Author Archive

Welcome to the new More Productive Now!

e-mail management, personal productivity, task management 6 Comments »

Welcome to the new More Productive Now! website.  The site redesign reflects a shift in focus for the company.  I continue to conduct some productivity consulting engagements.  However, having seen still a great and largely unfulfilled need for software that effectively solves the information overload problem (especially as it pertains to e-mail), I’ve recently focused increasingly on the development of tools to solve this set of issues – most notably LifeRunner.  I’ve also begun a focus on creating tools for Evernote, a wonderful product and platform for storage and retrieval of information and memories.

I’ll have much more to say soon on these topics and these applications.  Stay tuned!

Stop Interrupting Me!

e-mail management, personal productivity No Comments »

For maximum productivity during your workday, you want to be the one in control of your time and activities. You’ll be able to focus better and get more done if you can work with as few interruptions as possible.

You probably realize the hit on your productivity that occurs when people drop by your office or call you while you’re in the middle of a task. In fact, research studies have shown that it typically takes a bare minimum of 4 to 6 minutes to fully refocus after an interruption.

But there is one insidious interruption that many people are unconscious to, and it happens all day long.

Here it is:

Email alert

Yes, it’s your Outlook e-mail desktop alert. It’s turned on by default when Outlook is installed. And all day long, it fades in at the lower right-hand corner of your screen, subtly but almost certainly interrupting your train of thought as you glance down to see who has sent you a message. And it gets worse if you click on the alert to open the email, or worse still, switch to your Inbox to find and read the message.

And then, you ask yourself: “Now, what was I doing?”

You should be in control of when you read your e-mail, not a message’s sender. So, I highly recommend you turn the desktop alert off. It’s easy!

Simply right-click on the Outlook icon in your Windows system tray (that’s the set of icons in the bottom-right corner of your screen). From the resulting menu, uncheck  the Show New Mail Desktop Alert option:

Outlook system tray menu

That’s all there is to it!  After that quick fix, you will no longer be distracted.  You can focus on the task at hand, and choose to check your e-mail when you choose to.

Talking to Your Phone

Blackberry, personal productivity No Comments »

I’ve been a fan, follower, and have dabbled in software development of speech recognition applications since the genre began in earnest in the 1980′s.  I’ve always felt that when the technology advanced to the point of being truly useful, it could prove to be a big productivity booster.

While I still find speech recognition to be of limited use on a PC, when it comes to phones and handhelds, it’s a different story!  The small form factor, as well as the fact that it’s often used in situations where use of one’s hands is limited, makes the PDA or smartphone a natural fit in my view.

Over time, I’ve tried a number of handheld voice applications, but generally came away disappointed.  Not any more!  If you use a Blackberry, iPhone, Windows Mobile device, or some selected Nokia handhelds, then you can run Vlingo.

Previous versions of this application worked pretty well, but they’ve just released an upgrade, v4.0, for the Blackberry platform, which I’ve been using for about a month now with great success. There’s a free version with limited functionality, but they’re offering the full paid “Vlingo Plus” version 4.0 at an introductory price of $14.99 – not bad!

In short, Vlingo Plus lets you do most anything you would do on your Blackberry by talking to it – sending e-mail and text messages, making phone calls, doing web searches, and lots more.  You can say “Note to self” and then dictate your note, and it will create an Outlook task for you (or an e-mail or text message to yourself, if you prefer).  For you Twitter and Facebook fans, you can use Vlingo to tweet or update your status just by speaking.  The new 4.0 Vlingo Plus release adds the capability to speak text into virtually anywhere that you would normally type (they call this “Vlingo Everywhere”).

While its recognition is not perfect, I find it quite accurate – finally, a speech recognition application worth using!  It’s based on a new technology (called a Hierarchical Language Model) which is largely the secret to its success.  It also learns as you use it, meaning it gets even smarter over time.

You can check it out at www.vlingo.com.  If you try it, post a comment here and let me know how it works for you.  Does it make you more productive?

Are Your Conversations Scattered?

e-mail management, personal productivity 4 Comments »

One key to effectively managing your Inbox is having it properly organized.

When you engage in ongoing email threads or conversations about a particular topic, as most of us do, it can be frustrating to have that conversation scattered across multiple emails throughout your Inbox. I’m sure you’ve spent too much valuable time searching your Inbox for these related messages.

I’ve written before about the Outlook add-in ClearContext and how it provides an elegant solution to this scattered-conversation problem.

If you’re not running ClearContext, though, there’s a good solution built right into Outlook that you can easily set up — you can tailor your Inbox so that it organizes your mail into conversations. All emails regarding a particular subject will be grouped together, while at the same time maintaining these conversations in a date-ordered list so that newer conversations are always higher up in the Inbox.

Here’s how to set up this conversation-based view. This works in Outlook 2007 and 2003.

1. Switch to your Inbox.

2. In Outlook 2007:
From the main Outlook View menu, select Current View > Define Views.

In Outlook 2003:
From the main Outlook View menu, select Arrange By > Current View > Define Views.

3. In the list of views, select the “Messages” line, then click the Copy button. In the resulting window, type “Messages By Conversation” for the name of the new view. Select the This folder, visible to everyone option. Click OK to close this window.

4. In the Customize window that’s now displayed, click the Group By button. Uncheck Automatically group according to arrangement. Set the Group items by drop-down list to Conversation. (Leave the option button set to Ascending.) Click OK to close this window.

5. Click the Sort button. Change the Sort items by drop-down value to Conversation Index. Change the option button to Descending. Click OK to close this window.

6. Click OK to close the Customize View window.

7. Click the Apply View button, and you’ll see your new view in action!

Note that Outlook does base its definition of a conversation on the email Subject, so if you have people who send you messages with vague subject lines like “Hi” and “Following up” — I know YOU don’t do that — those emails may get grouped together when they aren’t truly one conversation. But encountering that issue on occasion is well worth it for the overall benefit you receive, in my opinion.

Also note that Outlook 2010, which is expected to be released in the first half of next year, has an enhanced Conversation-view capability with a number of new features, like the ability to incorporate messages from other folders, clean up conversations, and more. Stay tuned for that.

Try out this Conversation-based Inbox and post a comment below to let me know how it goes for you.

Need help getting your Inbox, to-do’s and projects under control?

As I’ve mentioned in my e-mail newsletter, while I’ve been too busy to take on new consulting clients, I continue to get requests for help. As a result, I’ve formulated a new personal productivity coaching program that’s powerful yet less intensive in both time and cost.  It also includes some cool new software I’ve been working on. I’ll be sending more about it via email in the next day or two, so if you want to know more and are not receiving the More Productive Now newsletter, sign up on the upper right of this page!

The Best Outlook Productivity Add-in

e-mail management, personal productivity, task management 14 Comments »

Over the past year or so, I’ve tried and tested virtually every Outlook-based productivity tool on the market, looking for the one that best supports my More Productive Now personal productivity approach. I’ve tried them all… Xobni. Taglocity. NetCentrics GTD add-in. NEO. Trog Bar. SpeedFiler. MailFiler Pro. And on and on…

I’ve settled on the one that I find most valuable for keeping myself and my clients organized and in control inside of Outlook: ClearContext Pro.

ClearContext has many, many great features. In the limited space here, I’ll highlight a few of my favorites and ones that dovetail effectively with my MPN methodology.

Converting an Email to a Task

When using Outlook as your task manager, it’s critical to get emails out of your Inbox and into Tasks when there is an action to be performed on them, or when you are waiting for someone else to take an action that you want to track. I’ve written previously about how you can do this in native Outlook. The problem with this approach is that you have to choose between having the body of the email put into the body of the Task, or having a copy of the email message itself attached to the Task.

What you want is both — and this is what ClearContext provides. When you have an email selected and you click the ClearContext “Task” toolbar button, it creates a Task with the email body copied AND the email attached to the Task.  Perfect!

I also find it quicker to click the ClearContext Task button than to drag the email onto the Task folder as is required in the Outlook-only approach; and ClearContext lets you create the Task from an open email as well.

Conversation Threading

As much as we all try to keep our Inboxes small in size and current, there will be times when you have multiple messages scattered through your Inbox that pertain to one email thread — multiple replies in the same conversation. Wouldn’t it be great to have these all shown together, so you don’t have to hunt through your Inbox to find them (or worse, miss one)? Heck, Gmail does it! Other Outlook add-ins like Xobni provide this feature, too, but in a separate window.

ClearContext provides you with this capability, just by selecting the appropriate custom Inbox view that it installs.  And what’s best about the approach it takes is that it gives you this threading by sorting the emails right in your Inbox itself.

Outlook Project Management

No, ClearContext does not turn Outlook into a full-blown project management tool complete with milestones, critical paths, etc. But most of us don’t need that capability for the majority of our work. We just want an easy way to attach our Outlook Tasks to projects, and to then be able to view/sort/group Tasks by project.

ClearContext’s Topics feature gives you this ability. Just think Topic = Project. ClearContext makes it quick and simple to assign a Task to a Topic (for that matter, you can assign any Outlook item to a Topic — emails, appointments, etc.) You can then easily view your Tasks by Topic in one of two ways: (1) using ClearContext’s Dashboard, or (2) by making a custom View of your Task folder that displays the Topics (the ClearContext website explains how to do this).

Filing Your Email

One of ClearContext’s main features is the way it supports efficiently filing your emails to get them out of your Inbox. It uses the Topic feature discussed above for this. There is a lot of functionality in this portion of the product; here is a quick summary:

  • The basic idea is that you assign each incoming email to a Topic.
  • One click of a “File Message” toolbar button sends the email to a folder corresponding to that Topic.
  • ClearContext will automatically create the folder if you type in a new Topic — no need for you to manually create the folder yourself.
  • When a new email arrives: if you have already received a message on the same subject and assigned it to a Topic, ClearContext will automatically assign the newly-arrived message to that same Topic. This is a huge convenience. (And yes, you can override its automatic assignment and change the Topic if needed.)
  • If you take advantage of the Conversation Threading discussed above, you can use the “File Thread” toolbar button, which moves all of the emails in that thread out of your Inbox into the assigned Topic folder in one fell swoop.

Good Company

While the functions of a software application are critical, it’s also important to know that your investment of time and money is backed by good support when you need it. I’ve found that to be the case with ClearContext: in my experience, their support team has been uniformly responsive, helpful, and friendly when I’ve contacted them for assistance.

As I mentioned, ClearContext has a large feature set, and I’ve only touched on some of my favorite productivity components here. If you have questions about the product, I invite you to ask them in the Comments here, and I’ll do my best to provide answers.

I’m back, and unfinished Blackberry business

Blackberry, e-mail management, personal productivity No Comments »

I’m back! I’m involved in some major project work that has prevented me from blogging regularly. However, I’ll continue to write when there’s valuable content to share about being more productive.

Now, it’s time to fulfill a promise I made prior to my disappearance: discussing the topic of dealing with attachments on a Blackberry.

BLACKBERRY ATTACHMENTS 101

Things have actually changed in two big ways recently in terms of Blackberry e-mail attachments:

  • last fall, Dataviz came out with a Blackberry version of their Documents To Go software; and
  • RIM (Research In Motion, the folks that make the Blackberry) bundled the Standard Edition of Documents To Go as a free component in their latest operating system version, 4.5.

This means if you have Blackberry OS 4.5, you have available to you the ability to view and do basic editing on Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) documents.

To do this, highlight an attachment in an open e-mail message, and click to display the menu. You’ll see two relevant choices: Open Attachment, which lets you view it in the native Blackberry attachment viewer, and Download Attachment, which launches Documents To Go.

If you aren’t sure whether you have Blackberry OS 4.5, here are instructions for checking your version.

If you don’t currently have v4.5 installed, here’s information about upgrading.

If you have v4.5 installed, but you don’t see Documents To Go and/or don’t have a “Download Attachment” menu option, here’s information on installing it.

If you need more sophisticated editing and file creation capabilities than are available in the bundled Standard Edition, there is a Premium Edition of Documents To Go available – but it’ll set you back $49.95. Here’s a comparison chart of the two versions.

OK, that covers Office docs. But I hear you calling out now, “What about PDFs?”

You can do basic viewing of PDFs, just as you can for other attachments, using the “Open Attachment” option described above. This provides for basic viewing capabilities.

I will say that in my testing, RIM has improved this feature. On my previous Blackberry which ran OS 4.3, viewing PDFs was a difficult endeavor: you had to Zoom in to see anything at all, then Pan to find the part of the page you wanted to read, then select Enhance to make it legible; and then you could no longer Pan to different parts of the page.

On my new Blackberry Bold running v4.5, the whole experience is much improved. In fact, there is no longer an Enhance function, and the document is readable right after Zooming in. (Then again, the Bold also has a much better screen, so that may be a factor as well.)

If you do want more complete capabilities to view PDF attachments – essentially a Blackberry version of Adobe Reader – you have to purchase add-on software. There are a number of such Blackberry PDF add-ons available. For one, the Premium Edition of Documents To Go, discussed above, includes a full-featured PDF viewer.

If you don’t want to pay $49.95 for that add-on, a very popular and less expensive alternative is RepliGo Reader at only $19.95. In my testing, RepliGo worked quite well.

THE BEST OUTLOOK PRODUCTIVITY ADD-IN

One of the things I’ve done over the past year is conduct extensive testing of every Outlook-based productivity tool on the market, looking for the one or two that best support my More Productive Now personal productivity approach.

I’ve finally settled on one that I love enough to endorse and recommend; and in an upcoming newsletter, I’ll be sharing it with you. (In fact, I find it so valuable that I’m in the process of writing a special version of my book to explain how to best use it to achieve unparalleled personal productivity in Outlook.)

More about that coming up…

Better Blackberry Mail

Blackberry, e-mail management, personal productivity, task management 2 Comments »

If you use a Blackberry, I highly recommend you take a good look at a useful Blackberry software add-in, BBSmart Email Viewer. This application has one primary feature, and a hidden productivity gem as well.

Its main feature is that it properly displays images, graphics and special formatting in incoming e-mail messages. As their website explains: When you open emails using the default email program, they can be cluttered with hyperlinks, email addresses and large chunks of unreadable text. BBSmart Email Viewer transforms all this – making emails clearer, displaying images that were in the email.

In other words, it displays messages on your Blackberry much closer to the way they look in Outlook. You may be surprised how much smoother this makes your Blackberry e-mail reading experience.

In addition to its above claim to fame, it provides a fantastic feature for those who use the Tasks portion of Outlook to manage their commitments. As I discussed in a previous post, Outlook makes it easy to turn an Inbox message into a Task.

But what happens when you read a message on your Blackberry and it contains an actionable item that you want to turn into a Task? You’re out of luck – at least you were until now!

The BBSmart application adds two options to the menu of an e-mail message:
- Add as Task
- Add to Calendar

Selecting one of these options opens up a new Task or Appointment, with its Subject and Body pre-filled in from the e-mail’s information, just as Outlook does. Nice!

Being able to convert an e-mail right when you read it initially on your Blackberry, instead of having to leave it in your Inbox and then remember to convert it when you next read it in Outlook, can make a big difference in your personal productivity if you use your Blackberry a lot.

One note about BBSmart’s message formatting: by default, it displays your e-mail messages in an odd (in my opinion) Comic font with a yellow-cream background. But it’s quite configurable – so if you don’t like that look, just click the menu key in your Inbox and select “BBSmart Options”, and you can change the font and/or background (and a lot of other things as well).

P.S. No, I don’t get any financial compensation if you purchase BBSmart – I just recommend it because I find it valuable.

Hide Your Completed Tasks

personal productivity, task management 18 Comments »

The normal way that Outlook handles completed tasks leaves something to be desired. By default, when you mark a task as completed, it remains in view with a line drawn through it, in effect “crossing it off the list”. While crossing an item off of a printed or written list serves well enough, in Outlook we can do better.

One key to an effective task list is its ability to provide FOCUS: you want the format and construction of the list to allow you the maximum focus on those actions you need to attend to. Forcing your brain to look at and thus process tasks that you’ve already completed has the exact opposite of the desired effect – it hampers you in focusing on those active tasks that still need doing.

Fortunately, Outlook allows you to modify the view of your tasks so as to hide your completed tasks. Making this change is not difficult; just follow these steps.

1. In Outlook 2007: From the main Outlook View menu, select Current View > Customize Current View.

In Outlook 2003: From the main Outlook View menu, select Arrange By > Current View > Customize Current View.

2. In the Customize window that’s displayed, click the Filter button.

3. Switch to the Advanced tab.

4. Click the Field button, and select All Task Fields > Complete. Click the Add to List button. Then click OK to close the Filter window.

5. Click the OK button to close the Customize window.

Your completed items will now be hidden in that view. You can perform the above steps on any Task view that you use.

Does this mean your completed tasks are gone – deleted? No, they’re not – they’re still available on a list of Completed Tasks within Outlook. Even better, Outlook records the date you marked a task complete and shows you this date on this Completed Tasks List. To view this list, switch to your Tasks folder, and from the Current View list, select Completed Tasks.

A Tip for Procrastination

personal productivity, task management No Comments »

One productivity tip I’ve been practicing lately, and recommending to my clients, is what I call the “Just Get Started” approach. I’ve found it an effective way to deal with tasks you’ve been procrastinating on.

If you have an item on your to-do list that you see you’ve been putting off and avoiding doing, take a 5 or 10 minute chunk of time and start the task. Just spend those 5 or 10 minutes on it, then stop and put it away in a state in which you can easily return to it. Then go back to your to-do list and change the action item for that task by using the word “Finish”. For example, if the original task was
Write proposal for Smith Co.
the revised task would be
Finish writing proposal for Smith Co.

By taking this approach, you’re likely to find that it’s easier to go back and work on the task once it’s been started – you’ve short-circuited your procrastination by just getting started for those 5 to 10 minutes.

I think this works for a couple of reasons. First, before we begin something, it lives in the realm of “the unknown” – a place where uncertainty and apprehension are often present. Once we dive in, though, and focus our thoughts on the task, it quickly moves out of that realm, as our intellect, knowledge, skill, and experience take over.

Second, the human mind does not like “incompleteness”. When something is left incomplete or undone, our natural tendency is to want to complete it. In this way, the in-process task naturally draws you toward it to finish it later.

And as a bonus, updating your to-do item in the form of “Finish the task” provides an additional mental boost, as it’s easier to return to a task to finish it then to start it.

One final note: after your initial 5 to 10 minutes of work on the task, you may find you’ve been sufficiently drawn into it that you don’t want to stop. DON’T! If you have the time available to continue, by all means take advantage of the momentum you’ve generated, and keep going on it.

Try this tip out, then use the Comments section below to let me know how it worked for you!

Don’t Remind Me!

personal productivity 2 Comments »

In this Productivity Tip, some recommendations and tips about Outlook reminders.

The key point to realize about Outlook’s reminders is that they are interruptions.  And in today’s often-hectic world, the last thing you need are more interruptions to break the flow of your current activity.  So you want to be judicious in your use of reminders.

REMINDERS FOR TASKS

My recommendation here is simple: DON’T!  If you use Outlook for managing your tasks – and you should, using my MPN system or another methodology – then I advise against setting reminders for your tasks.

Your task list should be under your control, not the other way around.  You want to see the items on your task list at the appropriate time, when you are ready to choose a new task to begin work on.  If you set a reminder for a task, it will almost certainly pop up when you are in the midst of some other activity.  You’re interrupted and distracted from your current action, while being reminded of a task that you aren’t ready to perform at that moment.

Instead, maintain and keep current a task list in Outlook, and refer to that list when you choose to.  And when you’re working on a task, stay focused on that activity.

Your Outlook may be configured to automatically set reminders for all tasks you create that have Due Dates.  If you take my advice not to use reminders for tasks, you should turn this option off.  To do so, follow these steps:

  • On the Outlook main menu, select Tools > Options.
  • Click the Task Options button.
  • Uncheck the box labeled “Set reminders on tasks with due dates”.
  • Click OK twice to return to the main Outlook window.

REMINDERS FOR APPOINTMENTS

Appointment reminders can be a great asset to aid you in being on time to appointments and meetings.

A reminder for an appointment is a good thing when it pops up at the appropriate time.  What’s the appropriate time?  It’s the time when you need to stop and get ready for the event.

What you don’t want to do is set an appointment reminder so that it pops up too far in advance, when you are not yet ready to stop and prepare for the event.  In this case, you typically find yourself snoozing the reminder one or more times.  Used in this way, reminders often prove to be distracting and interrupting more than useful.

If you find yourself snoozing your reminders often, that’s a good sign that they’re probably not set to an appropriate value for you, and you should consider changing the default reminder time.

DEFAULT REMINDER TIME

Outlook’s reminder time defaults to 15 minutes prior to the appointment’s start.  Most people know that you can change that time for an individual appointment on that appointment’s open form.  In Outlook 2007, this is done via the “Reminder” field in the “Options” section of the Ribbon; in prior versions, use the “Reminder Time” field in the middle of the appointment form.

If you find that in general 15 minutes is not the optimal time for you, then you can change this default time.  Perhaps 15 minutes is too long – you only need a nudge 5 minutes prior to meetings so you can get to the appropriate office or conference room.  Or maybe you want 30 minutes, because your meetings are typically with clients and you need some advance time to prepare.

To change this standard time for all new appointments, follow these steps:

  • On the Outlook main menu, select Tools > Options.
  • Change the “Default reminder” field to your desired value.
  • Click OK to return to the main Outlook window.

SNOOZING

Outlook’s pop-up Reminder window includes a “Snooze” field, with a drop-down list of values.  This of course allows you to dismiss the reminder for a certain amount of time, and have it pop up again at that time.

The Snooze feature also has a useful and little-known capability (which I first learned about from my friend and colleague Jared Goralnick).  While the Snooze drop-down list contains a set of predefined time values, you can also type in other values and Outlook will understand them.

You can type in a duration to delay the snooze – for example, type in “8 minutes” to snooze the reminder for 8 additional minutes.  Or you can type a specific time of day – for example, type in “10:55 am” to be reminded at that specific time.

But remember that the Snooze capability should be used as an exception rather than as a rule.  As I discussed above, if you find yourself using Snooze regularly, it’s a good sign that you should change your default reminder time instead.