Assign categories to calendar events in Outlook 2016 IMAP accounts

How to make the color pop on calendar events in Outlook 2016 IMAP

Assign categories to events

Update June 2020: Updated to clarify the use of function keys.

Update March 2019: This workaround, which didn’t work for a while after an Outlook update, is now working again. Enjoy!

I use Outlook 2016 with an IMAP account. I was looking to add categories to calendar appointments as I used to do when working on Microsoft Exchange. I couldn’t get it to work (the Categorize tab was greyed out). On googling the problem, to my surprise I found out that this function is disabled for IMAP accounts. None of the workarounds worked for me or they were very complicated.

So I found my own very easy workaround. It takes 7 steps to set up, but then you can simply use Function key shortcuts.

Here’s how it works.

  1. In Outlook 2016, open a NEW appointment.
  2. Click on File (tab), then Properties (box)
  3. Click on the button “Categories” at the bottom of the Properties box, then click “All Categories“.
  4. This will open a window where you can assign colors, rename the categories. And assign a SHORTCUT KEY CODE using a combination of keys with the function keys F1, F2, etc.: e.g. Ctrl F2, Ctrl F3, etc.
    NOTE: Depending on your keyboard, you may need to press the Fn key in order to access the function keys F1, F2, etc. That means that your shortcut key code will be to simultaneously press “Ctrl” and “Fn” and “F2”, for example.
  5. Create all the categories you want and assign names, colors and shortcut key codes.
  6. Take a screenshot as a handy memorizer of the shortcut key codes. (Tip: in Windows 10, you can use Snip & Sketch to take a screenshot.)
  7. Press OK, exit Properties and close the new item (you don’t have to save it).
  8. Go into your calendar, click on an item to select it. Then press the SHORTCUT KEY CODE that you decided on earlier (i.e. Ctrl F2, Ctrl F3, etc.). It will apply the color of the assigned category to the selected item. It will even apply it to all events in a recurring appointment.



ALTERNATIVE SOLUTION: Thunderbird email and calendar

If you reached this page you no doubt use Outlook and want to continue using it. For myself, to be honest I got a bit tired of Outlook for various reasons, and today I use Thunderbird instead. It’s open source, free, has great functionality and includes a calendar that’s easy to sync with other calendars like Google Calendar.


Thanks Fiona, I solved this problem a couple of years ago and it works perfectly now. Color coding appointments is very important to me.

Thanks so much, but I hit a roadblock: what if my “categories” box is not highlighted and I can’t open it?

Hi Susan,
Sorry to hear that! At what point did you hit the roadblock? When you open Outlook calendar, did you then:
1. create a NEW appointment in your calendar (you must start by creating a new appointment, not opening an existing one)
2. While in that appointment, click on ‘File’, then ‘Properties’?

Which version of Windows are you using? My workaround functions in Windows 10. Once I go into ‘Properties’ (but only when starting from a NEW appointment), then Categories is not greyed out. If you start from an EXISTING appointment, it will remain greyed out.

Let me know if this helps!


Brilliant – you may have the day off: you have made my life easier and justified the Internet


Is there a reason why in this day and age the Categories can’t just be available as it is in POP accounts?

In Outlook 2013, I could select categorize and choose a color for each event. I could easily change existing events as well. And that was with IMAP too. Not sure why the “Categorize” tab disappeared in Outlook 2016. Really weird.

Thanks Fiona. This worked great. I hope Microsoft employees are reading this and taking note to incorporate this feature back in the next release or service pack. I’m a very visual person and looking at a clutter calendar in all one color just makes things harder than it needs to be. By having colors helps me sort through clutter and prioritize what is really important.

Glad this helped, Chris. And yes, why MS left this feature out is a mystery.

Thanks Fiona. Your work around solution is wonderful. I follow up question if I may. Using the suggested method can you easily 1) change or remove the appointment color, 2) and/or sort on the color types?

Hi Bill, you can change the color by simply applying a new color. Then open the item. Both colours will show above the Subject line. Right-click the color you don’t want and click ‘Clear “Category”‘.
I’m afraid I don’t know how to sort on color…

Thank you! That was very helpful

Brilliant! Thank you so much. Since upgrading to Outlook 2016 I have hated MS even more. Only they, and the Government, can “improve” a product or system by making it less user-friendly with less features….

Great! Thank you so much! Frustrating it won’t change existing appointments (made between upgrading from 2010 and reading your post!), just new ones. Heaven knows what MS are thinking by taking this option off the ribbon in the first place. Hopefully a future update will reinstate it, for the sake of us visual people! 🙂

Charlotte Wood

Thank you Thank you Thank you! My ISP all of a sudden changed me from Pop to Imap and I HATED not being able to categorize. You saved my butt!

Great, glad to be of help, Char!

Hi Fiona, I have been using your method for over a year now. Suddenly,it stopped working. I went thru the steps again and found my shortcut keys are still defined but they don’t work. Any suggestions?

I am having the same problem. I thought it was something I was doing wrong, or an issue with my computer.

My shortcut keys stopped working in February. I have tried to reset the keys to no avail. Was there an update this fix to stop working?

It suddenly stopped working for me as well. Any solutions found yet?

I am having the same problem with one of my clients. The categories is greyed out, but when I follow these instructions, I find the old custom categories. I assume that a windows update wacked this feature. Any solution or work around for this problem?

I was so sorry that my workaround didn’t work anymore and I tried a couple of times to figure it out. And now today, for some reason, it works again!

No thanks to me. It didn’t work, and now it does again. That’s Microsoft for you!

As of 10 April I think its stopped again. Followed instructions but Function does not work.

You a genius I am OCD and I like to colour code everything

Maggy Howells

You are a Godsend!!! I love my colour coded categories and really didn’t want to have to change my email account type. Thank you sooooooo much!!!

OMG… This works but How stupid!!! MS Tech pages says it doesn’t support IMAP yet here it clearly does!!!

Thank you Fiona…

I thought something was strange when Many of my appointments had color and some didn’t but I never had to do this step, so I’m not sure how some did/do have it and others don’t.

I love you!

(I note sometimes it doesn’t work and then comes back. I’ll keep an eye on that, I assume it’s the frequent patches that mess it up. The ribbon constantly resets, so I had to export the customisation to save me time)

Thank you so much for your help!! This was a lifesaver!

Jonny Setton

This worked perfectly! Thank You!

this is amazing – i’ve been so frustrated weaning off my work Outlook into personal space with an IMAP account. THANK YOU!!!!!

I’m delighted this is working for you all! I love colour coding my calendar or everything just blurs together and I tend to miss the important events. Glad to help out!

Thanks! I was looking for an easy way to have deadline pop out visually from my calendar and this did the trick!

Michael Green

Thank you thank you Fiona!!!
I had been trying for year to categorise calendar items.
Including Microsoft service.

I finally hit the jackpot with your advice

I’m on a Mac and can’t categorize my Gmail appointments/meetings in Outlook. I’m on version 16.37 MS Outlook for Mac. Any advice?

Sorry Bart, I’m afraid I use a PC, not Mac, so I don’t know. Have you tested the instructions to see if it works?

Thanks to Mike Hester from Melbourne who gave me a helpful tip to make my explanation easier to follow.

Leave a Reply