3 Microsoft Outlook Habits That Are Killing Your Productivity


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It’s one thing to know how to press the Send button in Microsoft Outlook, but using it as a productivity-enhancing tool takes surprisingly little additional skill. Here are three productivity-killers you may be guilty of (and their fixes):

Sending assignments by email

It’s easy enough to dash off an email to your assistant asking him/her to make a phone call, etc. For just a little more effort, though, you can send that same instruction as a Task (rather than a Message). Unlike a regular email, a Task will:

  • Let you embed both Start and Due Dates
  • Request confirmation that the person accepts the assignment
  • Put the assignment on both his/her and your Task List for reminders, etc. (rather than getting lost in the Inbox)
  • Let assignees send you one-click status reports
  • Enable you to see, at a glance, who has been assigned what (and when they’re due)

All it takes is selecting Task from the New Items drop-down on the Home tab. The form’s very similar to an email; to assign the Task to someone, simply click the Assign Task button in the Manage Task section of the Task tab, then address it just like an email and click Send.

Leaving reading material in your Inbox

You probably subscribe to lots of bar association emails, blog updates, even the Lawyerist Insider newsletter. When there’s lots more urgent stuff piling into your Inbox, you often need to place those subscriptions to one side for when you have more discretionary time.

Using Outlook’s Rules & Alerts feature to move routine emails into subfolders will automatically clear non-urgent email out of your Inbox, making it easier to scan in those moments when you’re doing Inbox triage. It’ll also give you a quick visual of what publications you need to read when you can.

Not converting Messages to Tasks/To Dos

One constant theme in your Inbox is people asking for stuff. Your client wants an updated litigation budget. Your assistant needs a question answered. And your law partner wants to see you Wednesday at 3.

Sure, some things you can respond to in a flash. But you don’t want to lose track of the more complex requests in your overflowing Inbox. That could prove embarrassing.

In this scenario, you can flag the email for a follow-up reminder (all it takes is a right-click on the message’s flag icon). If your response requires more work, drag the email to your Task folder to create a Task. The latter technique allows you to save notes and link to documents you may need to respond properly. Either trick will put the email in your Tasks folder for easy scanning.

Just a little more skill can mean a lot more productivity in Microsoft Outlook. How much time could you be saving?

(image adapted from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/msjulienne/5457281798/)

  • Deborah – I agree with all of your points. In addition to Outlook’s basic functionality, there are two Outlook plugins that I use that are also especially helpful – one is “ClearContext”. For those famiiliar with the “Getting Things Done” system, this is a really useful tool. It enables task and project organization in very simple, intuitive fashion. It also streamlines Outlook’s autofile functions – very handy. The other plugin I use is Worldox – which also has a great interface with Outlook that enables me to immediately file (virtually) all incoming and outgoing client-related e-mails by client/matter outside of Outlook (I did not like having to maintain separate Outlook folders for these). Just some thoughts.

  • Love GTD! I’ve also been a big fan of Michael Linenberger’s particular implementation of GTD in Outlook (can be done manually or with a plug-in). Thanks for giving us all a heads-up on ClearContext and Worldox (I use that one myself).

  • Oliver Meehan

    I am a big fan of the QuietSpacing method – http://www.quietspacing.com/2010/10/19/taming-the-beast-making-e-mail-work-for-you-part-1-of-3/ – have really found it helpful in how I interact with Outlook.

  • Adron Beene

    Here is a tip for moving emails to tasks. Change the subject line in the email so you can understand it quickly. So if the email subject line is “winter agreement” when you change it to a task, change the subject to: “create amendment to winter agreement.” That way you know what to do by looking at the task list. It saves you from having to open the task to see what the project is.

    • Does this actually change the subject of the email? If so, I think it is a bad idea. There are many reasons why you might need an accurate copy of communications, especially related to your clients and cases.

      • Actually, the email itself stays intact and in its original location – “moving” is something of a misstatement. Outlook actually copies the email into your Task folder as either plain text or an attachment, so unless you subsequently delete the email from a mail folder (Inbox, etc.), you still have it with its original subject line.

        • Good to know. I’ve heard people give this advice before, and always wondered why editing the actual email would be a good idea.