An Outlook on Categories

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“Categories” is one part of Outlook that you’ve probably seen, but never used.


“Categories” is one part of Outlook that you’ve probably seen, but never used. That’s no surprise, since it is an imposing and poorly executed part of Outlook. But despite the difficulties of use that Microsoft hasn’t addressed (Why? Who knows?) Categories do have a place in your use of Outlook.

For any Outlook item; a message, contact, appointment, note or task you can assign it to one or more Categories. Once you’ve classified items by Categories you can group or search them much more easily. Because the categories apply across all the Outlook items it lets you link together different types of items.

Here’s an example of how I use Categories that can give you an idea of how they are useful. I like going to the theatre and happily go to twenty or more shows a year as I travel around, and managing all that means that I use

Contacts (my theatre going pals especially the lovely Patricia), Tasks (reminders to book season tickets), Email (with ticket agents and Patricia) and Appointments (for the plays themselves).

Since they all have the Category ‘Theatre’ applied to them I can use a filtered view to only see those messages / appointments that are relevant when I’m planning an evening out or trying to reschedule a group of plays around a time I’m away.

I do the same thing for travel planning, all the appointments, contacts and emails relating to trips are in the Travel category. It makes it easier to find the items I need and also they appear in the calendar differently to more mundane entries.



On the Edit menu choose ‘Categories ‘ and you’ll see a long list of predefined items. Some of those may suit you but the first thing I suggest you try is making your own Categories – areas that you’d like to classify by, not those decided by a committee at Microsoft. To make the Category list manageable and easier to use I removed all the predefined (or ‘Master’) Categories except any that I immediately need. Don’t worry about deleting the original Categories for, you can always put them back in later individually or entirely (using the Reset button under Master Category List).

To make new Categories, type in the name at the top and press ‘Add to List’ – it’ll then appear with a check box in the list below.

Having made a category, you can then attach items to that category. There’s various ways to do that:

When making a new entry – be it a task, contact or appointment there’s a category field for you to fill out on the bottom of the entry screen. Just type in the category name or click on the button and click the check box on the list displayed.

For new email messages, click on the Options button and you’ll see various settings including category. For Notes click on the icon on the top left of the notes window and you’ll see Categories as an option there.

For existing entries – the easiest way to add a category to an already existing item is to right mouse click on the entry in list view and choose ‘Categories’.

This is also the way to manually assign a category to incoming email messages.

For email messages you can also use the Rules Wizard to automatically assign a category. For example, if messages from a person or company (like a ticket booking agent) are always in that Category then create a rule to look for that Senders name and assign a category. The same applies to outgoing messages, for the Rules Wizard can assign a category to certain messages in your Sent Items folder.

You can use categories to setup color coding on your calendar – making appointments appear in different colors. I have Theatre appointments in pink and Travel items in Green.

Give Categories a try or at least become familiar with them. Once you’re comfortable with the idea you’ll likely find uses for it.



Frankly, you might find Categories clumsy to use and you’d be right. It’s a feature that Microsoft has dropped into Outlook but apparently not given a lot of thought to daily use. Having to click down multiple menu’s to assign Categories is a pain. The Master List is too long and scares menu users away; even the name ‘Master List’ discourages people from touching it.

The next release of Outlook (’12’) will the first serious revision of the categories feature this century. Finally you’ll be able to assign categories from a pull down list of configurable categories which can also be linked to particular colors. Categories can also be linked to shortcut keys (Ctrl +F1 to Ctrl + F12). It’s an improvement certainly, but when you see it in action you have to ask why it’s taken so long.

And Microsoft has still not done enough to make Categories as good as they could be. Most notable there is no support for ‘Sub-categories’ to be able to refine your groupings while still keeping them in an overall category.


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