Such Happiness In Thought Happens

January 8, 2008

Productivity and the use of Outlook

Filed under: MS Office, Productivity — Tags: , , , , , , — Duane @ 8:03 pm

I am currently reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” (or at least the Australian version of said book “How to Get Things Done”) and while I agree with the process that I have read so far, I do not agree with a number of the assumptions that he makes. I will expand upon that in a later post once I have fully read the book. I got onto the book because so many people on the Internet rave about the GTD process and there are a number of GTD tools available on-line, but it got me thinking about Outlook. David Allen and a number of other people diss the use of Outlook as a productivity tool and I think that is a shame, as Outlook has worked for me no dramas at all and I use it all the time. But then again I know Outlook very well and what I need to do to achieve what I want from it. So what I want to do with this post is explain the different parts/folder Outlook contains and try and give people a reason to go back to Outlook if they have it installed at work or at home.

The big problem with Microsoft Outlook is that when you go to the Start Button on standard Windows XP it says Email, not Outlook. Any shortcut you make is also called Email, and people over the years have used Outlook only for the use of Email. That is no better than using Outlook Express and you may as well use Outlook Express if you don’t venture beyond Email. Outlook is not just email, it is a communication centre for everything that Outlook can deal with.

What are some of the things you can receive in your Inbox? Most people would say email, spam, junk email, attachments, viruses, etc, etc. But that is not all your get in the Inbox. At work you may receive Meeting Requests and the eventual Meeting acceptances, or declines. These are NOT email. Also you can receive Task Requests, delivery receipts, read receipts, system generated emails. So what am I trying to get at? The Inbox is not just for email. The Inbox should be thought of as the Mail Room of Outlook. And just like when you get home after work and you collect your mail, most people I know don’t read their mail on the footpath (or wherever their mailbox may be located). Most people (and I do generalise here) go into their house, sort their mail into Junk Mail (through it in the bin), bills (put them on the table, look at them later), newsletters, and mail they don’t know (obviously open that as it may be interesting). So why do we have two different ways of dealing with mail, be it physical or email? So that is what the Inbox is for. And if you have lots of email sitting in your Inbox, no wonder you don’t know what is going on properly as you are letting your email manage you, not you manage your email as you don’t have an effective process of dealing/managing email.

The next obvious part of Outlook is the Calendar. The Calendar is the good ol’ paper diary. You jot down what you are doing when so that you can remember it. What do people really put in their calendar? Anything they want to be reminded about. And what happens with those reminders? Every 5 minutes I get that blasted Reminders box popping up and dinging say I should be doing this and I really don’t have the time to deal with it now, so I will hit the Snooze button. Or worse the Dismiss button and they never get the reminder again about what they should have done. The Calendar is the place to note what you are doing when – be it meeting with colleagues and having a meeting, or noting that you will be writing a report for two hours.

People should put what they are doing into the Calendar, especially commitments in the future. You do not need to use the Reminders if you do not wish to, they can be annoying. The added benefit of putting what you are doing in the Calendar is two-fold:

  1. It helps you plan what you are doing in the day at specific times.
  2. More importantly it is informing your colleagues that you are unavailable as you have something important on, thus you are not available if they try and send out Meeting Requests.

The Calendar is also handy to remember key dates, be it a person’s birthday, wedding anniversary, when your Tax has to be in by, when tickets go on sale for the concert you want to go to, etc, etc.

Tasksis an area that Microsoft fell down on. In training courses I hear often that people say they have tried to use Tasks before, but it doesn’t do what they hoped for or they were not reminded about a Task when it was due, because Tasks are not in my face. So that’s why I put all reminders in my Calendar because then at least I will see them or be reminded of them if I am working out of my Inbox. Tasks should be what you think of when you go “Oooo I need to remember to call x about ….”, “Have to ask x about ….”. At any point you need to remember to do something, be it today or in the future it should go into your Tasks. In tomorrow’s post I will illustrate how to easily see what you have in your Tasks and some techniques in using tasks efficiently.

The next useful area of Outlook is one very few people use – Notes. The Notes folder of Outlook looks like a yellow sticky note. Especially one that you may have littered around your monitor or on your desk. We use sticky notes to remind ourselves of information we don’t use all the time, but we need to refer back to. Well that’s what you can make a note about in Outlook. And a Note in Outlook will not fall off your monitor, or be swept off your desk by accident. So commonly I have PIN numbers I don’t use all the time, alarm codes, procedures on how to do things I would do once in a blue moon.

Next up is Contacts. Contacts can be found in Outlook Express, but it is better developed in Outlook. Contacts are exactly that – people you know and information about them you want to remember. Most people (and again I generalise here) will use Contacts for phone numbers, email addresses, and maybe physical addresses and birthdays/anniversaries. Those are the obvious features of Contacts. But Contacts can list every email I have received or sent to a person and the folder it is found in, if the item is still in my Outlook (even deleted) and I have that contact’s email address. If I have access to the Internet and a browser, I can view a map of the contact’s physical address on either Live.com or a msn.com website (depending upon the country you are from). Contacts don’t have to be just people. There is this huge notes area to store information about that contact and easily find it again. So contacts could be projects, companies you deal with, etc, etc.

The Journal is meant to be used as a tracking device, especially automatically recording when you received emails, etc from certain contacts. However if you ever click on the Journal button, it tells you there is a better way to track when you received correspondence from people. Plus it duplicates the email, including the file size of the email, thus doubling how much room you have available in Outlook. To be honest the Journal is a waste of time, unless you want to manually track events (email, faxes, phone calls, etc).

So that is a bit of an overview about what Outlook is – a one stop shop for communication, diary, tasks and things to remember. Out of the box Outlook is not very user-friendly and I would agree with David Allen and others who would say Outlook is not a productivity management tool, but for those who know Outlook well, or are willing to give it a go, Outlook can do whatever you want (within reason of course). You just have to know what it can do, and what you need to do to make it work with you. Personally I use Outlook to plan my days and my weeks, to record information, to remember people’s birthdays and anniversaries, and if I didn’t know how to use Microsoft Project, I would use it to plan tasks for projects. I once knew a guy from an international aerospace company who used Outlook to detail the tasks/jobs required for various projects he was working on, and he used Outlook effectively and did not need to know how to use Project.

So don’t diss or ignore Outlook just because it doesn’t currently do what you would like it to do. Learn a bit more about its capabilities and be willing to explore. Of course you need the time to so this, so it may be worthwile talking to your IT department, talking to others in your company or friends who are using Outlook well, or lastly there is the internet and there would be a number of people who provide methods on how to use Outlook more effectively. This is one of the things I aim to use this blog for, and this is a teaser on what to expect.

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1 Comment »

  1. Good “How to understand Outlook for dummies.”

    Comment by Vic — September 24, 2008 @ 3:15 pm


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