Following multiple questions on my recent posts on personal productivity tips (Part 1 and Part 2) from my fellow colleagues who asked for some practical recommendations on how to be more productive at work, I decided to share some useful productivity life hacks you can implement with Outlook. I personally found them very useful, especially today, when an average person has multiple meetings during a day, tasks with conflicting priorities and participates in several conversations simultaneously.

Hack # 1. Work Offline

As I already mentioned in another post, the worst enemies of your productivity are distractions. When you use Microsoft Outlook, a desktop version of it specifically, to schedule your work and keep track of it, it might become really hard to resist the temptation to check out every new message as soon as it arrives in your inbox. Each time you click or open an unread email, you switch the context and introduce delays in your mental workflow.

I tried turning off all notifications, pop-ups and sounds, but still had to switch to the email view periodically to search for some specific information in conversations and emails. Looking through new emails just for a few seconds compulsively or unintentionally was enough to lose my train of thought.

Eventually, I discovered a small button located in the “Send/Receive” sub-menu. It is called “Work Offline.” To be honest, this option is not something new and has been present in Outlook for a long time. It was initially designed to avoid connection charges and noisy error pop-ups when the high-speed Internet was rare, and many people used dial-up connections to go online. In my case, however, it is used to intentionally prevent Outlook from receiving new emails while in this mode. You still have your cached inbox, calendar, to-dos, and can exclusively focus your attention on the priority tasks without being poked by new messages.

Email by its nature is an asynchronous way of communication. Mistakenly, many people today mix it up with instant messaging and expect a near-immediate response to their inquiries. This, however, doesn’t mean that you should fulfill these false expectations. From my experience, going offline for a couple of hours to do an important task is more productive than trying to be always online and hyper-responsive. If there is a real emergency, there are other ways to notify you about that.

Hack # 2. Triage Your Inbox

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients' treatments based on the severity of their condition.

When you have a lot of correspondence each day, it might take some time to go through all the messages, evaluate them, decide what to do about them and so on. Even quick scanning of hundred-plus emails, which is not something unusual for business correspondence today, will already take a significant portion of your time. Imagine now that you must do this daily just not to get lost in the paperwork. If this sounds familiar to you, it is high time to make the machine do the work.

You might already know that you can create folders and sub-folders for emails in Outlook. You can create as many different folders as you would like and sort emails either manually or automatically by configuring different automation rules. These automatic rules can be quite sophisticated and have complex logic for processing email messages. For example, you can have a separate folder for all messages from a specific person and a rule that will move the incoming mails from that person in it. Or, for instance, have a dedicated folder for automated notifications from a computer system. Also, you can configure rules to mark emails, forward them, move to the junk folder or even delete without reading them.

Microsoft Outlook is a powerful beast, but this power might be dangerous too. Often, I see how people create a complex structure of folders and sub-folders with a few dozens of rules to sort out incoming emails and then in a couple of months they end up with hundreds or even thousands unread messages in half of the folders. In some cases, just browsing through the folder structure in search of information becomes an overhead. So, do not complicate things.

After many trials, I decided on One Email Rule, which I first came across in Scott Hanselman's presentation of his productivity tips. The baseline of this rule is to sort all incoming messages into two folders – emails where you are on the TO-line stay in your Inbox folder, all other emails, where you are on the copy, go to a separate CC-folder. Emails that address you directly are those that require some reaction or response from you, all other emails are just for your information and it is up to you whether to respond to them. By implementing this system, I managed to gradually improve the signal-to-noise ratio of my correspondence and to reduce the time needed for reading emails. Later I just added a couple of supporting rules intended to immediately delete emails such as digests, notifications and announcements that I am definitely not going even to look through. That’s all.

The described above approach of sorting incoming messages has served me well for years, and you can give it a try too.

Hack # 3. Use Flags and Categories

Now, when you reduced the number of emails to work with, it is time to decide what to do about them and when. Some messages might require from you to do some job and report upon its completion, others suppose just writing a response. Nevertheless, the questions to answer will be the same for both groups:

  • How to not forget about a specific email or task?
  • Which emails/tasks are more critical, and which ones are less?
  • How can you identify later what to do about a specific email?

Here, Outlook features such as Follow Up flags and Categories color markers might help.

I suppose the purpose of Follow Up flags should be clear from their name. You can basically mark a specific email with a mark, a flag in our case, so it will be visually distinguishable in your email folder and, what is more important, it will be placed in your To-Do List. There will be no need to scan the folder or use a search to find that marked item – it will be right here, on the list of tasks. What is more, the follow-up flags can be used to place the items in your to-do list on a specific date when you are planning to take some action on them. I tell about such a simple feature as the flags in detail because they are really powerful and helpful in their simplicity. It just takes a second to mark an email to work on it later, and equally simple to mark the item as completed when you are done with it. The follow-up flags definitely help you to keep track of all the things you would like to not forget about.

Regarding the second and third question, Outlook Categories feature will come to help. Firstly, you can use the category colors to sort your emails or tasks by priority by assigning them with red, yellow or other colors of your choice. Secondly, as you can mark a single item with more than one category, you can mark them with additional colors to indicate the action need for an item. For example, you can assign an orange color/category to the items which require you to schedule and conduct a meeting and use blue color for emails that should be answered. The exact colors used to mark emails are not so essential, but the use of color itself is. Later, when you are planning your work, it will be much easier to plan your schedule for a day or week, taking into account the importance and type of tasks.

The sample routine to prepare a bunch of emails for future work might look as follows:

  1. Go through the unread emails in your inbox and mark with flags those of them which require some action.
  2. Next, switch to Task view and assign all items categories by priority and task type.
  3. After that, move all items you marked to the Today section. I suggest keeping in No Date section only items that you use for reference or information. Otherwise, they are never going to be done ;)
  4. If the number of tasks to work on today exceeds your capacity, which is a typical case, move less critical tasks to next workdays. At this point, color markers will help you to easily see the more and less important tasks on your list and shuffle them.
  5. Repeat the described sorting algorithm to each portion of new emails.

When you complete the preliminary sorting, it will be wise to devote some time to actually do the job. More on this in my next post on boosting your productivity with Microsoft Outlook.

Stay tuned and post your questions in the comments!