A question I have been asked numerous times is how to add personal notes, annotations, additional information or comments to an email that you have sent or received. There are numerous imperfect ways to add notes to email messages received or sent but no perfect method. For now, we can only pick one or two imperfect workarounds and hope that Microsoft will some day add this as a feature. There are third party plugins that facilitate adding notes to mail messages, but for this article I will limit the scope to Microsoft Office products.
Below are a few options you can try. I have used all of these at one time or another and I have eventually eliminated all but the last. The Outlook versions I use are Office 2016 and Office 2010, but all options below should work with Outlook 2013 as well.
Use the custom flag box as a note field
I have used this workaround for a while but abandoned it because the note is limited to 255 characters, is not formattable, and is difficult to spot since it is wedged between the subject and the start/completion date and reply date. In addition, the notes entered in the “Flag to” box are not searchable.
- Right click on the flag of the message on the message list column
- Select “Custom”
- Type your notes in the “Flag to” box
Forward the email to yourself
Forward the email to yourself and you can add lengthy notes and even attachments and links. This works well if the email thread is not too long. If the thread is long, your notes will be scattered over multiple forwarded emails. Using the subject line to help organize the “note messages” helps somewhat, but if the thread involves multiple recipients and lasts for more than a few weeks, it can get messy quickly, especially if you get lots of emails on a daily basis. So this is a feasible option but high-maintenance nonetheless.
Use the subject line
You can change or add to the subject line. Again, this will only work for short notes as you are limited to 255 characters, including spaces and punctuation.
- Double click to open the email (you cannot change the subject in the preview pane)
- Type your notes in the subject box. You can type over the original subject or add your notes before or after the original subject.
Create a custom column
Again, this only works for short notes, even shorter than using the subject line or a custom flag. And being mildly anal retentive, I do not like the note column messing up the list column, even less than not eating my Smarties in colour order.
- Right click on the header row (where it says “All | Unread | Mentions…” if you haven’t changed the default) on the list column.
- Select “View Settings…”, then “Columns…”, then “New Column…”.
- Name your column and move your new column up or down to where you want it to appear. Usually it is easier to spot and read the notes if it is the first column. Click “OK” to save.
- Next you have to change the settings so you can enter notes in the new column. Go to “View Settings…” again and click “Other Settings…”
- In the “Other Settings…” box, check the box marked “Allow in-cell editing”. Click “OK”. Now you can type in the new column. You are limited to 70 characters, including spaces and punctuation.
- To adjust the display width of the column, go to “View Settings…”, then “Format Columns” and “Specific width”. The maximum characters you can choose is 50.
Use Outlook Notes
It baffles me to no end why Microsoft would create a Notes feature in Outlook and yet stop short of providing a way to bind a note to a message in the Inbox or Sent box. That said, Outlook Notes is a handy utility to keep your personal notes on various matters and can certainly be used to keep simple notes on emails as long as you enter enough information in the note so you can locate the emails if you need to re-read, reply or forward the messages. Notes are searchable, sortable, and colour-coded, but the contents are not formattable since it is a plain old text file.
- Click the icon with 3 dots on the bottom of the Navigation Column (also referred to as Folder column) in Outlook and click “Notes”.
- Click “New Note”.
- A yellow sticky note window will open up. You can drag the corner of the sticky note window to enlarge the window. To change the colour of the sticky note, click the note symbol on the top left corner and choose “Category”. You can also change the colour and category anytime after the note is created by clicking the note icon in either the icon view of list view.
- Type your note in the window. The first line will appear as the subject of the note so it is a good practice to create a meaningful short title. When you finish typing, click away from the sticky note window and your note will be automatically saved.
- You can sort your sticky notes by subject, date created, or the category.
Save to OneNote
I save the best for last. Using OneNote is by far my favourite way to add notes to email. This works especially well for lengthy threads in which you need to add personal notes at different stages. Since the notes are kept in OneNote, you have great flexibility in organization using OneNote’s architecture: Notebook, Section, and Page. You can add links, attachments, insert screen captures, hand-drawn pictures, embed video and audio clips, and create checklists. You can also share your notes (or not) with other OneNote users, invite collaboration, or export the notes to PDF or Microsoft Word and share by email if needed.
OneNote is a powerful note-keeping application in the Microsoft Office family. It can do a lot more than keeping notes for email. But that is for another blog post.
- Select the email you want to save to OneNote, click the OneNote icon on the “Move” section of the ribbon.
- You have the option of choosing which Notebooks and Section you want the email to be saved to. For example, you can have an Emails Section in a Notebook created for a specific project. Sections appear as tabs in a Notebook, and each email you save will be a new page under the Emails tab.
- OneNote will open automatically to the page with your entire email saved fulltext. Here you can add your notes, links, attachments, etc.
- The one thing I find missing is a link back to the email, in case I need to reply or forward the email. To add a link back to the Outlook email, open Outlook and OneNote side by side, drag and drop the email from Outlook’s item list to OneNote. It is as simple as that. You can drag as many email links to one page as you want. So you can use one page to keep track of an entire thread of emails and make notes pertinent to each email in the thread.
These are just a few different methods I have tried. I am sure there are other workarounds—such as using a simple Word document. It is just a matter of finding one that work best for your own workflow and habits.