Outlook “Can” Be a Productivity Powerhouse

I admit it, when it comes to organization of daily tasks, I am a mess. Or have been, until now, I hope.

In my years of Web Development I’ve never quite found a system of organization, time tracking, and time management that worked for me. Whether it is because of my ADHD type tendencies (I’ve been wondering a lot lately if I am undiagnosed but that’s another story) or because no tool or set of tools has quite suited my work style. Regardless, having a specific way you work and finding the right tools to suit that work style is absolutely imperative. Some people like a slew of tools and others like a piece of paper, whatever works for you is what you should use.

Having done everything from pen and paper, filling in quarters of a circle to track time, tracking time in a browser tool, using an Adobe Air app, an app for meeting notes, one for time tracking, one for tasks, this and that, nothing ever quite suited my work style and every time with my best attempts, it ended in frustration and lost productivity.

Notion Is the Motion

My most recent attempt, both to satisfy my own curiosity and to build something custom to my liking, was Notion. Before I go any further, Notion is great, I can’t say enough good things about it. The possibilities are endless, if you have the time and the will power. I did, and it worked well. Aside from a couple minor limitations in Notions functionality I had everything setup as efficiently as I could. Task tracking, time tracking, meeting notes, shared databases so I had a full relational loop of clients/tasks/meetings/notes. Amazing right?! Yes….and no, and here’s why.

Productivity Lost Through Productivity

This absolutely is not true for everyone or for every situation, but it is for me and for my situation. In an effort to be the most productive and make things easier, I ended up spending more time on BEING productive than I did actually being productive. The time I spent maintaining organization and productivity ended up being a lot more than I felt was needed for such a simple thing. How hard can it be, tracking tasks, time, meetings, meeting notes, this isn’t rocket science.

There are great tools that do specific things very well, and you should use those tools if that is what works best for you. I have tried dozens probably hundreds of tools in the last couple of decades and it wasn’t the tools themselves as much as it was the process of using the tools and switching back and forth between multiple tools without interconnectivity. Yes, I know, there’s Zapier, IFTTT, so on, that’s fine, but there is always a caveat, and I was still switching between applications and wasting time.

OUTLOOK TO THE RESCUE!

Listen, love it or hate it many many MANY of us are bound to Outlook or choose to be. Let’s be honest, Outlook does what it does well. Is it endlessly customizable? No. Does it have a slew of features like some other client do? No. I have plenty of complaints when it comes to Outlook, even in the process I am going to outline here, but hear me out, it works, and it works well in this use case, and I feel it is a pretty broad use case.

A New Outlook

Before I jump into it, here is what you are getting with this process. Seamless integration, actually no, not integration, native single application task, time, meeting, and notes management, all within Outlook. There is absolutely no need to switch back and forth between apps, use pen and paper or any other method that requires you go back and forth between actions to maintain your sanity and productivity. As with anything this requires good habits and consistency, but it is by far the easiest and most efficient method I have found. First we will walk through the setup so you can get going and test it on your own and then the methodology so you know how to use it to your advantage.

Setup

There’s a couple ways to set this process up, one method requires you to keep emails, whether in your inbox or in folders until a task is complete, the other does not. I’ll explain more later, just know my preferred method requires you to not delete emails associated with tasks until they are completed. This is fine in my case because once I create a task from an email I move that email to the appropriate subfolder in my inbox.

  1. In Outlook right-click any email and under Quick Steps click on Manage Quick Steps….
  2. Click on the New button at the bottom of the window then click Custom.
  3. Name your Quick Step whatever you want, it doesn’t make any difference. Then for the first action choose Flag Message from the dropdown.

    At this step you can instead choose Create a task with text of message which will allow you to delete emails before a task is completed, BUT this will create an additional step in the workflow every time you run it. Flagging a message create a To-do or “Task” associated directly with that message, whereas creating an actual task keeps it independent but tasks created this way require that you click save and this wastes time.
  4. Under the Choose flag dropdown that appears select No Date.
  5. Click Add Action.
  6. In the next dropdown select Create an appointment with text of message then next to Shortcut key select whichever option you prefer, I have mine set to CTRL+SHIFT+1.
  7. Click Finish and you’re all done. Now time to test it.

Getting Started

For testing purposes it doesn’t matter which email you run this on so click on any email in your inbox then press your shortcut keys, for me CTRL+SHIFT+1. This will automatically flag the email and present you with a New Appointment window. From this window there are a few actions you should take to help keep you organized. This is where Outlook could use some improvement by allowing you to automate this portion as well, maybe it does and I just haven’t figured it out yet.

Anyways, in this new window either select, create or rename a category and assign it. This visually separates your personal task related calendar items. Then for the Start Time fields check All day event.

Methodology

This is my calendar right now, as you can see it looks chaotic however this methodology will always have your calendar full and for good reason.

  1. All emails that turned into “All day event” appointments will appear at the top of the current day in Outlook and will be color coded to whichever color you chose (in my case orange). This is your starting point for each day. Drag these tasks down into your regular calendar arranged as needed and block off as much time as you think a task might take. By default Outlook allots 30 minutes for appointments.
  2. For tasks that are ongoing or not completed, change Show as: to Tentative.
    This visual indicator on the appointment lets you know tomorrow that this task was not completed or is ongoing.
  3. For tasks that are completed have change Show as: to Busy.This lets you know that a task has been completed.
  4. After completing a task and changing its Show as: to Busy you can now check off the task in the Tasks window.

At the end of the day any remaining items at the top of your calendar should be moved to the next day. Each morning spend 15 minutes to move these tasks and add any new tasks for the day then drag them down into your calendar.

This methodology has been extremely beneficial for me, especially when it comes to entering time into our time tracking system, without having to jump back and forth as I work on tasks. At the end of each week I can spend a few minutes to enter accurate time for each task.

This method works especially well for tasks via email but can be applied to instances where you need to manually create tasks. In that case a task can be dragged over to your calendar and its color changed to match that of your automated appointments.

Next up, using the underrated and under utilized Outlook Journal.