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How to do tagging in Outlook

Working on a corporate PC you may be using Microsoft Outlook - whether by choice or not. Outlook uses the traditional hierarchical filing concepts that have been in place for what feels like centuries (who remembers when MacOS replace MFS with HFS, or when ProDOS on the Apple // replaced DOS 3.3...).

After struggling for some time to find a good filing solution I just realised that it wasn't possible. Too many messages belonged in multiple folders at once.

I had another issue which was a humungous inbox, and an 'archive' folder to keep the inbox in check. But where is that email I want? Is it in the inbox, the archive folder, or some other folder?

Categories =~ Tags

What I wanted was tagging. So I hunted around Outlooks functionality and found Categories. Now this does mostly what I want. But it's so hard to get too - I have to right click messages to get that option? First solution: add a categories toolbar button which you can find in the "Edit" section when you customise the toolbar. I renamed it to 'Cats...' to save pixels. (MS KB article on customising toolbars).


Then I wanted a way to 'archive' messages. It turns out that I can just tag messages with a category 'archived' and add a filter to the regular 'view' to exclude all messages with that category.

Filtered views

In addition I can set up other 'views' to show a subset of commonly viewed tags. To get easy access to those different views, add the views menu to a toolbar - you'll find a widget called "current view" in the 'view' section. You can also add a 'filter' button for ad-hoc changing what categories to filter by. (Somewhat useless MS article on using filters)

Ok great, but do I really want to click categories, then click archived, then click ok, every time I want to archive an email? I get hundreds of emails!

One great thing about MS Office apps is that nearly everything is exposed as a vba api. Sure, they are often bad api's, but you can do nearly anything with enough trickery. In the next post I'll include some vba code that will let you make a toolbar button for 'archiving' emails.

Update: The post (Setting Outlook Categories with VBA)

Automatic Tagging

If you used to have rules to file messages automatically - don't worry, because rules wizard understands categories and you can auto apply categories instead of filing. You can even add a chosen tag and choose to auto-archive or not (just like Gmail) by adding (or not) the 'archived' tag.

A neat feature of Outlook categories is that they persist when you reply/forward messages (within an MS Exchange network). If I dig out an old email that I have archived, forward it to someone with comments, and then they reply - all my categories are still there on their reply. Thats actually really useful, except that the 'archived' category means it disappears in my regular filtered inbox view. To counteract that we need some vba code that is triggered when new messages are delivered that will strip the archived cat. I'm too lazy to write that in vba (which has horrendous string manipulation support) so I just strip all categories on inbound emails. Instructions on how to do that in a followup post.

Reducing the clutter

Phew! We're nearly in email nirvana. But my screen is still full of junk that is redundant, wasting space, and distracting me. First I don't want any headers in my preview pane (right click in the grey background of the reading pane and un-tick "header information"). Then I want only one row of toolbar buttons (remove anything you don't want). I also reduced the number of list columns to a minimum (and added the categories column of course).

I also want to (usually) hide the navigation pane on the left - since I no longer need to constantly switch folders. But sometimes I want to switch between sent mail and the inbox (where all my email is - tagged or not) and also the calendar. So I made a toolbar with 6 buttons. Here are the toolbar command category/commands i have:

go/Inbox (assigned a custom icon) : Go/Sent Items (shortened name) : Go/Calendar : View/Bottom : View/Off

My Outlook InboxSo my total toolbar looks like:

TODO: make this post more intelligable and add more screenshots!

06:04 AM, 27 Oct 2006 by Mark Aufflick Permalink

Nice Work

This is most helpful - one of the first hits I ran into when looking for suggestions on how to use categories. The only thing missing is a way to assign them quicker. Like getting to the master category list directly.

by Unregistered Visitor on 01/05/09

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I currently use categories to sort my contacts. How can I separate these from my email cats? They have very different usage for me and I don't want them to cross over.

by Unregistered Visitor on 03/08/13

How do make a button to jump to folder

When you make your button for "go/Inbox" - are you doing macros or can it be done with the Outlook UI? Thanks, Brian

by Unregistered Visitor on 03/10/14

Re: the go/Inbox go/Sent buttons

I honestly can't remember. I haven't used a Windows PC for more than occasional testing for over 5 years now!

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