In Outlook, categories are a means of organizing items into logical groups. They’re very much like Gmail’s labels, with the added benefit that you can assign each category a color. Being able to color code items is fantastic. With a quick glance you can tell what category an item belongs to. There’s one hitch though. The colors are specific to each individual. In a shared calendar that can be an issue. A category I see as green you might see as orange. Sometimes businesses and organizations, possibly even families, need everyone to see things in the same color. Imagine a business with a shared project calendar. Critical due dates all belong to the “critical” category and should appear in red. While Sally has “critical” items set to red, John has them set to blue, while Tom and Anita haven’t defined a color for “critical”, causing them to appear in white. While Outlook does propagate category names to each person’s list of categories, it does not propagate the color associated with each category.
The solution, as you might have guessed, is to use a script to synchronize a set of category names and colors to all users. The script could go in Outlook, where it would run each time Outlook starts, or it could be an external script that’s part of a login script or scheduled to run at regular intervals using Windows Task Scheduler. I’ve taken the external approach, though I’ll be glad to add a version that runs from inside Outlook if anyone is interested. The biggest advantage of an external script is that it doesn’t have to be installed on all computers if it’s called from a login script. A version that runs inside of Outlook would have to be installed on each computer.
As with many solutions, the script is actually very simple. It starts be deleting all the corporate categories (i.e. the category names and colors being enforced across all computers) from the computer. Next, it opens a file containing the corporate category definitions, reads and adds them to Outlook. The definitions are stored in a plain-text file that’s kept on a share accessible by all computers. Here’s a sample showing what the file will look like. Continue reading
I’ve found several interesting Outlook questions on Twitter recently, including this one from Carl Knecht.
In short, Carl wants a way to discover which Outlook categories he’s not using (i.e. no items assigned to the category) so he can delete them. Outlook isn’t able to do this natively, so once again we have to turn to scripting. To do this, the script first reads the categories from the master category list into an array that will keep track of how many times each category has been used. It then reads through every folder (mailbox and PST files alike) and sub-folder. For each item in each folder, the script checks to see if the item is assigned to one or more categories and updates the counts in the array accordingly. The result is a sorted list of category names and the number of items assigned to each. Continue reading
Categories are one of Outlook’s most powerful features. Besides organizing items into groups they also enable you to color code them. For example you could create and assign a category to all messages, appointments, contacts, and tasks pertaining to a given project that would color them blue. Another, somewhat lesser known, feature is that you can use categories in lieu of a distribution list. For those of you who didn’t know about this capability, here are the steps you’d follow to do this in Outlook 2007:
- Switch to your Contacts folder
- Switch to the By Category. view
- Select a category by clicking on the group header
- Click Actions -> Create -> New Message to Contact
Using categories instead of distribution lists is actually quite useful. You don’t have to create or maintain any lists, just categorize your contacts as you add them. Another advantage is that there is no limit to the number of items assigned to a category, but there is a limit on the number of members in a distribution list. The limit is actually a size limit, but it effectively limits the maximum number of distribution list members to about 125 – 130 entries. For best results Microsoft recommends keeping distribution lists to no more than 50 – 70 members. The problem with using categories as distribution lists is that there are too many steps involved and you cannot add contacts to the To, CC, or BCC line like you can a distribution list. Is there a way to overcome these issues? The answer is Yes. Continue reading