Since moving all my personal email to Gmail a few months ago I have been spoiled with the power of Google search applied to messages. For a small price (knowing that Google bots scan every communication I send and receive) I get the pleasure of typing anything in a search field (with as complex a syntax as I want) and finding all the messages have ever sent or received that contained my search string.

Microsoft Outlook, which unfortunately I still have to use at work, is one of those cases where software got so complicated and riddled with options that yes, you can do hundreds of things, but sadly none very easily or quickly. Search is one of them.

Outlook’s simple search toolbar lets me down because:

  • it only searches within the folder you are in (not within subfolders);
  • it only searches content in the subject line;
  • if I perform a search, then move to another folder, I lose my search results.

The one good thing about Windows Vista is its indexing and search functionality, but we run XP at work, and unfortunately I am not allowed to install indexing software on my machine, so alas, no Google Desktop.

My solution (more like a workaround really): Outlook’s advanced search. I bring it up by typing Ctrl-Shift-F (this opens a new window), type my keyword(s) and press the Enter key. All results appear in a new window (so I can continue working in my main one), and subfolders are scanned by default.

This way you still only look for content in the subject line, but I am happy with that, because I want messages that deal primarily with what I am looking for, rather than mention it incidentally. The problem here is that very often the subject line is not representative of the content, such as ‘fruit’ or ‘Sharing is caring’ (real subject lines of non-personal messages I have received at work lately).

Fortunately, Outlook lets you edit the subject line of emails you have received. I therefore recently went through the messages I needed to keep for reference (not very many, I try and delete as many as I can) and added a few keywords to the original subject line, wrapped in brackets to separate them from it. So the subject lines above (real examples from my ‘archive’ folder) have become ‘fruit (character encoding info utf8)’ and ‘Sharing is caring (uxd brainstorming notes contextual navigation shared drive folder)’. I keep the original title so that if I need to reply or forward the message I can delete my own keywords.

I think I first read about this method on Lifehacker: Make Outlook email messages more searchable.

I have now developed the habit of changing the subject line when I am done with a message and I want to archive it (Ctrl-shift-V, then select the folder where you ‘archive’ read mail that you keep for reference), and every time I need to bring up old info, I can access it with a few keystrokes.

It feels good and efficient, and yet every time I do that, I wish that I could just use Gmail at work too.