Category Archives: Outlook

How NOT to handle Inbox

Usually we handle mailbox like this… which is the wrong way!

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Of course we never reach the bottom…because something interrupts us.

Meetings, phone calls, people who are walking around, lunch … so many interrupts are around us.

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Older mails are being pushed further down into the bottomless pit called Inbox

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Due to this, everyone is pushing everyone else down and down and down … into an area which you are never going to reach…

Net result?

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.. we call this TEAMWORK Angry smileSteaming madSad smile

Obviously, something is wrong here. What is it?

The Root Cause: Wrong prioritization

Yes. We have a genuine problem.

Too many mails and too little time to handle them

We need to prioritize which mails we respond to.

We think recent mails are important and older are less important. That is the WRONG way of prioritization.

The right way

Prioritization must be based upon importance. (NOT the importance flag. That is the sender’s perception of importance).

Sorting on any Inbox column is not useful for prioritization!

The right way is:

  1. Find a method of prioritization which is as automated as possible
  2. Prioritize on importance – the mail should be worth your attention
  3. Handle High Priority mails first and then think of remaining ones

In the next article we will see how this is done…

Arrange meetings with yourself = Time Management

This is my 100th article Thumbs up
Thank you all for your support.

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This article is a part of a series about proactive work management. Please read the following articles before reading this article so that you understand the context clearly.

  1. The Outlook paradox: Are you helping others at the cost of your own work?
  2. Tasks folder is your best friend!
  3. Never delegate work using email: Use Outlook Tasks
  4. DO NOT flag mails for follow up. There is a better way…

Recap

  • You must proactively plan and execute your own work
  • The best way to keep track of your work is to create tasks in Outlook
  • Delegation and monitoring is best performed using Assigned Tasks
  • Work sent to you by others by mail should also be converted to Tasks
  • Finally, we have a long list of tasks which is clearly demarcated

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Now you clearly KNOW what is the pending work. This is a great start.

The next step is to ensure that the work is done on time. Let us see how…

The problem: lot of work but no time to do it!

Time is already blocked in meetings – most of them called for by others Steaming mad

Solution? Find time to do the work.

Exactly how?

Tasks + Calendar = Execution

Very easy…

Open Calendar – ideally weekly or work week view

Right click on Task folder and choose Open in New Window. Change the view to Active Tasks.

Make the Tasks window smaller so that you can see the tasks and the calendar together.

Drag a task and drop it on the calendar. Choose the date and time which you feel is convenient.

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We know the expected duration of each task (we created a special column for it). Adjust the duration accordingly in the calendar. If you do not see the Duration column in this view, go to Field Chooser and drag-drop the column once. See this article for details.

Good news: Now everyone knows that you are busy Smile

Do this for as many tasks as you can…

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This is called Time Management!

Few more things

When you drag and drop the task to calendar, there is NO linkage between them.

Just creating a meeting request does NOT mean that you have finished the task in the allocated time.

When you finish the task, you must mark it as complete MANUALLY.

This method works! Try it! Share it
Let me know your thoughts…

DO NOT flag mails for follow up. There is a better way…

This is the fourth article in a series about managing YOUR work using Outlook tasks. Flag mails for follow up is a common action. Unfortunately, it is not a very efficient way of handling and monitoring work delegated to you by others using an email.

Please read these three articles before you read this one for a clearer understanding of the thought process.

  1. The Outlook paradox: Are you helping others at the cost of your own work? : 2 Feb 14
  2. Tasks folder is your best friend! : 3 Feb 14
  3. Never delegate work using email: Use Outlook Tasks : 4 Feb 14

Recap

  • Till now we have seen that we must focus on our work proactively.
  • The best way to do that is to put your own work in Task folder
  • Delegation is also best performed by using Outlook Tasks
  • In short, Task folder is your work execution engine

What about work which others ask you to do?

These requests land in your inbox. Immediate reply is not expected – the sender wants you to do some work and usually there is a deadline.

What do we do in such cases? We just flag mails for follow up. The red flag is the default.

Why not flag mails for follow up?

If you were not using the task folder as described above, that flag mails for follow up was a good enough method of remembering (or rather, trying to remember) pending work.

But now that we have all our work nicely organized in the Task folder, why do you want to monitor two different places?

It would be much better to CONVERT such mails to Tasks.

How to convert mails to Tasks?

Drag the mail by pressing the RIGHT mouse button and drop it on the Task Icon (or Task bar).

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Right drag drop does not do any action – it shows you possible actions.

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Choose the last one Move here as Task with Attachments

If you want to keep the original mail in Inbox for whatever reason (to keep track of that discussion thread, for example), then choose the second option Copy here as task with Attachment

Now it is converted to the task.

If required, repair the subject line to describe the task more explicitly and add the deadline. Save it.

The benefits

This approach is much better than flogging the flags Winking smile. Here is why…

  1. Flag actually means Flag for Follow Up
  2. Clicking on the flag means makes it dark red color – which means DUE TODAY
  3. Tomorrow it will be shown as delayed. In reality each task may have a different deadline. But we never right click on the Flag to choose the appropriate deadline – defeating the purpose.
  4. Soon you will have so many flags that even sorting on them requires you to scroll multiple times – leading to confusion rather than faster execution
  5. When you finish the work related to the flagged mail, you are supposed to click on the flag – which marks at as done. We almost never do that (guess why!)
  6. Due to this, sorting on flags gives you a false sense of pending work
  7. Finally, flags do not have sophisticated features which tasks have – like the reminders, % complete, ability to delegate, grouping, custom fields like duration and so on

In short, use Task folder. DO NOT use flags – however “comfortable” you are with them.

Delegating work which was delegated to you

You got mail. It was delegated work. You converted to task. But you realized that you are not the one who is ACTUALLY going to execute it. Someone else in your team will do it.

No problem.

Right drag drop to convert it to task as shown above. Specify the deadline and choose Assign Task to delegate it to the person concerned.

Of course, you are still responsible for getting it done. So you will have your copy of the task to monitor execution. But you have delegated it to the right person now.

Best of both worlds!

Color coding work delegated to you

Now you have three types of work in your task folder

  1. Tasks you have created yourself – your own work
  2. Tasks which you have delegated to others
  3. and Tasks which others have delegated to you (which we just covered)

It is important to visually identify the third type of tasks because the task icons for 1 and 3 is the same.

How to do this? Simple… use Color Categories.

Create a color category called “Delegated to me” or DTM for short if you like acronyms.

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As soon as you convert a mail to task, mark it with that color. This way, you can prioritize the work you do.

Now you can clearly see three types of work.

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  1. My own work
  2. Work delegated to me by others
  3. Work which I have delegated to others

If you have limited time – obviously you will give more importance to your work rather than work delegated to you by others!

When should we use the flags?

There are three scenarios where you SHOULD  flag mails for follow up.

  1. While using mobile devices
    Most mobile devices do not allow mail to be converted to Tasks. Therefore, if you view such a mail on your mobile phone, Flag it temporarily. When you are back to full version of Outlook on the PC or Laptop, convert the mail to task.
  2. Ad-hoc, temporary prioritization
    There are some mails which are lying in the inbox and you want to take immediate action. However, you are not going to initiate the action at the moment you saw the mail. This is another place where you can flag it. It just indicates that the task is immediately due. Execute it and then remove the flag or delete / archive the mail.
  3. Important mails which you want to filter quickly
    Most mobile devices provide a filtered view which shows Flagged messages. For example, flight tickets, movie ticket QR codes, some important mail you want to quickly refer to during a discussion or read while traveling. These mails can be flagged. This is just an identifier and does not in anyway indicate that the mail is a task.

Try this. Teach this to your team. And let me know how it works!

Of course, there is a minor problem still pending…

What have we achieved so far? Just created a very nice list of work to be executed. Now we need to find time for it and then execute it on or before the deadline.

We will solve that problem in the next article…

Never delegate work using email: Use Outlook Tasks

This article is specific to Outlook and Exchange. Task delegation may not be available in all messaging platforms.

In order to understand this article, you must read these two articles first.

  1. The Outlook paradox: Are you helping others at the cost of your own work?
  2. Tasks folder is your best friend!

Best way to delegate – use Outlook Tasks

Here is how you delegate work.

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Go to the Task folder and Create a new task.

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Specify subject and due date. Click on Assign To

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Specify name of the person and Send

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A copy of that task is now kept in your Task folder as well

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The icon for this task is different. This way you can differentiate between your own tasks and delegated work.

Remember to monitor these tasks and follow up if there is a delay.

You can directly create a Task Request by choosing this menu item. It is a good idea to add it to Quick Access Toolbar – because you are going to use it frequently.
Right click on the item and choose Add to Quick Access Toolbar.

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What happens at the other end?

The other party receives it as a Task Request – with Accept / Decline buttons.

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When the person clicks on Accept, it becomes a task in that person’s folder automatically.

When she marks it as  complete, you get a notification in your inbox.

When you open the notification, the equivalent task in your task folder is also marked as complete.

Press Escape to close the notification… it destroys itself so that your inbox is not cluttered with such notifications.

Management Principles >> Technology

Only ONE person can be delegated work to using this method. This is GOOD because it makes that person accountable.

Multiple level delegation is allowed. But one person at a time.

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Last person in the chain is responsible for execution. When she updates the task, everyone up the chain gets notifications and updates.

Viewing tasks by person responsible

Your tasks and delegated tasks are mixed up in the Task folder.

The solution? Change the View to Assigned

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Now you can see only delegated tasks. A new column called Owner is added.

Right click on the Owner column and choose Group by this column.
Right click on the column header for any person and choose Collapse Allall column headers to view a concise picture of whom you have delegated work to…

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Open the group header to view pending tasks at a glance by person responsible.

Share this with everyone in the organization

If everyone uses this method of delegation of work, the execution speed will double instantly across the organization. Try it.

Best is to start top-down!

Outlook: Task folder is your best friend!

Please read the previous post. This is a continuation of the concept introduced in that post.

The core concept is: Focus on your OWN work before helping OTHERS.

Where is your pending work listed?

Well… usually it is scattered across many places which include:

  1. Your brain!
  2. scribbled on loose sheets, notepads, diaries, tissue papers, …
  3. Minutes of meetings documents (which usually arrive few days after the meeting and we usually don’t have time to open them!)
  4. OneNote, EverNote, some note taking software
  5. Text Messages
  6. Inbox – YES… some people send messages to themselves – thinking that they will remember to do the work  Surprised smile Wilted rose
  7. Post-it’s stuck on your monitor or pinned in front of you somewhere
  8. Mails sent by someone to you asking you to do some work – which we flag sometimes
  9. Palm of your hand
  10. behind the boarding pass, receipts – and many other places beyond my imagination Just kidding

Reality: Unless you see the pending work, you won’t do it

This is a no-brainer. When you get time to do your work, you will need to choose the work you want to execute at that point of time.

It is humanly impossible to keep track of work stored (often randomly) in so many different locations.

What is the obvious solution? Keep it in ONE place.

Fortunately you already have that place – Outlook Task Folder.

Core work is listed in your Job Description

This is what you signed up for. If you do it well – you grow. If you do it partially – it hinders your growth.

When do we look at the job description? Obviously at the time of signing up for the job. And after that? Usually at the time of periodic review.

At the time of review, it is frequently found that you have not done justice to all the items in the job description or dashboard or KRAs or Scorecard.

Why not? Is it because you don’t have the capability to perform that work? Probably not – in that case you would not have signed up for it in the first place.

It is because you did not have enough time to do justice to all the responsibilities. Some of them took up so much of your time that others were just pushed to the sideline – often unknowingly.

That sounds like a helpless situation. We want to be in a commanding position. So let us start resolving this problem.

Homework: Make a list of tasks based upon your job description

Follow these guidelines.

  1. Open the Task folder
  2. Click on Tasks (not the To Do list)
  3. Add tasks for items which you are already in the process of executing
  4. Open your job description or KRAs or scorecard
  5. Look at each item and break it down into smaller, executable units
  6. For each task specify the subject (the short description) and the due date
  7. Monitor this list every day – first thing in the morning – multiple times during the day and just before closing for the day
  8. Now see the difference it makes in your work execution

Specifying the duration of the task

When you see the Task folder, it shows the task, status and due date. There is no way to specify the estimated duration for the task in the default task.

However, the duration is important. When you want to prioritize the tasks for execution, one of the practical things you want to know is how long will it take to finish.

If you have only one hour in hand, there is no point in starting a task which requires half a day.

So here is how you add a new column to the task list – called Duration.

  1. Right click on the heading (Subject or Due date)
  2. Click Field ChooserOutlook Field Chooser
  3. A long list of fields will appear. Unfortunately, Duration is not available there. We will create it.
  4. Click the New… buttonimage
  5. Type Task Duration as the name
  6. Choose Duration as the typeimage
  7. Click OK
  8. Now the field will appear in the list
  9. Drag it and drop it after the Due DateOutlook Task folder - Field Chooser - Task Duration
  10. Now onwards, as soon as you add a task remember to type in the Duration

Duration is a very smart column. It understands hours, days, minutes. Here are valid durations: 30 min, 120 min, 2h, .5 day, 2 d, 6h, 16 h

It may convert it to some equivalent time unit. Don’t worry.

Sorting on it works perfectly. Now you can use this to find a task which fits into the time available to you.

Outlook task folder - Task duration

Try this and let me know your feedback…

Add more tasks

Apart from the core tasks you have added in the earlier step, more ad-hoc tasks will keep coming. No problem. Just add them to the task list.

Anything which is going to take up more than TEN minutes of your precious life is worth adding to the task folder.
Of course, based upon your work profile, you can change this benchmark to suit your style.

More about task management coming up in the next article.

Smart Searching in Outlook

This is a continuation of the previous article about Outlook Search.

The mistake

We usually type just the search text and hope to get precise, few results. This is never going to happen. Without any additional information, Outlook is forced to search the word in every area of the mail including sender / recipients, subject, body, attachments, properties and so on.

In this article we will see WHERE to search and WHAT to search for. The WHAT part first.

The solution: Give more information about what you want

Click inside the Search box.

DO NOT type what you want to search.

First look at the Search toolbar and then decide what you want. Click on the required button first, then type the search word.

For example, if you want to search in subject only, this how it happens:

smart searching in outlook

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Now type the search word or words.

This is how you can choose multiple search conditions to narrow down the search.

There are many useful conditions. Try all the buttons shown there.

Notice and learn the commands

Even if you choose the options from the Search toolbar, the commands are automatically shown in the Search box. Initially you should use the menus but also start noticing the way it translates into text commands.

After a while you can directly type the search commands and be more efficient.

Search in Body text

contents: search text

Searching by dates

Some generic searching can be performed using the Search Toolbar itself…

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The text becomes Received:this week

Searching with more specific dates

received:may 2013

received:11 dec 2013

received:>27 dec 2013 <=30 dec 2013

Searching within attachments

Click on More dropdown and choose Attachment Contains.

Type the search text.

The syntax becomes attachment: search text

Type of attachment

Search by extension

ext: ppt*

This will search for all mails containing PowerPoint attachments.

Learn Detailed syntax

Here is the link which shows all the powerful options available for searching.

Remember that many of these options work with Windows search as well.

Where to search?

Local or global

By default, search happens in the current folder. Of course you can change that to all subfolders, current mailbox or all mailboxes. Default setting can also be changed from File – Options – Search.

Which type of items?

If you search in Inbox, only mail items are searched. If you are in calendar, only those items are searched whether it is for local folder or all mailboxes.

All types of items

If you want to search across mails, tasks, calendar and contacts, choose this option.

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In the next article, we will discuss more powerful search and automatic search

Outlook not searching all mails?

Prerequisites: Windows 7 or above and Outlook 2010 or above.

Things you should know

  1. Outlook search is very powerful – even if your experience says otherwise!
  2. It searches across all mailboxes and PST files included in the profile
  3. Search is done in all contact fields, subject, body and attachments
  4. Search can be done across all types of folders – Inbox, Calendar, Tasks and Contacts
  5. It is extremely fast

Search toolbar

The search shortcut is CTRL E. When you click inside the Search box, the Search toolbar appears automatically. Please explore every option here. Each one of them is useful and powerful.

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Common issues

  1. Search results are not complete (I know that mail exists, but search is not able to find it)
  2. Too many search results are appearing – I need to narrow it down
  3. Deciding where exactly the search is going to work

Solution: Search results not complete

This happens because Outlook has not got enough time to go through all your mails and keep them ready for fast search.

Check the status

Click inside the Search box (CTRL E), open Search Tools – Choose Indexing Status

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It should show zero or very few items pending.

If you see more items there, keep your PC on overnight. Check the status in the morning.

Once you do this, the search results will be accurate.

If some messages are not found due to incomplete indexing, Outlook does show a warning. If you see the warning you must follow the process above.

We will consider other issues in the next article…

Spring cleaning: Mailbox clean up with AutoArchive

We have been using email for decades now. A lot of things have changed. But one thing has not – most of us don’t have the discipline of managing the mailbox in an optimal way.

I am not asking you to do a spring cleaning of your mails. I am showing you immediate actions you can take to make your mailbox management (and communications) more efficient.

Run AutoArchive NOW

Do you remember this dialog popping up randomly when you are busy? Nobody in the world has chosen YES here Sad smile

clean inbox with Outlook AutoArchive

Many of us got irritated and chose the option Don’t prompt me about this again!

There goes your chance of keeping the mailbox clean and light.

The idea is simple. AutoArchive does many things which are good for you. So just run it periodically. You have not run it before? Then run it now.

I am assuming Outlook 2010 or above.

Choose File – Cleanup Tools – Mailbox Cleanup

Mailbox Cleanup

Now a bigger dialog appears… You can explore other things later. Just click on the AutoArchive button.

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And let it do its job. It may take a long time. Status is shown on the status bar.

What does AutoArchive do?

To know what it does and to tweak the settings, go to File – Options – Advanced – AutoArchive options…

Look at the options and tweak them as required. Basically, it moves old items and puts them in a new PST file – ARCHIVE.PST.

Make sure you click the Apply these settings to all folders now option.

Later you can right click on a specific folder – go to properties and customize the settings if required.

AutoArchive settings

What is deleted?

Only deleted items which are older than the cleanup limit (default 6 months) are deleted. Everything else is moved to the archive PST file. No mails or calendar items are deleted. Contacts folder is never archived – that means all your contacts are always available in the main mailbox.

Finding archived items

You don’t have to do anything special for this. Outlook search indexes the Archive PST files as well. So these are available for navigation as well as regular search.

If the archive file is big, indexing may require some time to finish the job. It is a good idea to check the indexing status and if many items are pending.

To check the indexing status, go to Inbox – click inside the search box – on the search Ribbon, choose Search Tools – Indexing Status.

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The dialog below shows the pending number of items.

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Ideally there should be zero or very few items to be indexed. If a large number of items are shown here, leave the machine on overnight and check in the morning again. That should give enough time for indexing to finish the backlog.

Remember: Archive is not available online

The pst file is created on the PC on which you run the AutoArchive. Therefore, items which have been moved to the archive folder will NOT be available to you when you are working on a mobile phone or any other mailbox only device.

Finally – One Best Practice

Best Practice: Whenever you finish handling a mail, it should not remain in the Inbox.

Delete it. Or if you want to keep it, keep it in a PST folder. Not in the main mailbox. If you follow this simple rule, you will never face a problem of mailbox filling up every now and then.

By the way, Office 365 subscription gives you a mailbox that is 50 GB in size… did you know that?

Busy responding to emails? When do you do your work?

Yes I am serious. That is the simplest best practice you can follow in order to manage Outlook better.

When you send a mail – you are doing your work. When you reply to others mails – you are helping them do their work. Agreed?

Similarly, if you attend a meeting called for by others – you are helping them get their job done.

The Outlook Paradox: Busy responding to emails?

Now to be fair – you should do your work first and then help others do theirs. Right?

So the number of mails you send must be more than the number of mails you reply to. The same concept goes with meetings.

UNFORTUNATELY

… that is not so. The ratio is always against you.

That is why we waste so much time responding to emails in Outlook and there is no outcome at the end of it.  Just take a look at your Inbox and see how many unread emails you have? How many meetings you must attend in the next 5 days?

It is no wonder that many people brag about aving cleared all their mails.  Having zero unread email has become a rare achievement in the modern workplace itself.

Altruism??

You wasted time but did the other people benefit? Not really. Because from their point of view also the same imbalance exists!

In short, we are just hampering each others life and we call it TEAMWORK Sad smile

The net result?

You spend so much time helping others that your own work (KRA, Responsibilities, Dashboard) suffers. You are capable of doing everything you have signed up for. But you simply don’t have the time.

Solution?

Don’t blame Outlook. In fact, Outlook has a perfect solution for these issues. It is just that we have never utilized Outlook to our advantage.

In the next article, I will give you a simple and practical way of handling this modern day dilemma called email management.

Till tomorrow, I will give you a hint. Look at all the folders in Outlook and see which one is fully under your control.