In this guide, I’ll explain everything you need to know about Outlook rules: how they work, how they’re most commonly used, how to make the most of them, and how to deal with any issues that come up in the process.
Ready? Let’s dig in!
Table of Contents
- What Are Outlook Rules?
- Benefits of Outlook Rules
- How to Create Outlook Rules (Outlook Rules Setup)
- What does “Stop processing more rules” mean?
- 7 Common Ways to Use Outlook Rules
- 3 Pro Tips for Outlook Rules
- Outlook Rules Wildcards
- Outlook Rules Not Working?
- Outlook Rules Export and Import Options
- Outlook Rules for a Shared Inbox
What Are Outlook Rules?
Alright, so what exactly are Outlook rules?
Basically, Outlook rules are designed to apply specific actions in your inbox automatically. You can design and tweak these rules however you see fit, ultimately using them to automate your inbox management as much as possible. They’re the Outlook counterpart to Gmail filters.
Benefits of Outlook Rules
Think of it like programming a little robot companion. Your robot companion is very good at managing your inbox for you, and it can help you:
- Stay organized. Emails will automatically be labeled and organized as you intend them to be.
- Expedite communication. Thanks to features like forwarding and importance markers, Outlook rules can help you expedite communication.
- Save time. You’ll spend less time in your inbox and more time on important things, and you can rest assured knowing that your inbox is being managed properly.
How to Create Outlook Rules (Outlook Rules Setup)
So how do you create Outlook rules? What’s the process for Outlook rules setup?
The process is a bit different if you’re using Outlook on the Web vs the Outlook desktop app. The screenshots below are from the Outlook desktop app, but the general process for Outlook on the Web is similar.
Step 1. Create a New Rule
- If you’re using the Outlook web app: Head to the Settings menu (look for the gear icon; for me it was in the upper right corner), click “View all Settings“, go to Mail, then select Rules. Alternatively, find the Settings menu and then search for “rules.”
- If you’re using the Outlook desktop app: Head to File, then Manage Rules & Alerts, then click “New Rule…”
On the desktop app, you’ll see an option to create a new rule from a template, or to start from a blank rule:
Step 2. Add a condition.
A condition is a set of parameters that cause the rule to trigger. We’ll review each possible condition you can add to your rule below –and you can even add multiple conditions to a single rule. Each condition must be fulfilled before the rule’s action is executed.
Step 3. Add an action.
An action is a specific set of instructions for Outlook to follow when a rule’s conditions are triggered. You can add multiple actions to a single rule as well.
Step 4. Add an exception.
Exceptions are totally optional. They exist as a way to help you fine tune your Outlook rules, so they work exactly as you intend them to. Sometimes, there are fringe cases that you want to be excluded from a rule that should otherwise apply; naming your exceptions allows your rule to ignore them. You can add multiple exceptions if you want.
You’ll also see an option at the bottom of Outlook rules, “Stop processing more rules,” but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Step 5. Name your rule.
This field allows you to apply a custom name for your rule. You can name your rule anything you want. All that matters is that you recognize the name and understand what it means when you see it.
For Outlook on the Web, here are the conditions (and exceptions) to choose from:
- People. You can flag emails based on the “From” or “To” address.
- My name is. You can flag emails based on where your name appears, such as on the To line, on the CC line, on the To OR CC line, not appearing on the To line, or being listed as the only recipient.
- Subject. You can apply rules to emails based on specific words or phrases in the Subject, or in the Subject OR body.
- Keywords. Filter emails based on keywords in the message body, sender address, recipient address, or message header.
- Marked with. If the email is marked with importance or sensitivity, you can apply a rule to it.
- Message includes. You can also apply rules based on the email having a flag, a type, or an attachment.
- Message size. You can set rules based on the message being above or below a certain size.
- You can also set rules based on when the message was received: before or after a certain date.
- All messages. Rules can be applied to all messages – but be careful with this one.
- Organize. You can Move a message, Copy a message, Delete a message, or Pin a message to the top of your inbox.
- Mark message. You can also Mark as read, Mark as Junk, Mark with importance, or Categorize the message (you can then choose the individual category that’s relevant for your needs). This is the best way to create and manage Outlook rules folders for specific applications.
- Route. You can Forward, Forward as attachment, or Redirect to another user (and you can specify recipients afterward).
Let’s look at an example:
1. You name a rule “No more Store.org spam.” Store.org has been sending you too many spam messages.
2. You set a condition for this rule. If an email is sent to you from the Store.org domain, the rule will trigger.
3. You set an action for this rule. If the rule triggers, the email in question will be automatically deleted.
4. Wait a minute. You love Store.org’s big Black Friday sale every year. So you add an exception; if the phrase “Black Friday” appears in the email, the rule will not apply.
What does “Stop processing more rules” mean?
There’s an option called “Stop processing more rules.” What exactly does this mean? This feature is enabled by default, and for most users, it should be enabled – even if you don’t consciously use it.
There are occasional times when multiple rules will apply to the same email. One rule might say that the message should be deleted, while another says it should be marked as important. How does Outlook know which rule to apply?
Without the “Stop processing more rules” option, Outlook would apply any and all rules that are relevant to the message in the order that they’re listed. This is why you have the option to move rules up and down in the manage rules section; you can select the priority at which each rule applies by moving it up or down as necessary. When “Stop processing more rules” is toggled on, Outlook will apply only one rule to each email, then stop applying rules.
Use this to your advantage. Depending on your circumstances, it may make sense to only process one rule per email, or it may make sense to selectively prioritize the order in which rules apply.
7 Common Ways to Use Outlook Rules
These are some of the most common uses for Outlook rules:
1. Sending emails to specific folders/categories.
By far the most common use of Outlook rules is, understandably, sending emails to specific categories and folders. This is the easiest and fastest way to clean up your inbox, and keep it clean.
This will require a bit of advanced planning, since you’ll need all your necessary folders to be created in advance, but you can always add new rules in the future as needed.
2. Adding custom alerts.
Are you tired of hearing the same alert for every message? Those of us with notifications turned off are living in paradise. But if you can’t stand the idea of turning off notifications entirely, you can at least set custom notifications for different types of messages.
For example, you can assign specific notifications for messages from specific clients, or you can turn off alerts entirely for messages marked as spam.
3. Flagging emails for follow-up.
Some of your messages will require a response as soon as possible, while others either don’t require a response or can wait. By carefully tuning your rules based on senders, keywords, subject lines, and other factors, you can automatically flag your most important messages as important so they stand out to you.
4. Forwarding emails to appropriate recipients.
You can also use Outlook rules to automatically forward emails wherever they need to go. If you’re tired of receiving emails that should go to your boss, or if you’re frequently mistaken for working in a different department, this is a lifesaver.
5. Identifying (and removing) spam.
Outlook, like most modern email platforms, has a great set of spam filters that should remove the most obnoxious messages from your inbox automatically. But it’s going to miss marketing emails, sales emails, and other routinely annoying messages. If you know the types of messages you usually receive, you can set up rules to deal with them.
6. Delegating tasks.
Do you have an assistant? A partner? Or someone else who helps you with your work on a regular basis? You can use automatic forwarding to delegate tasks to them on the fly. Look for specific keyword triggers or forward based on senders and recipients.
7. Removing or reducing attachments.
Attachments can clog your inbox, especially if you’ve been collecting them for many years. Even if most of the attachments you receive are relatively small, they can eventually add up to take up gigabytes of space. That’s why it’s helpful to apply a rule that sorts all your incoming emails with attachments into a specific folder; this way, you can quickly and easily delete the attachments you no longer need.
Of course, feel free to get creative here. There are tons of customization options, so if you can dream up a way to automate your email inbox, there’s probably a way to do it with Outlook rules.
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3 Pro Tips for Outlook Rules
Now let’s take a look at some advanced tips and tricks you should know.
1. Run rules to clean up your inbox immediately.
Outlook rules are designed to apply on an ongoing basis. Once you create them, they’ll apply to all messages you receive in the future. But what if your inbox is currently messy and you want to clean it up right now?
Once you create a rule, you can click a button to run that rule immediately. If your inbox is currently disorganized, this is one of the fastest and easiest ways to completely clean it up. In a matter of minutes, you can apply a sequence of rules that takes your inbox from pure chaos to something neat and tidy.
2. Enable the option to make rules on the fly.
Head to the Settings menu, go to Mail, then select Customize Actions. Here, you’ll have the option to include “Create rule” as an available action on each message. Now, whenever you view a message, you’ll see a handy little icon in the upper-left that allows you to create a new rule in just a click.
This is especially important if you aren’t sure which rules are going to be most important to you. Throughout the course of an average workday, you’ll likely encounter several messages that spark an idea for a new rule in you. This button makes it easy to transform your rule from idea to reality.
3. Toggle rules on or off as appropriate.
Outlook rules aren’t permanent – or at least, they don’t have to be. Anytime you want, you can visit the rules menu and toggle specific rules on and off.
If you’re leaving on vacation, you may want a different set of rules to apply. If you just finished the busy season for your business, you might be able to afford the luxury of turning your rules off.
Outlook Rules Wildcards
In the tech world, many apps make use of “wildcard” characters in queries to stand in for specific unknown variables – or refine how a search is done.
For example, if you add an asterisk (*) to the end of a query, a search engine will likely search for any and all keywords that start with the rest of your query; searching for wh* would produce results like “what,” “white,” and “why,” but not “awhile.”
Symbols like ?, , !, -, +, and # also have important functions in this capacity.
Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t recognize Outlook rules wildcards. When setting up new Outlook rules, it’s important to be as specific as possible in creating your conditions, actions, and exceptions.
Outlook Rules Not Working?
Are your Outlook rules not running automatically? Or do you think there’s a problem with your existing rules?
There’s some easy troubleshooting you can do immediately.
1. Did you create your Outlook rule in Outlook desktop version and set “on this computer only” as a condition?
First, if you’ve created your rule in Outlook desktop version and set “on this computer only” as a condition, then your rules will only run when your Outlook application is actually running on the computer you created it on. This means your Outlook rules won’t work when checking Outlook from your mobile app or Outlook online.
You can remove this condition by editing your rule.
2. Did you incorrectly set up the rule?
Head to the Rules menu in Settings. If there’s a problem that Outlook has detected with a rule, the rule will stand out with a red font. There will be a box next to the rule in red; check it to see why the rule isn’t working properly.
Then, you can edit the rule so that it works as intended.
You can also check to see if the rule is currently turned on; rules that are toggled off will not apply.
If that fails you, try deleting the rule entirely and rebuilding it from scratch, paying careful attention to the logic you’re using to construct the rule.
If you’re still having problems, it could be an issue with how your rules were designed and set up. A spelling error, mismanaged rule priorities, and problematic exceptions are leading culprits here.
This is a framework built on logic and rules, so if there’s a problem with a rule, it’s probably due to how the rule was created.
Outlook Rules Export and Import Options
In the Outlook rules manager, you can export and import rules. This is useful if you want to share rules with the rest of your team, or if you want to conveniently use another rule you heard about elsewhere.
Click File, then click Manage Rules and Alerts (or use the Settings menu on the web app).
Click Export rules or Import rules depending on what you want to do.
If you’re exporting, you can choose where and how you want to save your Outlook rules. They’ll then be available for anyone to import.
If you’re importing, you’ll need to choose the rule/rules you want, then click Open.
What if you’re working with a shared inbox?
Adding and managing rules works exactly the same way it does for a single inbox; just make sure you and your co-recipients are on the same page with the rules that will be applied.
Hopefully, this guide on Outlook rules will help you improve your email productivity. Removing spam, automatically forwarding to delegate tasks, and automatically sorting and organizing your emails should collectively save you hours of time.
But when it comes to mastering email productivity, this is just the beginning.
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.