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How to Create Rules in MS Outlook to Auto Sort Emails

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This post is part of a series called How to Use Microsoft Outlook (Essential Tutorial Guide).
How to Compose & Send New Emails With Microsoft Outlook
How to Organize Your Outlook Email Inbox Efficiently

Your email inbox always seems full of new messages. Deciding what to do with each message can seem overwhelming. You may even be late responding to an important message because you didn't notice it in all the clutter. MS Outlook rules can help.

If you know how to set up rules in Outlook, you can make sure similar emails are always grouped together. This will help you prioritize your income email and stay organized. You can also use Outlook rules to deal with email message types you receive frequently such as newsletters and announcements. You can even set up a rule to automatically delete certain types of emails.

In this tutorial, we'll answer the question: what is a rule in Outlook? You'll also learn how to create a rule in Outlook and also how to import or export Outlook rules. Finally, we'll explain how you can edit or delete Outlook rules.

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Now let's take a closer look at rules in MS Outlook.

What Are Outlook Rules (and How Are They Used?)

You may be wondering: what is a rule?  A rule in Microsoft Outlook is a set of actions that Outlook performs automatically when certain conditions are met. You can define the conditions for a rule using Outlook’s Manage Rules & Alerts tool. A rule can be a big timesaver if you often perform the same actions on similar emails.

Outlook also has a Rules Wizard available to make the process of creating rules even easier. The Rules Wizard has commonly used rules already set up. All you’ve got to do is customize each rule in the wizard with your own choices. 

How to Create Rules in MS Outlook Using the Rules Wizard (Video)

 

In the screencast above learn how to use the Rules Wizard in Microsoft Outlook. Or, read on for comprehensive written instructions to help you create and modify rules in Outlook.

1. How to Move a Message Into a Folder Using a Rule

By far the most common rule that people create is one that automatically sends certain messages to a folder. You can do this quickly and easily from with this Outlook shortcut. The shortcut also includes a few other common actions.

Start with your email inbox open. Select the message you want to automatically move into a folder by clicking on it. Click Home > Rules. Select Create Rule from the drop-down menu. The Create Rule dialog box appears:

Create Rule dialog box
The top portion of the Create Rule dialog box is already filled out based on the email you selected.

Notice the top of the dialog box is already filled out with the From, Subject, and To fields from your selected email. To select one or more of these conditions as is, simply check in the check box to the left of them. You can also type in a new subject and/or select a new email recipient (if you’ve got a lot of emails going to your inbox).

In the bottom section, you can select up to three actions to perform on an email that meets the defined criteria.

  1. Display the email in a New Item Alert window on your desktop. 
  2. Play a sound when an email meeting the criteria is received.
  3. Move the item to a folder you select
Choose one or more actions from the list. Define those actions and then click the OK button to save your choices. Continue to click OK. A prompt appears asking if you’d like to run the rule on the email already in your inbox. You’ve just created a rule. 

2. How to Use the Rules Wizard

If you need more options for your MS Outlook rule, use the Rules Wizard. Let’s get started:

Step 1. Access the Rules Wizard

Start with your open email inbox. Click the File tab. The Account Information window displays:

Account Information window in Outlook
From the Account Information window click the Manage Rules & Alerts box.

Click the Manage Rules & Alerts box to access the Rules and Alerts dialog box:

Rules and Alerts dialog box in MS Outlook
Select the New Rule menu option.

Click the New Rule menu option in the upper left of the dialog box. The Rules Wizard appears:

Rules Wizard Screen 1
The first screen of the Outlook Rules Wizard.

Note: You can also access the Rules Wizard from Advanced Option of the Create Rule dialog box.

Step 2. Choose a Template From the Outlook Rules Wizard

At the top of the Rules Wizard, you’ll see a list of pre-defined rule templates in two categories:

  1. Stay Organized
  2. Stay Up to Date

You’ll also see the category Start from a blank rule. You would use this category to create a rule if you didn't want to start with one of the pre-defined templates.

Review the existing rule template list and click on the one that meets your needs to select it. Then click the Next button. For the purposes of this tutorial, I’ve selected the “Move messages from someone to a folder” template. If you select a different template, your choices may vary.

Step 3. Customize the Rule Conditions

After you select a rules template, the Rules Wizard displays a list of conditions to apply to the template with a check box by each condition:

Rules Wizard screen 2
Choose the conditions for your rule.

Check the box next to each condition you want to apply to the rule. The conditions you’ve selected appear in the box under Step 2 in the Rules Wizard. Note the hyperlinks in each condition. Click on each hyperlink to customize the rule with your own requirements. Here’s an example of what appears when I click the importance hyperlink:

Importance level for Outlook rule condition
You can choose an importance level for the emails you want to apply the rule to.

Continuing clicking on each hyperlink to make the condition specific to your needs. When you’ve finished, click the Next button.

Step 4. Customize the Rule Actions

Once you’ve customized the rule conditions you’re ready to customize the rule actions. The Rules Wizard displays various actions you can apply to this rule:

Rules Wizard screen 3
Select an action to perform on messages that meet the conditions.

This screen works like the earlier Rules Wizard screen. Select actions you want to add to this rule by checking the check box next to each selected action. Click the hyperlink in the Step 2 segment of the screen to make the action more specific. When you’re done making your selections, click the Next button to move to the next screen in the Rules Wizard

Step 5. Set Up Exceptions to the Rule

The next Rules Wizard screen is very similar to the previous two, except in this case you’re defining any exceptions to the rule. When you’ve finished defining rule exceptions, click the Next button again.

Step 6. Name the Rule and Turn It On

In the final Rules Wizard screen, you’re prompted to name the rule:

Name the Rule
When you've defined the rule in Outlook you're ready to name it.

Type the rule name in the indicated space. If you want to run the rule on existing messages, check the box next to the first box. To turn the rule on, check the second check box.  If you’ve got more than one account, check the third box.

When you’re finished customizing the rule, click the Finish button. The Rules and Alerts dialog box appears. Click Apply and then click OK to activate the rule.

You’ve just created a rule in MS Outlook!

4. How to Import or Export a Rule

Rules can be imported or exported. This can be especially helpful if you migrate to a different version of Outlook. I’ve also been able to use this feature to share Outlook rules between different Outlook users.

Caution: If the exported rule involves a specific folder or anything else specific to your email, the Outlook importing the rule must have the same folder.

Let’s get started.

Step 1. Export a Rule

Start with your open email inbox. Click the File tab. The Account Information window displays. Click the Manage Rules & Alerts box to access the Rules and Alerts dialog box. Click Options from the menu at the top of the screen. The Options dialog box appears: 

Options dialog box
You can export rules you've already created.

Note: You can also access the Rules and Alerts dialog box from Rules option under the Home tab on your ribbon.

Click the Export Rules button. A File Explorer window opens:

File Explorer window
Type the file name of the rule you want to export.

Navigate to the directory where you want to store your exported rules file. Type the name of the file you want to store the rules in and the click Save.

Step 2. Import a Rule

The procedure to import a rule is like the export rule procedure with a few differences.

Start with your open email inbox. Click the File tab. The Account Information window displays. Click the Manage Rules & Alerts box to access the Rules and Alerts dialog box. Click Options from the menu at the top of the screen.

When the Options dialog box appears, click Import Rules instead of Export Rules. When the File Explorer window opens, navigate to the directory where you’ve got the imported rules saved. Click on the file name to select it and click Open. Click OK to import the rule.

Note: If some of the parameters are missing for an imported rule you’ll get an error message. An example would be if a folder used by the rule isn’t set up in your email.

5. How to Edit a Rule

Suppose you’ve got a rule set up for how to handle a certain type of email in Outlook, but you need to change the rule. With Outlook, you can easily edit an existing rule to change it.  Here’s how:

Step 1. Open the Rules and Alerts Dialog Box

Start with your inbox open. Click the File > Manage Rules & Alerts. The Rules and Alerts dialog box opens:

You can change a Microsoft Outlook Rule

Select a rule from the list. Click the Change Rule menu option at the top of the dialog box. The Change Rule pop-up menu appears:

Change Rule pop-up menu
You can change the name of an existing rule in Microsoft Outlook.

Note: You can also get to this pop-up menu from Rules > Manage Rules & Alerts > Change rule on the Home tab in your Outlook inbox.

From this menu you’ve got three choices:

  1. edit more than one rule setting at a time
  2. quickly rename the rule
  3. quickly add or change a single rule action

Let’s look at each of these options separately.

Step 2. Edit Multiple Rule Settings

To edit more than one rule setting, click the Edit Rule Settings option on the Change Rule pop-up menu. The system re-opens the Rules Wizard for the selected rule. Use the Rules Wizard to make changes to the conditions, actions, and exceptions.

Step 3. Quickly Rename the Rule

If all you want to do is rename the selected rule, there’s no need to re-open the Rules Wizard. Instead, select the Rename Rule option from the Change Rule pop-up menu. The system prompts you to type in the new name for the selected rule:

Renaming a Microsoft Outlook rule
You can rename a rule in Microsoft Outlook.

When you’ve finished typing the rule name, click the OK button.

Step 4. Add or Change One or More Rule Actions

There’s also no need to re-open the Rules Wizard if all you want to do is change a few common actions. The Change Rule pop-up menu has some shortcuts for common actions beneath the Rename Rule option:

Changing a Rule Action
You can change a few Microsoft Rule actions without re-opening the Rules Wizard.

Active actions appear with a blue box around the action icon in the pop-up menu. To turn a single action on or off for the selected rule, simply click on it.

For some actions, that’s all you need to do. For other actions a second dialog box displays when you add that action. The second dialog box lets you provide more specific information. 

For example, If you click the Copy to Folder option a dialog box appears so that you can select the correct folder:

You can copy a Microsoft Rule
You can copy a Microsoft Outlook Rule.

When you’ve finished making changes to the selected rule, click OK on the Rules and Alerts dialog box.

6. How to Delete a Rule

If you no longer need a rule, you can delete it. Start with your inbox open. Click the File > Manage Rules & Alerts. The Rules and Alerts dialog box opens:

Deleting a rule in MS Outlook
In Outlook you can delete rules you no longer need.

Note: You can also get to the Rules and Alerts dialog box from Rules > Manage Rules & Alerts on the Home tab in your Outlook inbox.

Select the rule you want to delete by clicking the checkbox next to it. Then, click the Delete option (it looks like an X) on the menu towards the top of the Rules and Alerts dialog box. A prompt appears asking if you really want to: Delete rule [Rule Name]. Click Yes, then click the OK button at the bottom of the Rules and Alerts window.

Learn More About Outlook

Study the tutorials below to learn more about MS Outlook:

More Helpful Email Tips and Strategies

Don't forget to sign up to the Tuts+ Business newsletter and grab our free eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Inbox Zero Mastery. It's packed with inbox organization strategies and killer tips for managing all your incoming email more efficiently. 

Take back your inbox

Conclusion

Keep your inbox messages organized using Outlook rules. You can automatically sort messages into the appropriate folders by setting up rules in Outlook. Now that you know how to use Outlook rules, your messages will always be handled properly and your inbox will be organized.

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