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Using Microsoft Outlook as Intended

Having worked in IT for a number of years, one thing that is fairly common is having to use Microsoft Outlook for calendar and email. One thing that most do not realize, myself included is that Outlook is a powerful tool when used correctly and as intended.

When I went through college, we did have a Office Applications course (CS 102) where we did have to learn MS Office. I already knew how to use it, but there were some features and applications that I had to learn for that class, but have not used them since that class.

When I worked in production support, it was not uncommon receive over 1,000 emails per day, including weekends and holidays. Of that 1,000, about 300 were actually necessary, and even less than that I actually needed to respond to. One day, I told myself there has to be a better way to do things with this tool. I took time during the workday to find blogs, videos, and any other information about how to be more productive, which helped me get more done in less time, and to working closer to 40 hours per week instead of the typically 42-45 hours per week.

That being said, here are some features that I use with MS Outlook to keep myself organized and productive.

Group Emails By Conversation

In my opinion, this should be the default sorting method for emails, especially when working in an enterprise environment. This features allows emails that fall under the same subject to be grouped together in their list. This helped because I was able to see the history of the email thread when it was necessary. Also if the entire thread had nothing to do with me, I can delete all of the emails associated with that thread with a single click of the Delete button at the top of the thread intead of deleting each email associated with that thread when it was received.

Ignore Conversation Button

Once I learned about this feature, I started using it almost religiously. Sometimes the team would be included on an email about an application that we were responsible for, but it was intended for a team member other than me. When I would see the first of these kind of emails,

I would click the "Ignore Conversation" button in the email. What this does is it will delete that email and any future emails that are sent to you with the same subject. If you do need to review these emails in the future, then you can go to the Delete Items folder and recover them.

Clean Conversation

This is the most underrated email function in Outlook in my opinion. The Clean Conversation deletes emails in the thread that are also included in the latest email. There is a setting that disables deleting emails in a thread that have attachments.

This feature is very helpful when you have 10 or more emails with the same subject being sent back and forth, that you should not ignore, but do not need to have each email in your inbox.

When anyone would go on vacation, it was common for people (myself included) to take a day or more to go through the backlog of emails in their inbox. After finding out about this feature, I could go through the emails I had in about half a day. Most of the emails were cleaned up by the Clean Conversation button and grouped by subject. Thus it made it easier to delete the whole thread if it really wasn't necessary.

This feature is also useful if you are running into mailbox space issues. You can run this on any folder in your Outlook to reduce the size of your PST file.

Do it, Delete it, or Delegate it - Inbox Zero

In search for productivity tips, I found someone say to do it, delete it, or delegate it. This is commonly known as the Inbox Zero method.

Do It

When you get the email, go ahead and respond to the request, send the information requested, or fill out the report. Each time that you go through your email and skip over doing the tasks associated with that email, the amount of time that you waste goes up exponentially each time you go through your email in this manner.

With this the Inbox served as my To Do List. Once the work was done, it was moved to Archive in case I needed to reference it in the future, or Deleted folder in case I knew I would not need it again.

Delete It

Instead of skimming over that email mutliple times, go ahead and delete it. Now if it is an email thread that will continue to have responses in the near future, use the Ignore Conversation feature instead of deleting the email. This will prevent future responses coming to your inbox.

Delegate It

If it is something that requires your attention but cannot handle at the moment, then delegate the work to someone else that has availability to complete it. That way it gets off of your workload.

First In, First Out

I find that doing first in, first out is less taxing and allows you to get things done faster. Now there are some exceptions, but you have to take that on a case by case scenario.

I found that by responding to emails in the order received instead of responding to emails that require the least amount of work first, resulted in me getting things done faster. Reason being is that when you try to do the low hanging fruit first, you spend more time looking for the low hanging fruit instead of doing the high and low hanging fruit in the order it was received. Thus the time that you spend on managing email and the requests associated with the email goes up exponentially.

If someone sends you an email today and say they need the report completed by tomorrow, knowing that it would take multiple days to complete the report, then you may have to have a one on one conversation with them to let them know that what they're asking for is too much. This is more true with those that do this habitually. There's a saying that "an emergency on your part, does not constitute an emergency on my part".

Drag Email to Create Meetings

When a number of people are on an email, and you need to set up a meeting. Go to the email list, select the email that has the participants that you want to invite to the meeting, and drag it to the Calendar icon on the left navigation menu. Then a meeting invite will open, you can add the other meeting details, and then hit Send.

Difference between Meeting and Appointment

Outlook lists Meeting and Appointments on your calendar. Now while you can create a meeting from an appointment, that is not how it is designed. In simple terms, an appointment is something that only applies to you that needs to be done at a certain time. A meeting is something that you and other people are involved in.

By clicking the correct button (Meeting or Appointment) the first time, you reduce the amount of time that it takes to set it up. When you click Meeting, the Attendees fields automatically appear, thus reducing the number of steps to create the meeting.

Sending Meeting Notes

When you have a meeting, and need to send attachments, notes, or other things to the attendees, you can do that by opening the meeting invite and clicking Respond button > Reply All. What this will do is create an email with the attendees listed as the recipents of the email and the subject of the meeting as the subject of the email. Then you have to add the attachments, notes, or whatever else to the email and send it. No need to type everyone in the email individually.

Simple Folder System

Early on, I had folders for each kind of grouping that you can think of. Because emails were typically send for the application that was being supported, I created folders for this. After reading about productivity, I stopped doing this. What I transitioned to was a simple folder structure that consisted of a Inbox, Archive, and Deleted folders. Two of the three mentioned folders are given to you by default from Outlook, thus only needed to create the Archive folder.

All emails that may or did require my attention, were delivered to the Inbox. All emails that required no attention or those that I could ignore entirely, were sent straight to the Deleted Items folder via Outlook rules. Once an item that I worked on was completed and I need to keep the final email in the thread, it was then moved to the Archive folder.

With a single Archive folder, if I needed to find something, I could use the search feature in Outlook to limit my search to the Archive folder and by Category. This was much faster than scrolling through a categorized folder trying to find one email, only to find out that I had categorized it differently because of the content of the email and not the application that it was associated with.

Turn Off New Email Notification

Minimizing distractions including getting notified when new emails are received helped improve my productivity. One article that I read mentioned that when we get a new notification, we are more inclined to check it when it appears, thus being a distraction. Each distraction makes you take longer to complete the work that you are attempting to complete due to task switching cost.

If an email is really important, you will get a ping, IM, or phone call requesting you to follow up on the email.

Batch Process Emails

When you turn off the notification, it will lead you to batch process emails instead of reacting to each individual email. This in some ways can be more efficient because then your objective is to complete all email related tasks and then go on to other work. Also, you are less likely to be distracted from completing other tasks.

Rules

Rules can be powerful. I actually had Outlook doing so much, that I hit the maximum number of rules, which is 30. What I needed up doing was to redesign the rules so that they were more general while still accomplishing what I needed them to do. Basically if an email was going to be deleted, I told it to run the delete rule and do not run anything else, cause there was not a need. Also the order of the rules are important as well. Now you can manually run rules on a folder if it is necessary, which was useful in some instances when work on an incident. Ideally though, the rules are able to manage the email for you without manual intervention.

Categories

In conjunction with the Rules, I used categories. It helped to easily find when something was related to a particular application that I supported or for a particular team. In some cases, the rules would apply a category when it should not have, but better to have that category associated when it should not be than to have it not associated and me miss something.

Do Not Accept Every Meeting Invite

There are some meetings that you do not need to attend, but do need to be aware of. In these cases, I would set my attendance as Tentative. Reason being is that I can still attend the meeting when it happens if I am available, but can skip the meeting if I am not available.

Auto Accept

Outlook does have a feature where it can automatically accept calendar invites when you do not have a conflicting meeting or appointment. I looked into this feature. The reason that I did not enable it was because it was fairly often that I would get invites that I did not need to or were required to attend. Thus would list those invites as tenative for just in case.

Conclusion

Hopefully the items that have been provided here are helpful and make you more productive with Outlook and managing your email.


Last update: 2022-10-03 Last update: Kenny Robinson, @almostengr