Until yesterday, like most people, I thought of Outlook first as a tool for reading and sending email and second for managing my schedule. Daily tasks and longer term goals were hand-written in a notebook by my computer and updated as appropriate. But it seems that I've overlooked some rather useful features in Outlook.
A few weeks ago, I received an email offering an opportunity to attend a training session referred to as Working Smarter with Outlook. It was an all day event with coffee breaks and lunch provided. Let's be honest here: who doesn't love a free lunch? That in itself would have been reason enough to respond in the affirmative. But, I wondered whether it would be worth going, since I considered myself rather proficient in the ways of Outlook. I had folders to organize emails. I knew how to archive old mail. I'd managed to make my calendar appointments default to private so that I don't unwittingly share personal life details with coworkers via the shared calendar function. I knew how tasks worked (though, admittedly, I wasn't a believer). I understood the value of a contact list and how to build distribution lists. Would this day-long session be a waste of my valuable time?
I won't keep you hanging: it wasn't. Sure, there were slow moments when the process for creating rules was explained (I'd already mastered this years ago, in the prehistoric days of email, before spam filters were improved to get rid of unwanted mail in my inbox), but overall there were some valuable tips and tricks of the trade that will probably pay off in the long run.
One of my favourite tricks turned out to be incredibly simple and right in front of my eyes. Too often, I send email but forget to go to the sent folder to retrieve it and file it in the appropriate project folder. As it turns out, there is an option when composing email that allows you to direct the message to a chosen folder once it is sent. It cuts out the step of hunting through the sent folder and dragging items to new folders (and, oh yeah, accidentally releasing the mouse so you have no idea where it landed in the dragging process…).
Another tip was regarding the use of contacts. It turns out there's no limit on how much information you can type into the "notes" section on a contact card. So, you can fill in important details on the person if you like, but you can also document your interactions. Often, I find myself writing notes in my "to do" list, like L/M Jan 17 (left message…) or N/A Jan 17 (called, but no answer…), but these get lost in the notebook or end up in the trash. Now, the details can hang out in Outlook. And… they're searchable! (Well… I suppose notebooks are searchable as well, but those searches are subject to human error and take substantially more time.)
Finally, I think I may be a convert in terms of tasks. You can actually turn an email into a task and the email automatically attaches to it. So, the action requested in the email can be "date-activated" (to use the new lingo we learned) and will then disappear from your inbox (but the email is retrievable when you work on the task). It's also possible to assign a task to someone else. Now, I think one needs to exercise prudence upon discovering this option, lest one annoy one's coworker. But if there's a legitimate reason to assign a task and you have a good working relationship, this can be very effective. AND you'll be notified when it's complete.
So, those are the three highlights from my training yesterday. There were many other approaches to email and time management discussed, some more doable than others in my opinion. I'm still not willing to part with my reading pane in my inbox! But I think that many of the tips will help focus my work. If nothing else, it will make me more mindful of email and cognizant of the fact that few things are truly urgent and slowing down response times isn't a bad thing if it means you're being more productive when it comes to tasks that are truly important and of high value and impact.