Tip o’ the Week 453 – Outlook Quick Steps

clip_image002Somewhat improbably, one fairly prominent feature of Outlook has never been discussed in detail on a previous ToW – Quick Steps. Hiding in plain sight on the Home tab, it’s likely that every Outlook user has clicked on Quick Steps at some point, but do you use them regularly?

Put simply, Quick Steps make some repetitive tasks easy with a single click or even a shortcut key combo – start by selecting a message you’d like to apply some action to (such as moving or categorizing it), or if you’d like to start some new item based on the contents of the message – like create a task or an appointment, including the body of the original mail.

clip_image004Quick Steps can be applied to individual messages or multiples (hold CTRL key while selecting more than one), including selecting the whole clip_image006conversation if you’re viewing in that mode. Click on Create New Quick Step (or click the little expand icon in the bottom right, for the Manage Quick Steps dialog, and create one from there).

clip_image008You’ll see there are plenty of options available for actions that you can take on messages, clip_image010some already combined if you kick off the New step from within the Manage Quick Steps dialog box – though you can add multiple actions to any one after the initial creation. The Categorize and Move option is particularly handy if you want to file all your mails for a given customer or a specific topic, into a subfolder.

clip_image012For more on Quick Steps, see the tutorial here. If you ever think about backing up and restoring your defined Quick Steps, see here (very much not for the faint-hearted), or here.

If you haven’t played much with Quick Steps before, have a go – they’re fab-u-lous!

Tip o’ the Week 448 – Sometimes, size does matter

clip_image002Once upon a time, users had to deal with email quotas that meant they often had to shuffle messages around to stay within their allowed size limit, or else get limited functionality. The Outlook Thread Compressor tool* was written to help reduce the size of a user’s mailbox, and for a while, had thousands of users inside Microsoft. It inspired the Outlook team to write the “Conversation Clean Up” feature, which works in a slightly different way but does similar things.

Nowadays, with 50 or 100GB mailbox quotas being the norm, most Outlook users don’t need to worry about reducing the size of their mailbox other than to keep it from being too hard to use – a tidy mind and all that. But if you have massive mailboxes, the storage and organisation of all your content may put an unnecessary strain on your PC, so it’s worth taking a few steps to check and clean up if you can.

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In Outlook 2016, go to the File menu and lclip_image006ook for Tools > Mailbox Cleanup for a bunch of tools that can help, including being able to view your current mailbox size…

… and marvel at a dialog box that hasn’t changed since the earliest days of Outlook, evidenced by the fact it measures size in KB rather than MB or even GB…

Limits to be aware of

There are some recommended limits that have been given to Exchange/Outlook users over the years – not just about the overall size of the mailbox, but the number of items in certain folders and even the number of folders themselves. See a 2005 post on the Exchange blog here, for example, which advises keeping the item count low on certain folders (< 1,000 items in the Inbox, Calendar and Contacts folder was the recommendation then – also on the Exchange Blog, check out some of the examples in this post for early pioneers of huge mailboxes).

In more recent versions of Outlook, though, there are some guidelines to avoid performance problems:

  • Keep the number of items per folder below 100,000
  • Keep the total number of folders to less than 500

Now, you’re probably not going to have too many folders with more than 100k items though it might be worth checking Sent Items and Deleted Items. Unfortunately, the mailbox size tool above shows you the total size of each folder, rather than the number of items – and if you want to know how many folder you have, you’d need to manually count them in the scrolling list box: not an easy task if you have lots of them.

It’s quite possible if you’ve had your mailbox for a while, and you’re a very diligent filer (especially if you use a methodology like GTD or tools like ClearContext), you could inadvertently have more than 500 folders – and if you use AutoArchive, then you could find a lot of them are empty, since the archive process moves the items out into another location but leaves the folder structure behind.

FolderCount to the rescue

Here’s an interesting little hobby project – a macro-enabled Excel sheet which cycles through all the folders in your mailbox, tells you how many items are in each one and offers to get rid of the empty ones for you.

It can be run in:

  • Read Only mode – it’ll just show you what you have, and leave it up to you to clean the mess
  • Active mode – for each identified empty folder, you’ll be prompted if you’d like to keep or delete it
  • Nuclear mode – just assumes you want to delete the empties, so doesn’t prompt.

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Use with caution; though anything that is successfully “deleted” will be moved to Deleted Items first, therefore you’ll need to run it again to actually do the damage (or just empty your Deleted Items… a thought that fills some people with dread).

To run it, click on the link above, save the file locally, open it up in Excel and you’ll need to clip_image010enable the Macros to run – probably by first enabling editing, and then allowing macros by “Enable Content”.

Once you’ve done that, click on the appropriate button to let it run. I’d suggest starting with the top one until you feel brave…

*The Thread Compressor tool was made available externally after a time, but the domain disappeared… the actual Outlook Addin is again available here, but you’re a bit on your own as far as installing and using it is concerned…

Tip o’ the Week 434 – To Do: update To-Do

clip_image002Lots of people like to-do lists – from Post-it notes stuck on the side of your monitor (or the digital equivalent on your PC’s desktop), to the Tasks you might have in Outlook, up to dedicated list-management apps that run on your PC and on your phone; such delights have been covered in ToW’s passim, (the Wunder of lists, or what a right To-Do we’re in… see #various).

Well, the seemingly unloved Microsoft To-Do app has been updated recently, with a few new clip_image004capabilities – notably steps (sub-tasks, in other words) and the ability to share lists.

The Windows Weekly video from MJF and Paul Thurrott talked a little about To-Do recently, too.

See here for more details on the updates. List sharing sounds a lot like the existing Wunderlist capability, to collaborate on tasks with someone you work or live with; for now at least it’s most likely one or the other.

You can share a list with someone else only within the same organisation, if you’re signed in with Office 365 credentials – so you can’t share with parties outside of your own O365 org. if you choose to mix work and home, then you’d need to sign in with your Microsoft Account to be able to share tasks with your SO, unless they also happen to be a co-worker.

clip_image006Steps are simply a way of breaking things down – handy if your method of task management starts with “Sort my life out” / “Get a new job” / “become a millionaire”,  rather than going in at the level where action is obvious… (“Tidy my bedroom” / “re-write my CV” / “buy a lottery ticket”).

There are so many time management tools and techniques out there; like diets, maybe one day we’ll find a single one that can’t be improved on, and put an end to the industry peddling new ideas. Some people love to work on task management, some people just don’t do it. We think we work one way, but when stressed, do it the other…

Before you do any more thinking on Time Management, go and watch the lecture by the late Randy Pausch – a brilliant professor and speaker, had terminal pancreatic cancer when he delivered “The Last Lecture” and then, later (wha?), gave an extremely practical session on time management: someone with hardly any time left (he died 8 months later) knows more about managing time than any corporate productivity jockey.

If you haven’t watched both of these, go and carve out 3 hours of your life, and do so. You won’t regret it. Srsly.

Tip o’ the Week 432 – Generally Disregarded Privacy Rubbish

clip_image001GDPR day has passed.. Now, it’s illegal to communicate with anyone. Or not.

If Data is the new Oil, perhaps the much-anticipated big privacy stick that is GDPR will be the new Millennium Bug – companies will want to avoid to be made an example of first. €20M or 4% of global turnover fines, whichever is the larger, probably gives some execs sleepless nights, even though the proportionality of any punishment will only be realised when there are a few court cases to set the tone. The threat of being caught out might well have scared CxOs around the world into doing something to make sure they look like they’re prepared.

In many cases, it seems, that action has been to email all their customers and ask them to opt-in to being contactable; some got confused and emailed people, asking them to opt out if they didn’t want to get any more. As it happens, both of these approaches may well be irrelevant if not illegal themselves.

clip_image002The avalanche of “we’ve updated our privacy policy” emails unleashed over the last few weeks probably makes you realise the number of companies you’ve never heard of, who have your details on file. The most-used key on the keyboard in this time is surely “Delete”. Of course, there are many memes and jokes doing the rounds…

It’s time to recall a few message handling tips in Outlook which may help…

  • You can show a normally-hidden field in Outlook which lets you identify messages that originated from outside the organisation. Mail that arrives from the internet will be tagged in an attribute called Sender Address Type.
    By tweaking Outlook to make it visible, you can customise folder views to show external email in a different colour or font size, so clip_image003helping you quickly pick out messages to deal with differently. Normally, this would be to prioritise external vs internal emails, but in these dark days, it could be to flex the muscles on your delete finger.
    For more details, see ToW 275.
  • The “Focused Inbox” feature in Office 365 might well help you here; many of the GDPR spammage will be swept up into the “Other” category, so you should be able to quickly triage those messages.
  • If you keep getting mail from certain senders nagging you to respond, you could right-click on the clip_image004message and add the sender to your Block list. By clicking Junk Mail Options on the clip_image005same menu, you could add their whole domain to the blocked list so you’ll filter all their junk in future.
    Handy for the kind of spammers who don’t care about GDP Aaaargh.

Of course, GDPR should be a Good Thing. It’ll take a bit of time to settle down (and may need some further work in the UK, post-Brexit), but at least we all get a few less emails in future.

Tip o’ the Week 422 – Freshening Outlook.com

Microsoft has been the butt of jokes in the past when it comes to brandingclip_image002, but one of the strongest product names in decades is Outlook. Originally released in 1997 as part of Office 97, the Outlook application has come a long way over the years.

As world+dog runs from discrete and perpetually licensed software, to SaaS applications delivered via a variety of clients, web apps and the like, Outlook has grown into a whole family of products, not altogether without confusion.

First, there’s Outlook the app that’s part of Office. That’s Office, the application suite, which can trace its roots back to 1990. There’s also a version of Outlook that’s delivered via Click2Run technology (itself rooted in App-V, formerly known as Softgrid), generally in conjunction with an Office 365 subscription.

clip_image004Outlook.com was the name given to the successor of the venerable and poioneering Hotmail platform, some 5 years ago. And the web front end to Exchange, either standalone or part of O365, was previously “Outlook Web Access” then “Outlook Web App”, yet is now somewhat confusingly just a web app called “Outlook”, or “Outlook on the Web”.

Now, if you buy a business version of Office 365, you may or may not get the rights to use Outlook the desktop application, and you will have a web app called Outlook which is running from the Office 365 back end based on Exchange Server.

If you buy a consumer version of Office 365 – Home or Personal – you’ll have email called Outlook.com, delivered to you by the same platform as the Hotmail successor but known as “Premium” and therefore without ads and with more capacity, and you may get the Outlook desktop application to use with it. Do you follow?

clip_image006Anyway; the Outlook.com consumer / “Premium” platform is getting a bit of a makeover, and very nice it is, too. The beta is available for anyone who wants to switch it on, but in the near term, it will become the default.

And returning to Outlook on the Web, ie the version of Outlook you get in your browser when you’re on a commercial version of Office 365, it’s likely that the tailored versions for mobile phones will be retired soon, and users will be pushed to use the Outlook mobile apps for iOS or Android instead.

Tip o’ the Week 417 – Resolving aliases in bulk

This might be a very old-Microsoft culture clip_image002thing, but alias names have always been a relatively big deal within the company; not an alias in the sense of a nom de plume or some alter ego, but a name curiously given to mean your login name.

Before enlightenment, Microsofties were emailed simply by sending to alias@microsoft.com – and still are, so even if the primary mail address is forename.surname@microsoft.com, you could still mail them at forenams@microsoft.com, or whatever their alias is.

clip_image004The alias, or logon name, at Microsoft was historically an up-to-7- or 8-letter moniker, based by default on surname|first-letter-of-forename, eg billg or steveb.

In a company with a handful of people, it was easy to remember such a name for when you wanted to drop them an email, but with hundreds of thousands of mail addresses, you might need more room – when Exchange Server came out in 1996, it supported 64 characters in the alias name, though oddly, Microsoft has never embraced longer than 8-character aliases.

Back in the day, your mailbox was a folder on a Xenix server, then an MS Mail postoffice, and the folder names were restricted by the 8.3 filename format. There are probably too many legacy systems that also have an employee name represented by their 8-letter alias, and it still kinda works.

Aliases – and the cultural phenomenon of calling people not by their name, but by their alias… eg “we had a billg review” – were a central part of the 1995 Douglas Coupland book, Microserfs.

clip_image006Some people at Microsoft still talk about an email distribution list as an “alias” – eg. “TAKE ME OFF THIS ALIAS!!” as a Reply-All (as opposed to a little “r”) to the occasional mail storms that amazingly still happen. They’re wrong – those are Distribution Lists (DLs) or maybe more correctly, Distribution Groups (DGs).

But the true “alias” lives on, even if the Skypey “Contact Card” UI in Outlook does its best to not show you what someone’s alias is (but you can usually still get to Open Outlook Properties, which shows you the traditional Outlook address book view, with alias in the very top section). Lots of reports from Microsoft’s internal systems will refer to an employee using their alias name, so it often helps if you can decipher an alias into the person behind it.

Resolving an alias to a name one-at-a-time is all very well, but when looking at a column of alias names in some spreadsheet, it’s a bit of a palaver to turn each of the FORENAMS into something meaningful.

Bulk alias resolver in Excelclip_image008

Fear not, worthy reader, for a solution is to hand.

  • Simply download this macro-enabled Excel workbook, and open it/save it somewhere locally
  • Click on the Enable Editing, then the Enable content button, so the macro can do its stuff
  • Now paste your list of chosen alias names in column A, then click the resolve button
  • The macro will now go through each alias in the first column, and resolve the name, then stick it in column B, if it can. If the name doesn’t work, then column B will just be the same as the alias in column A

This can be handy if you’re building Excel reports and want to add names to a table instead of aliases – you could sort the list of aliases alphabetically, run them through the resolver, and then reference the table with a VLOOKUP formula so you could hide the column of aliases from your report and show instead the derived real names.

Tip o’ the Week 415 – Another right To-Do

clip_image002It’s been 9 months since the unveiling of Microsoft To-Do, the task manager app that will someday replace the much loved Wunderlist (see ToWs passim317, 376, et al); the celebrations were muted in the halls of Wunderlist superfans, though, as To-Do has a much reduced feature set, albeit with a mission to be clear and easy to use. “Maybe it’ll catch up quickly”, some said.

There has been very little noticeable progress on the features front, though there have been lots of minor upgrades and fixes to the Windows 10, iOS and AndroidMicrosoft To-Do” apps (note the hyphen and the design of the icon; the respective app stores are awash with inferior “todo” apps with a variety of tick logos).

Since publishing this tip internally at Microsoft (where some early builds of new functionality are available in test versions), Thurrott.com highlighted the quiet announcement that we’re working on shared lists and subtasks, as well as deeper integration to Outlook. Watch that space, basically.

Recently, though, the To-Do web app has been released in clip_image004the Office365 Portal (after a few months of opt-in preview), and a tantalizing teaser shows up on the “Your apps” page… though doesn’t really tell you a whole lot that isn’t immediately obvious.

To-Do can import tasks from your existing Wunderlist task list if you have one, and automatically syncs with Outlook Tasks, therein exposing a rub – most people will have signed in to Wunderlist with their Microsoft Account, but for To-Do and Outlook to get along well, you’ll need to be using Office365 and therefore a different set of creds.

There are various solutions, the practicality of which will depend on how many active items you have in Wunderlist – you could share your MSA-homed lists with your O365 credentials, then log in with the latter and copy the contents across. Laborious, maybe.

You could make a clean break, or else use the Outlook addin for Wunderlist to sync the list items into Outlook as Tasks, then install To-Do and sync them back out again.

clip_image006The To-Do / Outlook task sync is pretty quick – just add an item to your To-Do app and it will quickly appear in your Outlook tasks view, reminders, notes and all. See more here.

The reverse is also true, though if you add Outlook tasks without putting them directly in the folders created to mimic the To-Do structure, (such as Tasks that were created in OneNote), the new item will just be lumped in the general “To-Do” list at the top.

Dragging and dropping the item, either within Outlook (from the clip_image008“Tasks” list into on a suitable corresponding folder to your To-Do lists) or by doing the same within the To-Do app or web app itself, and you’ll keep things nicely arranged.

If you like the idea of being more task organised, find Outlook Tasks too cumbersome, then To-Do could be a great way of simplifying the junction. It may not be as functionally rich as Wunderlist, but the latter is still available for those who want it.

Tip o’ the Week 408 – sign up for email lists

clip_image001The curse of email is that it’s too easy to send nonspecific content to large groups, meaning it’s generally in everyone’s interests to avoid getting any more. How often do you have to parse some online form where you need to leave the checked checkbox unchecked if you’d like to remain not signed up to receive specially selected offers from our carefully chosen partners?

That said, email distribution lists were an early form of mass collaboration – powered by the likes of LISTSERV, where online communities formed, in some ways an alternative to USENET and the web forums that now host many interest groups online. In the days of LISTSERV, email volumes would be relatively low, and it provided a simple distribution system that fired mail out to everyone on the list, and people could easily join and leave, by simply mailing a JOIN or LEAVE command to the address.

Next time there’s an internal company email storm (the famous Bedlam DL3 storm at Microsoft occurred just over 20 years ago), it’s not necessarily counter-intuitive for people to respond in the “take me off this list” manner, even though the perpetrators themselves are probably unaware of that.

If you find yourself getting unwanted email from marketeers or newsletters you’re not interested in, there are a variety of ways of opting-out – most kosher bulk email tools will allow you to unsubscribe with a link at the bottom; if the email is completely unsolicited, however, then clicking on an “unsubscribe” link in a spam message might just mark you as a real person, and you’ll get even more spam in future. If in doubt, you might want to rely on some of the built-in tools within Outlook, to protect you from further spammage.

3rd party bulk unsubscribe tools like https://unroll.me/ might help clean up subscriptions for consumer mail platforms like Outlook.com, Gmail etc, though exercise with caution as there’s always a risk they’ll just be exposing your data to people you shouldn’t.

Though aggregated news apps and websites are ten-a-penny, there are some very good resources out there that are worth signing up to receive mail from – for example…

  • WhatIs from TechTarget, which gives a Word of the Day email (there’s a big red button on the page, to sign up) which explains a topics word or phrase; you’ll almost certainly know many of them enough to hit delete as soon as you see the mail, but every so often there’s a just-detailed-enough explanation to make it worthwhile. Check out the archive of Words of the Day.
  • Owler is a free, professional, community-driven (crowd-sourced, even) news service that curates news from companies you might be interested in and packages, including a Daily Snapshot email that might be a good way of picking up company intelligence you might otherwise miss.
  • LinkedIn is a great way of getting notifications about people you’re connected with, but can also give you news about companies you want to follow, as well as a curated Daily Rundown page. It’s especially useful if you have access to LinkedIn Sales Navigator (see MS internal learning)

Tip o’ the Week 401 – Go with the Flow

We all get notified of stuff that we’re probably interested in, but clip_image001which we never get around to reading about in-depth, or trying out. Well, this week’s topic presents both an example of exactly that (for some of us at least) and a potential solution to it – Microsoft Flow, a free-to-use, simple*, workflow tool that can stitch all kinds of things together in a useful manner.

* some may take issue with “simple”.  Bah.

Flow promises to do all sorts of groovy things that nobody ever needs, like writing every email to a Google Sheet then sending your calendar a reminder to look at it. But there are lots of potentially interesting and useful things you can put together, either by using the many templates or by building your own custom flow based on simple logic. You could connect all kinds of disparate web-based services together and using triggers, fire off actions based on events happening – like a tweet about a particular topic, or a new event added to a calendar.

Let’s take an example – say, you have an Office 365 work mail account and associated calendar. When you put something in your calendar which is both an all-day event, and is also marked “Out of the Office”, that probably means you’ll be out of the office all day, maybe away on a business trip or possibly even on holiday.

Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to copy that to a calendar that your nearest and dearest can see, maybe even adding all the events from several family members into one place, shared with all the others?

First off, you may want to log into www.outlook.com, go into Calendar and create a new shared calendar (if you don’t have one already)clip_image003 give it a suitable name (like Family Calendar) and clip_image005then make sure you’re sharing it with the right people you’d like to be able to see it. They will get an invite to see the shared calendar and it will be added to their own Outlook.com calendar view (as pictured way below).

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Now, to create the flow to copy stuff from your work to Family Calendar…

  • Login to Microsoft Flow using your Microsoft Account, here.
  • Create a new Flow using a blank starting point, here.
  • Search event and select Office 365 Outlook – When a new event is created (and might as well pick v2 unless you know better)
  • Next, you’ll need to sign into your Office 365 account to be able to access it. Select the default calendar (probably just called “Calendar”…). This is the source for the flow, the trigger.
  • Click New Step and select Add a condition, then click in the “Choose a value” field; in the dynamic content pop up box, type clip_image009Is all day and you’ll see an “Is all day event?” condition clip_image011appear in the list. Click to add it to the flow.
  • Check that the central drop-down is “Is equal to” and click on the value to the right and enter True.
  • In the “If yes” left-hand pane, select Outlook.com – create event, then Sign in to provide your Outlook.com credentials.
  • Choose the Family Calendar from the list, and add the relevant details you’d like to add – in other words, the attributes from the source (O365) calendar, that you’d like to reflect on the destination (Outlook.com) one.
  • It’s a good idea to show Advanced Options, and select something like the following attributes by searching in the Dynamic content box for the key fields in each case (one of the more important being Is HTML, if clip_image013you’re going to put anything in the body of the message).
  • When you’re happy, click on the Flow name box at the very top of the page and give it something meaningful, and then Save Flow to the bottom

Now you should be able to see any new, all-day events that appear in your work calendar, showing up in your shared Outlook.com custom calendar.

A further refinement might be to add a condition to only trigger the sync when the original meeting is set to “Out of Office” – click on Update flow to edit, then add another clip_image015step, Add a condition then add Show as equals 3 – that’s the field that denotes the event’s status (busy, free etc), and “3” is the value that means “out of office”.

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Save the flow and you’ll see the flow copies only OOF events from your work calendar to your shared private one… as below, where Outlook.com is shown behind the Outlook app.

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It’s worth having a play around with Flow, as you can do some interesting things with it (and there are connectors for all kinds of services, including Google mail & calendar, Wunderlist tasks, even grown-up apps like Dynamics or Salesforce. There are mobile apps that can take part in flows, too); do bear in mind that it takes anything up to a few minutes to fire these kinds of events, and if there’s a problem running your logic, then you’ll be notified.

It may be worth adding a debug step that can be easily removed later, by getting the flow to send you an email with the values of the fields you’re interested in…

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Tip o’ the Week 396 – Handling dates in Office apps

clip_image002There are many times when you may need to deal with dates in ordinary applications – and there are a few shortcuts that you can make it easier.

In Outlook, any time there’s a date field (like when you’re setting a reminder, or clip_image004entering the start date/time for an appointment) you can choose or enter a regular date, or put in an expression – like “2 days” or “next Tuesday” – and Outlook will figure out the offset from today, and will set the appropriate date.

In some date fields (like an appointment start time), if you say “4 days” then press enter or TAB, it will evaluate the new date; if you return and put “4 days” again, it may add those extra days to the last date. Try a few other things like “next Christmas”, “3rd Sunday in November”, “2mo” , “7d” or some special days – there are some surprising ones there, like “Lincoln’s birthday”, and other events with static dates … though nothing that might change the actual date from year to year (like Easter, or Thanksgiving).

clip_image006In Excel, press CTRL+; to insert the current date into any cell – add a SHIFT key to insert the time instead. Excel are many date-oriented functions, but you don’t always need to write functions – simple maths can work on date fields – calculating the number of days’ difference between two dates, for example, or adding a number of days to a start date.

clip_image008In the desktop OneNote app, if you want to edit the date and time at the top of a page, click on the field and you’ll see a clock or calendar icon appear next to it – click on that  is set to, click on that to change the value; handy if you’re updating some reference material and want to make it clear that it’s recent.

Another way might be to insert the current date or time into the text: to do so, press SHIFT-ALT-D, or SHIFT-ALT-T for the current time, or SHIFT-ALT-F for the current date and time. The last one is really handy if you’re taking notes about a phone call, and want to quickly note the time that your insurance company said that everything was all fine, or when you started the indefinite call to the airline. The same shortcuts apply to the desktop OneNote 2016 application and also the OneNote store app.

clip_image010Word also supports SHIFT-ALT-D and SHIFT-ALT-T like OneNote, though inserts a date or time field rather than a simple bit of text, and is slightly different to the Date & Time command on the Insert tab, which gives a bit more control over the formatting at the point of insertion, rather than requiring the user to insert the field then go back in to edit the format.

Since Outlook uses Word as its text editor behind the scenes, the same shortcut keys will also insert date fields into the text of an Outlook email.