Do you start the day opening your email and looking at the hundreds or thousands of messages in your Inbox? How does that make you feel? Overwhelmed, stressed and feeling like you are always behind on your commitments?
Do you have days where you know you worked very hard but somehow have nothing to show what you accomplished? How does that make you feel? Unproductive, overworked and stressed?
Do you feel that everyday you are at the beck and call of everyone else and do not have any control of what new crisis will hit you next? How does that make you feel? Dis-empowered, helpless and always wondering what the next crisis is?
These three symptoms typified my work life since I became a manager almost four years ago. I often said to my fellow managers:
“I am working really hard but it is not sustainable to do 10 and 12 hour days. I have to find a way to work smart so that my hard work really pays off!”
I attended a training course on using Outlook 2010 in May that has fundamentally changed how I approach my work. The course was offered by Priority Management Systems Inc and called Working Sm@rt with Microsoft Outlook. The course focused on using Outlook as a real productivity tool instead of using it just for email and calendaring. The instructor calls this “using Outlook with a business planning approach”.
The premise of the course is that in order to be productive, you need to focus on your commitments. To do this, you have to stop using your email Inbox as your To Do list. Face it, who puts things in your Inbox? You or other people.
As long as you start your day working in your Inbox, you will always be reactive in your efforts and working to someone else’s agenda.
To change this approach, the instructor helped us configure out Outlook client to open in our calendar and task list view. This is revolutionary for me. Previous to this, I used my Inbox, a paper based Day Timer journal, a Notepad document, a OneNote page and an Excel spreadsheet to try to keep To Do lists. None actually suited how I worked and I always found that I missed something or got distracted by conflicting priorities due to using multiple lists.
By using the Task features of Outlook in combination with my calendar, I am now able to focus on the commitments I make to my clients, staff and colleagues. When I get an email that needs my attention, I drag it to my Tasks menu to create a dedicated task for myself. I can set the start date for working on the task and assign it a priority. Because the email message is part of the task, I have all the context that I need to get the work done including who was involved, what the email discussion was about and any attachments. Working with all the information readily available saves so much time searching your email and disk file folders. The goal of this approach is to have an empty Inbox at the end of the day. I am very happy to report that I have accomplished this goal after working this way for 2 months!
There is a side benefit too … seeing all the completed tasks at the end of the day is very motivating. Have you had a day where you know you worked really hard but had nothing to show for it? I rarely have those kind of days anymore. I am able to focus on my daily task list and see that I am accomplishing what I committed to. I feel in control and that is very empowering.
So you are saying, “I can’t ignore my Inbox” and I agree. The instructor helped us configure a view with our calendar and tasks to also show the folder structure including my Inbox. Since I start Outlook with my calendar and tasks first thing in the morning, I get several tasks done before I look at any new mail. I will only go into my Inbox now if there are 10 or more new messages showing. I then triage the emails and make the ones requiring action into tasks. I then switch back to my calendar and task view and keep working. If someone really needs me to do something, I expect them to phone me (I communicate this expectation to the people I work with) … I am completely connected and reachable with my Blackberry and office phone. I also have an open door approach so people can show up in my office, when I am not in meetings!
One other new habit I adopted is to book 15 minutes at the end of the day to plan my tasks for the next day. I added an appointment for myself in my calendar. Taking some time to think and plan my next work day has also helped me to be focused, effective and less stressed.
I highly recommend you take a look this approach to working and look into the course by Priority Management. The course was very cost effective and took a full day commitment of my time. I know that I recovered the time and money invested many times over by the productivity gains I realized in the past two months. Let me know if you have any questions or want to discuss this approach to working smarter.