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?

Comments (22)
  1. I enjoyed reading this post on Melissa Macbeth’s blog. It’s always interesting to learn how others cope…

  2. Jim Hanna says:

    Great post. Outlook and OneNote 2007 finally deliver useful functionality for time management.  I’m in the process of working out the best way to put these pieces together, but haven’t settled on a consistent work flow. Melissa’s post pointed out some things I hadn’t thought to try.  So I think this type of information is really key to getting people to USE the functionality that these apps offer.

    One thing I’ve found is that my work flow tends to start in OneNote with more unstructured info in the form of notes, which then become tasks and contacts in Outlook.  The integration between the two apps is working pretty well to accommodate this. So I’ve used this to structure my GTD projects as well.  I outline the tasks as I see them at the time in OneNote, then put a date flag on the next action for that project. This moves it onto my Outlook radar screen, the ToDo Bar, but keeps the ToDo bar uncluttered by all of the other tasks for that project.  

    Then, when I’ve completed that task, I can mark the task completed and use the link to OneNote to take me right to the project page in OneNote, where I create a flag for the next next action.

    I like this a lot because it gives me a way to structure the steps for the project without all of the overhead of creating a whole list of tasks in Outlook and keeping them updated. It allows me to focus on the next action for the project without the distraction of all the other tasks.

    Thanks Melissa, keep up the informative posts.

  3. TMeek says:

    I started working towards making my time management swift and happy around this time last year, and I have found what works for me, at least as far as OL2003 was concerned!

    Most of my work is do-this-now actionable stuff that arrive in crisis mode in my inbox, by phone or in person. It’s interspersed by project-y things that fill in the time that I have left over after crisis triage.

    My father uses Outlook, and I was always very impressed at his filing system of hundreds of message folders, and less impressed by his hundreds of unfinished task items. He never seemed to know what messages he had to respond to, though. I realized that in order to get anything done, I needed one big pile of things that needed to be done, with the most important things tagged as easy to recognize as possible. Much like the piles on my desk, they frequently become consolidated and gone through daily.

    I set up my Inbox to be the only repository of e-mail that I have. Every single message that I received or sent went into my Inbox, with an automatic follow-up flag for x number of days into the future. Messages didn’t count themselves unread until I forced them to be, so that I was conscious of what I had actively read or not, and items past follow-up became red and obnoxiously ‘do-me-now.’ When a matter was resolved, I flagged it complete. When it no longer needed my attention, it got the ‘Archived’ category on it, and it vanished from my ‘Basket’ Inbox view. I could still search for it, or go to an ‘All Items’ view, once it was resolved. Items may get various categories assigned as they arrive, such as ‘Personal’ or ‘Notifications’ (for emails sent from printers or servers) or ‘Blogs.’ These are grouped, so that I can collapse Personal and Blogs and focus on real work… or vice versa. My Inbox is typically no more than two pages long, and right now sits at 8 messages with this system.

    Since sent mail goes into my inbox, too, with follow-up dates, I automatically know if I need to harass people again about the original subject. Sometimes I would even send mails to myself (either from my office or Smartphone) to remind myself of something. In this respect, my Inbox became more important than my task-lists, which were always very ignored and sad and not-up-to-date with what I was doing.

    Unfortunately, project-y things were at a loss, since I didn’t really have a comprehensive, up-to-date list of them at any given time. At one point I tried 3×5 cards on a tack-board, but when the tack-board was too full I realized I had a problem. I switched to 8.5×11 paper spreadsheets that sat next to the door for my manager to review any time he wanted. When it got to be that a tenth of the things were crossed out on the first page and I was on my third page, with everything on that first page a very low priority item, I forced myself back into the digital world. I had created a public Exchange Journal folder to track all of my help desk requests from our stores, which worked okay and was probably the most used task list I kept up. That got disused, though, and I kept on trying to keep track of these projects that didn’t fall into my Inbox with paper or a myriad of incohesive  task lists and mysterious places.

    Last week I installed 2007. It is marvelous, and I can see a lot of things that I could change for the better. Already I’m spending most of my time in the calendar and inbox, now, dragging follow-up items and tasks into my schedule instead of taking them as they came.  I’m using a mailbox task list, again, tracking the various hot things that can’t be accounted for otherwise—this I mostly manage through a mix of OneNote (via its add ol task function—amazingly useful!) and the To-Do bar. I converted my Help Desk public folder from Journals to Tasks, so that I can drag pesky high-priority items into my To-Do bar for taking care of. I only wish I could synchronize the mailbox and public folder tasks so that completing one completed the other, but this is at least an improvement!

    Your suggestion to me to use SharePoint Team Task Lists to track these items that aren’t just mine is probably going to be just the answer, and it will be a godsend for me to have a comprehensive list in where I tried to keep it all before—the Inbox; only this time, with the To-Do bar tracking every important thing I have to do.

    As a side note, the recent Outlook integration with OneNote is extremely helpful. I keep a lot of my projects that I have to take with me on the road in it, and being able to have a task list interspersed with other material in OneNote makes it easier to manage these projects from either viewpoint.

    Your great work helps us work better!

  4. Spence Lloyd says:

    Question:  Does anyone know how to filter the task list/to-do bar in OL 12 to exclude future tasks (i.e., tasks that start on a day after "today?"  It worked this way in OL 11 (or at least I had managed to configure it this way) but the behaviour has apparently changed in OL 12.

  5. Jimmy says:

    Outlook has been very annoying for me over the years although I use it all the time. The problem is that Microsoft make you use Outlook according to what they think it should be like but I want to customise things MY way.

    Emmm… hasn’t Microsoft always made people do what they want, ermmm yep!

  6. AdamB says:

    Melissa I was thinking about this today:

    Part of my job I use a case management system (fogbugz) for making sure things get done. I forward an email to, and my guys pick up the issues and resolve them to completion.

    It would be nice if some email system or add-in in the future handled email like cases. I know Gmail has a "conversation" meme and Outlook has the Conversation view, but it would be cool if some you could make an email in Outlook instantiate a Case, and all previous email communications would be tied to that. Once you Complete the case (issue/conversation), all messages associated with it are moved to another folder or something. An extension of that would be, you could "delegate" a case to someone, and get notified when it was completed, and/or be able to see the status of all cases you have delegated.

    There may be a way to do this now in Outlook with Views,Rules,and Assign Tasks. I’m not sure; has anyone done or seen anything like this?

  7. mmacbeth says:


    If you click on the To-Do bar and then select View->Arrange By->Custom… you will get to a big dialog box that will enable you to customize the To-Do bar. To make the To-Do Bar only show tasks from today, click on the Filter… button on the left side of the dialog, then click on the Advanced tab and add: "Due Date" "today" in the "Define more criteria" section of the tab. For more suggestions on ways that you can customize the To-Do Bar and other tips see


  8. Graeme says:

    I don’t understand why you can overlay calendars and view them but we are stuck with the old print layouts and have to print calendars individually.

  9. Here is a post from Olya Veselova of OneNote. A few of you have mentioned in comments How I work…

  10. Rajiv says:

    I have just installed Office 2007 Beta 2 and have been having problems because it slowed down my computer significantly. I want to go back to Office 2000, but my calender and messages are now in the 2007 format and can’t be read by outlook 2000. How can I converst the data back to a format that I can read in outlook 2000?


  11. Mr. Blue says:

    yeah… i’d have a system if the damn thing would send my emails out 😉

  12. Matthew Hile says:

    I like the to-do bar. One adjustment is the calendar display. You should be able to select which calendar(s) are on shown in the list. I use a personal calendar and that does not seem to be available for me to add to the to-do section.

  13. P Cause says:

    The working method you describe is very similar to David Allen’s "Getting Things Done".  I’ve used the methodology and the Outlook add in they sell for a while.  When I switched to the OL 2007 beta I stopped using the add in because of compatibility issues.  What I found is that OL 2007 is close, but has some issues:

    – If you use multiple PSTs and file things then the flagging doesn’t work.  Tasks don’t seem to be created.

    – Filing is a pain.  You need to add something like the Claritude SpeedFiler functions to Outlook.  In the meantime, I bought the add in.

    – Links between email and tasks are really needed.  Actually, general linking of items is needed.

  14. mmacbeth says:

    P Cause,

    Thanks for your comments (both on this post and others.) As for your first issue, by default, only delivery psts having flagging turned on. You can turn on flagging (and tasks, and reminders) for a pst by right clicking on the pst, selecting properties…, and then checking the box next to: "Display reminders and tasks from this folder in the To-Do Bar."

    Hope this helps,


  15. Joe Seguin says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Great blog! I teach productivity workshops using Outlook, and love a lot of the new features.  Best Practices are similar to yours – Four D’s, and we teach a ZERO inbox philosophy.

    I like the way I can arrange my Tasks by Due Date to show today, tomorrow, etc.  But if I have 40 tasks for today, I would like to see them sorted by priority so I can work on the high priority items first (high priority = MUST be done today).  

    Problem #1 – if you use an arrangement(Arrange By Due Date), you cannot sort the arrangement by priority.  If you try to sort by priority you sort, the arrangement is gone.

    Problem #2 – a great new feature is how the flags work, and if you flag an email, it goes into Tasks.  Now I have all my to-do’s in one place!  Flags can have Start/Due dates, but they cannot have priorities.  Any time management course will tell you that you need to prioritize.  I can get around this by using Categories to prioritize, but then I end up with multiple categories on items and it gets messy, and I still can sort by the priority.

    Any suggestions?  My goal is to see what I have to do TODAY, and to have it sorted/grouped by priority.  


  16. mmacbeth says:


    I have been thinking about your two problems a little bit and I think that there are two answers, one short and one long. The short answer is that you can drag/drop to reorder when in the Due Date arrangement to create priority, but when you have a lot of tasks that can be difficult.

    The long answer is to follow the following steps:
    Click on the Arrange By: Due Date header in the To-Do Bar and select Custom… In the dialog that appears, click on the following buttons.
    1. Fields…:

    Add the priority field and remove all except: Priority, Task Subject, Flag Status. Click Ok. (You only need these fields for what you are trying to do – drag/drop to move tasks from one due date to another or use the flags (right click on the flag column) to change the dates without opening the items.)

    2. Group By…:

    Uncheck the box in the upper left corner next to “Automatically…” and put Due Date in the Group By: box. Click Ok. (This gives you the groupings you want.)

    3. Sort…:

    In the first sort box, put Due Date, and in the “then by” box put Priority. Click Ok. In the dialog that pops up asking you if you want to add Due Date to the view, click No. (This gives you the sort you want.)

    4. Other Settings…:

    Uncheck the box next to “Use Compact layout…” Click Ok. (This makes it so that you can change the priority field inline in the view.)

    5. Click Ok to exit the dialog.

    Viola! The desired view.

    It should be noted that mail items can have priority – you just have to adjust your view to show it. (This may be simpler in the Tasks Module where priority is already in the Active Tasks view – you only need to do steps 2 and 3.)

    Let me know how this works out.


  17. Very interesting stuff this Outlook. I already love flagging my items and such. Melissa takes it a bit

  18. Erno says:

    I am trying out the conversation view and one thing that has been bugging me is that the messages that I send do not show up because they are moved to the Sent Items. I can’t find a solution to this. Do you have a suggestion?


  19. John says:

    >>I like the way I can arrange my Tasks by Due Date to show today, tomorrow, etc.


    I’m also trying to do what Joe is attempting and tried your solution. Unfortunately, doing it this way doesn’t display the friendly Today, Tomorrrow, Next Week labels in the group headers, just the dates. It also shows each date separately, not grouped by Next Week, Next Month etc.

    Is there any way to force these friendly groupings? What causes them to show in the first place? They seem to disappear once you use a sub-sort on a primary sort of Date.


  20. Zahara says:

    Love your post! I am still using OL 2003 but have found the info about OneNote and other features very useful.

    Problem 1

    I have had the same problem faced by Joe. What I would like to have is the power to have multi-level grouping for Tasks.

    To give you an example of this flexible sorting of tasks (or any other items):

    – Today’s Tasks

    — Tasks sorted by Priority

    —-Tasks sorted by Categories

    ——Tasks sorted by Status

    – Tomorrow’s Tasks

    — Tasks sorted by Categories

    —-Tasks sorted by Priority

    ——Tasks sorted by Status

    Problem 2

    Is there a way to create templates for emails? I generally use a project code in email’s "Subject" field to identify the project for which the email is being sent. One possibility is to define a separate category for each email but this doesn’t help the recepient in identifying the project. Ideally, I would like to have email templates which I can create and use while creating an email for a particular recepient. The templates include pre-defined textx for subjects as well as body of the email (e.g. localized greetings for specific clients). The icing on the cake will be defining shortcut-keys for these templates.

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