Adjusting Our Outlook Messages Pane: Coloring

In this post I would focus on the option of coloring our emails and using those colors for better triage of the emails.

As I’m writing this post from DFW airport at Dallas/Texas, I consider this post as my first international post :)


Why should we color our emails?

Let’s start with a motivation. The motivation is the ability to tackle first the emails that hold a task that is important and/or urgent for you. How do we detect such an email? Good question.

A trivial thumb rule is that emails that are directed specifically to us mean that someone is trying to reach out to us either for a question or for a task assignment. Therefore, we should first look at the emails that are directed specifically to us. Meaning, emails that contain our name on the To list, and we are the only ones on the To list.

A second priority emails we should all look at would be emails that are directed to us, but there are also other people on the To list. The third priority emails would be all the rest.

Having that said, wouldn’t it be great to visually detect them and handle them according to priority? This is the motivation…

Disclaimer: the first priority emails (the ones you are alone on the To list) might include the lowest priority emails. Yes, I’m talking about the spam emails that are “directly targeted for you” – on those emails you are alone on the To list. However, by having a good spam elimination application you should be good here (in Outlook you can define junk-email rules).

How do we color the emails?

Please find the below instructions for Outlook 2010.

  1. Right click on the Messages Pane title (above the first email message)
  2. Select “View Settings…”
  3. Select “Conditional Formatting…”
  4. Select “Add”
  5. Select “Condition”
  6. Chose the desired “where I am” value
  7. Click “OK”
  8. Go to “Font…”
  9. Select the desired font.

Do steps #4-#9 twice – once for the first priority emails and once for the second priority emails.

I call the first one “ToMeAlone”, and the second one “ToMeWithOthers”. The first one I color in red and the second one in pink. Choose the colors that fit you best. The first priority items should be colored using a color that catches your attention the best.



Now what?

Simple – now you should review your emails according to the coloring priority. If you like the latest-to-newest email review approach – start reviewing from the latest first-priority email to the newest first-priority email. Then, go to the latest second-priority email and start reviewing up to the newest second-priority email. At last, review the others.

If you like the newest-to-latest email review approach, do the same, according to priority, just in reverse order – newest to latest.

This approach ensures that even if you don’t have enough time to review all the emails, at least you have reviewed the most important ones.

What if someone gave you a super-important task in an email, but has put you on the CC list? Well, that’s another problem – an “education problem” as I call it – teaching people what the base rules are for email writing. I might write a short post on that as well.


Adjusting our Outlook Messages Pane: Sorting

In this post we would focus on the Outlook Messages pane – adjusting it for a convenient and fluent work.

The Messages pane is the 2nd pane from the left. It contains the list of our emails. Our goal would be to view as much emails as we can while including only the mandatory information needed for our work (remember, our screen is the most valuable real estate property in our work environment).

In this post we would focus on how we should sort our emails.


How should we sort our emails?

My first and trivial recommendation is sorting the emails by date. I recommend having the new ones on top. I have never saw anyone looking at it in a reverse order, maybe because most of us don’t use the zero-inbox approach (if you don’t know what zero-inbox approach means, leave it aside for now, we might be back to it later on).

For adjusting your email sort, right click on the Messages pane title, select Arrange By and Date.


My second recommendation is grouping the emails by conversation. This means that all the emails that are related to the same conversation, would appear as a single email message line, with the ability to expand/collapse for looking at the entire conversation. If you are not using it yet, it means you are reading a conversation in a fragmented way – jumping from one conversation to another conversation instead of reading the entire conversation, start to end.

As a side note, fragmentation is our #1 enemy for efficient time management (we will talk more on this along the way).

Not using a conversation approach also means that you probably replying on emails which are not the latest ones in the email conversation. I see it happens a lot to people who are not using the conversation grouping. The reason for this is simple – people usually start reading emails from the oldest to the newest (which is fine), and I believe we just can’t help ourselves from replying on an email that requires our response. Once we start the reply, we do not scroll up in the email list for finding the latest email on that conversation before we hit the Send button.

For enabling the conversation grouping, right click on the Messages pane title, select the Advanced View Settings option and then the Group By option.


My third recommendation is a fine tuning of the conversation grouping – setting the Conversation Index sort as descending. This would place the newest email in the conversation on top. You will notice the difference especially in long conversations.

The way Outlook works is that it shows you the entire conversation, even if the conversation emails are not located in the current folder you are in. For example, if you have conversation of 20 emails and only 5 of them are still in your inbox (while the rest were moved to another physical folder), you would see them all when expending the conversation. Viewing an email at the bottom of a conversation is not efficient because:

  • We need to use our mouse in order to reach it (instead of using our keyboard),
  • It is opposite to the order of the main email sort (we said we usually sorting emails as newest on top)
  • The indentation is so deep we barely can see title information on the newest emails (each email is a bit to the right from the one above it, which means that in long conversation, the last emails are barely shown).

This adjustment can be done using the Group By option.


Adjusting our Outlook Messages Pane: Columns

We would focus here on the Outlook Messages pane, adjusting it for a convenient and fluent work.

The Messages pane is the 2nd pane from the left. It contains the list of our emails. Our goal would be to view as much emails as we can with while including only the mandatory information needed for our work (remember, our screen is the most valuable real estate property in our work environment).


In this post we would focus on which columns we should use.

Which columns should we use?

The Messages pane contains columns (take a look at the top of the Messages pane). I found that Outlook default is not suitable for me. There are a few items that are not really interesting to view.

I found out that the most important items to view are as listed below. I have listed them by the order I recommend them to appear, left to right.

  • Importance: I always like to know if someone set the importance indication on an email. As general note, I believe we should use this indication rarely. However, when someone uses it, I want to be aware of it, as the sender probably reaching out for me for some attention.
  • Icon: the icon can show us whether the message is read/unread, and whether it contains multiple emails on the same email conversation. All of this information is known by other means: read-vs-unread by the bold/regular of the email title line, single-vs-conversation by the small arrow existence in the beginning of the message line. However, the extra information the Icon is giving us is the indication whether the email was replied/forwarded by you – using a small blue/purple arrow on the envelope icon. I find it valuable for me, so I keep this icon.
  • Attachment:  sometimes I am reviewing a long email conversation and searching for a specific email that contains an attachment. Although I am not a fan of attachments, I can not control what others send to me (we would talk later on about attachments vs. links).
  • From, Subject, Received: I believe we have no argument that those are must to keep.
  • Categories: you might not be using them (yet), but once you will, those are a must.
  • Flag Status: for me, those are usually going along with the categories. I never use a flag without a category (again, I would probably talk about this later on, please bare with me).

For all the rest, I got rid of them, and I believe you should do too. If you feel you want to keep am extra column, do so after you have provided yourself a sufficient reason.

For adjusting your view, you can right click on the Messages pane title, select the Advanced View Settings option and then select the Columns option as shown below.