Never miss email notifications: Make Outlook like Gmail

Microsoft Outlook email allows you to store emails in folders. It is neat and tidy, but it means you don’t get new email notifications from them. Easy solution: Make Outlook like Gmail.

Some email services allow you to create folders to store emails. You could create a folder for work and another for personal messages. A folder could be created to store all messages from a particular sender or where the subject matches one you want to follow.

Outlook lets you create folders and, in some ways, they are very useful. For example, you can clear your inbox by moving emails to folders to organize them.

Emails can be dragged from the inbox and dropped into a folder to move them. However, there is an easier way to manage them. By creating rules or filters, you can automatically sort incoming emails into the right folders. It requires zero effort on your part and the result is a much-reduced inbox with none of the usual clutter.

Unfortunately, you only get email notifications from unread messages in the inbox. If you have a rule or filter to automatically redirect emails into folders, they don’t appear in the inbox and therefore do not trigger notifications. This means that you may miss important emails.

The solution is to make Outlook work like Gmail. Folders are not available in Gmail and labels are used instead. You can create a label, like Work, Project, Personal or whatever, and attach them to emails either manually or automatically.

Everything appears in the inbox, but select a label in the sidebar and only emails with that label are shown. The result is similar to selecting a folder in Outlook so you only see emails in the folder.

Outlook supports labels and they can be used instead of folders. An advantage is that because you are not moving emails out of the inbox, you still get new mail notifications.

Let’s see how to automatically label emails in Outlook. I am using a free email account at the website, but it works if you have a subscription too.

1: View Outlook categories

Configure categories in Outlook web mail
View categories in Outlook settings and edit them

What some email programs call labels, Outlook calls categories. They are basically the same thing, which is a keyword that can be attached to emails.

Go to in a web browser and click the gear icon in the top right corner of the page. Scroll down the quick settings panel and at the bottom, click View all Outlook settings. Select General in the first column and then Categories in the second column.

Categories are named after colors by default. Click the pencil icon to edit a category.

2: Edit an Outlook category

Edit an Outlook category name and color
Name the category and select a color

Delete the default name for the category and enter a word that describes the emails you want to label. I have multiple email accounts in Outlook and have been automatically sorting them into folders using a rule. Instead, I will assign a label and have named it after the email address.

Don’t copy me, use your own label. We will use it to make Outlook like Gmail, at least when it comes to labels.

3: View Outlook rules

View and edit rules in Outlook web mail
Rules in Outlook web mail settings

Stay in Outlook web mail settings and select Email in the first column, then Rules in the second column. Here you can see the rule I was using to automatically move emails sent to a specific address to a folder. I will turn this off. If you have been sorting mails with a rule and want to replace it with a Gmail-like label, turn it off.

Click + Add new rule to create a rule to process new emails as they arrive in the inbox.

4: Set the condition

Create a rule to process emails in Outlook web mail
Add a condition to an Outlook rule

The rule editor appears and at the top, enter a name for the rule. I have called it Flag rolandwaddilove, but it could be called Label… or whatever you like.

Click in the Add a condition box below and then select a condition from the list that appears. Most often, you will want to label an email from someone, to a specific email address, or when a keyword or phrase appears in the subject or body. I will select To.

5: Configure the condition

Configure an email rule in Outlook web mail.
Continue configuring the rule

If you are labelling emails with a specific keyword in the subject, enter the keyword. If you are labelling emails from or to someone, enter the email address. Begin typing and select it in the list when you see it. At the bottom of the suggestions list is Search People, which can be used to find contacts.

I want to label emails to a specific email address. It is an extra one I added and use it to sign up for newsletters. It makes it easy to find and delete email newsletters when you get bored with them if you use a different address to your normal email.

6: Set the Outlook rule action

Set an action for an Outlook email rule
Choose the action to take in Outlook

We have chosen what triggers this rule, an email addressed to a specific account, now we must decide what action to take. Click in the Add an action box to see a list of possible actions. What we want to do is to categorize it the email.

Other email services would call this assigning a label, but Outlook calls them categories. Select the action in the list.

7: Choose a category for an action

Assign a category to an email in Outlook web mail
Select the email category in Outlook

A Search for a category box appears after selecting Categorize for the action. Click it to see a list of categories. Those colors are what you see if you have never set up your own categories. The category we created at the start is shown in the list. Yours will be named differently to mine of course. Select the category in the list.

Underneath Add an action are two useful checkboxes. Many rules can be created and sometimes you want to stop processing rules once one has been applied, but sometimes you don’t. For example, if you had a rule that identified spam and deleted it, you would not need to process any more rules.

If you apply a label, such as here, you might have other rules that apply more labels, so you could label an email as Personal, and also as Family. An email can have two labels if you want.

The Run rule now checkbox is useful because it applies the rule you just created to the contents of the inbox. Any emails that match the condition will have the action applied. If you do not select this option, then the rule is applied only to new emails arriving in the inbox.

8: Category labels in Outlook inbox

Outlook inbox showing a category label
A category label in the Outlook inbox

The rule we created automatically adds a category label new unread emails that arrive in the inbox. An example is shown in the screenshot and it makes emails stand out. More rules can be created to apply different category labels. Start again and add another rule.

9: Filter emails by category

View emails matching a category label in Outlook web mail
See all labelled emails in Outlook

Click a category and the inbox is filtered and shows only those emails with that category label attached. This is exactly how Gmail works. This is just what we want to make Outlook like Gmail. To return to the normal view, select Inbox in the sidebar.

10: Create a Favorite

Add a category to favorites in Outlook web mail
Add a category to Favorites in Outlook

There is one more thing we can do to make Outlook like Gmail. In Gmail, labels are displayed in the sidebar and selecting a label shows all emails that have it. This feature is easily added to outlook.

Expand Favorites in the Outlook sidebar if it is not already showing them. Click Add favorite at the bottom of the Favorites list. Start typing the category label you added and then click it in the list when you see it suggested.

11: Folders vs labels

Make Outlook like Gmail and add labels to the Favorites section of the sidebar
The category label in Outlook Favorites

We now have a category label in the Favorites section of the Outlook sidebar and it looks and works just like Gmail labels. Click it to see only emails with that category label.

This is useful because only emails in the Outlook inbox trigger notifications. If we created a rule to automatically move emails into a folder, we would not see any new mail notifications. This means that we might miss something important. By leaving emails in the inbox and applying a label, we get new mail notifications, and if we only want to see emails with that label, we can select it in the Favorites list.

Which is best for email, folders or labels? Gmail only has labels, but Outlook has both labels and folders. This means you can choose the best option for different types of email. You may choose to move some emails to folders using rules and avoid email notifications, but apply category labels to others and see new mail notifications from them.

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