Using colour coding on Outlook

Written by: Jane Adams, University of Reading
Published on: 15 Nov 2012

Jane Adams is the Administrator to the Centre for the Development of Teaching and Learning at the University of Reading, which also includes PA duties to the Director. Jane is a member of the Institute of Administrative Management (IAM) and is also a keen blogger. 


If you're an Administrator, PA, EA or VA chances are you have a long to-do list which you use to keep tabs on all the various tasks you have to juggle week on week. Throughout my career I’ve used a variety of tools for this but the system I have now is by far the most successful I have come across.

I am a person who loves to be organised and thrives on creating calm from chaos so I’m never happier than when I’m planning and implementing a new process or office system. My friends have even joked that I’m the most organised person they’ve ever met and yet my role as an Administrator has certainly challenged me to be on top of my organisational game each day. As a result my Outlook to-do list is my best friend (at work!) and anything that needs doing, big or small, goes straight on that so it can be followed up on in good time.

A year ago I went on an excellent training course for Administrative Personnel and one of the revelations that came from it was that I have a very visual learning style; since discovering this I’ve realised just how much better my brain processes my workload when I organise things by colour. Now I know that may sound a bit strange but once I started applying this technique to my emails, calendar appointments and to-do list in Outlook I found my ability to juggle tasks improved and as a result I felt more in control, like I had a better overview of the various areas of my work. I no longer had just a long list of outstanding tasks but rather several smaller, more manageable ones.

One of the great things about Outlook is the way you can colour categorize emails, appointments and tasks. Because I work on a number of projects, as well as doing general admin tasks such as arranging meetings, handling finance matters and looking after the office I use all the coloured categories at my disposal (and if more were available I’d probably need those too). A few examples of the sorts of categories I have are;

Light red = General admin tasks

Orange = Meetings

Turquoise = Finance

Light Green = Website updates

Dark Green = Committees

Light blue = Personal

Light Grey = Office maintenance 


And so on…

What I like is that I can sync these categories for my emails, appointments and task list so that I can check my calendar and at a glance see what sort of meetings I have in store that week and then check my to-do list in case there are any corresponding tasks I need to complete beforehand. It is also really useful when you are sifting through your emails trying to find one you sent 6 months ago and you can see better at a glance if you’re looking at the right project/topic. As those of you already familiar with Outlook know you can set tasks to recur at specific times so you don’t have to remember to add them to your list again, for example I have recurring tasks to do things like ‘check the paper in the printer’ and ‘update the departmental website homepage’ each week as well as longer term tasks like ‘archive old finance documents’ each year.

The aim of a successful to-do list is to take the burden off you having to remember everything; by automating reminders, planning ahead and breaking task lists down into bite-size chunks you can juggle more effectively. For me my task list is vital for keeping on top of my workload, and the colour coding is vital for helping me to prioritise and sift through those tasks. Chances are this method won’t work for everyone but if like me you have a visual learning style. If you don’t know your own you can find out here - give it a go and start creating your own categories.