A Review of the Eight Best Practices of Task and E-Mail Management

From time to time, it is good to review the basic principles of the Total Workday Control (TWC) system and how they are applied in Outlook. It has been a while, so let's list those again now.

Remember, the core principle of this system is that good e-mail management comes first from learning good task management. Then you start converting action e-mails into tasks and managing those actions in your task system rather than your inbox, where few tools exist for that. Here are the eight best practices of task and e-mail management:

  1. Store all tasks in one place: Outlook’s task management system.
  2. Distinguish long-term tasks (master tasks) from daily tasks, and configure Outlook to show these separately.
  3. Use a simple prioritization system that emphasizes must-do-today tasks (and configure the Outlook task list to show these right at the top).
  4. Emphasize Next Actions in your daily task list.
  5. Reconcile your task lists daily and weekly with some simple planning.
  6. Convert action e-mails into Outlook tasks (this is the topic of this newsletter’s advanced features section below).
  7. Keep your inbox clean by filing mail in bulk, and then either using a good full text search engine or by using Outlook Categories.
  8. If you have staff to delegate to, do so effectively and use Outlook to track those delegated activities.

As you can see, this is not rocket science; the components are all common sense recommendations. But with the addition of some custom configurations in Outlook, teaching some simple Outlook features, and a few unique recommendations on how to do each step most effectively, the combined elements really take off to get you way ahead of your workday. At least that's what most seminar participants and book readers seem to agree on, so give the above list a try.

Request: Feedback wanted!

If you are using the Total Workday Control system I'd like to collect some additional feedback on how it has improved your workday. So if you are willing, I'd love to have you, by return e-mail, send me a quote... even if just a sentence or two. I just want to expand my list of comments, and this will help me greatly. And if you could, please indicate whether you would be okay with my listing your quote in a feedback section, either in the next book or on the website. And tell me if I can list your name and or company. If "no" to any or all of that, that's fine, a list of anonymous quotes is good too. Thanks in advance for contributing. Michael.

Advanced Topics
A New E-Mail-to-Task Feature in Outlook 2007: "Flagged on Send"

The new release of Outlook (2007) was formally released on January 30 and I am liking it's new features more and more each day. In last month's newsletter I described most of the new features in a high-level overview, and provided links into a more complete article with details on using Outlook 2007 with the Total Workday Control (TWC) system.

In this month's advanced topic section I'd like to focus on one feature I did not cover there. It is functionality that helps with converting e-mails to tasks and it's called "Flagged on Send;" it is a real nice addition to Outlook. And even if you have not upgraded to 2007 or do not intend to for a while, read on because the principles are still valid even for earlier versions. And I show other ways do the same in earlier versions. Before I explain how it works, let me first provide a little background on why this is so important.

Anyone who has attended one of my seminars or read my book knows I am obsessive about converting action e-mails to Outlook tasks. This is a core element of my Total Workday Control (TWC) system and key for anyone wishing to gain control over an overloaded inbox. Chapter 6 of the book covers this thoroughly.

Well, I also recommend a special case of this best practice as follows. I suggest that when you send an e-mail requesting something important or time sensitive from someone, that you immediately convert the sent mail to an Outlook task, so you can remember to follow up on that request. Otherwise the ball may get dropped between the two of you after a few days pass. The idea is to have a follow-up task show up at the top of your task list in a few days or so, to remind you to reach out again if needed. And if converted per my recommendations, the task actually contains the original e-mail; this is useful because you can then just resend it to you colleague with a cover note saying "in case you missed this." It's usually pretty effective at getting things moving.

Well, in the older versions of Outlook, creating these follow-up tasks was a multi-step process. You had to open the Sent Items folder, find the mail you just sent, drag the e-mail to the task icon, and then re-title and date the task.

Outlook 2007's New Approach
Now, with Microsoft Office Outlook 2007, this feature is built in so you can do it in essentially one step, and that's what Flagged on Send does for you. It's a fantastic feature and I encourage you to use it. It is also quite simple to use, but there is one twist: if you've used flagged mail on outgoing messages in previous versions of Outlook, you may now need to unlearn the way you previously did that and learn the new way. Let me explain.

Past Versions
In past versions of Outlook you may know that you could flag an outgoing message. Do not confuse this with setting a high-priority marking on the item, that is different. Rather this was a true reminder flag, so that when the e-mail arrived in the Outlook Inbox of the recipient it already had a reminder flag attached to it and possibly a reminder alarm. It was a pretty cool capability, and honestly a bit intrusive. Why? Because it actually allowed you to set someone else's Outlook to pop up an alarm window on their computer against your e-mail deadline. I rarely used it because I found to be a just a bit over-the-top. Regardless, the way you used it was simple: you just clicked the flag symbol at the top of the outgoing e-mail, just before you clicked the Send button (see below).

Outlook 2007's New Flag Controls
In Outlook 2007 that flag button is still there but now looks different (see below), and it works differently. Its main purpose now is to create a flag on your copy of the mail; specifically, in your own Sent Items folder.

At first that may seem silly, why mark a mail item hidden in the Sent Items folder that you may never see? But here's the key. If you recall from last month's newsletter, flagged e-mails in Outlook 2007 now take on a near-task status, and these items are now also listed right in the To-Do Bar tasks list. So this flagged sent e-mail will also be placed as a Flagged Mail Task right in your to-do list, along with all your other tasks, and even marked with a special symbol indicating it is an e-mail follow-up (see figure below).

The net result: with one click you now have a great follow-up tool. During a given workday I may create 3 to 5 follow-up tasks and I find them extremely useful for keeping track of the many things I am waiting on. Others seem to agree; the follow-up tasks section is usually the most popular part of my seminars. It solves a problem many people are very familiar with and need a solution for. And unlike using separate waiting-on lists, these items appear just when you need them at the top of your task list. So now having a one-step way to create such a solution is fantastic news.

By the way, the only catch to this feature is you need to remember to set the Follow-up Flag before you send the mail. If you forget, once the mail is sent you'll have to create the follow-up task by going again to the Sent Items folder, find the sent mail there, and then either convert it to a task or simply flag it there (the latter will also place it in your To-Do Bar tasks list, but with no special icon).

More on this: Setting Follow-Up Dates
When you create one of these follow-up tasks, the Outlook 2007 interface also allows you to pick a follow-up time frame from the flag drop down. This allows you to set the flag and pick the date in one step. Presumably you will pick a future, but near-term date to chase down the tardy colleague. The figure below shows how to pick various pre-set dates.

One thing to note is that since in TWC we use the Due Date field as sort of a start date, I recommend that in that pull-down choice of dates that you only pick from three choices: Today, Tomorrow, or Custom... The others won't give you what you expect, since they assume use of the Start Date field as the key field. Note the Custom... choice allows you to set any due date.

What if I still want to set a reminder flag at the recipient's mailbox?
If you enjoyed the old way the outgoing follow-up flag worked, which placed a reminder alarm in the recipient's mail box, it is not gone. It is now an option at the bottom of the drop down called "Flag for Recipients..." See that choice in the figure above.

One more bonus from these Flagged on Send Tasks
There is one more bonus from using these Flagged on Send Tasks. If the recipient in fact replies to your original e-mail request, the infobar at the top of that reply tells you that this is a reply to a flagged message. You can then click on that bar and automatically open the related task, and then mark it complete.

Alternative One-Button Follow-ups (that do not require Outlook 2007)
By the way, if you are not able to upgrade to Outlook 2007 (perhaps your organization is not letting you upgrade) but want this capability now, consider instead installing the ClearContext IMS Pro Outlook add on. It also has a one-button Follow-up task capability built in. It works a bit differently, but is just as effective. In fact maybe more effective since it creates an actual Outlook task as opposed to a Flagged Mail Task. If you want to use this software, be sure to download the TWC enabled version of ClearContext as it comes with many TWC features built-in. Note that you do not need admin rights to install ClearContext, so even in a locked down corporate environment you can install it. Also note the Follow-up button in ClearContext IMS Pro is one feature that expires when the free version of ClearContext expires a month or two after your download, so you'll need to pay the upgrade fee to keep that feature. Just know that the upgrade is inexpensive and highly worthwhile. (Note: I do not make any money off this product plug, I just like the software).

Workshops, Talks, and Executive Coaching:
Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook

Don't forget, if you need individual or team coaching on getting ahead of e-mail and tasks, there is no better way than an on-site workshop or coaching session. Keynote speaking is also available for your corporate gatherings. Boost the productivity of a team by giving your group on-site instruction. All sessions are given by me, the author. See my workshops page for information on the full day seminars. Or better, call me at 935-277-3448 to discuss presentation options, and to discuss the best approaches for your organization.

That's all for now. Good luck with all your endeavors, and please do this: commit today to getting your e-mail under control. Once you do it will change your whole attitude about work.

Michael Linenberger

PS: Remember to forward this e-mail newsletter on to a friend if you think you think they could benefit from it. You can use the Forward to a Friend link below for a form that gives your friend a discount on the book if they sign up for the free newsletter subscription. Or just use your e-mail Forward button to forward this newsletter only.