How I work with Outlook 12

Now that Beta2 is out, it seems like high time I explain how I use the new time management system in Outlook to manage my tasks and e-mail. There are many ways of managing one’s time, and what follows is just my approach. Fortunately, the new system is pretty flexible – though I will admit that I use all of the defaults (except setting my e-mail in conversation view in the Inbox for reasons I explain later.) I’ll begin with how I start my day:


I take the bus to work, which is great in some ways because it allows me to mentally prepare for the day ahead. Part my preparation is to look at my SmartPhone and see what appointments I have to look forward to that day. This exercise is followed by looking at my tasks. I happen to like using Oxios To-Do List because of the tidy way it displays my tasks. I usually enter a few more tasks on the way to work to clear my mind. As I enter these tasks, I try to make the first word a verb that summarizes my next action: Call John, E-mail Cathy @ UCEF, etc. This extra step of being careful when entering a task makes it easier to do the task later. It is no fun to stare at an item, knowing that you have to do something, and not knowing what to do next. When I get to work, I sync* my phone, which puts my new tasks into my Outlook To-Do Bar. (*I don’t have a data plan, so I sync over a wire.)


Next, I spend about 20 minutes going through my e-mail. I use rules extensively to move mail from distribution lists to other folders, so all of the mail in my inbox is something that I generally have to deal with one way or another. If I have to deal with e-mail sent to a distribution list (sometimes that becomes part of my job description), then I make it a task to explicitly deal with those e-mails separately in one sitting. When I go through my e-mail, I try to follow the 4-Ds – Delete, Do, Delegate, or Defer, and I file the majority of the undeleted portion of my e-mail to get it out of my sight. I also categorize some mail either “1:1 with Aime” (my boss) and/or “Feature Crew” when there is a mail that I need to discuss with either my boss and/or my core group of developers and testers during our weekly meetings (I also flag these e-mails for the days that we are going to meet.)


I “defer” an e-mail,

1. because I know it will take a while to read (i.e. longer than a page),

2. is something that will require a carefully crafted response,

3. is something that requires additional action from me, etc.

To defer an e-mail, I flag it. Most of the time, I just use my default flag of “Today” – with the knowledge that I will retriage the e-mail the next time I look at my To-Do Bar. If it is something that requires my time, but is less important, I will generally flag it for “Tomorrow.” If it is something that I want for reference that I know I will be referring to frequently in the short term, I mark it with a “No Date” flag so that it appears at the top of the To-Do Bar, and then I collapse that group until I need it. A recent example has been for common responses to distribution list questions. For instructions and other reference tasks, I drag the mail to the “Later” group which I created by setting one task to a hundred years in the future.


When I send e-mail to someone who I need a response from, I flag it for myself when I send it – and then I change the name in the To-Do Bar to start with “Follow Up: Name of person” or just “FU:” (though that sounds kind of bad now that I write it… J ) This way, I know that my next action on that task is to send another e-mail. If I am making a promise to do something, I always flag it for myself so that I have reminder in the To-Do Bar to keep my promise.


After I flag an e-mail, I either leave it in my Inbox, if I suspect that there might be more action on the thread, or I file it, if I am the next/last action. In my mind, if it was important enough to make it a virtual task, then it is probably important enough to file, and that way I have a record of my actions. As new e-mail comes in, I return to the 4-Ds, but looking at my Inbox suddenly becomes less daunting. I should mention that I leave my Inbox in the conversation arrangement, that way as e-mail arrives, the full thread pops to the top of the list.


Next I focus on the To-Do Bar, where I move tasks around to other days and give the tasks/flagged mail new, more appropriate names that more closely tie in with the next action. To rename a flagged e-mail, I just type over the subject in the To-Do Bar. Changing the name of a flagged e-mail in the To-Do Bar doesn’t rename the subject of the e-mail – it just changes the task subject. I then categorize some of the tasks to help them stand out – purple is personal, red is important/don’t move. I generally move tasks from one day to the next by dragging them from one group to another. Rearranging my task list is part of being honest with myself about what I can and cannot accomplish in one day. In some cases that means sending an e-mail to someone who is expecting a lengthy reply and I let them know when I can get back to them (and when I do this, I flag it for myself on send.) It is better to let someone know that you will get back to them by some realistic date than have them thinking that you forgot about them, when all the while their e-mail has been staring at you from your To-Do Bar giving you angst.


One of my co-workers, pointed out that in the Calendar, each of the tasks in the Daily Task List is about ½ hour long – which makes sense given that most tasks, be they answering an e-mail or paying a bill, take about ½ hour. So… if your task list has more tasks in it than there are ½ hours in a day, then there is no way you can get it done and it is time to push something off or just admit to yourself (or your boss) that it isn’t going to happen. Being able to say no is a hard skill to learn sometimes.


If one of my tasks will take a long time (e.g. “Write blog entry”) I will block off time on my Calendar by dragging the task either from my To-Do Bar onto the Calendar or from the Daily Task List onto the Calendar. If I have a lot of meetings, I will move tasks to other days – I know that I can only accomplish so much in one day, and meetings take time.


If I am in a meeting taking notes, I will take notes in OneNote and then flag my action items just as I do in Outlook – and they will appear in my To-Do Bar (yeah OneNote!!!)


When I prepare for my 1:1’s with my boss, I look back over the tasks that I accomplished over the past week (Tasks – Completed View) and then I look ahead in my Calendar to see what tasks and meetings I have over the next week.


This is just my system and I don’t expect everyone to work this way. However, there are some things that I have come to realize that apply to any system:


1. Make time for e-mail.

2. Make time for managing your time – this is a hard reality that any time management system requires.

3. Be honest with yourself about what you can realistically do in a day.

4. Be honest with other people about what you can and cannot do – they will appreciate it.


Now that Beta1/Beta1Technical Refresh/Beta2 are out, how have you been using Outlook12 as your system? Do you use Action Categories (David Allen/Sally McGhee) and arrange your To-Do Bar by category? Do you use the Start Date arrangement? Do you use the Categorized Mail search folder? The For Follow Up folder from Outlook 2003?


How do you work? What is your system?