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Highlight messages sent only to you in Gmail, Outlook 2010

Make it easy to spot e-mails with only your address in the To: field via Conditional Formatting feature in Outlook 2010 and Gmail's personal level indicators.

As your e-mail inbox fills up, it can be difficult to distinguish the important messages from the ones you can read later--if at all. One way to help identify personal e-mails from impersonal ones is by the number of recipients. By highlighting messages sent only to you, you're less likely to miss mail requiring your immediate attention.

Last November I described how to merge multiple e-mail accounts and organize them by using filters and labels. This can help shuttle less-important messages out of your inbox and into folders you can peruse at your leisure.

But not all the non-filtered messages are personally addressed to you. Microsoft Outlook 2010's Conditional Formatting and Gmail's "personal level indicators" help you get a bead on these personalized messages by indicating at a glance whether yours is the lone address in the To: field or whether the mail was sent to multiple recipients.

Change the appearance of personally addressed mail in Outlook 2010
You can use Outlook 2010's Conditional Formatting feature to change the appearance of messages meeting specific characteristics. To access the feature, click the View tab on the ribbon, select View Settings on the far left of the ribbon, and choose Conditional Formatting in the Advanced View Settings dialog box.

Click Add to create a new rule, give the rule a name (such as "Only to me"), and choose the Condition button. In the Filter dialog, check "Where I am" and select "the only person on the To line" in the drop-down menu to the right. Click OK to create the filter.

Microsoft Outlook 2010 Conditional Formatting Filter dialog
Check "Where I am" and choose "the only person on the To line" in the Filter dialog's drop-down menu to highlight personally addressed messages. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Back in the Conditional Formatting dialog, highlight the new rule (if it isn't already). Next, click the Font button and choose a font type, size, and color that will make it easy to identify messages meeting the rule you just created. For me, a distinctive color (maroon) does the trick.

Microsoft Outlook 2010 Conditional Formatting dialog
Select the new formatting rule and click the Font button to give messages meeting the rule a distinctive appearance. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Click OK twice to close the dialog boxes and return to your inbox, where the "only to me" messages will appear in the format you just specified. You can create other Conditional Formatting rules to identify messages where your address appears in the Cc field or in the To field with others. However, I found it sufficient to color-code only one type of message to avoid having to remember what multiple colors or formatting indicate.

Give Gmail messages a personal indicator
Spotting personal messages at a glance in Gmail is a breeze when you activate the service's personal level indicators. This feature places a single chevron to the left of message subjects in your inbox to indicate mail sent to your address rather than to a mailing list, and a double chevron next to the subjects of messages sent only to your address.

To see Gmail's personal level indicators, click Settings in the top-right of the main Gmail window, choose the General tab (it's probably the default view), and scroll to "Personal level indicators," which appears just below the Signature option. Select "Show indicators" and click the Save Changes button at the bottom of the window.

Gmail's main settings showing personal level indicator settings
Gmail's personal level indicators setting displays a single chevron next to messages not sent to a mailing list and a double chevron next to messages sent only to your address. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The chevrons appear inside Gmail's "Important" indicator, which is intended to highlight priority messages based on Gmail's own rules. Hover the cursor over the indicator to see Gmail's reason for marking the message as important.

The criteria include messages sent directly to you, the words in the messages, the people in the conversation, your tendency to read messages with that label, or (my favorite) according to "our magic sauce." Can I get fries with that?