How to master Outlook

This feature is for anyone who’s finished a working day with the horrible sense of dissatisfaction that things didn’t go to plan, that you’ve been ineffective. That you just didn’t do all the things you wanted to.

We face a problem. Never mind the credit crunch, most of us are faced with a time crunch each and every working day. We’re bombarded with phone calls, meetings, voicemails, bosses giving us urgent last-minute tasks and that most demanding of mistresses: emails.

While technology has theoretically made dealing with our workload easier, many people feel the opposite is true. Indeed, a survey by webmail provider GMX showed that 41% of Britons felt pangs of guilt and anxiety due to the weight of email they receive.

It isn’t within our power to remove email from the world – that Pandora’s box is wedged open – but you can take control. Technology should be an aid and, in this article, we’re going to show you how to master Outlook (or whatever personal email/organisational tool you use), so you never leave work feeling ineffective again.

Getting things done

Even the most disorganised person can be turned into someone less so by forcing them to use a daily to-do list, but according to productivity gurus such as David Allen (author of Getting Things Done, also known simply as GTD) and Sally McGhee (author of Take Control of Your Life!), that isn’t enough. If there ever was a time when a daily list of tasks was practical then it’s long-passed: our working days are too unpredictable.

To make sense of our workloads, Allen and McGhee argue we need more sophisticated thinking and smarter tools. We need a system that actually welcomes the unexpected because the email that slips into your inbox demanding immediate attention could be what earns you your next promotion.

“The real power of GTD is having an extended mind, in that you’re using the system as a placeholder for open loops and incomplete stuff you need to keep track of,” Allen told us in an interview. “If you’re trying to use your head for that then good luck.”

Although everyone will use a slightly different system, this boils down to prioritisation. There are tasks you will have to do today; there are others that can only be done next Friday, when everyone’s in the office; and there are others that are best left to tomorrow morning when you’ll feel fresher than right now, slowly digesting your lunch.

We also need to stamp out time leeches. In the majority of cases, there’s no good reason to read an email twice. Much of the time, you’ll be able to deal with it immediately, and this is one of the central tenets behind GTD.

Empty your inbox

The first thing to consider is working with an empty inbox. This concept is heresy to some people: they’ll protest that the 7,000 emails that sit in their inbox might look messy, but at least everything is there. A simple search, or filtering by subject or name, will take them to the information they need.

However, the fact is that you can do all of those searches and filters yet still open Outlook to a clean plate: the only emails you’ll then see are the ones you need to deal with. It may mean you adjust the way you work, but it guarantees you’ll work more effectively, as you won’t be distracted by emails you’ve already read and dealt with.

The first rule is to delete emails you don’t need. The second rule – and this is one that can make a huge difference to your working life – is that, if a task (such as responding to an email) is going to take less than two minutes, then do it straight away. Catchily, Allen refers to this as the two-minute rule.

“If all you did was get the two-minute rule out of everything you do for the rest of your life then you’ll thank me for the rest of your life,” said Allen. Some tasks will take longer and, according to both Allen and McGhee, that means one of two things. The first is that you work out the action and then file away the email for later when you’re better able to respond. By file away, we mean move the email to a folder (such as @Actions, with the @ symbol ensuring it sits at the top of your folder list).

The second is to defer. In a non-GTD world, that may mean simply ignoring the email for a while, but that doesn’t clear it from your inbox. You need to move the email to another folder, such as @Deferred, and then revisit it at an allocated time. Otherwise, it will just sit in your inbox like a buzzing irritation.

Some people might choose to go through their Deferred emails once a day, others once a week. But it’s vital you have a pre-arranged time or they’ll simply be forgotten.

The remaining emails in your inbox are likely to fall under a broad heading of reference. They might relate to a particular aspect of your job or a project. Either way, experiment with creating a new folder (File | New | Folder, or shortcut Ctrl+Shift+E) called Reference emails and simply moving all your “essential” emails there.

And what you’ll have, blissfully, is an empty inbox. You’ve taken the first vital step towards using Outlook as it should be used.

Make your actions mean something

One of the biggest problems with to-do lists is they’re full of tasks that aren’t possible to complete. Say you’ve got to set the agenda for a meeting next week. Unless you’re in the fortunate position of being an autocrat, that isn’t a simple task. In reality, you’ll have to email other attendees to see if they have any issues they’d like to raise, go through the minutes of the previous meeting, follow up on certain action points, agree the agenda with other stakeholders and much more besides.

As such, writing “sort out the agenda” at the top of a paper to-do list or into Tasks within Outlook isn’t helpful. You need to quickly analyse the particular steps and write those down – and, if the task is at all complicated, rather than simply write them out on your daily to-do list, you should add them to a calendar.

Sally McGhee describes these tasks as Strategic Next Actions. That is, a task you can do that contributes towards your overall goals, but that you can complete in a single, simple step.

“The key to accomplishing tasks is to plan Strategic Next Actions on your calendar,” writes Sally McGhee, “so you can ensure that they get completed without… missing important deadlines. My company’s statistics prove that there’s a 75% greater chance of a task being completed if it’s scheduled on your calendar rather than tracked on your task list or in your head.”

Collect your ideas

Another founding principle behind GTD is to eliminate worry. We spend too much of our time stressing about things that are either out of our control or can be easily brought under our control, and one constant concern for people is keeping track of their ideas.

This could mean always having a paper notebook to hand. You have an idea, scrawl it down, and either tear out the page and throw it into your in-tray or – if you’re out and about – keep it in the notebook. Then, at a time you set aside, go through those ideas and process them.

Or you can use technology: the record function on your mobile phone, calling yourself at work and leaving a voicemail, making a list on your smartphone. David Allen used to rely on a dictaphone for just such a purpose, but now uses online transcription service Jott (jott.com). “I can speed dial Jott on my phone and it asks who do you want to Jott, I say myself, I speak and that will come back in my email in about five minutes fairly accurately – enough to act as a trigger to remind me what I need to do with that.”

The beauty and horror of technology is that we have a huge choice of note-taking mechanisms. Quite aside from paper, or UK alternatives to Jott such as Dial2Do (dial2do.com), we can add tasks on our smartphone, record a message using its voice recorder, tap out an email to ourselves on our BlackBerry, phone the office number and leave a voicemail, add a new task to Outlook, using OneNote, and numerous variations to boot.

Although it’s good practice to restrict yourself to a handful of mechanisms, so that it becomes second nature to check them, it’s far better to use technology than to rely on your memory.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with simply writing things down either, but if you’re reading Alphr you’re almost certainly a signed-up technophile, in which case you’ll already see the benefit of synchronising tasks between your smartphone and PC.

And if you’re really committed to technology, you can dump your paper notebook and opt for a tablet PC instead. “The tablet PC allows me to capture handwritten notes directly into OneNote,” said McGhee. “With the click of a button, I can transfer action items from my digital notes directly into the Task list in Microsoft Outlook.”

Decide your categories

Microsoft Office and its rivals have long supported the idea of assigning an email, contact, appointment or task to a category.

For instance, you might be working on four projects at work. Create a new category to match each of them and then assign away. Once you’ve worked through the process, you can then view all the emails, contacts and meetings concerning that project at a glance.

Indeed, categories are so powerful that some people can work effectively just by implementing a thought-out set of categories. One such person is Darren Strange, the UK product manager for Microsoft Office, who describes how he uses categories on his blog.

“Categories enable me to view my job as the management of six projects and to decide which one I’m working on at the moment,” Strange told us. “This is a more focused and coherent way to work. Just munching down my inbox from the top felt like batting back balls from a relentless tennis ball machine.”

By viewing email by category, you’ll filter out the emails that don’t relate to the projects, allowing you to ignore them or act on them as you see fit. This solves one of the biggest problems of email – being distracted by new arrivals when you’re working. Any new email is uncategorised, so won’t be viewable if you’ve filtered by the current project.

“Using categories in my calendar helps to ensure I dedicate the appropriate amount of time to each project, balance priorities and meet deadlines,” added Strange.

Categories can be particularly useful for handling tasks. You might want to create an @Calls category, which you use to file away all the tasks based on phone conversations. For low-priority tasks, you could create an @Someday category. For things that can only be done at home, create an @Home category.

The other advantage of defining categories precisely is that any new tasks you add will be added by default to the “Categories: (none)” view. You can then sort through this at a convenient time and sift them quickly into the most suitable categories, where they’ll sit waiting to be dealt with when you see fit.

Another advantage is that you can assign multiple categories to items. Compare this with the more basic folders approach, where you create a long list of folders and file items relating to a project within the relevant folder. The trouble is that an email will often cover multiple subjects, so where do you file it?

One of Outlook 2007’s biggest advantages over 2003 is its improved support for categories, with colour-coding making it simpler to see at a glance what projects, for instance, are consuming your time. But if you can’t use Outlook 2007, there’s an interesting Outlook plug-in called CategorieZ that allows you to create super-categories and sub-categories, and generally take more control – you can download a 15-day trial from software-solutions.co.nz.

Supercharge your calendar

Sally McGhee often tells her clients: “You can’t do everything, but you can do anything so long as it fits into your calendar.” The end result for people in demanding jobs who don’t follow this advice is that they run out of time. In good cases, that might be extending their day by an hour or so in the morning or evening. In bad cases, it means processing email at home at 11pm. Or later.

If that sounds familiar, you should consider planning your time more efficiently. Devote an hour each working day to sorting through email, so that you book meetings around it – after all, you’re more likely to get a speedy resolution if the people who you’ve emailed are still at work.

McGhee recommends keeping a work and personal diary for a week, noting everything from the time it takes you to fetch a latte to how long you spend walking the dog, so you can see how your time is consumed. This will drum in exactly how much time tasks really take, and highlight things you perhaps should stop doing.

From this, you can create what McGhee calls a Baseline Calendar – all the one-to-one meetings you need to have, research time, the hour you need each week to review your long-term objectives, your three weekly visits to the gym. The end result? If implemented correctly, a better work-life balance and you using your time more effectively throughout the day, week and month.

The bigger picture

We’ve concentrated on the concrete steps you can take within Outlook, but most people will also benefit from taking a step back and examining the bigger picture. If you don’t know what your longer-term aims are, how can you be sure that the tasks you’re spending your time completing are actually benefitting you and your company? In short, are you wasting your time?

Signs to look out for are a constant feeling that you’re fire-fighting, or that you find yourself distracted by the latest and greatest things. “If you’re not really sure what you’re doing then you’ll be distracted by whatever is the latest, loudest bright bauble in front of you,” claims Allen, citing social-networking sites and instant messaging as possible distractions. “But if you really know what you’re doing, you won’t let instant messaging get in your way.”

So, work out your long-term objectives. Take the time to map out how you can achieve them, and from that work out what your next achievable task is to take you along that road. It’s common sense, but most people consider themselves too busy fire-fighting to take the time out to plan.

The next step

Switching to the Getting Things Done method, or signing up to McGhee’s alternative, requires a big shift in thinking, and it may not suit you. But you shouldn’t expect instant results. “GTD is like learning any art or craft, it takes two years,” David Allen argues.

“It’s going to take you two years to learn Russian or Italian or to tango or to learn the banjo, so when you’re talking about learning a new set of behaviours, it’s going to take time. But even to be aware of GTD has a huge amount of value, as you can go, wow, in case I ever get in trouble I know there’s a way out.”

This article only touches upon what GTD has to offer, and if it appeals then you should buy the book and also Sally McGhee’s slightly different – and more technology-focused – approach to the problem. For $15, you can also download a comprehensive 45-page guide from davidco.com/store that gives step-by-step instructions for moulding Outlook to your ways (both for Outlook 2003 and 2007).

It’s a brave new world, and not everyone will change their way of working. But even if you only embrace a few core tenets, from the two-minute rule to setting up categories, you can leave work each day feeling that you’re in control and have achieved all you want to achieve.

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