Kirk Evans Blog

.NET From a Markup Perspective

Reclaiming my Outlook

I had the pleasure of taking a course from McGhee Productivity Solutions called “Managing Objectives, Actions, & Plans Using Microsoft Outlook.” 

This class was one of the best classes I have ever taken.


I gotta admit, I was skeptical at going to a training class on an Office product. I live in Outlook, I spend way more time in Outlook per day than in the Visual Studio .NET IDE and PowePoint (a sad admission on the not-so-fun duties of Evangelists).  The thought of someone dragging me through “to schedule an appointment, just click the icon, fill out the date…” 

The room was filled with account executives, consultants, Technology Specialists, and the token Evangelist (me).  I’m a geek, and I instantly thought what most of you probably thought… “a bunch of sales weenies in the room should have been your first clue to ditch the class.”  Guilty as charged, I thought it too.  As soon as I saw a PowerPoint slide I opened Outlook and started cleaning up old emails.

The first exercise had the entire class stop whatever we were fidgeting with whatever we were doing and do a memory dump into the Task pane.  Whatever things you have to do, just dump them into there.  I decided to entertain the idea and see where she was going with it.

Holy smokes!  Within 10 minutes, I had over 75 things that I was able to spew out of my head.  Some personal (mow the lawn, rotate tires on the truck, plan 4th of July events for the family), but I was shocked to see the number of business tasks that I was able to dump.  Quickly.  It was cathartic.  OK, gross diarrhea inference there, it was therapeutic.  Did I really try to juggle that many things in my head?  Call this customer, schedule flights and hotels for upcomign events, follow up on this event, send an invite for this, fill out a form for that… this is the kind of stuff that, usually, I put off until I remember it sometime later.  And by then it becomes pressing (or worse, I forget it).  Or I will be in the middle of something and realize I have something else to do, becoming fragmented.

The rest of the class focused on categorizing things, focusing on the task list and calendar management. 

She showed some tricks for managing email.  When reading emails, I tend to read quite a bit of the emails that are sent, even the ones I know are not hugely important.  I read very quickly.  But if I am in the mode of trying to get rid of the 700 built up emails from the past week that I didn’t delete… there had be something meaty to grab my attention within 2 seconds.  You have to “Beat the Delete” (my term, I have been using that one for years).  The trainer also indicated that, if you can’t process it or delegate it, delete it.  Her analogy was a cow in a pasture.  Of course, you pick the juicy, green grass and skip over the prickly stuff.  But if you do that in emails, you are left with just the prickly stuff… and you start to lose interest and focus.  Process it all, delete it, or make it a task (or better, a calendar item).

Some cool calendar tips..

Tools / Options / Calendar Options

  • Mark all of the days of the week as part of the calendar week, then make the first day of the week Monday.  That helps you include your planning for weekends as well as the work week using Outlook.
  • Click the TimeZone in the same dialog.  You can show 2 timezones at once (very useful since I am EST, but I do a lot with PST and always forget to subtract 3).  You can also switch timezones if you travel a lot!

Tools/ Options / Other

  • Click Advanced Options.  Make Outlook start up in the Calendar folder.  Seriously.  The calendar drives what you are going to do today, not email.  Take back Outlook!  If you just needed email, you have Outlook Express or Hotmail.  I wasn’t a believer, but now that I have been working with it like this, it just makes more sense.

When looking at the calendar, put the mouse all the way on the right hand side, click, and drag.  You should expose the Task Pad as well as a monthly calendar view.  I use an absurdly high resolution (1600 x 1200), so I can actually read my appointments for the day, see a 3-month calendar view, and read my tasks in various categories all at once. 

You can drag emails to the Task icon on the left of the screen… this will create a task, allowing you to delete the email!  Try it, you’ll see what I mean.  No more emails sitting around with reminders waiting for you to never do anything with them.

So many more tidbits I would share, but if you have the opportunity to take the class, do it.  There is also a book on MSPress called “Take Back Your Life!” which details a lot of the same concepts.  I have been reading it, highly recommended for anyone as scatter brained as me.