Adjusting Our Outlook Reading Pane

In this post I would talk about the Reading Pane. The Reading pane is the pane displaying the email content. Unfortunately, the default Outlook view of the reading pane is not the best approach to use. By changing the reading pane layout settings, we should get an enhanced Outlook experience.


The reading pane has 3 layout options – Right, Bottom and Off. Let’s review the 3 of them and then decide which one is the best.


The Bottom Layout

I believe this is the default layout for Outlook. In that mode, you can fully see the email title details (From, Subject, Received, etc) and also see a specific email content (the one you are standing on) widely.

Before I would talk about what the issues are with that layout, I would like to talk about 2 email attributes – email title length and email content format.

Email titles should provide a clue on the email content. By looking at the first 3-4 words of the email Subject field, along with looking on the From field, we should be able to have some sense on what the email is all about. This actually means we don’t need too much of a space for the email title.

Email content usually holds relatively short lines, and even if it doesn’t, the Outlook wraps the lines for easy view, no matter what the width of the reading pane is. Moreover, the first paragraph of an email should definitely be enough for initial email review.

Having said that, we don’t really need a long email title and long lines for the email content. By using the Bottom mode we are actually wasting space on our screen – this is a wasted “real estate” space. Remember, we should exploit our screen space in the best way we can (read more in here). Apparently, the Bottom approach doesn’t do that.

Using the Bottom layout, we either see too few email titles OR we see too small part of the email at the bottom of the screen.


The Off Layout

The Off layout does not show the emails content, only the emails title. One can argue that this is a great view since you can see many emails in your folder. That is correct, but (and this is a big “but”) you can’t see the emails content.

Not seeing the emails content means we need to open each and every email in order to perform a quick review. You may argue that it is not a big of a deal. Let me try convincing you otherwise.

Here is a short exercise – wait till you have 20 unread emails in your Inbox and then count the number of operations you need to do in order to go through this email list, just for a quick review. I bet it would take at least 60 operations – move to the email, open the email in a separate window, close the email window.

The x3 (20×3=60) factor is in a killer. Most people use the mouse to do this operation which is requires even more operations and is a killer to your efficiency and your hand healthiness. I hope you read the blog on the “Top 5 keyboard shortcuts for emails” and you would do those x3 operations using the keyboard only.

I also found people that end up with dozens of email windows open out there, as they forget to close all of them when they are trying to jump between the Outlook reading pane and the emails content.


The Right Layout

Finally, the Right layout. It is kind of funny that it is called that way, because I believe it is really the right layout to use.

The main benefits of the Right layout are:

  • It shows the same number of emails as one can see in the Off layout, and twice the emails than in the Bottom layout mode.
  • Per email, we can see enough information for review just by standing on the email, much better than in the Off layout.

This is what makes the Right layout the right choice for us to use.


The “Twist”

If you have followed my arguments closely, you might have caught me stating an argument that is not true  – “the Right layout shows the same number of email titles as the Off layout”.

By default, the Right layout contains 2 lines per email title, compared to one line in the Off layout. The reason is the available space for the email title. In the Off layout mode, the email title has enough space to be shown in a single line, while the Right layout is tighter in space and therefore splits the email title into 2 lines.

See below example of a Right layout in a default Outlook configuration.


In order to have a single line in the Right mode, please apply the following.

  1. Right click on the Messages Pane title and select “View Settings…”
  2. Select “Other Settings…”
  3. Select “Always use single-line layout”

At first sight, it might look too tight for you. You should make sure you have the minimum number of columns you need in the Messages pane (see my post on Messages Pane Columns). Then, play with the columns width for getting your preferred email title view.

Using a regular desktop wide screen, you should have no problem using this single-line mode. I’m using this mode also on my Dell-E4310 tiny screen without any problem.

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.


Top 5 Keyboard Shortcuts for Emails

If you are solely relying on your mouse while handling emails, this post can help you save some precious time with a few practical tips. In my work, I’m used to get emails on the scale of 100+ per day. With such amount of emails, fast handling becomes critical.


There are many aspects of handling emails fast, and one of them is definitely using keyboard shortcuts. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a freak of keyboard shortcuts – but I do think that using a few practical shortcuts we can all make our email-handling work a bit more convenient and keep up our work energy.

While watching people handling their emails, I have realized that using the mouse for basic operations reduces our work energy and bring us to a point where we either skip emails or minimize our Outlook application altogether and moving to other tasks (sometimes, that’s not such a bad idea…).

So let’s list them:

  • Ctrl-R: reply
  • Ctrl-Shift-R: reply-all
  • Ctrl-F: forward
  • Ctrl-N: new email message
  • Alt-F4: close the email window

Your mission now is using those simple 5 shortcuts in the next 5 days and then decide whether you get a better experience while handling your emails.


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.



Why should we adjust our Outlook?

I would like to talk a bit on why we should invest time in adjusting the Outlook mail layout for our daily usage.

I would start with a statement that my screen is the most expensive real estate property in my workplace – this is how I see it. After all, I am looking at my screen most of the day (let’s leave the meeting rooms aside for now) and I want to be able to adjust it carefully for including the most valuable information for my work, and optimally clear away all the other unnecessary disruptions.


When I was a software engineer, I used to adjust my development environment application to fit my needs. Actually, in most of the companies I have worked in as a software engineer, the development environment adjustment was one of the first things included in the training program for gaining the maximum efficiency in the daily work.

Once I became a leader, I have started to work with Outlook much more closely, and it became the application I use the most. Unfortunately, no one has explained to me how to adjust my Outlook to get the maximum efficiency in my work. If you have experienced the same, you would probably enjoy this blog. I would share in this blog all the shortcuts, tips and tricks I wish someone had shown me 10 years ago when I first moved to a leader position.

BTW, the practical information I would share in this blog is not targeted only for leaders – anyone can benefit from it. The point is that the more you use Outlook in your daily work, the more benefit you would achieve from this blog.

So back to our topic – we need to treat our screen as a valuable real estate property and take advantage of all its space. You always can buy a bigger screen (depends on how good you are in convincing your boss to spend that extra budget), but there is a limit to the size that is comfortable to view. Moreover, using that approach (buying a bigger screen) you would always get into trouble when moving to work on other environments, such as your laptop, using remote-desktop to your work environment from home computer, etc.

The big question is how much time such adjustments can save. This is a good question and it depends on how bad you are in working with your Outlook. The amount of saved time is not the only factor you would gain. I think the most important gain would be lower barrier for using your Outlook for leveraging your work. The easier it would be for us to use Outlook, the more freely we would use it and leverage its strength. This is the big bonus as I see it.

I hope you are now convinced that you should at least spend some time in adjusting your Outlook environment. In the first few posts I would share a few practical tips on how to adjust your Outlook mail layout for achieving maximum benefit.