In the previous part of productivity hacks with Microsoft Outlook I wrote about the importance of offline work, reducing the number of emails to deal with and sorting them for work. Now, it is time to actually plan your work wisely.

Hack # 4. Book Time for Work in Calendar

The unifying idea of all time management and “getting things done” technics is that in order to achieve or complete something you should understand what to do, how to do it, when you are going to do it and be motivated to do that thing. In other words, you ought to have the following key components:

  • defined task;
  • knowledge about dealing with it;
  • resources needed to complete the task (time, energy, money, the help of other people, etc.);
  • understanding how the completion of this task contributes to your goal(s).

If you miss at least one of them, chances that you will not succeed are pretty high, and the most common thing people complain about is the lack of time.

Most Outlook calendars I see are used for booking time for meetings only. I also used to work with the calendar this way until in one of the books on time management I came across a simple but essential idea: to get the work done you actually should schedule when to do it. Unless you booked some time required to do a task in your calendar, that task is just an intention without a clear understanding of how and when to implement it in life.

My second observation about calendars is that people tend to treat free time on your schedule, well, as free time. For people that want to meet or talk with you, it is like an invitation to go and make an appointment. Imagine now that you wanted to do some important work today before lunchtime and had no appointments at that time. You came to the office and sat down to work. Meanwhile, you got an invitation to a meeting in 15 minutes, then one more in an hour or so. You might get angry, distracted and completely fail on your task to get the job done before lunch. Or course, you might decline those invitations but to do so, you still have to switch from your task in hand, write a response, probably with some explanation why you cannot attend it or with a suggestion to move the meeting to another time. All these operations introduce delays and unrecoverable time loses.

So why not book this time in your calendar to work on that critical task? Firstly, it will be more visual for you to understand what and when you are going to do. Also, you will have some understanding of how much time you will need for a task and therefore better understand your performance and capacity when providing your colleagues with estimates on new jobs. Besides, when other people make an appointment with you, it is more likely they schedule it on free time in your calendar, so you receive fewer interruptions while doing focused work.

Bonus Hack. Do not use email to solve problems

It might be not easy to notice, but rarely issues or misunderstandings in conversations are resolved by writing more emails. Moreover, writing responses by itself might take a lot of your time. Unless writing emails is your job, I strongly encourage you to spend as little time as possible answering emails. Just think, how much time you could have worked on the stuff that is really important for you instead of engaging in time-wasting email ping-pong.

At some stage of email exchange, it might be more reasonable and more productive to have a shot call or a stand-up meeting to quickly discuss and decide on the topic rather than blowing up an email thread with dozens additional messages that distract you and your colleagues from doing actual work.

I did not realize this simple idea myself until one of my more experienced colleagues told me a simple truth: “Business, real business, is done over a table, when you have a live dialog among the parties, and not in emails. The email should be used only to inform about something or arrange an appointment to discuss matters.” Since then, I have been asking myself each time I think about answering an email, whether there is a better option.

Will it be productive to spend the next 10 to 20 minutes compiling a response or there are more efficient ways to deal with a task? How effective will you be if you answer 10 emails daily? Or 20 emails? Or 50? Do not fall into the trap of giving away control over your work to the flow of incoming emails. Remember that the goal of productive work is about a result, not a few more useless bites on an email server. So, before hitting the Reply button think whether your response moves you toward the result or not. Applying the preliminary sorting and evaluation of emails described in section 3 will help you to protect yourself from compulsive replies and generating tons of worthless emails.The delay introduced by sorting and categorizing new emails will give you space to plan more reasonable reactions than just writing more emails.

I hope you find these email hacks useful in your day-to-day work with Microsoft Outlook or another email client of your choice. You are welcome to share your email hacks in the comments!