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Six Secrets For Seizing Control of Your In-Box and Your Life

The author of Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook shows you how.

By Michael Linenberger

Sometimes you despise that relentless harbinger of the Information Age: email. You’re drowning in it. Every time you see the escalating in-box tally, or scroll past a task you’d half-forgotten, or hear the cheery brriiinnng of yet another message arrival, you cringe.

Taking control of your email is nothing less than taking control of your life. Start with these tips:

1. Resolve to quit storing emails in your in-box.
Most of us leave important emails in our email in-box with the intention of returning to them later to act upon them. Even worse, email is just one place you’re likely storing your tasks. Others include your voice mailbox, a notebook, random sticky notes and—worst of all—“in your head.” You must track all your tasks in Microsoft Outlook’s Task system. It’s the key to everything. The relief of having one prioritized place to look for “to-dos” is amazing.

You must track all your tasks in Microsoft Outlook’s Task system. It’s the key to everything.

2. Immediately convert emails to tasks—as soon as you read them.
It’s simple. Just click on the email and drag it to the task icon. You’ll have to give it a name, and the naming process alone helps you think in terms of taking action. Let’s say you get an email from a colleague with the heading, “Can you believe this weather?” And maybe buried inside the email, after her comments on the blizzard you’re experiencing, is the task you need to do. You will put the actual to-do—“Fill out form”—right in the appropriate task list. Once you start doing this, you’ll no longer need to constantly reread emails, which saves a huge amount of time.

3. Make two task lists: one daily, one long-term.
Not surprisingly, your long-term list will be much longer than your daily list. The two-list system allows you to:

  • keep the most important tasks right in front of you

  • keep lower priority tasks out of sight so you don’t feel overwhelmed

  • separate long-term tasks from short-term tasks

Having everything in one list is like having a three-foot stack of papers on your desk. Yes, it’s all there in one place, but it’s too paralyzing to deal with.

4. Break down tasks into bite-sized, mini-projects and “next steps.”
Maybe two of the items on your long-term list are “write quarterly report” and “landscape yard.” Both of these are big tasks that you can’t do in one day. You need to break them into mini-projects and then figure out which “next step” should go on your list. So you might add to your daily list, “Call Susan and request last year’s report,” and “Call Jim and ask who landscaped his yard.” The simple act of making a big task manageable dramatically increases the likelihood that you’ll do it. It staves off procrastination. All tasks entered in Outlook’s TaskPad should follow this rule.

5. Every morning, first thing, prioritize with the “going home” test.
Prioritizing is definitely a tricky proposition. Start your day by asking yourself, out loud, the question, “What two or three items on this list, if they’re not done, will keep me from going home today?” Then set a goal to get them done early in the day. The earlier you get these high-priority items out of the way, the better. You can then give 100 percent of your focus to strategically important things instead of feeling nagged by those items that keep you at work late. And best of all, at 5 p.m. you can actually go home—no guilt, no tight stomach, no plea-filled calls to your spouse. It’s a great feeling, and it can change your whole attitude about work.

6. Sort your tasks with the oldest ones in the lowest position in your list.
Interestingly, most systems recommend that your oldest incomplete tasks should get the most attention. They may suggest that you put the oldest items at the top of your list, marked in red as “overdue.” I strongly disagree. You should put your newest tasks at the top of your list. Why? Because they hold the most energy. They are most relevant. And doing so will keep your task list fresh and useable. Old tasks are dead tasks, and your task list will become a dead list if you focus on those first. Later, if an old task takes on new life, you can reset the date to today and move it to the top of your date-sorted list. In other words, make old tasks earn their place at the top of your list.

(For three more secrets, go to www.workdaycontrol.com.)

Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Michael Linenberger, called the "Efficiency Guru" by The Detroit News, author of Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook: The Eight Best Practices of Task and Email Management, has been a management consultant and technology professional for more than 20 years. He leads workshops and consults on task and email management, and on program, project and workplace productivity. For more information, visit www.workdaycontrol.com.

 

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