Small Change Makes Big Difference to Email Prioritization: How to Color-code Your Messages

Color-coding your messages can help you significantly with triage, the process of prioritizing your messages.

The most significant improvement for me is the rule that colors messages blue, if I am the only recipient on the TO: line. Such messages are most likely to be more important that the rest of the stuff that fills up my inbox, because:

  • They have not been sent to a bunch of people, but specifically to me.
  • They are therefore more likely to relate to my area of responsibility.
  • They are also more likely to require action.
  • If I don’t answer, nobody else will. (Read some interesting background information about this.)

In Microsoft Outlook, it’s very easy to define such a rule. On the menu in the main Outlook window, just click on Tools | Organize. This will display the following panel above the messages:

Color Messages Sent Only To Me

You can create additional rules using the Automatic Formatting… link at the top-right of the panel.


39 responses to “Small Change Makes Big Difference to Email Prioritization: How to Color-code Your Messages

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  2. I love this feature of organizing inbox with color coding – to ensure emails sent to me are taken care.

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  4. Great tip! I get hundreds of emails a day and have been drowning for some time… I’m definitely book marking the site!

  5. OK, I’m giving the colour coding a go, I noticed a few weeks ago that one of my staff already does this, emails from me are ‘red’ which must be the universal ‘boss’ colour because I just made emails from the CEO red for myself.

    Rather than picking a color for emails that are only for me, I made it so they appear in a larger sized font.

  6. Has anyone done this with Lotus Notes? I assume it is done through creating an ‘Agent’, but I’ve not done much of that. Would appreciate any assistance on figuring out how to do this.

  7. hrm… rather than color the messages sent directly to me, i’d like to color all the other ones in a gray tone. anyone care to shed some light on this? using outlook, by the way.

  8. Great Tip, I\’ve seen this before but never paid much attention to it.

  9. berlinde, I set up a rule that would show messages where I was in the CC line in a grey color. You can add to this to get to where you want to go…

    1. Go to Tools | Organize then select “Using Colors” and in the upper right hand side, click on “Automatic Formatting.”
    2. Now click on Add in the dialog that pops up to create a new rule. Name the new rule, mine is “Mail received where I am in the CC line.”
    3. Click on the Font button to customize how these types of messages will show up.
    4. Click on the Condition button. In the resulting dialog, check the box that says “Where I am” and select the option in the drop down next to it that says “on the CC line with other people”

    You’re done. You can create another one of these with the same formatting but chose “Where I am on the To line with other people.”

  10. Brad Van Orden

    Has anyone ever had this rule stop working? I have a customer that it stopped working for and I cannot find a reason. I added a custom rule that does the same thing and it works. Just not sure why the pre-defined rule doesn’t and can’t seem to find any error messages about this.

  11. I’m looking for information on how to change the background colours of incoming email and the background colours of folders within Outlook, like Inbox, etc. I am an IT Trainer and have quite a few students who are Dyslexic. Changing the colours of the backgrounds would help dyslexic people enormously! Any help will be gratefully received. Thanks.

  12. Itzy – great tip which I’ve just implemented to color code emails about a time critical project I’m working on atthe moment. The way its useful for me is that I can now – at a glance across the room – see if anything urgent/important has cropped up. Thanks.

  13. Try this tutorial for 1) setting up colors effectively, and 2) being able to use Outlook without filing or folders.


  14. Mark: nice tutorial, but your method has the same deficiencies as the “Search is Everything” approach by Google.

    See The Grand Unified Theory of Everything: Search vs. Filing vs. Tagging

  15. I think sorting contrains the results a bit better. If I search my email with gmail using the key word “mark”, I get a lot more things than my name (check mark, etc), however if I sort and type, at least I only get my name or other marks if they sent me something :-)

    Regarding deficiencies, I couldn’t agree more. The tutorial is to show people how to get away with less filing, if any at all. I love it, but even I sometimes would like to be able to categorize things in some way, and I’d sure like to do it a lot easier than with the Outlook Categories feature – that UI sucks.

    So that’s why were building an email tagger. If you have feeback on that we’d love to hear it.

  16. version 2 of the tutorial posted with more function from outlook 2003. Comments?

  17. how i cane chang my in box mail colour
    help with me

  18. color coding is great, but how does the advanced filtering work? I have a few advanced filters set up but they never seem to work.

  19. is there a bug in the colour coding. If you specify a recipient to be colour coded by highlighting a mail from them and then using the Automatic Formatting to choose a colour/font then it will give same formatting to everyone with same first name as the email highlighted, i.e. Bob Smith in red, will result in everyone with first name of Bob to be red also. Anyone else have this problem?

  20. I think it is understanding Bob Smith as 2 alternative words. Try entering Bob’s email address instead of his name.

  21. Barbara: color-code by name
    this is WHY:
    – that is, it looks for the firstname or the last name in the from field to color code.
    – the article gives one way to set it up

    This is another similar way:
    use the “Automatice formatting” and the “condition” button on the rule to set the “FROM” field to an actual recipient.

  22. I have multiple email addresses coming to one account, is there a way of colour coding these regardless of sender or content?

  23. Yes, if you use Outlook, it allows you to define color-coding rules based on which account the message comes to.

    Use the Automatic Formatting… link depicted above to create an advanced rule. Click the Condition… button to show the Filter dialog. You’ll have to use the Advanced tab to create a condition that looks like this:
    Email Account is (exactly)

  24. had to replace C drive and re-install Office 2003 but in Outlook (had it crash LOTS of times before it would work and had to reinstall a couple of times besides, but now can not colour code by email sender, to place to find the icon that I used to use to colour code each person. Some are in red for the reason one need caution replying to these people and other colour because one does not want to miss their emails. Mine were always in blue so I knew the last time I wrote and such.

    Any idea how to get this feature back?


  25. Re-installed and functions showed up again.

    So far this seems to have solved the crashing and the missing Organize function.


  26. Is it possible to create a rule in Lotus Notes that sends emails I am cc’d on to a seperate folder ?

    I know this can be done in Outlook.

  27. Do you know absolutely that this works? Not in terms of the blue applying to e-mail only sent to you, but if something isn’t blue do you know absolutely for certain without a shadow of a doubt that it was sent to someone else?? So if you get a non-blue e-mail it definitely was sent to someone else, obviously as a bcc, and if so, is there any way to track who else it was sent to?

  28. Thanks for this great tip! I’ve started doing this and found it really helpful. One problem though — I am trying to relabel a few colors and have so far been unsuccessful. Outlook seems stuck with the first set of color conditions I applied. Is there a way to reset all my folders to the default color formatting so that I can start over with a clean slate?

  29. Is there any way to change the colors?

    Especially the fluorescent ones? I can’t use them because they hurt my eyes and I am out of colors.

    Please let me know.


  30. hello, I keep receiving numerous emails each with content highlighted with different colours) (red for problem, green for ok). Is there a way to reflect the colour displayed in the body of the email in the subject line e.g if the wordings in the body are in green, the subject also will be displayed in green?

    Please advise.

  31. is there a way to change the color to red of the subject line when composing a new mail or replying/forwarding so when the recipient gets it the subject line colored in microsoft outlook 2003

  32. Preet: you can achieve it by using the flag feature to mark your outgoing message as Reply by (date/time). If the recipient is using Outlook, and has not messed with the default color-coding rules, the message will turn red when the date/time passes.

  33. Pingback: Preston Smalley » How I triage email » Blog Archive

  34. Hi All,

    I hope someone can help. I know how to setup rules and I know about the mail organisor, but neither of them do what I want (or I’m missing something really obvious). Basically I want to mark all my incoming meeting requests with a certain colour. In rules I have the option to flag these but not mark them with a colour. any ideas.???


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  36. Thank you so much for this post. This is a great way to organize emails and now I just need to figure out advanced filtering.

  37. Or you can try using a prioritization tool like . It might also help you save some time.

  38. Hello,

    I get emails from all over the world, well my inbox is set to view from. I get 100 – 800 emails daily, I have no choice but, to minimize the from box and it only displays their name. Well all new emails are set in red while read emails are in black. The problem is since every recipient is minimized it will only show a new email if the recipient is maximized. I know I can create a rule that will color code a direct person but, I have several thousand people in my contact list and would take forever to make a rule for each individual person. So my question is can i color code all recipient that sends new messages to red while they are minimized. otherwise they are blue and after a couple hours your eyes go cross-eyed trying to scroll through trying to find unread messages and everything becomes a blur so I usually pass an unread message and have to scroll through all my messages at least 3 times to find it.

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