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The average corporate employee spends about 20 percent of the workday searching emails to find information to complete tasks, according to a 2012 IDC study. It doesn’t have to be that way, not with feature-heavy software like Outlook at your disposal. Outlook includes loads of easy-to-use tools that were designed to help users declutter, organize and otherwise get a handle on email. Here’s our rundown of the most underutilized tools that deserve more attention:

Follow-Up Flags

Follow-Up Flags: One of Outlook’s many useful features.

CATEGORIES Categories are keywords you can use to find, sort, filter or group items. Outlook includes built-in categories, as well as the option to create custom ones. You can also use multiple categories on one item.

Categories are useful for keeping track of different types of items that are related but stored in different folders — for example, all messages, tasks, contacts and calendar items for a specific project. Because categories are color-coded, you can also use them as quick visual cues.

To assign categories, select the item in list view or open it and click the dropdown menu next to Categories, which is located on the Home tab of the Ribbon, in the Tags section. (When the item is open, it’s in the Tags section of the Message tab.) Select a category from the list, or choose “All Categories” to create a new one. Right-clicking an item produces the same result.

Watch a video on using categories for color-coding here.

For a how-to on filtering by category, check out this tip.

FOLLOW-UP FLAGS Follow-up flags attached to messages, contacts and meeting requests are one of the most effective ways to ensure deadlines aren’t missed. Items marked for follow-up appear in the to-do bar, the calendar daily task list and in the tasks view. You can also set reminders for follow-up items. To mark an item for follow-up, select or open it, and click the drop-down next to Follow-Up on the Home tab of the Ribbon, in the tags section. (When the item is open, it’s in the Tags section of the Message tab.) Choose from one of Outlook’s defaults (Today, Tomorrow, etc.), or set a custom date for follow-up. You can also access the Follow-Up dialog by hitting CTRL+SHIFT+G.

For a how-to, click here.

QUICK STEPS Sometimes when working with a message, there are specific actions you must take. For instance, you might need to forward it to manager and then save a copy in a specific folder. Manually repeating such simple tasks can be time-consuming. If you are using Outlook 2010 or 2013, you can automate these repetitive tasks with the new Quick Steps feature, which lets you combine multiple actions into one mouse click.

Quick Steps are similar to Outlook Rules, but do not work automatically. You simply select the message or messages you want to work with and then click the Quick Step you want to apply.

The Quick Steps feature is located on the Home tab of the Ribbon, and includes six defaults:

  1. Move to: Moves the selected message to a mail folder you specify and marks the message as read.
  2. To Manager: Forwards the message to your manager. The first time you use this, Outlook will prompt you to select your manager.
  3. Team E-mail: Forwards the message to others in your team. The first time you use this, Outlook will prompt you to select the coworkers in your team.
  4. Done: Moves the message to a specified folder, marks it as complete, and then marks it as read. The first time you use this rule, it will ask you to choose a folder to move messages to.
  5. Reply & Delete: Opens a reply to the selected message and then deletes the original.
  6. Create New: Allows you to create a new, custom Quick Step.

You can also edit any existing Quick Step by right-clicking on it and choosing “Edit <name of your Quick Step>.”

View a how-to here.

CONVERSATION AUTOMATION Tracking e-mail conversations across folders can often be an exercise in frustration. Finding a sent message, then the original received message, and replies from other participants often requires backtracking, time and effort. With the Conversation View feature, you can group and view all related emails by subject, regardless of which folder they are in.

For a Conversation View how-to and video, click here.

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