The meeting is over. Now what?

December 14, 2009

What do you do when the meeting is over?

Effective Meeting Notes

l have learned the hard way that unless I take good notes during a meeting, I cannot be very effective afterwards and therefore the meeting ends up being a big waste of time. When discussing a new campaign, the direction that the new ad should take, and the pages we need to update on the website I have to be able to identify the following items after the meeting:

  1. What was discussed
  2. What decisions were made
  3. What action items were decided
  4. Who will do what by when

The best way to turn meetings (which are, unfortunately, inevitable) into productive time spent with the team, is to take effective notes. During note taking I try to write only key pieces of information (and not to simply transcribe what was said) and place symbols next to each one that helps me easily and quickly identify what is important.

Here are my identifiers:

  • The letter “i” in a circle: Informational only. Something that was told to give context, specific background information or other piece of data that I don’t have to do anything about.
  • An empty square [  ] (empty checkbox): Action item assigned to me.
  • An exclamation point “!”: Important information or decision made that I have to remember or that affects an action item.
  • Someone’s initials: Action item assigned to someone else.
  • FUP”: something I need to follow up on. Usually a task assigned to someone in my team that I need to check the status.

These are the most commonly used symbols during my note taking, and sometimes I add a couple more (asterisk, pointing arrow, circles, etc.) depending on the note. The key for me is to be able to review my notes and act on what needs to be done.

When I have to create meeting minutes, this system helps me to go through my notes quickly and identify things that should be in the minutes versus superfluous stuff. For the action items assigned to me, the first thing I do when I get back to my desk is open my Outlook and create Tasks for each one. This way I capture all my to-do items quickly and am ready for the next item on my agenda (usually another meeting).

Since I use a tablet PC (currently an HP Pavillion Tx2500), my notes are electronic and I can easily go back to them and search for them. Below is a sample meeting note with my system, I hope it gives you a better idea of how I use it.

What is your system? Please share!

Sample Meeting Notes

Example of how my symbol system for note taking works.

The Productivity Paradox: Short Term or Long Term Effect?

March 15, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on how to recover time I’ve spent in tasks not directly associated with what I consider productive, i.e. email, admin stuff, and doing everything else but those tasks that will help me achieve my goals. Why do I do those things, you might ask, and I reply that is because sometimes you just can’t say no. In a corporate environment, sometimes (some of you may argue that’s ‘all the time’) you get pulled out of your daily activities and asked to do something unplanned, like help out the sale manager with a powerpoint presentation, interview a new candidate for that admin position or even attend a meeting called last minute by your boss. As much as you hate it, sometimes you just have to adapt to the situation and juggle things around, add another monkey to your back and hope it doesn’t brake your neck. 

But I digress… what I’ve been focusing on for the past few posts is on how you can use tools you already have at your disposal (like MS Outlook for most corporate users) to become more effective and productive. The use of such tools, however, can be seen as a short-tem fix instead of a long-term effect. If you become better at managing your schedule, let’s say, will that help you gain back time you have wasted up until now and use now the time you’ll be saving in more productive tasks? Or is the time you have already wasted considered “sunk time” and will never be recovered?How productive are you?

On a recent blog post Jason Cohen, from Smart Bear Software, tackled this issue and argued that if you become 1% more productive each day you won’t necessarily be able to add all this productivity up and claim at the end of the month that you’ve now achieved 30% more productivity (the claim of 1% translating into cummulative productivity was made by Alfred Lin, Zappos COO, in his blog post). This is an interesting concept, because a lot of people start using GTD and similar methods to become more productive and it is comong that they end up not implementing the full method but are still satisfied because they feel they are now a bit more productive each day. So, in the end, if you are only a bit more productive can you claim an overall big productivity improvement?

What I will argue is that whatever the correct answer to this question, it is missing the point. The important thing is not to decide whether you can become 1% more productive each day, but is your productivity being applied to achieve your goals? Before you attempt to increase your productivity, first ask yourself: do you have a short-term or a long-term goal?

Short-term productivity is exactly that, the 1% each day, the ability of now to clean up your inbox in 30 mins instead of 45 mins, the extra 5 mins you gained because you are now running effective meetings, and the satisfaction that your day is now being spent on things that matter. 

Long-term productivity is the focus on your overall goals, how you spend your time, and what do you need to change in your daily habits that will let you achieve your objectives in the amount of time you have available. We all have goals and work hard to accomplish what we set forth but are we being realistic? Are we startegizing and planning what our priorities will be? Do we even know how much time we need to spend on specific tasks and whether those tasks will get us to where we want?

Jason, again, touched upon a very powerful first step for anyone interested in the long-term productivity plan. He talked about assessing your time and noting how you are spending your time during the day and week. Peter Drucker, in his book “The Effective Executive” spent the majority of his book discussing time management because it is such an important concept to tackle if you want to become more effective. Drucker suggested “know thy time” as a precursor to any adjustment you will have to make to your daily routine. This simple yet powerful principle is essential to help you better understand how you are spending your efforts. Take notes of how you are spending your time, then go back and ask yourself:

  1. What tasks are taking most of my time during the day and week?
  2. Which tasks should I be working on that will lead me to accomplish my goals?
  3. Are those tasks in my first list matching the ones in my second list?

Obvious, but not necessarily easy. Most of your time should be spent on those tasks that are directly associated with your goals, and if you are not spending most of your time on those, than no matter how productive you become every day (be it 1%, 5% or 10%!) the amount of productivity increased won’t matter if you are not focusing on what’s important.

Getting stuff done isn’t the goal. Getting the RIGHT stuff done, is.

Once you’ve identified what are the right tasks, the ones where you should spend more of your time then you can start thinking about ways to become more productive. This is long-term planning. If you always know how to spend your time, then when those unplanned events happen, you won’t be thrown off balance trying to recover your time.

Don’t focus on small or big improvements. Decide what you need to improve first.

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.





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 4: Take Responsibility for Decisions

January 13, 2009

The fourth principle can be summarized in one word: ACT!project plan

Marketing managers can sometimes get caught up on the creation of the plan, discussing with the team everything that will be done, the campaigns, the nice webinars, the new collateral, and the press releases but forget the important part of the marketing plan, actually the important part of any successful plan: The Three W’s (Who will do What by When)?

Until there’s a clear “owner”, a task won’t get done. Is the old saying that if everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible. Drucker advises us to use the following when determining the responsibility for each task laid out in the plan:

  • The name of the person responsible for the task
  • The deadline (when does it need to get done?)
  • The names of the people who will be affected by it, especially if approvals are needed (think for example about whether the CEO, the CMO, or another high level executive needs to review and approve your ad campaign before it goes out the door. Make sure to add this person as part of your plan and also to allocate the appropriate time it will take for this person to review and approve – or not – the deliverable)
  • The names of people who will have to be informed by the decision (after you create a new piece of marketing collateral do you announce it to the sales team? Do you have to put out a press release after you revamp your whole website? Think of the communication activities that may result of completing a task)

A key part of taking responsibility and assigning people responsible for each task is to make them accountable. Metrics should be in place to ensure performance is measured – something that becomes critical if the task at hand may impact the overall results of a marketing campaign. If, for example, an activity within your plan is to send out an email blast to selected customers inviting them to attend a webinar, you not only need to ensure you are tracking the results of the email campaign (open rates, click trough rates, bounce rates, etc.) but you should also look into whether the sending of the email itself was done correctly. How? Look back and verify whether the deadlines for creating the email and scheduling/sending it out were met. Why the results were so good or bad? Results from the email might point to improvements needed for the copy, the overall design, or even the landing page used. It is important to know beforehand how you are going to measure success for each activity and also understanding the implications of not meeting the goals (maybe the email needs to be reworked and sent again to drive additional registrations).

Drucker’s wisdom also tells us about delegation and the need for de-centralizing decision making. We all have way too much on our plates to be concerned with every little detail of our marketing plans, after all that’s why we have people in our teams that (hopefully) can help us with some of the tasks. Be it an intern, a marketing coordinator, an assistant or additional marketing professionals, we need to learn that we can rely on each member of the team to carry out his or her task successfully and to make decisions along the way without having to get your approval every step of the way.

The path to becoming an effective marketer involves learning how to “let go” of having to make all decisions. You hired quality people, you should trust your team and you should coach them on how to become better at what they do so that they can one day take over your job and you can rise up the ladder as well! Make each person responsible and accountable but also give them the freedom to decide the best course of action in certain situations. That’s the only way you will be able to accomplish everything you set out to do in your plan. Quoting directly from Peter Drucker “Making good decisions is a crucial skill at every level. It needs to be taught explicitly to everyone in organizations that are based on knowledge.” (from “What makes an effective executive”, Harvard Business Review, June 2004)

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