting the trash to automatically empty when you quit Outlook is a great place to start. Go to the File tab and click Options.

Look under the Advanced tab for "Outlook start and exit," and tick the box next to "Empty Deleted Items folder when exiting Outlook."

If you want Outlook to double-check with you before it permanently deletes anything, look further down in the Advanced area for the section labelled Other, and select the "Prompt for confirmation before permanently deleting items."

5. Never write the same email twice (i.e. use templates)

If you send out a weekly or monthly report, or really any email that has the same basic information with only a few details updated, you should be using email templates.

Note that the following instructions are for Outlook 2010 and later. To begin with, start a new email message. Type in the template email body text and subject line, being sure to leave yourself a clear and visible blank space or other placeholder (I use "TK" which means "to come") wherever you are going to enter new information each time you send the message.

When you've finished designing your template, go to the File tab and choose Save As. In the dialog box that appears, you have to change the file type to Outlook Template (the OFT extension). You can then name your template whatever you'd like. Hit Save. When you're ready to use the template, go to New Items > More Items > Choose Form, and select your template from the User Templates in the File System section.

Because this process is slightly convoluted, I started using a saved signature for very short messages that I would otherwise type over and over again, such as: "Thank you for contacting me, but what you've outlined isn't within my area of coverage. Best, Jill Duffy." Templates will obviously work better, though, for longer messages.