Archive for the 'e-mail management' Category

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.

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.


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.


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.

Taking E-mail to Task

e-mail management, personal productivity, task management 8 Comments »

In my previous Productivity Tip, I explained why Outlook’s Follow-up flags are counter-productive, and I recommended that you instead make a task from an e-mail when that message represents an action you need to take.

Creating an Outlook Task from an e-mail is actually quite simple. So how does one do it? There are several approaches, and they create slightly different outcomes, so let’s take a look at them this week.

Probably the most straightforward way is via drag-and-drop. This is done by dragging and dropping the message onto the Tasks button in the lower left portion of the Outlook window:

Creating a task from an e-mail message

When you drop the message, a new task item is created and displayed. The Subject of the e-mail becomes the Subject of the new task item; the text Body of the e-mail becomes the Notes section of the task.

(The subject of the e-mail is likely to be a poor description of the action you want to take, so you’ll almost certainly want to edit the task’s Subject to make it more accurate.)

Now let’s talk about attachments. While the above drag and drop operation copies the text Body of the e-mail into the task’s Notes field, it does not copy over any attachments that were in the originating e-mail message. If the e-mail contains attachments and you want to retain them, you can accomplish that as follows: instead of performing a normal drag and drop operation by holding down the left mouse button, perform a right-drag operation by holding down the right mouse button as you drag the e-mail onto the Tasks button. When you right-drag, a menu will appear as soon as you drop the e-mail onto the button:

Using right-drag to create a task

Select Move Here as Task with Attachment or Copy Here as Task with Attachment. Select the Move option to create a Task and remove the original e-mail from the Inbox; select the Copy option to create a Task and leave the original e-mail in the Inbox.

In either case, instead of copying the Body text of the originating e-mail, Outlook will attach a copy of the originating e-mail to the task at the top of the Notes area. You can then double-click the attachment at any later time to open that e-mail copy. Since it is a full and complete copy, it will contain all file attachments that were in the originating e-mail.

This also means that there’s no need to keep the original e-mail in the Inbox, and removing it is actually an important key to maintaining control over your Inbox. If you used the Move option, it’s already gone from the Inbox. If you used Copy, you can delete it, or file it away to a reference folder if you feel you need to keep a copy of it available.

Now here’s an alternative to the above drag and drop-based approach. Right-click the actionable Inbox item to display its context menu, and select Move to Folder…:

“Move to Folder” option on the item context menu

This displays a folder list window; select the Tasks folder from that list. This performs the exact equivalent of Move Here as Task with Attachment as described above.

Note that the exact same procedures explained here work for Appointments as well. If you are processing an Inbox e-mail and the action to take on it involves an appointment or meeting, you can create an Outlook Appointment from the e-mail. To do this, follow any of the approaches explained above for Tasks, but drag and drop the message onto the Calendar button, or Move to the Calendar folder, rather than Tasks. Outlook will create an Appointment from that e-mail message. All of the same options that I discussed for Tasks apply here.

Of course, creating an Outlook Task from an e-mail is only really effective if you have a personal organization system that uses Outlook Tasks to keep track of your commitments. We’ll be talking more about how to accomplish that in coming weeks.

In addition, there are Outlook add-ins that provide enhanced ways to make a Task from an e-mail, and we’ll be covering that topic as well.

Burn the Flag

e-mail management, personal productivity, task management 5 Comments »

Want to get better control of your Outlook Inbox? Stop using Follow-up Flags.

You know that one of the keys to improving your personal productivity is to gain control of your Inbox.

You put yourself at a huge disadvantage when you attempt to be more organized while maintaining hundreds or thousands of messages in your Inbox, and when it contains items you’ve already looked at – or even finished with – but have left there, meaning that you’ll have to deal with them again later.

For optimal effectiveness, you want your Inbox to contain only new, yet-to-be-processed items, and you want to maintain it at a manageable size.

In the last few versions of Outlook, Microsoft has added several new features in an attempt to help you control your Inbox. But one such feature – one Microsoft often touts as an important aid to managing e-mail in Outlook – is instead a disaster, and you should stay far away from it. I’m speaking of Follow-Up Flags.

Setting a Follow-Up Flag on an Inbox message accomplishes the exact opposite of what you want to achieve. “I’ll just flag it and come back to it later.” Rather than eliminating messages from your Inbox, it encourages you to keep messages there. You typically flag a message when further action is required on it, and then it sits, adding to your Inbox clutter.

In many cases, I’ve seen people end up with so many flagged items that the flag ceases to be a useful distinction at all.

Rather than use this approach which entices you to keep messages in your Inbox, a better solution is to adopt a strategy that supports you in getting mail out of your Inbox. So what should you do instead? Turn it into a Task.

Tasks represent actions you want to take, or actions you’re waiting on from other people that you want to keep track of. Flagged e-mails almost always fall into one of these two categories, and thus they are more appropriate as Tasks.

Turning an e-mail into a Task is easier than you think: simply drag and drop the e-mail from your Inbox onto the Tasks button in the lower left portion of your Outlook window. When you drop it onto the Tasks button, a new Task item opens up, with its Subject and Body copied over from the e-mail.

There are a few variations of this approach, and I’ll discuss them next week. But you can see that turning an e-mail message into a Task – and then being able to remove it from your Inbox – is extremely simple. (Don’t forget that last step – once you create the Task, you want to file or delete the e-mail.)

Yes, this approach does work best if you have a good, solid methodology for using Outlook Tasks to manage your commitments. The More Productive Now approach is one such system, and there are others as well. It’s actually not hard to use Tasks in Outlook, and it provides a great, integrated approach with e-mail – for example, it makes it easy to turn an Inbox item into a Task rather than flagging it!