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Outlook 2013: Fixing the Harder to Open To-Do Bar

October 30, 2012 [updated 4:33 pm]

If you have been playing with the Outlook 2013 Preview, one thing you may have noticed is that the To-Do Bar’s display controls have changed a lot compared to Outlook 2007 and 2010. These are the controls that open and close the To-Do Bar; they also control what data you see there. The overall effect of the changes is simplification, and that’s good. But as a result, in some ways the settings are now harder to use.

There are a ton of little changes in these controls, some good, some bad, and I cannot cover them all here. However in this post, I want to focus on one important change that may mess you up: it’s the manner in which you hide and show the To-Do Bar; I think Microsoft has simplified it a bit too much in 2013. The good news is that I am going to show you how to tweak Outlook and add a Quick Access command that will fix it, (sort of).  And I’ll show another method just pointed out to me by Bjørn Hopland, who I now see has an excellent Microsoft Office productivity blog.

The Old and New Way to Show the To-Do Bar

First of all, you may recall that in all my books and classes I recommend that to open and close the Outlook 2007 and 2010 To-Do Bar you use the Minimize button—it’s a small carrot or chevron-like arrow (or double arrow in 2007) at the top of the To-Do Bar (see below for 2010).

This Minimize button is a great tool to use to hide and then re-display the To-Do Bar—I use it 5 or 10 times a day because I often hide the To-Do Bar to let me view the full width of my Inbox when looking for specific e-mails. But then I want the To-Do Bar right back; so the Minimize button is great—or was great.  It’s gone now in 2013!

You may also recall that for 2007 users, I advised you to avoid using the close button (the X at the top right of the To-Do Bar). I had you avoid that X because if you used it to close the To-Do Bar, the only way to reopen the To-Do Bar was to go all the way back to the View menu and then to the To-Do Bar menu and then to the Normal item on its submenu. That’s three layers of steps, which seemed like quite a lot for a routine open and close operation. So I was glad they removed the close button in 2010 and left only the minimize button—that way users weren’t even tempted to click the X; minimizing was so much better.

Well, that whole world has been switched around in Outlook 2013 and it is quite different. As I said, the minimize button is gone, and the close button (the X) is back (yikes!). As a result, when users close the To-Do Bar, they may now try to go through three (or more) levels of menus to re-open the To-Do Bar—a major pain (see the last bullet at end of this article to see why I say “or more”).

Well, all is not lost. There are two ways to get the effect of the Minimize button back. But this only works if you take one of my other recommendations, which is this: use the To-Do Bar to only display tasks—don’t use it for anything else. If you can do that, I have a solution for you.

Method #1: Use the Pin Command (suggested by Bjørn Hopland)

This method is pretty simple. You already know about the major navigation tools at the bottom of Outlook 2013 where you see the items: Mail Calendar People and Tasks. You might know you can take a peek at each one by hovering your mouse over them. Well, this time, with the To-Do Bar completely closed, right-click the Tasks item in that bottom navigation area, and from the popup menu choose Pin the Peek (see below). That will open the To-Do Bar with the Tasks pane displayed. Repeating that closes it. Brilliant!

Again, this (and #2 below) only works well as a method to fully open and close the To-Do Bar if you do not activate any of the other panes on the To-Do Bar (e.g. Calendar or People). If those other sections are open, they stay open when you try to clear it using Pin the peek; so the To-Do Bar does not close. Worse, when you reopen tasks, the relative positions of the other panes shift up and down depending on what order you opened them—and there can be too much space between sections; it’s kind of unpredictable. Better to just leave them out of the view and focus on Tasks. And better: I just wish Microsoft would add the Minimize button back, there is plenty of room for it. We really need a way to reshow the last state of a fully populated To-Do Bar in one click.

Method #2: Adding a Quick Access Command

Another way that works almost identically (and needs one fewer click once set up): add a Quick Access Toolbar button that opens the To-Do Bar into the tasks-only view.

The Quick Access Toolbar is a feature in all Microsoft Office applications. It sits in the upper left corner and displays 2 or 3 common commands for that application (see below). By default in Outlook 2013 it has a Send/Receive button, and an Undo button.

Well, what most people don’t know is that it is easy to customize it and add more commands to it—and that’s what we are going to do, we are going to add a Tasks button to it that opens and closes a tasks-only To-Do Bar. Here’s how.

  1. Close the To-Do Bar completely, including the Tasks, Calendar, and People sections
  2. Click the View tab to activate the View ribbon
  3. Click the To-Do Bar button on the View ribbon
  4. Right-Click the Tasks choice from its submenu
  5. Select “Add to Quick Access Toolbar” as shown in figure below.

That’s it! This adds a small Tasks button to the Quick Access toolbar (see below).

Now click it and notice that it opens the To-Do Bar displaying tasks (only). Click it again and the To-Do Bar closes. From now on, you can use it to instantly open and close the To-Do Bar; the Minimize button is essentially back!

And I offer the same cautions as above. This only works well if you do not activate any of the other panes on the To-Do Bar (e.g. Calendar or People). It gets a little strange otherwise.

Other changes in 2013 to the To-Do Bar visibility controls:

  • You can no longer reach a set of visibility controls by right-clicking the top of the To-Do Bar. The View ribbon button is now it. Again, simplification, and I see no problem with this.
  • Compared with previous versions, you might now notice that there is no longer a choice to display the Date Navigator (mini-calendar) and Appointments separately. The two are now combined into the one pane called Calendar. I think I like the older design better since some people like to display their next appointments only; that calendar takes a lot of space.
  • If you do decide you want to display the Calendar pane of the To-Do Bar, note that clicking on that Calendar no longer just takes you to the Calendar view as in previous versions. In 2013 clicking a date on the Calendar pane keeps the current view, and changes the list of appointments that are previewed below that pane to match the date you clicked on. Nifty new feature I think. That explains why they combined both into the one Calendar pane.
  • Also, if you want multiple panes displayed each time you open the To-Do Bar (Tasks, Calendar, and People), you have to go back to the menus again to open each of them, perhaps up to three times in a row just to reopen a fully populated To-Do Bar view again. I see no way to save their combined status and open them all at once like you could in 2007 and 2010. I really hope Microsoft brings the Minimize button back—while I commend Microsoft’s overall simplification efforts, removing that button seems like a big step backwards. All that said, if like me you only display tasks, then the Quick Access button shown above is a suitable replacement for now .


Comments (2)

Bjørn HoplandOctober 30th, 2012 at 9:43 am

You can open the To-Do bar with one click. Right-click on the Task Word in the New menu in the bottom of the window which you now use to change between, Mail, Calanda, and Tasks, and chose “Dock the Peek”.

Michael LinenbergerOctober 30th, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Bjørn: Excellent! I’d not seen that… that’s quite good. I will update my post to include it, and cite your comment as the source. Thanks again! Michael