Book Review: Take Back Your Life!

Last spring I had the opportunity to take a class single-day class named “Take Back Your Life – Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organized and Stay Organized”, taught by Sally McGhee. The class is no longer taught, but the bulk of the advice is now available to all in the book of the same name. I found the class very useful, and was interested to see how well it translated to a book.

The book is all about learning, applying, and customizing a system to help you manage information. I initially was going to walk though the sections of the book, but I think it will be more useful (and easier for me) if I cover the concepts that I found most thought-provoking.

Clear Your Mind

One of the exercises in the book is titled “clear your mind”. In it, you just start adding tasks (everything is done in Outlook) that you need to do, be they work-related or personal. What I found – and I suspect most people find – is that you are carrying a pretty immense “to-do” list in your head, rather in a more useful location. There are two huge advantages to doing this. The first is that you no longer have to try to remember everything you need to do, and the second is that if eveything is written down, it’s much much easier to decide the relative importance of what you’re doing, and whether you need to get some things off of your plate.

Strategic Next Actions

I have a stereo cabinet door that I need to build, and it need to be built out of alder to match some other furniture in the room. So, I could add a task “build stereo cabinet door”. The problem is that that’s not a task, that’s really an objective. There are dependencies that I need to address before I can do any woodworking. I need to buy the alder, but I have to find out who carries it before I do that, and I need to do a design. So, what I really need to do is define a “strategic next action”, which is the action that I can take that doesn’t have dependencies. In this case, I need to post to the microsoft-internal woodworking group to ask where I can buy alder.

Using strategic next actions is very powerful, as it breaks down an objective into a series of steps that need to be done to accomplish it. If you’re going to get things done, they have to be things that you can actually do.

Empty Inbox

Most people have their own scheme for dealing with email, but if you’re like most people, you have a lot of messages in your inbox. When I took the class, I had about 1700 email messages, though one of the other people had 4100.

If you’ve ever looked at your email, read 4 messages, and then just left them in your inbox, then you probably have a bunch of email just sitting in your inbox, but even with search utilities, that’s a pretty bad place to keep it.

The approach in the book advocates an empty inbox. That’s right, zero messages. This is one of the most radical messages in the book, but if you are willing to stick with the approach enough to apply it, you’ll find you spend much less time re-reading email, and you’ll have a much easier time finding the information you do need. In the book’s workflow, messages are only looked at once, and either deleted, delegated, moved into tasks, or stored for future reference.

Getting to zero can be a very powerful accomplishment.

Your own Personal Reference System

A personal reference system is organized around your objectives, and uses the same reference system in Outlook, in My Documents, and in web browser favorites. Having one shared taxonomy based on objectives is very powerful.


If you get any volume of email at all, this book will help you.

If you’re a manager / program manager, this book may save you.

At $20, it’s a steal. But

You have to be willing to try something new, *and* you have to be able to invest sufficient time in setting up the system. One of the advantages of doing this as a class is that you have a day set aside to devote to learning and applying the system. If you want to be successful at this, you have to carve out the same amount of time.

Comments (6)

  1. Wayne Citrin says:

    She sounds like a disciple of David Allen and "Getting Things Done." Excellent book — I recommend checking it out if you haven’t already.

  2. Jeff Key says:

    I read (most of) Allen’s "Getting Things Done", but didn’t get fully into the system. My problem centers around Outlook, so I’m really excited about this book. So excited, in fact, that I picked it up after work and am getting ready to bury my head in it for a while. Thanks!

  3. Shelly Johnsen says:

    Actually, Sally McGhee and David Allen were partners a number of years ago at a different company, and both together developed the concepts that they have both evolved in the ensuing years.