No, this isn't a renegade book review post from my personal weblog Puttering in the Study. It's a review of how this very useful book on using Microsoft Outlook has helped me make my use of the program far more efficient in my law practice, with some pointers that other practitioners might find useful.
Becoming an Outlook Ninja
Many, if not most attorneys use Microsoft Outlook in their practice - either the e-mail-only version Outlook Express, or the full version, which is a full personal information manager (PIM) in that it contains, in addition to the e-mail module, a full calendar, contacts, task list, notes, and journal functions. I was new to the full program last year, having previously used it only for e-mail and sometimes contacts, with calendaring, tasks and note functions handled by other programs. But when I ran into the daylight savings time bug from hell last year, it was time to migrate everything into Outlook and start learning how to use this massive program more efficiently. In short, I needed to become an Outlook ninja - and fast.
I ran across this book recently and was intrigued by its focus not so much on how to use Outlook's many features, but how to use the program to manage your life more efficiently. Reading the first several chapters, which are primarily personal productivity tips, I realized that the program really could be the key to making myself more efficient in my daily work of receiving, processing, and retrieving information, and doing work, regardless of the type, since I spend virtually all of my time at my desk working in it in one way or another. I won't go into detail on what the book says, but I thought it might be useful to others to explain what I took away from it - what changes I made to how I use the program, which I have already noticed save me a lot of time and make me more effective at working the important stuff first.
Make the Calendar (or Outlook Today) The Start page for Outlook
Like many others, I considered Outlook mainly an e-mail program and really hadn't focused on the fact that Outlook is a PIM, not unlike the Palm Desktop application I used for many years. The author suggested, and I agree, that it better reflects your priorities to make the calendar the starting page, and configure it so that it focuses you more on your calendar and ytour tasks than your e-mail in-box, which is often a significant distraction to seeing the big picture of what you really need to be doing at a particular moment. I did this, and reconfigured my tabs so that the calendar was #1 and tasks #2 and e-mail and the other functions were subordinate to those, and I try to keep in mind that what I do is really more important than just reading e-mail. As my nine year old Grayson constantly reminds me, Batman one said that "it's not who you are, but what you do that defines you." Good advice from the ultimate multitasking superhero.
Organize Your In-Box By Categorizing your E-Mails
This did not initially make sense to me - after all, wouldn't time spent categorizing incoming e-mails (in my case as CASES, OFFICE, READING, BAR WORK, PERSONAL) simply be a waste of time that could be better spent reading or working them? But it turned out to be the biggest single improvement in my work flow that the book taught me. When e-mails hit my in-box, they get assigned to categories (which the book provides several shortcuts to do), and then the whole mess gets moved into an e-mail subfolder ACTION ITEMS, which is where I do most of my work, freed from the distraction of each e-mail dropping in. When the e-mails are organized by topic like this, it is actually much faster to run through them and see what's critical or to simply process them. The author suggests filing the e-mails by topic in separate folders, but I disagree - when they're in separate folders I might not see them quickly enough to respond to something pressing, and I wouldn't be able to see at a glance how much is left to process to get the e-mails back down to zero. When they're all in one folder - and organized by topic - I can see right away what I need to look at, and the different categories are manageable in size - no more than five or ten e-mails for everything but CASES, and that usually under 20. Now I will move a large batch of e-mails in a particular case to a sub folder and make a task to process them later (since there are some sorting tricks that work better when the e-mails are isolated, and Pam tells me it's much quicker to enter my time when I group my dictation by case), but only after I've run through them and I know they're nothing critical. I also disagree with the author's suggestion that you set your in-box to automatically route e-mails to subfolders for the reason that in our line of work, I think I need to lay an eyeball on at least the subject line of every e-mail before it's sent off someplace - I can't risk some emergency e-mail getting routed to a folder I won't have a chance to check till tomorrow - if I remember to skim my folders one by one.
Using this technique, my in-box stays empty, and my ACTION ITEMS actually stays pretty close to empty, because I'm constantly punching it down and either deleting e-mails outright or turning them into tasks. But the bottom line here is that categorization up front really does save time, as well as help you work the right things first.
Things To Do Are Tasks, Not E-mails
Another useful bit of advice is to convert e-mails that require work to tasks. In the task view they are similarly organized by category so I can tell at a glance if there are some cases needing attention, and worry about reading or office matters later. Converting an e-mail to a task is simple, and any documents needed can be attached for the task. An example of one thing that I used to treat as e-mail and now treat as a task is reading lengthy filings. If a filing is short, I read it right then, from the link in the notice of filing I receive from the court. If it's lengthy, however, I turn it into a task (and note the docket number). My paralegal Pam Matthews downloads all filings into the appropriate pleadings directory on our server, so when I'm ready to read it I pull it up using the docket number and any highlighting or annotating I do on the pleading is saved to our file copy of the document.
This is really just a advanced phase of e-mail management, as you either delete an e-mail if it simply requires a quick read or response, or convert it to a task item if it requires additional work or a more lengthy response.
I had no idea that Outlook's Note function was essentially really just a sticky note. The author strongly advises that you enter virtually everything in Outlook as a Note first (just hit Ctrl + Shft + N and a blank note pops up) because you can drag it to become a Task, Appointment or Contact later, and in the meantime it's sitting on your desktop waiting patiently for you. You can even do the reverse so you have a sticky with call-in information for a call on your screen while you're working in another program (handy when you have back to back conference calls). I had to tweak the Notes segment of the program to get mine to work right, but I'm glad I did - this is a great tip.
Using Manual Journal Entries for Timing Multiple Tasks
No one uses the Journal feature in Outlook - that's just a given. I didn't even know what it was for, and won't bother explaining here what it is, because I don't use it either. But the book pointed up a very useful tool within the Journal function that I now use constantly, and that's the timer function for manual journal entries. Hit Ctrl + Shft + J and the program brings up a dialog for a manual journal entry. You can tap in what you're doing if you want, and the form has a timer you can turn on and off to record the time spent on a given call or task. Many readers probably have timekeeping software that does that, but the problem I had with mine is that you can't time more than one thing at a time, i.e. you can't open a item, then pause it and open another, and then easily come back to the first one. You had to close it out and open a new item. In my practice where I'm constantly interrupted working on one matter to work on something else, the ability to open multiple journal items with a timer function and go back and forth and accurately time the total time spent on each is a great convenience.
Those are the major tips I got from the book. It also explained how to use Microsoft's One Note program with Outlook, so I've starting using that and will post on it as soon as I figure out how it works, and whether it's a good addition to my desktop stable.