Like most things Microsoft Outlook operates best when it's clean and well-organized.  As an e-mail client (among other things) it does have a tendancy to accumulate a lot of rapidly aging data.  And, as people (especially lawyers) tend to be packrats when it comes to e-mail, Outlook, over time can accumulate a massive volume of old content.  To make it easier to manage, Microsoft has built a number of tools in Outlook to help you keep your mailbox clean.

The one we're going to talk about in this article is AutoArchive.  AutoArchive has been a part of Outlook since way back in Outlook 97 and the principle of it is fairly straightforward - on a regular schedule AutoArchive will go thru your folders and move items that exceed a certain age threshold to another message store.

So let's take a look at the basic AutoArchive settings.  You'll find these under Tools | Options | Other | AutoArchive (Except under Office 2010 where it's under File | Options | Advanced | AutoArchive Settings).

AutoArchive SettingsFirst you'll notice that the default is to run AutoArchive every 14 days. That's o.k., but I have a pretty busy mailbox so I like AutoArchive to be a little more aggressive than that.  I have it set to archive every 3 days.  If you find that AutoArchive has a significant performance impact on your machine you might opt for 5 or 7 days instead.

Next it will prompt you before AutoArchive runs.  Again, if AutoArchive impacts the performance of your machine then you might want to leave that checked so that you can control when AutoArchive kicks off - if you're in the middle of something important you can just decline to let AutoArchive run at that moment.  My machine is pretty fast so I uncheck that because I don't want to be asked every time.

The rest of the dialog controls what AutoArchive does when it runs.

Delete Expired Items - One of the more underused features of Outlook is the ability to set an expiration date on e-mail.  The chances are pretty slim that anybody has actually sent you an e-mail message with an expiration date on it but just in case you do have an e-mail with an expiration date, and it's expired, this setting will actually delete those expired messages.  In 13 years of working with Outlook I can probably count on one hand the number of mesages I've received that actually expired.

Archive or Delete Old Items - This is the meat of the tool.  Your settings here are going to be the default settings that are used across all folders that are configured to autoarchive with the default settings.

First and foremost you DO want to have it set to show the Archive folder in the folder list.  That will make it easy to locate and access your archived items if/when you need them.

The next section lets you define the threshold for archiving.  The default is 6 months but you may want to extend that to 9, 12 or even 18 months.  Or shorten it to 3 months if you want AutoArchive to be more aggressive.  Note that archival works off when the item was modified, not received. (MORE)

The next section asks what you want to do when that threshold is exceeded.  Typically you want to move those messages to an archive folder but if you're sure that you generally don't want to keep those items you can specify that AutoArchive can delete them.

Once you've set the default settings for AutoArchive you can go to individual folders and set some folder-specific settings if they're different.

Folder-Specific AutoArchive

If you right-click any folder in your folder list and choose Properties you'll find an AutoArchive tab.  Here you can alter the default settings to make this folder archive differently.  Typically where I use this is one of three scenarios:

  1. A folder where I want AutoArchive to clean the folder but I don't need to keep the archived items.  Many of my mailing list folders fall into this category.  The lists are archived on the web so I don't need to maintain my own archive of them and I don't want to keep old messages that I'll probably never read.  So I change the action from "Move old items to default archive folder" to "Permanently Delete".
  2. When I want to change the archive threshold.  Some folders I want to keep longer than 6 months.  Some busy mailing lists and RSS feeds I'm happy to clean out after just 3 weeks.  I use TwInbox to get Twitter in Outlook and that's a great example of content I'm happy to have permanently deleted after just 1 week or a few days.
  3. When I want to send to a different archive folder.  You might want to create archive folders for each client you work with.  Then go to the folders you have for that client and change the "Move old items to:" field to be the relevent archive folder for that client.  Then when your autoarchive runs it will automatically archive messages for that client to that client's archive folder.  If you ever need to you can burn that PST file to a CD or DVD and put it in the client's file or send it to the client.

AutoArchive settings for a folder

Why Didn't My Items Archive?

One of the most important things to remember is that AutoArchive works off of the modified date of the item, not the received date.  That means that when the item was last changed.  A number of things can change the modified date of an item including:

  • Moving the item to a different folder.
  • Replying to or forwarding an item.
  • Removing or editing an attachment.

So it's entirely possible to have items where the apparent date (the received date most commonly) seems to be older than your archive threshold but the item didn't archive.

Managing Deleted Items

One of the things I use AutoArchive for is keeping my Deleted Items folder tidy.  I don't always remember to empty my Deleted Items folder but what I did was go into my folder-specific settings for Deleted Items and set it to Permanently Delete any items older than 3 weeks.  If I've deleted something and haven't gone looking for it in 3 weeks...I very likely won't.  This way when my AutoArchive runs, every 3 days, it automatically cleans out any items in my Deleted Items folder that are more than 3 weeks old.  Remember this works off modified it's 3 weeks from when I deleted the item, not 3 weeks from when I received it.

Yes, this works for Junk E-mail too....

Manually initiating AutoArchive

If you want to manually have Outlook start an AutoArchive you can click on the File Menu and then click "Archive".  On the resultant dialog box click "Archive folders according to their autoarchive settings" and OK.

For those of you who are Outlook 2010 users you'll click File you need to click Cleanup Tools and then "Archive" to get to the same dialog box.

So Where Are My Archived Items?Microsoft Outlook Navigation Pane

If you look at your Navigation Pane, you should see an "Archives" item listed, most likely below your default message store.  Open that and you'll see the folders and all of the items that have been archived.

You can interact with these folders just like any other Outlook folder.  Items in these folders can be opened, printed, forwarded, replied to...even deleted.

These Archives are stored in a .PST file (or multiple PST files) which are typically located on your hard drive.  There are two things you need to know about that:

1. They don't count against your mailbox quota, if you have one.  Since they're in a separate file, outside your mailbox, they're essentially "free".

2. If they're on your local hard drive they probably aren't getting backed up as part of your corporate backup strategy (if you have one).  You should periodically back up this archive.pst file either by copying it to a network drive, copying it to a flash drive, burning it to  DVD or making some other accomodation.  Otherwise if your hard drive dies, you'll lose your archives.

By default the Archive.pst file(s) are located in the same folder that your Outlook data files (.PST or .OST) files are.

Manually Archiving

One thing I do from time to time is manually archive a folder.  For example maybe I had a subfolder for a writing project I was working on.  When the project finishes I can just drag & drop the entire folder to my Archives store (pictured at right) and it moves it out of my mailbox.

In some cases I may have a project that I didn't create a separate folder for.  There may have just been a handful of messages about it so I just had them in my generic "Projects" folder.  I may want to archive those messages, but not archive my entire Projects folder so the trick for that is to first create a folder in the Archives (unless you already have one), then go to the folder that contains the items you want to archive ("Projects" in my example).  Use Outlook's search function to find those messages that relate to the project.  You can probably search by a particular name, word or phrase to isolate them.  Once you've located them, select them all (You can press "CTRL+A" to select all the found messages) then drag and drop them into the folder you created in Archives.

Other Kinds of Items

AutoArchive isn't just for e-mail. AutoArchive will also archive calendar items, journal items, tasks...even notes. Some people would prefer NOT to have those items (especially notes) archived off so you may want to go into the autoarchive properties for those folders you don't want archived and turn archiving off.

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