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!

The Best Personal Productivity Systems

personal productivity 1 Comment »

The best personal productivity systems include two key elements. Attempting to adopt a system that doesn’t include both elements will mean unnecessary effort, confusion, and stress for you – the very things you’re trying to eliminate by using such a system in the first place.

The first key element is a strong methodology - a clear and consistent set of principles, rules, guidelines, and practices that direct you toward the most appropriate actions and behaviors. The methodology tells you WHY you want to be performing the recommended actions and behaviors. Without this knowledge, you’re less likely to stick with the behavioral changes inherent in any productivity system, especially when the going gets tough. By analogy, you’re more likely to hit the Nautilus machine if you understand what specific muscle groups will be enhanced by the exercise you’re doing and why that exercise will impact them. Similarly, you’re more likely to be rigorous about recording actions on your Active Task List (one key component of the More Productive Now system) if you understand why that behavior produces higher productivity.

The second key element is a specific means for implementing the methodology. The system should delineate a specific tool or set of tools that you can use to put its principles into play, and explain how to use those tools. The implementation tells you HOW to perform the recommended actions and behaviors. Without these specifics on how to implement the methodology in the real world, you’re left with an interesting set of principles but are left on your own to develop a way to put the principles into practice – not what you want to be spending your time on when your goal is to create more time for yourself! Using the same analogy as above, if you’re given an explanation of why it’s valuable to exercise certain muscle groups, but you’re not provided with the necessary equipment to be able to perform those exercises, the explanation will live for you as merely some interesting, but not particularly useful, information.

A solid methodology and a specific means for implementing it – the productivity systems that have the most impact will include both of these components.


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Welcome to the More Productive Now! blog.

My personal productivity consulting practice keeps me quite busy; nonetheless it’s time to join the blogosphere.

I’ll be posting mostly about topics related to my area of expertise, personal productivity and organization. I imagine I’ll also be writing on occasion about other topics as the spirit moves me!