applied tips : november 2008

microsoft outlook : colors and categories

Get Organized Visually

CatagoriesIf you're like me , Microsoft Outlook is the center of your universe and helps to manage all of the details of your life -- your contacts, to do lists, where you have to be, and all the messages you have to read and respond to.

We all wear different hats -- our personal lives, different roles at work, committees that we belong too -- and each of those hats makes scanning through Outlook even more daunting.  For example, I have over 300 contacts in my Outlook contact list. Most are clients, but there's friends and family, my neighbors, and coworkers from my part-time position at University of the Pacific.

But by using colors and categories, I'm able to separate each of these "hats" visually and filter information to make it easier to find exactly what I'm looking for without being distracted by all of my other roles.

Outlook 2003 or 2007?

Outlook 2003 and 2007 handle this feature differently, so you'll have to pay attention to the article closely to make sure you're reading about the version that's appropriate for you. You'll see that the organization features in Outlook 2007 are one of the best reasons to upgrade.

Setting Up Categories

Before you start applying categories to everything, you should take a moment to set them up properly. This will ensure a consistent naming convention as you roam about Outlook.  For example, you probably wouldn't want one category called "Vendor" and another called "Vendors".

In Outlook 2003, open any existing Contact and look in the lower-right corner of the contact window.  Click on the "Categories" button which opens a Categories window, then click "Master Category List". Now you can edit the default Categories throughout Outlook 2003. Add and remove from the list as necessary.

In Outlook 2007, pull down the Actions menu and choose "Categorize" followed by "All Categories". The "Color Categories" window will appear.  From here you can add new categories, delete and rename existing ones. You can also assign a color to each one, and an optional Shortcut Key for assigning a category quickly. Don't check any of the boxes on the left... we'll use later that to assign a category to the selected item.

Although you can have many categories, I recommend keeping the list as short and simple as you can.

Categorizing Contacts

Now that you've set up your categories, you can assign them to each of your Contacts. One at a time, you can right-click on each Contact in your list and choose "Categories".  Use the pop-up window to select the category (or multiple categories) for that person.

You can hold down the Control key and click on multiple contacts to group them together and assign them to a category at the same time.

You can also open a Contact and adjust their category while viewing all of their contact information.  In Outlook 2003, click the "Category" button in the bottom-right corner of the window.  In Outlook 2007, pull-down the "Categorize" menu from the Contact ribbon.

In Outlook 2007, you can also select any contact and press the shortcut key you assigned to a Category, such as Control+F2.

Note that Contacts can also belong to multiple categories.  For instance, Cousin Lisa might be in the Family and Client categories.

Sorting Contacts by Category

Once you've assigned categories to most of your Contacts, it's time to change the view to take advantage of your work.

While viewing your Contacts, pull down the View menu and choose "Current View" and then "By Category".  Presto!

If you scan down your list, you'll see they're all grouped together by categories now.  Click the + and - icons next to the category headers to expand or collapse that grouping.

Note that Contacts which have no category assignment will be listed as "(none)" on the top of your list.

Categorizing/Labeling Appointments

Visually, there's nothing better than looking at your Calendar and seeing all of your Appointments in color-coded organization. By separating your personal from your business, or on-site meetings from phone meetings, you can quickly grasp what you've got going on.

In Outlook 2003, right-click any Appointment and choose "Label" and assign any of the choices to it. To rename the labels shown, right-click on any calendar item and choose "Labels" and then "Edit Labels".

In Outlook 2007, right-click any Appointment and choose "Categorize" and assign any of the choices to it. You can repeat the process to assign multiple Categories to a single item.

Note that changing the Category or Label of a recurring Appointment automatically changes all instances of that Appoinment!

Categorizing Tasks

If you have a large number of tasks and would like to see them grouped together like your Contacts and Appointments now are, you can apply the exact same process that you followed with Contacts to assign categories and display them in groups.

Categorizing Emails

You can also assign Categories to the emails in your inbox and other folders.  Although you can do this in Outlook 2003 and 2007, it will be far easier and much more useful in 2007.

In Outlook 2003, right-click the email and choose "Categorize" and assign any of your Categories to the message.

In Outlook 2007, right-click the small clear square that appears next to each email in your Inbox.  Outlook 2007 will ask you which category to assign. Notice that the square will change colors to correspond to the Category you have chosen. This makes identifying messages a snap!

In Outlook 2007, you can also assign a Category while viewing the email in its own window by pulling-down the "Categorize" menu from the Contact ribbon.

Finding and Sorting Email by Category

When you want to look for items (Appointments, Emails, etc) by Category, you can use the Find feature and specify which Category you want to see in the results.

One way is to use the Advanced Find (Control + Shift + F) feature, shown here.  The second tab, "More Choices", lets you specify the category to search for along with many other topics.

Another way is to sort/arrange your inbox by Category. While viewing your inbox, pull down the View menu and choose Arrange By, then select "Categories". You can change it back to "Date" when you're done.


There are a few other tricks to learn about Categories, especially in Outlook 2007, but you've probably got your work cut out for you just going through and assigning Categories to all of your Contacts and Appointments.

For the advanced users:  You can set up a Rule that automatically assigns a Category to an email based on who it's from or the subject.  Give it a try!

getting too much junk mail?

One of my clients is MX Resources, a reseller of the award-winning Postini junk mail filtering service. If your current spam filter isn't working, visit the MX Resources website and give Matthew a call.

schedule a class on outlook and exchange

Request an on-site Outlook class from Applied Office. Sessions are inexpensive and your employees will be able to use all of the features of Outlook like calendar sharing, assigning tasks, forwarding contacts, and managing their inbox!  Learn more here.