There’s a good chance the first program you open on your computer every day is Microsoft Outlook. What’s the first thing you see when you open Outlook? Dozens (if not hundreds) of emails. Talk about a drain on your productivity for the day.
This article will detail three suggestions to help get more out of Outlook. First, change the default opening screen and design a dashboard for your day. Second, review your calendar items, tasks and emails that you flagged and want (need) to respond to. Finally, learn how to use categories to manage your inbox.
Create a dashboard
By default, Outlook opens in the Inbox. Configure your version of Outlook to open the “Outlook Today” tool by default. Visit sethrwilson.com and search “today view” for a screencast relating to this article.
Once you have Outlook configured to open Outlook Today by default, customize to your liking. I find it helpful to show the calendar (One to three days) and a list of upcoming tasks. The task pane can contain tasks you have added as an Outlook task, and activating the To-Do Bar shows emails that you have flagged for follow-up.
Spend some time each week blocking off time to work on projects.
Actions that do not need a longer period of time to complete can be put on the task list. You can hack your calendar by blocking off some time each day to work on your task list.
Instead of facing all the emails left since you last opened Outlook, you will see the items you have prioritized: your calendar, your tasks and those emails you have intentionally flagged for follow-up. This will help give you a sense of control over the day.
Flag important emails
Outlook allows users to “flag” an email for follow-up at a later time. The email can stay in the inbox or be moved to a subfolder. Placing a flag on an email essentially provides a shortcut back to that email when you are ready to work it. It is a quick way to triage emails.
A couple of best practice ideas: First, group your inbox messages by date. Start with today and flag those emails that need a response within the next 24-48 hours. Use the flag for “today” or “tomorrow” as appropriate. Next, return to Outlook Today to see your list of flagged emails under the To-Do Bar. Those become the most important emails you need to handle. It’s a hack, but can help you focus on a much smaller sub-list.
Pay attention to the emails you flag. If you flag every email in your inbox, you’ll never get anything done. The idea is to identify those emails that require a response first, and then work through them one by one until done. That way, I have a short list of emails that must be handled that week. Using Outlook Today with the To-Do Bar activated, I can see the list every morning or throughout the day if I like, knocking a few out at a time rather than staring at my entire inbox.
Categorize to organize
Finally, use Outlook’s categories instead of folders to organize email, storing all read messages in one Archive folder, broken down by categories.
First, create your categories. Click the Categories button. Create a category called “Newsletters.” Select several emails and assign the Newsletters category. Archive the messages in a subfolder called “Archive.”
In the Archive folder, set Outlook to sort the mail by category. You should see the category “Newsletter,” along with the emails you assigned previously. Out of your inbox, but organized for ease of reference.
Next, you will want to set up a quick step to handle this task for you. Have the quick step mark the email as read, assign the category and move the email to the Archive folder. Repeat this process for cases or projects you are working on as you go through your emails, not all at once. Small, incremental changes over time will yield big results.
Outlook is a powerful personal information manager. With a few tweaks, you can set the program to show you important and relevant information for the day, rather than being driven by the latest and loudest items in your world.•
Seth R. Wilson is an attorney with Adler Tesnar & Whalin in Noblesville. In addition to practicing law, he helps manage the day-to-day technology operations of the firm. Seth writes about legal technology at sethrwilson.com and is a frequent speaker on the subject. The opinions expressed are those of the author.