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5 handy Outlook secrets hiding in plain sight

It's no surprise that so many features in Microsoft Office go completely unused. The productivity suite is bursting with tools -- many catering to a very limited audience -- and finding them (much less even knowing they exist) is a challenge. After all, that was the motivation behind the introduction of the ribbon starting in Office 2007.

But there are a slew of features in Outlook that are poised to make your day managing email far more efficient and effortless, and they're hiding in plain sight. Add this handful of lesser known tools to your Outlook toolkit.

  1. Work distraction free by turning off notifications. We live in a multitasking world, but any productivity expert will tell you that multitasking is a myth; it's simply impossible to do two things at once, and constant email alerts simply take your attention away from your priority tasks. You can leave Outlook running for fast access to mail and calendar without getting system tray notifications, though. Just choose File, Options, Mail, and then clear the checkmark for Display a Desktop Alert.

  2. Schedule vacation notices so you don't have to remember to turn them off when you return. It always seems a bit unprofessional when someone still has their vacation auto-responder running three days after they're back in the office. Even worse -- failing to set it at all. You can avoid both of these risks simply by scheduling your vacation message in advance, specifying when it should start and stop. Choose File, Automatic Replies, Send automatic responses, and be sure to choose Only during this time range. You can set it and forget it -- the autoresponder will kick in at the right time and stop when you want it to.

  3. See who accepted your meeting invitation. No more mystery meeting in which you show up to your own event, not knowing who else will be there.

  4. Ignore a conversation. Not all email threads are interesting or useful to you. Yet you might be included on the TO or CC line anyway, and endless emails keep flowing in, doing little more than clogging your inbox. Want to eliminate an entire email conversation, so you don't even see future replies? Select it in your inbox, and instead of pressing Delete, which would only delete a single message, press CTRL+Delete. You'll never be bothered again.

  5. Add a favorite feature to the toolbar so it's easy to get to. Is there a feature you use all the time, but you always have to change tabs in the ribbon to get to it? Right-click the button and choose Add to Quick Access Toolbar. The feature will now appear at the top of Outlook's window in the Quick Access Toolbar (which you might not have even realized existed) where you can trigger it with one click any time.
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