I am a big fan of Outlook. I use it both at work and for my personal activity management. Here I talk about how I use it for time management as, without it, I doubt I would get half as many things done as I do. I will also talk about some of my tricks for navigating Outlook more efficiently.
The True Enemies of Productivity
Regardless of what tools you use to help with managing your time, in my opinion the biggest productivity killer is television. Having it on in the background is a sure-fire way to get distracted from whatever task you are trying to achieve. If I am writing my blog, for example, it will take all night with the television on or an hour or two with it off.
This leads nicely to the other big myth of productivity: multi-tasking. The fact is we are wired to do one task at a time and plenty of studies show gender is irrelevant in this. No one is good at multi-tasking. Stick to one thing at a time and you will get more done. This also includes email. If you are writing a document and keep flicking to your inbox, your progress will suffer. Email can wait and if the idea of emails going stale in your inbox has you rocking back and forth, block out times in the day dedicated to clearing your inbox.
Similar things can be said for YouTube, Facebook, and so forth. If you have these things open and flick to them, things will go slower. Set fixed breaks if you want to keep your mind fresh with these welcome distractions.
Let us start with shortcuts. I have talked about these before and they are still one of the most useful, yet underutilised, features of Outlook. Set up your shortcuts and you will be navigating around Outlook (and CRM because it also plays nicely with shortcuts) like a boss.
This is how I use Tasks and it is effectively the same whether it is at work or at home (yes, I have edited the number of emails in the various folders because the real numbers get in the way of a good blog article). Here are my home tasks:
My daily work tasks are:
- Load up business cards, get coffee, water and check the mail box
- See what is on today and tomorrow
- Do timesheets, lodge expenses, check the intranet
- Charge the phone
- Go through bag, notepad, wallet, OneNote
- Check LinkedIn, Process inbox
- Set Daily Activities (Popups, Tasks, Wunderlist)
- Do tasks ahead of time, review Processed Inbox
The tasks I do every day are the numbered ones. With the tasks ordered (by the Grouping Box) by Due Date, Priority, Time, then Subject, setting them up as I have puts these numbered tasks at the top with all the ‘real work’ below it.
Working my way through the numbers means the important daily ‘administration’ activities get done, followed by actual work. A few pointers here:
- Every day I check my calendar for today and tomorrow’s activities (or for Monday if it is Friday). This makes sure that if I have something early the next day I have less chance of forgetting it. This also means I can check for after-hours events and get a leave-pass from my very understanding wife. If you have Dynamics CRM, you could also set up an Activity list on your dashboard to do the same thing as manually checking the calendar.
- The idea of ‘Essential Email’ is a fuzzy one. For me, I try to maintain an empty inbox so essential email are emails in my Inbox. For my personal email, in Office 365, this lofty goal is helped with Clutter which gets rid of distractions like newsletters and other periodic communications. At work, this morning activity is my main email reading time. For emails which need follow-up, I create a new task and move the email to a ‘Processed Email’ folder.
- Reviewing popups, Wunderlist, time-based and non-time-based tasks is usually as far as I get in my list. Given there are more tasks than hours in the day, I often create a written list of the ten tasks I will work on that day, reviewing all of my task sources (Wunderlist, Tasks, and Outlook popups) to make sure nothing that has to be done that day slips (this is also why I check my calendar first to know how much time I actually have to play with in the day). If I feel like a reward or distraction e.g. read my inbox, I do these between the list of ten tasks, not during.
- For my work tasks, ‘Processing Inbox’ is the ‘Essential Email’ task in my personal list.
- The only columns I display in the task list are the ones I use for sorting
In both my work and home tasks you can see I use Wunderlist. This is the primary mechanism for my work boss and home boss (the wife) to communicate tasks for me to complete. Wunderlist is a great, lightweight task list app available for all platforms and is free.
You will see immediately below the numbered tasks are the non-time-based tasks. This is the one disadvantage of my set-up and forces me to scroll down to check the time-based tasks although this is not the end of the world.
On the left of my screenshot, you can see my shortcuts. These are mostly searches to categorize emails. You will also see the ‘AAA – Processed Inbox’ which is where my Inbox emails go when there is a task associated to them. There is a way to convert an email to a task directly but I have never used this trick, preferring to manually create the task.
To speed up the movement of emails, I do not drag and drop but use Quick Steps.
Every email in my inbox goes to one of these folders and with Quick Steps it takes literally one click to get it there. These are the only folders I have in Outlook these days (other than for some legacy ones). Basically the search tools are sufficiently good in Outlook I do not need to categorize my emails further.
As mentioned before, I try to block time to read emails, rather than graze on them through the day. For work, this is usually in the morning and at the end of the day and between tasks if I need a break. At home, I have the ‘essential email’ task and, if the television is on, this is usually a good time as well. While I am playing catch-up at home with my inbox (years of email backlog), my work email inbox is cleared pretty much every day with tasks set for follow-up.
I use the calendar for recurring activities that I really need reminding about e.g. bill payments, meetings/appointments and for blocking out time for important tasks. I also mark calendar entries as whether I am free or not by right-clicking and changing the ‘Show As’ value. This allows me to set reminders without confusing my availability.
It is always hard to find time for the 20 tasks when the day only has 10 slots but I genuinely find Outlook to be indispensable at helping me work through my day whether it is the weekend or during the week. Fortunately for me, while I mostly use Windows to access Outlook, there is a version of Outlook on practically every platform these days.
Even if you are devoted to your separate calendar, task and mail apps, I strongly encourage you try Outlook and see if it can be of benefit in squeezing every last drop out of your waking hours.