Archive for May, 2008

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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!