Interruption 101: how not to teach someone to use Microsoft Outlook

Posted by in Productivity

If you’re ever on the lookout for an example of good intentions gone bad, look no further than your nearest basic course in how to get the most out of Microsoft Outlook. Almost invariably, such courses are replete with productivity faux pas: here are a few gems I’ve collected.

1. Enable the reading pane

Don’t enable the damned reading pane. Why? Because you’ll end up doing what most people do wrong with e-mail: snacking. One moment, you decide to be productive, and the next you’re skipping back and forth between e-mails worse than over-stressed, scatter-brained knowledge worker (oh, wait…).

Worse yet, after you’ve completed this travesty of a triage, the difficult e-mails typically remain to beckon for your attention… which is approximately when procrastination slithers onto the stage. By then, all is lost.

Try this instead: disable the reading pane and do the following (in order): open the e-mail, then parse its contents for action items and reference information. Delete what you don’t need, while transferring reference information to an (shock) information manager such as Evernote or Microsoft OneNote and tasks to a (surprise) task manager such as MyLifeOrganized or OmniFocus.

When you’re done with that, and only if you can’t delete it, archive the e-mail appropriately for easy retrieval. Then, and only then, open the next e-mail.

2. Enable (more) warnings for new e-mail

What? It’s DING not enough that Outlook DING already comes configured to DING warn you about new e-mail by default, we need DING to enable more warnings? Hell’s bells and envelopes fly, oh my! Seriously, though: can you DING imagine having a conversation with two DING other people, only to have one DING of them irregularly yet invariably shout, say, DING?

It’s odd how, just because something is a default setting, easily we accept constant, random interruptions as part of our personal workflow. Alas, this is a relic from the adolescense of the Internet; by now, we’re drowning in a deluge of information, and must needs filter out all unnecessary information in favour of focusing on our most important tasks.

Try this instead: disable any and all warnings from Outlook that pertain to e-mail. It’ll hurt for a couple of weeks, until you realize how blissful life is without constant interruptions. And if you’re afraid you’re going to miss something (or feel less) important

3. Sort by other things than date received

This one, I sort of get. We receive so much e-mail that we cannot possibly remember chronologically where every last piece resides, and some of us are much better at remembering who an e-mail came from rather than when it arrived. Still, sorting by anything at all usually involves copious amounts of scrolling, which wastes a staggering amount of time (no, really) as opposed to learning a couple simple search operators.

Try this instead: first, read up on filing vs piling. Then, carefully type ‘outlook search operators’ into the Google. Or Bing, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous.