Outlook Categories, Flags, and IMAP Accounts

Last reviewed on October 3, 2013

Categories and flags are not available in all of my folders in Microsoft Outlook. I can use categories and flags on mail in my POP3 account but categories are not available in my IMAP account and flags are limited to one flag, no reminder. Why?

The IMAP protocol doesn’t support the Category and Flag properties on messages and assigned categories and flags are not synced back to the IMAP server. If you need to use categories, you need to use a POP3 account instead or move the messages to a local pst file. In place of flags (and their reminders), drag the message to Tasks (or Calendar) and set the reminder.

If using IMAP is a requirement, you can either move the mail to separate folders to separate it or use Automatic Formatting (Conditional formatting in Outlook 2010) to highlight messages meeting specific conditions. If you need reminders, drag the message to the Tasks folder and create a task with a reminder.

Categories and Flags in Outlook 2013

If having special “this computer only” folders with reduced capabilities in Outlook 2013 IMAP accounts isn’t bad enough, I’m left scratching my head when I look at the half-removed Flag and Category features users have come to expect in Outlook. There is no reason why full flags and categories shouldn’t work in an ost file, but users are stuck with the IMAP implementation, where flags are limited to on or off and the Categories button is non-existent.

Whether you can add a category an appointment or contact, or add a category or reminder to a task depends on what view you are using and whether you know all the right tricks.

The category picker is missing from appointments. But you can add categories if you assign keyboard shortcuts to at least one category and apply it. Once you add a category to an appointment, you can open the category MRU by right clicking on the category bar in the open appointment.

In Contacts, all of the flag options are available. The keyboard shortcuts work for categories and as with the other Outlook items, once a category is applied, you can right click on it and make changes. You can even add categories from the options dialog (File, Properties). Yes, in the wacky world of Outlook 2013 IMAP accounts, the category picker on the Options dialog is disabled on mail, appointments, and tasks but it works on Contacts.

A user discovered the trick to creating full reminders and color categories on tasks: select more than one. When you right click on one task, you’ll get the short IMAP version of the context menu, with options to Flag, Mark Complete, or Delete. The only option for Categories is Clear All Categories (when you click on the Category column). Select 2 or more tasks and viola! The full flag and category menus appears on the context menu. In an open Task, the Categorize button has one option: clear all but keyboard shortcuts will add categories… and yes, the full category menu is available on the right-click context menu.

The user went on to add “My solution right now is to just have a “dummy” task that I can select with the other tasks I want to change, but it’s a pain to work around a bug like this, especially since Microsoft is expecting me to pay monthly for the software.”

Flags with IMAP accounts

The flag options for IMAP accounts is limitedWhen an IMAP account is configured in Outlook, there is just one option for flags: either flagged or not flagged.

You may occasionally receive an error message when flagging items in IMAP accounts. This error is because Outlook is syncing with the server. Select a different message then switch back to the original message and you should be able to flag messages without error.

The operation cannot be performed because the message has been changed

The operation cannot be preformed because the message has been changed.

If you need to set a reminder, drag the message to the Task folder to create a task.

Using Categories with IMAP Accounts Workaround

While you can’t change how flags work (except by moving the mail to a local pst), it is possible to trick Outlook into letting you add categories to IMAP messages.

Edit Color CategoriesThe easy way:

  1. While a viewing a folder in a data file that supports categories, expand the Categories button and choose All Categories to open the Color Category manager.
  2. Add keyboard shortcuts to your categories. Since you are limited to 10, start with the most frequently used categories.
  3. Select (or open) the message and press the shortcut. Yes, the shortcuts work on IMAP messages.

Use the Infobar to add more categories to IMAP messagesIf you need to assign a category that does not have a keyboard shortcut assigned, add a category using a shortcut then open the message and right-click in the category area above the subject field.

Choose the category from the list before removing existing categories from the message.

In most cases, the category name will “stick” and sync to other computers running Outlook. However, colors are per message store so each computer will have it’s own list of colors. How to Upgrade to Color Categories has instructions on how to quickly add categories to your master category list.

Add Category Field to the View

You can customize the Message list view and add the Category field to the view. However, this only allows you to use the quick click category. You can open the message and right click on the category bar to select more categories.

Using Category Shortcuts Video Tutorial

Use VBA to Display Category Options

Paste this into the VB Editor and add it to the toolbar or ribbon. Click the toolbar button to open the Category dialog. Add it to the QAT, ribbon, or toolbar. This works with messages selected in the message list or open message.

Public Sub CategorizeIMAP()
     Dim sel As Outlook.Selection
     Set sel = Application.ActiveExplorer.Selection
 
    If sel Is Nothing Then
         Exit Sub
     End If
 
    Dim obj As Object
     Dim selCats As String
     Dim gotCats As Boolean
 
    For Each obj In sel
         If Not gotCats Then
             obj.ShowCategoriesDialog
             selCats = obj.Categories
             gotCats = True
         Else
             obj.Categories = selCats
             obj.Save
         End If
     Next obj
 End Sub

This simple code can be added to the QAT, toolbar, or ribbon of a message form. Add the following code to the VB Editor and then add a button to the QAT, Ribbon, or Toolbar of a message form. Click the button to open the Category dialog. This code does not work with messages in the message list.

Public Sub ShowCategoriesDialog()
'by Michael Bauer
'http://vboffice.net/sample.html?lang=en&mnu=2&smp=53&cmd=showitem

  Dim Mail As Object
  Set Mail = Application.ActiveInspector.CurrentItem
  Mail.ShowCategoriesDialog
End Sub

Written by

Diane Poremsky
A Microsoft Outlook Most Valuable Professional (MVP) since 1999, Diane is the author of several books, including Outlook 2013 Absolute Beginners Book. She also created video training CDs and online training classes for Microsoft Outlook. You can find her helping people online in Outlook Forums as well as in the Microsoft Answers and TechNet forums.

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