Start Page: Overcome the propensity to procrastinate — Email edition

February 21, 2018

WilsonIn the blink of an eye, we are almost two months through the new year. It seems like I’m trying to slow life down, while the converse is true. In times like that, I’ve found it helpful to force myself to think about how I’m getting work done (or not) and trying to identify better ways to do so. This article will focus on some ideas for better handling your email using Microsoft Outlook.

What makes you procrastinate?

First, identify where you tend to procrastinate. Identifying from a technology standpoint your barriers to getting work done can help reveal ways to automate around that tendency.

Here’s an example. We all deal with inordinate amounts of email. Suppose you have a hard time responding to email. You want to reply, but you know opening your inbox will just reveal all the other emails that need attention.

Instead of opening your email program, open a text editor (Notepad on Windows) or a Microsoft Word document and draft your response. Then, open the email and copy/paste your reply. It’s more of a one-to-one interaction that can help you focus on writing a response to an email and get that item out of your inbox.

Don’t procrastinate: automate!

Now, let’s take this concept a bit further. After all, this is a technology article. Admittedly, it took a while for me to develop an interest in just writing in plain text. But, I found the simplicity and focus of a simple text response helped me get work done instead of procrastinating. Mentally, it helped me feel in control versus thinking about the stack of emails that kept growing while I was drafting my reply.

The problem? I was technically creating more work by drafting, copying and pasting. The solution? Automation. Keep in mind that this is just a concept. I’m not saying that the process in this article is a good solution for you, but rather an idea of how to use the automation idea to help trick yourself into getting over the procrastination hurdle.

In practice

In my case, I select the text, press a keyboard shortcut, and Microsoft Outlook opens for me with the text pasted and my cursor in the “To:” field ready to type the recipient’s address. Here’s the trick: the first draft is done! I might as well finish the job.

The secret to this trick is a keyboard automation program.

In Windows, you can use a program like AutoHotKey (available for free at: autohotkey.com). On Mac, try Keyboard Maestro (available at: https://www.keyboardmaestro.com). If you can use a keyboard and/or mouse to do something on the computer, these programs can help you automate that process. Do the work of creating the process once and use it again and again throughout your practice.

In the above example, I select the text from my text file. I then press a keyboard shortcut. The keyboard shortcut runs the automation sequence I created using the program.

Here are the steps the program completes (in less than a second):

1. Copies the text to the clipboard

2. Switches to Microsoft Outlook (if already open or you can even start the program if it isn’t running)

3. Opens a new email

4. Moves the cursor to the body field of the email

5. Pastes the text into the body of the email

6. Moves the cursor back to the “To:” field of the email.

Here are the manual steps: Use your mouse or keyboard to select the text. Press “Ctrl-C” to copy the text to the clipboard. Press “Alt-Tab” to switch to Microsoft Outlook (if it is already open). Press “Ctrl-Shift-M” to start a new email. Press “Tab” several times to move the cursor to the body field. Press “Ctrl-V” to paste the text into the body of the email. Then, press “Shift-Tab” several times to move the cursor back to the “To:” field. Yikes!

Is the effort worth it? Yes, if it reduces the propensity to procrastinate.

The reality is we all do similar steps every day without thinking about it. It is crazy to think about how many times we tap the keys on our keyboard or click the mouse each day. Why not automate some of those steps and save literally hours of your life? You will have to determine if the output justifies the work it takes to automate a process.

My theory is if it helps me get the work done, reducing any propensity to procrastinate, it is worth the effort. Just be careful automating things doesn’t become another way to avoid work. You know who you are.

Use Outlook Better

If you want to use Outlook to compose, read and reply, there is a better way. Learn the keyboard shortcuts for navigating Outlook (or your email program of choice).

The easiest way to do this, ironically, is to use your mouse. On the Ribbon near the top left of the program, click the down arrow on the New Items Menu.

If you hover your mouse over the new item you want to create (e.g., Email or Appointment), you will see the keyboard shortcut for that item. This tip works for most menu items in Microsoft Office programs.

Some of my most used are as follows. Note, these shortcuts work when the email is highlighted/selected in your inbox:

• Open (Enter)

• Reply (“Ctrl-R” to reply to sender or press “Ctrl-Shift-R” to reply to all)

• Move to Folder (“Ctrl-Shift-V”)

• Forward (“Ctrl-F”)

Using these tips will keep your hands on the keyboard and focused on getting email done. Your practice will thank you.•


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.


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