Archive for the 'task 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!

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.

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!

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!