Top 10 Best Practices for Outlook

Best Practices buttonOutlook is a very powerful program but can go weird at times as well. When working with Outlook, there are a couple of things to keep in mind and when you do, you’ll find that Outlook runs more stable and is more pleasant to work with.

  1. Backup
  2. Shut down Outlook before shutting down PC
  3. Save your contacts
  4. Disable virus scanner integration
  5. Disable add-ins you don’t use
  6. Keep your pst-files free from errors
  7. Don’t import but connect to pst-files
  8. Don’t connect to pst-files located on a network share
  9. Use more than just rules to organize your mail
  10. Use the To, Cc, Bcc and From fields accordingly

1. Backup

Backup stands at the top and for good reasons; nobody likes losing their data and chances are that you are storing a lot of important data in Outlook.

Making a backup of Outlook is as simple as copying a file (a pst-file to be more exact). The Export feature in Outlook will not create a proper backup.

To find out more about backing up Outlook see; Backup and Restore all Outlook data.

2. Shut down Outlook before shutting down PC

When you want to shut down your PC, it’s easy to go directly for the shut down button in Windows; all applications will be eventually automatically closed for you. However, you really do not want to do this and especially not with Outlook.

While it will work OK for most applications, keep in mind that when going for the shut down button, applications that do not respond quickly enough for Windows to close down on its own will be terminated forcefully instead.

With Outlook being a database application (the pst-file is a database and so is the ost-file when connecting to an Exchange server), it will need a little more time to shut down itself. Outlook failing to shut down gracefully on its own can lead to corruption of your pst-file or even data loss.

If you also have other applications installed that integrate or rely on Outlook, you’ll need to close down these applications first as well before shutting down your PC or Outlook will still not close. Sometimes this can be as easy as un-cradling your mobile device.

To test if Outlook shuts down correctly on your computer, take a look on the Processes tab in Task Manager (press CTRL+SHIF+ESC) and see if outlook.exe is still in there. If so, take a look at this guide to find the cause of it.

3. Save your contacts

When addressing a new email, you’ll find that Outlook will suggest already names and addresses for you. This is a very handy feature but dangerous as well as you could easily forget to put them in your Contacts folder now.

The AutoSuggest feature in Outlook 2007 and previous uses its own cache of addresses (stored in an nk2-file) that you have used before when addressing a new email or replied or forwarded another email. It holds no relation to your Contacts folder!

To quickly add an address to your Contacts folder, right click on the address and choose “Add to Outlook Contacts”. To import you AutoSuggest cache into Outlook see: Import contacts from an nk2-file.

If you see a name in the AutoSuggest list that you not like to be in there, highlight it by using the arrow keys on your keyboard and press Delete.

Outlook 2010 has an improved AutoSuggest feature which no longer stores unsaved used addresses in an nk2-file but in the Suggested Contacts folder. It is highly recommended to clean this one up every now and then.

4. Disable virus scanner integration

Having a virus scanner integrated with Outlook sounds like a smart thing to do but in fact it isn’t. Because you have an on-access scanner already from the same virus scanner running on your computer, you are already sufficiently protected.

Having a virus scanner integrated is also known to cause a lot of issues with sending, receiving and displaying emails and can really slow down Outlook as well. Simply disable it and you will be much happier with using at using Outlook while remaining just as safe.

5. Disable add-ins you don’t use

Applications that you install sometimes also install options into Outlook you don’t even use. For instance, installing iTunes will also install an Outlook add-in to sync your calendar to your iPod while you might not even use that function of your iPod or your iPod version doesn’t even support it.

Having a lot of add-ins installed can cause Outlook to perform slowly or even to malfunction when the add-in itself is faulty, is not compatible with your version of Outlook or conflicts with another add-in. Therefore, you should disable or uninstall add-ins that you are not using within Outlook. You can find out how to do that in this guide.

6. Keep your pst-files free from errors

There are certain conditions under which errors can get into your pst-files. An obvious one is when you had a crash in Outlook. After that happens, you’ll often find that Outlook will trash your hard disk for a while; it is then doing a quick integrity check on your pst-file and fixes some small issues directly when needed.

While after such a check Outlook will usually run ok again, you still might want to regularly check your pst-file for issues with scanpst.exe. This will do a bit more thorough test against your pst-file then the quick automated check. Don’t forget to check the option that the tool will make a backup first before attempting to correct any issues.

A pst-file free of errors can prevent (future) data loss, indexing issues or even crashes when add-ins are trying to access information stored in your pst-file.

7. Don’t import but connect to pst-files

When you have an extra pst-file (for instance an archive) and you want to see what’s in there, don’t use the Import function. You can directly open pst-files in Outlook by using:

  • File-> Open & Export-> Open Outlook Data File…

If there is anything in that pst-file that you want to store in your main pst-file, simply copy or move those items from one folder to the other.

Importing is also not the way to restore a backup of your pst-file (for instance after you reinstalled your computer or recreated your mail profile). In your account settings you can assign to which pst-file you want your new emails to be delivered to.

There are really only a few occasions where importing a pst-file makes sense. If you find yourself using this feature for a pst-file, you probably need to evaluate what you are doing and think about things differently.

8. Don’t connect to pst-files located on a network share

This is another thing that sounds like a good thing to do (as you can then for instance centrally manage your backup) but in reality it isn’t.

As pst-files are databases, they heavily rely on special hard disk operations to perform properly and with decent responds times. This is not possible when you connect to a pst-file over the network. When you do, it could lead to poor performance, corruption of data or even complete loss of your pst-file. Therefore, Microsoft officially has stated that this is an unsupported configuration in basically any scenario.

A good workaround that suits most is to keep the pst-file locally on the computer and regularly copy it to a network share where your centralized backup solution can pick it up.

9. Use more than just rules to organize your mail

Rules are a great way to automatically sort your emails but having too many rules can make managing your rules more complex than managing your emails. Also, improper use of it could lead to duplicates and when connecting to an Exchange server, the amount of rules you can have is restricted by the size of your rules.

Therefore it is good looking at the other email management options that Outlook provides such as Categories, Custom Views, Search Folders and Automatic Formatting. An introduction to using those features can be found here and can be used for any account type.

The Instant Search feature within Outlook is also very powerful and really can find that email you were looking for in an instant.

10. Use the To, Cc, Bcc and From fields accordingly

This last best practice is actually not specific to Outlook but applies to general good email use. Knowing when to use each field can prevent the receiver from being confused or even annoyed about your email.

In general you should consider using them in the following way;

Always specify this field and specify the address of the main person or persons you are talking to. If it is more appropriate to use the Bcc field (see below) then specify your own address here.

Specify this field when you want to send the message to an additional person for informational purposes and also want to notify the person you are sending to that this person is informed about the topic.
In general, people who are specified in the Cc field do not hold any actions specified in the email and are not directly requested to respond.
When the recipient presses “Reply to All” the persons addressed in the Cc field will also receive a follow up.

Specify this field when you want to send the message to an additional person for informational purposes but do not want to notify the person you are sending to that this person is informed about the topic.
You could also specify this field when you want to send the same email message to multiple people but these people do not know each other. Out of respect for their privacy, you then should not expose their addresses to everyone either. Sending around “joke emails” for instance to a lot of people should also be done via the Bcc option.
If you want to send the same email to a lot of people who do not know each other and want to personally address them as well, then you should use a mail merge.

When the recipient presses “Reply to All” the persons addressed in the Bcc field will not receive a follow up.

This field is shown automatically when you have multiple email accounts configured to select the outgoing mail account.

The From field can also be used when you are using an Exchange mail account and have “Send As” or “Send on Behalf Of” delegate permissions to another mailbox, Public Folder, contact or distribution group.
By specifying the From field you can send out an email with the name of the object that you are a delegate of. The receiver will either see just that name/address or will see: <your name> On Behalf Of <From name>.

Note: The Bcc and From fields are not shown by default. See this quick tip on how to enable them.