Using Outlook to Help Keep Yourself Organized

A bad system will beat a good person every time.

W. Edwards Deming

Both in work and in life, I am usually keeping track of dozens of tasks at any given time. Action items, issues and risks, meeting agendas and logistics, email follow-ups, status reports, presentations. And the fun doesn’t stop in the office! I am organizing dinner plans with friends, weekend trips, European vacations, family outings, book club meetings, birthday celebrations, exploring NYC – you name it!

Sounds like a lot, I know. But don’t get me wrong – I love this stuff! I imagine it is why I eventually found myself in the project management field.

In the work environment, I have found that using very simple functions in Outlook help to keep me on track, which in turn ensures that others stay on track, as well.

I know there are a lot of newer tools out there that likely have awesome features – like Asana, Basecamp, and countless others. While I have not used any of them, I am sure these ideas and principles could apply to them, as well.

So, here are the five things I do to keep myself organized in Outlook.

I copy myself on almost every email. I know this may sound odd and you may be thinking your inbox would get out of control. But that’s not the case if you follow both this tip and the next one. I CC or BCC myself on any email where I either need to take action myself, or I am waiting for others to take action. Then I do not remove it from my inbox until it has been resolved, or until I receive a response – in which case the latter becomes the one I keep in my inbox. That way, I always have the latest status, question, comment, etc. at the tip of my fingers AND I do not lose sight of the tasks at hand because they are sitting there in my inbox.

I have a killer filing system. And I mean KILLER! So often people email me asking if I have some random email with multiple attachments that was sent over two years ago, acknowledging that it is probably a long shot. And they are shocked when minutes later I forward them the exact email they requested. There are two parts of having a killer filing system. First, you must set up your files so that you can easily find things. And second, you must learn which items are important to keep on hand.

I create Quick Parts to insert into emails. Never used Quick Parts? Neither had I until a few years ago. You can basically create and save an email template, then insert it into a new email in seconds. I use it for agendas, recaps, weekly summaries, and other emails that have standard formats or items to include. It definitely saves time and allows you to think more about the content of the email rather than how you set it up. I try to continuously update and simplify the templates over time.

I block time on my calendar for things other than meetings. This one is not rocket science. But it definitely helps. Whether it is time to get work done when I know I have a deadline, time for that training class that I have been meaning to take, or time for me to get myself some coffee in the morning – I am more likely to focus on a task if I have time set aside for it. Having it on my calendar serves as both a reminder and a safeguard of my time. It is easier to decline meetings when you appear to be busy – and you are!

I use Notes to jot things down. I am always making lists, as you should know by now. So whenever something comes to mind that is not already accounted for in an email or meeting planner, I add it to Notes. I have an Admin list that includes account information as well as my teleconference number and PIN for easy copy/paste. I also create notes for different team meetings I facilitate and write down agenda topics and other reminders. I even have a list of happy hour spots I want to try around the city!

While these tactics seem simple, it takes practice to make them work well for you. So what are you waiting for — start now!

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