Getting Stuff Done with MS Outlook

February 25, 2009


Note: the tips I give below work in MS Outlook 2003 as well as 2007 version. Outlook 2007 has even more features for helping you categorize stuff, but we’ll keep it simple for now and focus on the features available in both versions.

An Effective Marketer gets things done. He is known for his ability to complete tasks, get campaigns back on track, measure and make course corrections in a timely fashion and still handle responsibilities that are not even in his job description.  How does he do it? With focus and by tackling one thing at a time. 


If there is any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.

  Peter F. Drucker, “The Effective Executive”


If we could just create our plans for the year and stick to them without having any additional requests or emergencies come up after that, life would be perfect. But no! Stuff keeps happening. Meetings here, there and everywhere taking up precious time, emails that keep coming, voice mails that keep getting through, and those pesky employees that just can’t function without direction. Life could be good, indeed, if you lived in an island alone. But since you’re reading this, odds are the life in an isolated island is out of your reach. So let’s at least try to get some stuff done, shall we?

Concentration is the main thing, as Peter Drucker said, but in order to focus you need to know what to focus on. Should you check out that email from the CEO that just came in and stop revising the ad copy? Or should you get to the action items discussed during the last staff meeting? Aha! So many things taking your time and attention that you can’t focus, huh? The answer is to first get organized.


Organizing your tasks Outlook Task Manager


There are several methods of organization being one of the most popular with technology folks the GTD (Getting Things Done) system. But whether you subscribe to GTD, to Autofocus, ZTD, Covey’s 7 Habits, or any other system you need to have a way of organizing and creating action items/tasks. That’s the core of getting stuff done and being productive. Some people like paper and pencil and carry notebooks around with them, pages filled with meeting notes, reminders, etc. Others use PDA’s , their iPhone, or a computer.   What most don’t realize is that they probably already have a pretty good tool for helping them organize their tasks, prioritize, and take action. That’s MS Outlook, used in most corporate settings to handle email but not fully understood from a task management perspective.


Getting to Know MS Outlook

First time I tried to use Outlook for more than email and calendar, I really didn’t like it. But I also had no idea of how to use it properly, I was just creating tasks and forgetting to check back on them and spent more time looking for a particular task than actually doing work. Well, those days are over because I realized that if you want to use Outlook for task management, it can actually be very effective. You can even incorporate GTD characteristics to make it more functional.

First: create categories

A light bulb went on in my head when I read Getting Things Done and he talked about creating a tickler folder and different categories for stuff. Common sense, obviously, but it just helped me see my workload in a different way. 

New Task Categories

So now in Outlook I have multiple task categories such as “Action” for things I need to personally work on, “Follow-up” for items that need to be checked upon later, “Calls” for calls I need to make, etc.  I also have categories for the type of work that needs to be done, for example “Collateral” for all work related to marketing collateral, “Website” for all

 website related stuff, and so on. This helps me because I can either check on all “Action” tasks and then check on all “website” related tasks and prioritize.

The default task categories in Outlook are OK but you need to create your own set of categories. When you create a new task, click on the ‘categories’ button at the bottom of the new task screen and then click on the “Master Category List” button. You will now see the ‘master’ list and will be able to edit, add, or delete categories.

Second: Decide on top categories

OK, now that you have categories you will be able to get all stuff you need to work or get done assigned to a category, or even multiple categories. Let’s say I need to review the copy for a new spec sheet. I will assign this task as “Action” (because is something I need to work on) and also assign it to “Collateral” (because is related to collateral materials). I like this ability to multi-tag or assign multiple categories to tasks, it can come really handy.

Task List in Outlook

But wait, there is more! Simply creating categories is not enough. Decide on your top categories, the most important ones. These are the action-related categories, such as “Action”, “Follow-up”, “Call”, etc. those generic but action-oriented categories (and not the specific “Collateral” or “website”, etc.) are the ones that will help you get stuff done. If 

a task is under “Website”, you don’t know whether is something that requires you to work on, to follow-up on, etc. but if a task is under “Follow-up” then the goal is clear. And you want these action-oriented categories to appear first on your Task Manager screen. Simply edit the category name and start it with an @ symbol. This will make it come first when you sort your tasks by categories (which you should always do). This way you have displayed first the action items in their respective categories.

Third: Create VDP Lists

After leaving voice mails for another manager for a week, he finally calls me back to see what I needed and I only have 10 minutes before he jumps on another call, and I have to scramble to go through the emails I sent him or look back at some notes I took to get the list of things we needed to discuss. And usually I forget one or two items. By creating the “@Follow-Up” task category I was then able to add tasks to follow up with that manager on a number of different items and be more prepared for when I finally was able to catch up with him, but still that required to browse through a list that contained not only follow-ups with him but with other people as well. That’s when I started creating VDP lists (for “very difficult people” to get a hold off). These are categories that have that person’s name, like “Jonn’s List” or “Mary’s Lists”, etc. When there’s an action item that requires me to check with them or follow-up with them, I can add that task to that person’s specific list and when I am finally able to get a hold off them, I open that category in Outlook and go through the task items.

Instead of the VDP list, you can also create one for different projects (Tasks associated with Project ABC that need to be discussed during the status meeting every other week) or for a specific meeting that’s held every month. Let’s say you have a staff meeting or a management meeting where managers of all departments get together to discuss several items. Well, as you wait for the next month’s meeting, you can start allocating items in task manager for that specific category, let’s say “Monthly Management Meetings”.  Now, before GTD zealots and the like start picking this idea apart, remember that sometimes the action you need to take is simply “bring up idea about xyz during next management meeting”. So if you can capture that item and properly categorize it, you will be ready when time comes.

Fourth: Prioritize Your Tasks

Where some of the productivity systems fall apart is on the prioritization part. Simple to-do lists fail because you never seem to be able to get through all those items on the list, in fact at the end of the day the list has grown even more! And for all good that GTD, Covey, and other systems give you they never get into too much detail about how do you decide what you should do first. Yes, that’s where YOU have to start making decisions based on your goals, your availability, your resources, and on what’s important to you. Deciding what’s important and what’s urgent (as Covey likes to put it) is a critical thing if you want to become effective, but is also subject for another post. Let’s just assume for now that you know what needs to be higher and lower priority, so you need to get your tasks in Outlook to reflect that.

If you simply create a new task and give it a category, let’s say “@Actions”, you will have a bunch of tasks under that category. Which one do you do first? Well, if you follow GTD or 7 Habits you will (and should!) stop at some point during the week to evaluate your tasks, your state of mind, your soul and what you need to do in the next few days. This is when you stop ‘doing stuff’ and go to ‘processing stuff’, which also means that at the end you need to 

Outlook Task Priority


So either you do this each time you create a task or when you stop to evaluate your time and open each task and assign it a priority. Outlook gives you “low”, “medium” and “high”. Now you not only have tasks associated with different action-items (follow up, call, etc.) but you have prioritized them.

Go to “View” menu, select “Arrange by”, “Current View”, select “Customize Current View”. Make sure that “Group by” is “Categories (ascending)” and in the “Sort by” click and select it to be “Priority (descending)”. This way your Task Manager view in Outlook will show all tasks grouped by categories with higher priority tasks showing first within the categories.

Outlook Custom Task View

Get Stuff Done This Week

If you need another yet another layer of prioritization, you can also create a category called “@@This Week” (the @@ signs will guarantee it will show up on top as the first category, make sure to configure the “view” to group by categories though) and as you go through your task list on a Friday afternoon or before you start work on Monday, you can look at the high priority tasks in each category and also assign it to the “@@This Week” category. When you’re done with one task you can simply go back to MS Outlook Task Manager, look at the next task listed under your This Week category and get it done.

Capture Tasks All the Time

As I explained in a previous post, you can simply drag email messages to your Task Manager icon in Outlook (works for Outlook 2003 and 2007) and that email will become a new Task Item. Easy, simple, and efficient! Also don’t forget the killer CTRL+SHIFT+K keyboard combination that will create a new task item wherever you are in Outlook. As you get emails, make sure you process them and if there’s an action that needs to be taken, use the proper categories and prioritization.

If you want to know more about processing emails, getting your inbox empty, and working more productively you should definitely check out 43Folders and their “inbox zero” series of articles and a great Primer on the GTD system is the blog post at 7Productions.

Next: Is your calendar working for or against you? Some simple tips for MS Outlook Calendar that will help you become more productive.





Only One Thing Matters in Online Surveys – WIIFM

February 16, 2009

Marketers have several tools at their disposal in their arsenal of marketing weapons, one of which is surveys. You can’t be a marketer without having done some surveys in your life, otherwise where will you have gotten  your data from? How did you target and fine tune your messages?

With the advent of cheap online survey software, everyone it seems is creating and sending out surveys. The good surveys, or should I say effective surveys, are the ones that get people to fill them out giving you enough insight into their market/purchasing process/buying habits/etc. that will positively affect your campaigns.

Marketing guru Seth Godin has recently posted a short but very good list of how you can make better surveys, but he misses one very important point. WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). That’s what the reader will be asking herself as she reads and opens your survey.

The benefit to the survey respondent needs to be obvious. Sure, in some cases people may respond simply because they love your company/brand and that’s great, but you should also strive to get those who are not necessarily loyal customers to respond, otherwise the survey may end up not telling you the whole truth. What will they get out of it? There are several options:

  • Prize drawing (like an iPhone or other gear)
  • Cash (or gift cards)
  • Book
  • T-Shirts and other corporate branded giveaways
  • Knowledge

Of all the possible offers, Knowledge is probably the most enticing. Sure, if you give away a brand new tech toy people will likely get excited about the possibility of winning it, but if you give away Knowledge you will have an even better chance of impressing the respondent. This knowledge can come up in several different ways, such as a compilation of the survey results, a more personalized benchmark of your questions versus the survey population, a whitepaper about the subject at hand, and many others. Few people do it this way because it takes time and money.

Regardless of what you are offering (and the offer should vary based on your target population for the survey, your industry, etc.) you will be far more successful if you think in terms of WIIFM – make it attractive enough that they will want to spend a few minutes answering your questions.

If you’re gonna copy, make it right

February 15, 2009

An interesting blog post by Jason Cohen at  discussed why you shouldn’t copy other companies just because they were successful at what they do. He uses examples like 37Signals, Copyblogger, FogCreek Software, Zappos, and make a good case for trying to think for yourself instead of just following what others are saying.

His controversial post caused quite a stir whith some people taking it personal, others agreeing with him and even others that were lost completely as to what the message he was trying to say was. Why do I care? Well, for one I’m interested in controversy and believe that dissident voices can often give us great insight into what we thought was a certainty. How often have you presented an idea to your team or to the company’s senior management only to get asked questions you never yourself considered before? My second reason for liking that post is that I agree with what Jason said.

Let me explain. Although I admire Joel Spolsky and think he’s right on the mark 99% of times, I wouldn’t simply copy his business model or his ideas and try to use them in my own company. The simple fact that it worked for him doesn’t prove that it will work for everyone. Another person I admire is Jack Welsh (former CEO of GE) but I also wouldn’t be as ruthless as he was during his tenure simply because that is not my style. Can you be as successful as someone else without using the same methods? The myriad of companies out there that are successful and yet operate completely different (Southwest and JetBlue, Yahoo and Google, GM and Toyota, etc.) are the proof.

Did Jason take some stuff out of context? Maybe. But the overall idea was interesting and valid, especially for us mere mortals that look in awe at others that have been more successful (however you define the term) and have to be brought back down to earth and go back to work.

The lesson here translated into the marketing realm is that you should always keep an eye out for the competition, for your partners, for other similar companies, for what is said to be working and why. What is the best ad campaign you’ve seen recently? Which is the best website? Who in your industry is the king of PPC and SEO? This is all good food for thought but beware of simply copying what others are doing. You competitor may have a very good reason why he decided to create a blog on his website and why he spent thousands on that slick direct mail piece but it doesn’t mean you should follow suit. Watch, learn, absorb all the good and bad then translate it into your own context. 

Effectiveness doesn’t come from copying, it comes from making it right for your organization. Do what works for you, not what have worked for others.

Effective Manager Defined

February 14, 2009

From time to time I go back to some business books I’ve read that had big influences in my career, one of which is “The One Minute Manager”, by Ken Blanchard. There’s a specific passage I think is a great definition of effective managers, it reads:

Effective managers manage themselves and the people they work with so that both the organization and the people profit from their presence.

This is a simple but powerful thought. How are you making use of your time? How are you making use of your team’s time? Are the tasks you and your team working on going to directly affect the company’s ability to compete in the marketplace?  Are the marketing campaigns you are planning or have planned going to directly influence sales? What are the key items in your agenda as a marketer that can have a direct impact in the company’s bottom line? 

Food for thought.

Outlook Productivity Tips

February 12, 2009

How to use MS Outlook to become more productive

Most people have MS outlook as their business email client, but very few really know how to take full advantage of all the options Outlook offers. MS Outlook is also a great productivity tool when used correctly, and so I decided to share some productivity tips for those using this program. You will realize that the more you use it, the more you will like it. Below are some of the main options you should know exist in Outlook, I will cover some more specifics about using Tasks and time management tips on another post. I hope at least one of these tips can help you get more from Outlook.Outlook Productivity

1.       Turn emails into appointments: we all get emails asking us to schedule a meeting or asking us to participate in one. The easiest way to ensure you won’t forget to add the meeting to your calendar and at the same time get all the detailed information that came in the email right there when you need it is to transform the email itself in the outlook calendar item. Simply click on the email message, and drag it to the calendar icon on the left panel. Pronto! An outlook calendar item will open up on the window and the body will contain the same text as the email had. When you’re ready for the meeting, simply open the calendar item and check the content in the body.


2.       Turn emails into tasks: outlook is a great task management tool if you know how to use it. There are several ways in which you can flag emails with different colors and priorities, but I don’t like to keep them in my inbox (time management and productivity gurus all agree that you should try to empty your inbox, but this is another discussion) and so I simply drag the email to the task icon on the left panel and a task item will pop up containing in the body the whole of your email! Is that simple… now for those emails that require an action or follow-up, simply drag them to create a new task.

3.       Create tasks quickly: on the phone with the boss and he assigns a new project to you? In a meeting with your staff and want to ensure you follow-up on the activities you just delegated? Simply press CTRL+SHIFT+K. A new task window will open up waiting for your input.

4.       Create custom views to find emails quickly: let’s say you want to see all emails in your inbox that were sent by a particular person. You can quickly sort your emails by sender when you click the ‘from’ column at the top of your inbox screen but then the emails are not ordered by date anymore. If you need to see all emails sent by a particular person and still keep them sorted by date, you should create a custom view. This is an awesome way to quickly find messages from different people while still keeping the sorting by date active. Go to “view”, select “current view” and then select “define views”. Click “new” and type in a new name for this view (e.g. Messages from John). Leave ‘type of view’ as table and hit OK. On the next screen click on the “filter” button and in the filter dialog box click on the “from” button and select the person’s name from the contact list.  Hit OK and exit back to your inbox. This new view will be listed under the “View” menu, “Current View”. When you click on the new view it will be applied to your inbox and you can then easily locate the message(s) from that person. If you are like me and have a ton of messages sitting in your inbox, this is the quickest way to find a message or a message thread, create multiple views and save some time finding emails.

5.       Use favorite folders for quick access: most people I know end up creating multiple folders in order to archive messages and discussions relating to a particular project or subject. Eventually you end up with a lengthy tree structure with subfolders as well. You, however, are likely to be working more frequently with only a couple folders and have to keep browsing your folder tree searching for them. Well, stop that! Right click on that folder(s) you use most and select “Add to Favorites folder”. Now that folder will show up at the top of the left panel, easily accessible any time you want.

6.       Find emails quickly alternate method: if you don’t like the idea of creating custom views to find messages in your inbox, you have an alternate method that is very powerful; you can create “Search Folders”. Go to “File”, select “new” and the “search folder” option. The dialog window that pops up will have standard options like unread mail, mail from someone, etc. Once you customize the search folder, it will show up right next to “unread mail” and “sent items” that usually show up at the top of the left panel. You can create several search folders and when you need to find specific emails (e.g. all messages flagged high priority or all messages sent to a specific distribution list, etc.) you simply click on that search folder.

7.       Disable the reading pane: the reading pane can be customized to show up at the bottom of the screen or the right. I liked the reading pane but it always bothered me for the space it used up even when I resized it… so I decided to work smarter and remove it completely. What I do instead is I selected my “view” option (under “view” menu, “current view”) to be “messages with auto-preview”. This way messages I haven’t read show up with a summary right below them. I can easily scan incoming messages and decide if I need to open them right at that moment. And messages I have read don’t display the summary anymore so it gives me a quick visual representation of read and unread messages. It took me a while to get used to this view but it helped me so much that is now my standard view for Outlook.

8.       Group messages by conversation: this is a big shift if you are used to simply listing messages by their received date because it changes the way messages are displayed, but helps a lot when there are emails going back and forth about a specific subject that you need to keep track of. In addition to my previous suggestion of disabling the reading pane and using the ‘messages with auto-preview’ option, I went to “View – current view – customize current view” menu and set the “Group by” to be “Conversation (ascending)”. By doing this, all messages in my inbox are grouped by conversation (meaning similar subjects), allowing me to see all threads related to a particular subject grouped together on the screen. When I’m copied in messages that go back and forth between other people in my company, I can see the whole discussion without having to search for messages and decide whether someone has already replied to the last email or not. Very easy and fast way to keep track of conversations about the same subject.

9.       Color code important emails: need to respond to your boss’ emails before you do anything else? Want to ensure that email about the bonus plan doesn’t get lost among all your other messages? Use color! Go to “View”, choose “Current View”, and select “customize current view”. Click on the “automatic formatting” button on the window that pops-up and click on “add” button. Type in a name for the new formatting rule (e.g. Messages from Charlie) and click on the Font button to choose a different font size, type, or color then click on Condition and select the criteria you want (e.g. if you want all of Charlie’s messages to appear in bold red, click the “from” button and choose him from the contact list, then in the Formatting option select bold red). If you want all your unread emails to appear blue instead of the default black bold, that’s where you can change it. Play around and choose wisely. Colorful messages help you distinguish them from all others, but use it sparingly otherwise the carnival of colors will only confuse you.

10.   Create new emails without your mouse: this is a quick and easy one. Instead of clicking on the “new” icon at the top, just press CTRL+N to create a new email message. It saves you a few seconds, but at the end of the day those seconds add up!

Stay tuned for additional tips related to how to use Outlook Tasks for better time management and to get things done.

P.S.: I will be uploading a document with some screenshots illustrating the tips above to make it easier for you to understand and do it yourself.

Effective Marketer Principle 8: Say “We” rather than “I”

February 6, 2009

“Think and say we” is Drucker’s advice. There are two good lessons here, one being that you should earn the trust of your team and you can only do that if they see that you are not going to go at it alone without giving them any consideration. It is also a good reminder of the great art of delegation, which is getting work done through others.

The marketing manager that thinks in terms of “we” will get more accomplished because he will be:

  • Sharing with the team the vision and direction of the company and of the department
  • Sharing with the team the marketing plan for the year and the goals for each campaign
  • Asking the team for feedback, ideas, and criticism
  • Giving feedback to the team on what they are doing right and what needs to be improved – Sharing with the company the successes the team as a whole has achieved
  • Trusting the team to make the right choices at difficult moments and allowing them to make mistakes along the way
  • Giving each team member additional responsibilities so they can learn and grow as professionals
  • Taking on more responsibilities and important projects now that he can share with the team the burden of ensuring successThink We Rather than I

A final, bonus if you will, lesson from Peter Drucker’s insightful article is about the art of listening. He says “listen first, speak last”. Good listeners will be better at understanding what needs to get done and will be more effective. So if you are ready to becoming an effective marketer, master these 8 principles (see previous posts for the other seven principles) and you will be one step ahead of the competition.

The road to effectiveness is not an easy one, but is definitely a rewarding journey.

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