Author: Yogi Schulz

Summary : Build personal productivity by using more of the Outlook functionality that you’ve paid for.

Which of these impediments to personal productivity are you experiencing?

  • Can’t find e-mail you know you have sent or received?
  • Did the amount of e-mail stacking up in various folders become unmanageable long ago?
  • Are alerts of incoming e-mail entirely too distracting?
  • Is finding contacts you know you have becoming difficult?
  • Has creating contact entries become too tedious?
  • Is arranging appointments with outside business colleagues generate too much e-mail?
  • Is making and accepting appointments with others who aren’t using Outlook producing more frustrations than results?
  • Are lists and stickies of outstanding to-dos cluttering your desk?

You can greatly increase the productivity value you achieve with Microsoft Outlook through a few setup refinements and a few personal behavior changes.

Organizing e-mail

Become ruthless in deleting incoming e-mail. Most e-mail is informational; some of it is spam despite our best control efforts. Read the informational e-mail and delete it along with the spam. Don’t be trapped into thinking you may need to refer later to an item you’ve deleted. It just doesn’t happen.

If you’ve become collateral damage when others over-use Reply All or huge Distribution Lists, then delete the incoming e-mail without opening it. If you need a quick peek at the beginning of the e-mail before deleting it, turn on AutoPreview or the Reading Pane.

Do not let many years’ worth of e-mail stack up in your Deleted Items folder. You’ll never find anything even with Outlook search. I’ve discovered I need to keep only the past 60 days worth. I delete the rest monthly.

If an e-mail is really important and needs to be retained, I save it as a .txt or an .htm file in the folder that it belongs in. I try to keep all the files related to specific projects and themes together; not distributed across Outlook, network drives and content management systems.

By default Outlook issues various alerts for every incoming e-mail message. The alerts are enormously disruptive to your productivity. You can turn them off as follows: Tools > Options > Preferences > E-mail Options> Advanced E-mail Options. Under When new items arrive in my Inbox, uncheck all 4 boxes. Instead review your Inbox about once an hour. That frequency is more than enough to be viewed as responsive.

Managing contacts

At the risk of sounding obvious, keep most of your contacts in the Contacts folder to make searching for contacts easy. If you want to group Contacts, use the Categorize facility. Avoid creating too many Contacts sub-folders because the contents of sub-folders are not readily accessible when composing new e-mails.

[To make a Contacts in a sub-folder available to new e-mails, right click on the folder name, select Properties, then click on the Outlook Address Book tab, then check Show this folder as an e-mail Address Book.]

When creating new Contacts, make sure the Name follows the format First Name Last Name; not the reverse or an initial for the First Name. The value of this consistent format is that Contact and Inbox search results become absolutely reliable. This format isn’t automatic because the name on the incoming e-mail may be formatted differently when you right-click the name and select Add to Outlook Contacts.

If you receive a lot of new Contacts through business cards, use a specialized business card scanner. It typically comes with smart software tuned to analyze business card data to create Contact information. That will deliver a huge productivity boost.

[I see great value in attaching my contact information to every e-mail that I send using the vcard standard. A vcard attachment enables the e-mail recipient to double-click the attachment, which opens as a Contact item, and then click Save and Close to add my contact information to their Contact list. This approach is quick and easy, it ensure my contact information stays with the recipient and avoids the effort and spelling errors associated with re-typing my contact information.

To attach a vcard to every e-mail you compose, first create a Contact item for yourself. Then go to Tools > Options > Mail Format > Signatures to add your own Contact item as a vcard to your signature.]

[Don’t ever attach your signature as a graphics file to your Outlook signature. That just makes you an easy, tempting target for an identity thief.]

Improving calendar effectiveness

Creating Appointments with others in your organization using Outlook is fast and easy. Once you start to invite others from outside your organization, complexities and frustration can arise. First you can’t see the calendars of colleagues in other organizations. Second, if the other organizations aren’t using Outlook, they often can’t properly process your Appointment and display it on their calendar.

Calendar visibility can be solved by having the members of your workgroup subscribe to Microsoft Office Outlook Calendar Sharing Service and then keep your Outlook calendar synchronized with your Calendar Sharing Service. Google Calendar provides similar functionality. You can allow access to either calendar to anyone you specify.

Many Appointment message incompatibilities are addressed through the icalendar standard. When you receive an e-mail in Outlook with an .ics attachment, that’s really an Appointment request or an acceptance coming from another brand of e-mail client. Just double click the attachment and click OK or Accept. Your calendar will be updated appropriately.

[When scheduling, use the Optional Attendee and the Resource designations whenever possible to communicate Appointment details better. Optional Attendee communicates that it may be valuable for the person to attend, but that their attendance is not essential to your meeting objectives. The Resource designation is typically used for meeting rooms and will populate the Location field of the Appointment automatically and consistently.]

Using tasks more effectively

We all have more outstanding tasks than we can reasonably complete. When we prioritize our outstanding tasks each day, we soon discover that some tasks are really less important than others.

Outlook Tasks helps us improve our productivity if we will type the task information directly into a Task pane rather than writing the task onto a sticky or a sheet of paper for later transfer to Tasks. The transfer will never happen.

Outlook allows us to easily convert incoming e-mail to Tasks by right-clicking the message, selecting Move to Folder and then clicking on Tasks. Now we can prioritize the Task and create a follow-up alert if we so choose.

Yogi Schulz is a Calgary, Alberta-based contributing writer to the Microsoft Midsize Business Center. His work has appeared in Computing Canada, EDGE, The Calgary Herald and Microsoft Ideas. He typically consults with CIO’s in the energy, government and real estate industries.

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