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.
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.
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.