Microsoft Outlook – The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread – or – An Evil Plot to Addict Us!

Outlook is by far the most common PIM (Personal Information Manager) program on the market today.  We use it to email, store our contacts, calendar, notes, tasks, and much more.  I first used a version of Outlook in 1996, and have grown to love, and hate it.

Why would this be?  Microsoft has our best interests in mind, correct?  Could they possibly do anything that would not be good for the productivity of our business?  Surely not!

Here are some of my thoughts about certain features, and how they can either help, or hurt your productivity:

Email Notification Popups – By default, in Outlook 2003 and newer, Microsoft turns on this great little feature.  Every time a new email arrives in your Inbox, 3 things happen.  A sound plays through your speakers, an envelope icon appears in your system tray, and a window popup appears in the bottom right of your screen, giving you the Sender, and a brief summary of the email.  I’m glad that they give me three different notifications to keep me immediately in touch with everyone that emails me.  When I’m working for a customer, writing a contract or proposal, or running payroll, there’s nothing more annoying and distracting than having my system notify me of an incoming email.  This is counter productive, and does nothing more than keep us addicted to the product.  We get “instant gratification” that someone, somewhere is thinking about us in some way.  And, to keep the problem snowballing, we stop what we are doing, and reply.  Email should simply be a tool for transferring information, not a distration (see blog post about Email for further information).  I have been to many productivity seminars, including Franklin Covey.  Nowhere in any of those programs do they say, “When working on a project, make sure you stop every 5 minutes to deal with distractions, that’s the best way to accomplish your task efficiently, and to the best of your abilities.”

DISABLE these features, and check your email on regular intervals throughout the day.  When you finish that contract, finish working for that customer, or finish that proposal, then check your email!  How many times a day do you go check your mailbox for bills, letters, or magazines?  To disable these in Outlook 2003 and later, click on Tools, Options, Email Options, and Advanced Email Options.  Look in the section “When new items arrive in my Inbox”, and disable them all!  Stay focused on your tasks, and don’t let instant gratification kill your productivity!

Appointment and Task Reminders – Another wonderful feature Microsoft turns on by default is task and appointment reminders.  Not only are these distracting, like email notifications, they are more often than not…  ignored!  Do you know who you’re having lunch with, when that conference call is, when that board meeting is, or when you need to work on a project?  Do you know what you need to work on for the day, and what you need to accomplish?  Use your calendar to schedule items that have a specific time and place that they need to be accomplished.  Examples are meetings, appointments, conference calls, etc…  Use your task list to put items that need to be worked on a specific day, but not necessarily at a specific time.  Examples are running payroll, calling a customer, sending out proposals, etc…  At the beginning of each day, print out your daily calendar, and your task list for the day, and work those lists!  I believe that Franklin Covey says, “Plan your Work, and Work your Plan!”  Don’t set reminders for things, unless you need a quick reminder to actually perform that item.  Maybe you need 5 minutes to prepare for a call, or a reminder to leave for lunch.  Schedule 5 minutes on your calendar for that call preparation, and set a reminder.  Set a reminder telling you to go meet your customer for lunch, you don’t want to be late for that!  However, many of us have reminder lists that popup all day, every day, and sometimes the list is so long, that we just ignore them.  If you need to work for 1 hour on a proposal, then set a stopwatch or a simple timer on your desk, work on the proposal, and stop when the timer goes off.  To turn these off by default for your calendar items, and only set them when you want, go to Tools, Options, and look in the Calendar section.  There will be a checkbox for Default Reminder.  Remove that check!  To disable this for Tasks, click on the Task Options button, and remove the checkbox from “Set reminders on tasks with due dates”.  You can always assign reminders for these items, just don’t have Outlook do it for you by default!

These are just a couple of examples of how technology, and specifically our computers, can keep us distracted and less productive.  When you’re not as productive as you want or need to be, we turn to technology for the solution.  Sometimes, technology just amplifies the problem.  Create good work habits WITHOUT technology, then use technology to implement them.  I recommend finding a solution that works for you, then have your technology mirror that.  Don’t let Outlook, or any other program, define how you work.  You define how the program should work for you!

Comments are closed.