Organizing with Outlook Categories

When people start using Microsoft Outlook, they enter countless pieces of information. Sometimes this is a brain dump of items floating around in their head. Other times, it’s a focused list of items. This is a good start, and many executive coaches and consultants tell you to enter the information first and then classify it. In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to use Microsoft Outlook categories to organize your data better.

What Are Outlook Categories?

Outlook Categories tend to be overlooked by many users. A better way is to think of categories as labels that help you find, sort, filter, or classify items. You might be thinking that folders also are a form of classification. That’s true, but I tend to think of folders more in the physical sense, like a container. For example, you can’t place an item into 2 folders. You would have to make a copy to do that. In contrast, you might think of categories like those colored stickers. You can apply one or more categories to any item.

This classification also provides a host of actions for finding and organizing your data. A category can be attached to almost any Microsoft Outlook object. This includes email, calendar events, tasks, or notes. However, Outlook Quick Parts also uses the term “category,” but the names are not shared.

IMAP and Category Limitations

While I did say you can attach categories to items, there is a “gotcha.” If your email account is IMAP, you’re out of luck. The Categorize button, as shown below, will not show in the toolbar.

Toolbar showing Categorize button for email.s
Email account with Categorize button

If you’re not sure how your mailbox is set up, you can find the answer on the Info panel.

Info panel showing mailbox type of IMAP/SMTP.
Info panel shows email account is IMAP

If your account is IMAP, you could create Outlook rules to put emails into folders or create a search folder. Also, SlipStick Systems has a workaround article.

Advantages of Outlook Categories

Although you can use Outlook folders to organize information, categories offer advantages.

You can assign many categories to an item

Chances are, your contacts are multi-dimensional. For example, you might assign John Burton a category called “Golf” and “Prospect.” Outlook doesn’t care how many categories you assign to an item.

Categories allow you to mix and match data items

Although Outlook allows you to create folders, it only allows one type of information in that folder. So, for example, you can’t set up a “Budget” folder and include emails and tasks. Instead, you have to make that folder containing the same data object, whether it’s emails, contacts, notes, or calendar events. In contrast, you could assign any of those items to a category called “Budget.”

Categories allow you to focus on your data

Once you’ve assigned a category to an item, you can create special views or search folders. Many Outlook versions have a defined view that is based on category. However, you can certainly create custom Outlook views. Below is an example of a Task by Category view.

Outlook task view with Categories column highlighted.
Categories column and headings

Categories add color across your items

Another benefit to categories is that you can assign one of 25 colors to go along with the label. For example, you could have a Category called “Phone Call” with an orange color. If you assigned that category to a task or calendar appointment, that color marker would also show up. In the examples below, both the event and task show the orange color.

Appointment with category color as background
Task with multiple categories and colors

Plan Your Categories

Outlook comes predefined with a category list, but you can add and delete categories to suit your needs. For example, some people like to create categories that map to a specific project plan that can help them prioritize their work. So, in the screen snap above, I’ve created categories that map to various website areas I need to address.

Before creating and assigning categories, you might think about your structure.

  • How do you want to classify items (people, places, projects, and so on)?
  • Do the categories need to be shared with others?
  • Are the category names unique and not the same as a folder?
  • How many categories should you have?

Although there is no limit to the number of categories, too many can pose a problem. You end up getting an unwieldy category list and tend to overthink things. The good news is Outlook will first show you your top 10, and then you can select to see all of them. The other advantage of a smaller list is that you’re allowed to assign shortcut keys to a category.

Color Categories dialog with Shrtcut key drop-down menu.
Category with Shortcut Key assignment

✪ If you find the CTRL shortcut keys don’t work for assigning Outlook categories, check to make sure your keyboard doesn’t have a function keys lock.

You may also want to use a special character to precede the category name. For example, some people use the @ character to show they need to be at some location, such as @Home or @Office.

A related tip is preceding a category name with a non-alpha character. If you precede your category name with a special character such as @, it will appear at the top of the list in your view if you sort by that column.

From the screen snap above, you can always add, delete, or rename categories later.

Attach Categories to Items

Each of the data objects in Outlook allows you to assign categories. One easy way to assign a category is to use the toolbar button. It shows all the data types except for Notes.

Categorize button on new task.
Categorize button on toolbar

To add a category to Notes, click the icon in the top left corner and then select Categories from the menu. One item to remember is if you assign colors to your categories, the Note will use the category color as the background. If you have multiple categories assigned with colors, it will use the last category you checked.

Outlook Notes menu  with Categorize highlighted.
Categorize menu for Notes

Searching By Category

As I mentioned earlier, one benefit to categories is that you can assign them to different objects. While there isn’t a custom view that goes across data types, you can use Outlook’s search bar.

  1. In the search bar, type category: followed by your category name.
  2. In the Scope group, click All Outlook Items.

In the screen snap below, you can see Outlook returned matching results from Contacts, Notes, and Tasks.

Results from Outlook Category search.
Outlook Category Search

Microsoft Outlook categories can help you organize your data with minimal effort. Granted, it may take a bit to set up your structure, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Microsoft makes it very easy to change things. And by using categories, folders, rules, etc., you can build an efficient workflow that suits your needs.