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.
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.