Outlook as Organizer

As of a couple months ago, Outlook is my current organizer of choice. I've decided to start eating my own dogfood (I'm a developer working on Outlook). It's been an eye-opening experience so far, and I hope I can share some of the things I'm learning in this blog.

First, a little about where I'm coming from. I spend more time than the average person thinking about being productive. It may not make me any more effective, but I won't know unless I try ๐Ÿ™‚  I tend to be pretty picky about the system and tools that I use to organize my life and time. I know there are many add ons to Outlook to help you manage you time and information better - FranklinCovey's PlanPlus, David Allen's GTD addin, newsreaders, spam filters, etc. - and I admit that I don't use any of them, in part because they're all to over-specified. Of course, in my ideal world, Outlook would meet the needs of all users in this regard, through well designed defaults, clean and simple user interface, and easy customizability. It makes sense to be able to customize Outlook in ways and to an extent far greater than Word, or Excel, or Powerpoint. Outlook should be organized around my system for managing time and information, not someone else's. I know that its not always easy to make Outlook do what you want. I know that Outlook is often overqualified for the job, or its missing the exact feature you need. I know that Outlook can only be one part of any solution. That solution must also include a mobile device, some back end storage (backup at least), and an overriding system for managing yourself (e.g. Getting Things Done, or FranklinCovey, or I-remember-everything-so-I-only-use-Outlook-to-recieve-mail).

Before I start going over ways to customize Outlook in future posts, let me describe my current setup. I use Outlook at work and at home. I take advantage of the RPC-over-HTTP feature to access all my email, etc. in one Exchange account. I also download my email from four other email addresses (all POP accounts) to the exchange server. I recently purchased a Dell Axim, that I sync to my work and home computers. I use PocketInformant as a replacement for Pocket Outlook. I pick and choose principles and strategies for time management from the different systems I've studied - mostly David Allen's Getting Things Done and Stephen Covey's 7 Habits. But I also realize that its a lifelong process because it really is about creating habits that work, and creating habits is hard.

Going forward, I'd also love to hear about how others use, or don't use, Outlook to manage their time, as well as how you customize Outlook (or wish Outlook could be customized). Hopefully we can all learn a little bit from each other.

Comments (22)
  1. Ricky Datta says:

    You need top beef up "tasks" in out look – it is pathetic. Especially the category part – it can not be a drop down, synch problems…

  2. Rock says:

    I have to agree about tasks being difficult to use. However, I don’t think that "beefing up" tasks is the right solution. The only additional functionality I would like to see is hierarchical tasks. Other than that the best changes would be to "slim down" tasks by making them simpler, more lightweight.

    With regards to the category selection, a simple dropdown wouldn’t cut it, because Outlook allows for multiple categories, much like GMail’s labels. Alternatives might include a menu with checkboxes similar to the "Add or Remove Buttons" on the navigation pane menu, or one click access to a revamped categories picker.

    If you’re referring to task sync problems with ActiveSync, I have to admit I haven’t run into any yet. But it has only been a couple weeks since I got my Pocket PC, so we’ll see how long that lasts.

  3. Mike Elgan says:

    I recently read "Getting Things Done," which inspired me to take advantage of Outlook’s customization features.

    I made three Outlook Bar groups called Actions, File Cabinet and Info.

    In Actions, I have Outlook Bar shortcuts called Inbox, Calendar, Actions, Waiting and Projects. The last three link to customized "Task" folders.

    In File Cabinet, I have links called Someday (Maybe) and Agendas, both of which link to customized Task folders.

    In Info, I have a link to a Notes folder called "Reference" and Contacts.

    That’s the basic setup, but my "system" has some features some of you may find useful.

    First of all, the whole thing is driven by a daily to do list, which lives outside Outlook. It’s just a Notepad text document with a list of what I do every day in the order I do it. It starts out with stuff like "return calls" and "process paper inbox items," etc., and gets into the "Getting Things Done" Outlook stuff like "Review, act on or update Calendar items," "Review, act on or update all ‘Action’ items," and "Request action on all ‘Waiting’ items," etc.

    Let me tell you my work life has been completely transformed by all this. For the first time in my career, my Outlook inbox is emptied every day, I never drop the ball or act as a bottleneck in my organization and I don’t worry about what isn’t being done.


  4. jonpoon says:

    What about the labels in Outlook? How i wish it can be used in the way gmail labels work

  5. Jack says:

    I’d like to see Calendar overlay… side-by-side calendars don’t cut it. I’d like to overlay my personal calendar with my business calendar and visually see any potential conflicts, etc.

  6. dru says:

    How about Calendar/Task integration. I end up putting tasks in calendar because that is where I want to see them. And I want the temporal view also.

    A button to see all your mail for that day on a calendar date

    I wish that two computers on the same network could see each others calendars without some server software. Like a roaming website if the two were on a wireless network or something.

  7. Adam Hodge says:

    Right now I need some more home office features. For example, it’s too hard to sync up with my wife’s local calendar at home. I use some of the msn premium stuff but it just doesn’t cut it. I want to be able to overlay calendars on top of mine – not the split screen stuff. Obviously I don’t want a full blown exchange server for my family. Maybe Exchange Home or Exchange Lite? The poster talking about tasks is right as well. I need a family task list too. You can create a common pst now but as soon as you fast use switch in xp, Outlook has the file locked to one account. I’d like this stuff to get worked out locally with an Office based solution THEN sync with the msn stuff if I want to access/share it over the internet.

  8. Adam Hodge says:

    Thanks for asking btw. I’ve been wanting to tell someone that for a long time.

  9. Rock says:

    Congrats Mike. I like your system. Because I’m using Outlook 2003, I don’t have the Outlook Bar to customize, so I’ve changed my Shortcuts. I’ll add that to my list of things to post about.

    GTD definitely covers the little details of how to stay on top of your work, and I too have noticed a huge improvement in that area since reading the book and applying the concepts.

  10. Rock says:

    Hi Jonpoon, actually Outlook 2003 can be setup to work the same way that Gmail does with labels. I will warn you that it does take a little more work. But it’s certainly one of the most effective ways of organizing I know. I’ve always struggled with David Allen’s filing system because there are so many "labels" for any given item that I either can’t figure out where I will file it, or I can’t figure out where I did file it.

    Look forward to a post on how to set up Outlook 2003 to work like GMail’s labels system.

  11. Rock says:

    You’re welcome, Adam. Those are some tough problems you’ve outlined. Have you looked into exchange hosting – it’s generally available for about $10 / month / email and often includes a good amount of storage space, sharing features, regular backups, etc. I think that’s probably your best bet at this point. I have worked closely with the MSN team that creates the Outlook connector, and I know that they’re constantly working to improve the MSN mail experience in Outlook, so hopefully some of the issues can be resolved there.

  12. Rock says:

    One thing you can do, Jack, is keep both personal and business calendars in the same folder and differentiate the two with colors or categories. This allows you to filter and just see one when you want. You can also take advantage of the Private checkbox to keep your work associates from seeing your personal appointments.

  13. Rock says:

    Great recommendations, dru. I especially like the button to see all mail for a date. Maybe I can work up a macro to do that …

  14. I’m feeling optimistic about the future though, because something positive happened this morning. I was sipping my morning coffee and fired up Outlook to go through the emails I had received the previous night. One of the emails contained an interesting link that was about to "change my life".

  15. Lynne says:

    I think you’re very right about organizers being organized around the way we are, not the other way around! I’ve been using Outlook for about 6 months when my Palm Pilot died and I replaced it with an HP handheld. I do not use it for anything fancy or sophisticated – on the calendar and contact features. No mail or anything else. I usually work at my desktop so that’s where most of the contacts and appointments get entered. I have only one calendar – family and work are combined because that’s how my life operated. Also, tasks are listed as appointments because they are generally short term and can fit the daily or weekly schedule – in fact, they have to because I live by my calendar and can’t be switching to other formats. My life it too hectic and interrupted to synch views. My problem is that I have been missing appointments, especially weekend appointments! I regularly use only the week view but if I have too many appointments for a day, they drop out and only show up as an overflow arrow. When I hover over the arrow, I displays only one of the appointments that his hidden but if there are more, they won’t show up until I click for the day view. Then I might see the 2 early appointments but the evening events are way down and have to be scrolled for even though the rest of the afternoon might be bland. Sometimes I neglect to scroll ALL the way to the end of the day and I have missed some pretty important events! Is there some way to get the events to compress so they show up (Calendar Creator can do this beautifully) or when I hover over the overflow arrow, to have ALL overflow display, not just one. This is really making Outlook a hazzard, not a help for me! Plain paper calendar would be much more effective at keeping me on time! Thanks.

  16. Ira says:

    To those wishing that Outlook had exchange style functionality in the desktop version, you might as well stop asking.  Microsoft intentionally limits this type of functionality so as to upsell Exchange.  Shared Exchange hosting is your best bet, though you there is a lot of exchange functionality you might lose by using a shared host (custom forms, public folders, etc.) because shared hosts are notorious for limiting the tools available to end users so as to minimize support calls.

    I’m a fairly sophisticated Outlook user and I like a great deal of the functionality.  I especially use tasks in a multitude of ways to organize my life.  It is unfortunate that tasks are not heirarchical (maybe you might say "project based"), but I suspect that this is also an intentional limitation.  My guess is that MS is afraid of undercutting Project and has intentionally limited this functionality as well.

    Ultimately the biggest problem with Outlook is that Microsoft has too many other products that a better Outlook would encroach upon.  Get used to what Outlook doesn’t do as most of it is by design.  

    Though I’m a longtime user of Outlook and by no means anti-Microsoft, I would run in a flash to a nicely developed open source alternative or a broader more mature GMail (or other Ajax) toolset if it provided all of the functionality I want.  I think most business end users are the same way.  We have no product loyalty beyond using the best tool for the job.  Microsoft’s marketing strategies may well backfire in the long run if someone else comes along and provides us with something that works better.

  17. MSDN Archive says:

    Interesting thoughts, Ira, though I admit I don’t agree with most of them. Some things you may want to check out…

    New calendar and sharing stuff:


    Hierarchical tasks:


    You should really check out everything on Melissa’s blog to see what’s coming in Outlook 2007 – I think you’ll be happy to see what is included and the general direction we’re going with the time management features.

    On a personal note, I use shared exchange hosting for my non-work email, though that’s mostly so I’ve got a server backup of all my email. I don’t use any Exchange-only features and, like you, I’m a fairly sophisticated Outlook user.

  18. Dan Brett says:

    Applied GMail like Conv. view to Outlook based on Search Folders.

  19. Alex says:

    Yes, to make Outlook work you want is not always simple. Not all specific human tasks can be realized with Outlook customization. But itโ€™s certainly not the purpose to give it up. There are already many custom add-ons for Outlook, and they will be, cause how many the people are on Earth so many  the ways of organizing the time exist. Your idea to create the Outlook that meets the needs of all users is great :). It is ideal, but you should try improving  Outlook for majority of users. For someone Outlook will always be missing the exact feature he needs ๐Ÿ™‚

    For your future Outlook development, possibly these materials will be useful, may be some solutions or just ideas:





  20. Is my outlook mail stored on a server at MS? Or is it local to my machine? I want to restore my machine but don’t want to loose any of my messages…HELP.

  21. Is my outlook mail stored on a server at MS? Or is it local to my machine? I want to restore my machine but don’t want to loose any of my messages…HELP.

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