SharePoint Tasks Lists, Microsoft Outlook & You

How to leverage basic tools you already have for advanced workplace, and life, productivity

What did you do today? It’s as common of a question in the business world as the dreaded statement “you’re fired”.  And yet, employees seem to find every way possible to simply not get fired; just enough to get by, rather than finding a quick, easy way to answer the first question any time it’s posed.

Procrastination FlowchartDon’t get me wrong – I can procrastinate with the best of ‘em.

However, once I made it through college and began my work as a grunt in the top-heavy corporate machine, I was inundated with emails, sticky notes on my desk, and late-night voicemails from my supervisor trying to find out whether or not my TPS report would be ready by EOB the next day (and yes, I always use an up-to-date cover sheet).

I found myself struggling to answer such a simple question.  I honestly couldn’t remember what a TPS report was, let alone whether or not I had actually produced one the day before.  The business world was full of too many acronyms, too many projects, too many questions, too many TASKS to keep track of in my brain.

The other thing I noticed was that any time I fumbled around for the words to answer that all-important question – “What did you do today?” – was that my boss immediately zoned out once I began to elaborate on my initial abbreviated answer.  He had already mentally moved on to the next person he was managing.  He simply didn’t care about the gory details that my brain was so inundated with.  He just needed to know the quick-n-dirty, so that the next guy up the ladder could get an even more abbreviated answer from him.

That’s when it hit me – I needed to find a tool that was already on my cruddy cubicle PC – that I can log my own detailed notes in, but also record high-level status updates, % complete, and time-spent figures that I can then reel-off any time I’m asked “what did you do today?”.

Microsoft Outlook Tasks save the day

Once I realized what needed to be done, the next step was easy.  What software is installed on 95% of all corporate (and non-corporate) PC workstations, and geared towards communication and productivity?  Answer: Microsoft Office Outlook running on Microsoft Exchange Server.

Cubicle FarmI began devising a systematic way for myself to keep track of client emails, deliverables, due dates, and much more.  In the beginning – I’ll admit it was a simple, primitive system designed to save my butt when my boss came strolling through the land of windowless partial padded walls and recycled office chairs.

However, as time went on, and more and more situations arose that seemed to be lacking solid project management, I would quietly mention to my peers or even the occasional supervisor about my tidy little task list that sat right alongside my office email.

To make a terribly long story short (so we can move on to the part where I explain how/why all this stuff is useful), my department head caught wind of my increasingly advanced system for sharing and organizing tasks as a new way to manage small projects.  He asked me to join a team of managers to help re-write the entire process manual for a group of Web designers that were currently stuck using the dreaded Siebel for managing 10+ design projects at once.  The rest as they say is history… or so I thought.

Now, almost four years later – my own personal system for managing tasks has advanced far beyond what I imagined back then.  Since I now work as the Creative Director for a company that hosts SharePoint, the idea of a company-wide shared tasks system that integrates with our company’s MOSS 2007 intranet portal -became really exciting to me.  (Sidebar: yes, I’m a nerd – but I’ll take you and anyone you bring with you in Foosball today, Saturday, and twice on Sundays.)

Outlook Tasks out of the box:

These boots were not made for workin’.

Everyone I’ve ever talked to about the subject of Microsoft Outlook Tasks for project management says the exact same thing(s).

  1. I can’t read the stinkin’ list once I get more than 10 or 15 tasks in there.
  2. It’s fine for personal tasks, but I can’t track multiple tasks within one project.
  3. I love Microsoft Project – it’s more powerful than Outlook Tasks.
  4. Microsoft stinks.  Bill Gates is the Anti-Christ.

Luckily, I have answers for all of them – and screenshots to boot!

  1. It’s true, out of the box – Outlook Tasks stink, big time (1a).  No logical sorting, grouping, etc… But with a minimal amount of “grease”, you can really see the value of this integrated personal management tool (1b).
(a)
1a_out-of-the-box-mess.jpg
(b)
1b_seeing-the-value.jpg
  1. You absolutely can manage tasks assigned to multiple people that are all associated to one big project by getting a little creative with categories and custom view creation.  We’ll delve into this more once we start talking more about task lists in SharePoint.
  2. Microsoft Project does have some nice features – many that even integrate well with MS Project Server and MOSS 2007.  The reason I advocate the Outlook Tasks approach is simple: simplicity and user-adoption.  The simple fact is that most employees have zero experience using MS Project, and the PMO in your company doesn’t want them to have access to their all-powerful “master” task or project list.  Outlook tasks empower the average employee to manage their own workloads while simultaneously providing a PMO with the high-level roll-up views and single “master”, company-wide task/project list they so desire.  So, for the remainder of this discussion – understand that I don’t demerit MS Project or its potential in huge company / large project management situations.  I simply don’t think it provides an organization that lacks a huge corporate compliance team to enforce all kinds of rules and policies the same flexibility and throughput that something as simple as Microsoft Outlook Tasks does.
  3. Hating Microsoft is so 2001.  Microsoft DOMINATES the corporate World.  Get over it, get used to it, or just get ready – whatever it takes for you to come to terms with the fact that you will use Microsoft productivity software at 95% of the jobs you will have in your lifetime.

Creating Valuable Views with Outlook Tasks:

Keep track of priorities, time spent, status and more.

As you saw in the sneak-peek screenshot (1b) above, the same raw-data lists that come with Outlook (and Microsoft SharePoint) out of the box can be heavily customized to fit anyone’s needs.  From the average user who simply wants a well sorted personal task list – to a department director who needs to track multiple projects, deliverables and timelines – MS Outlook tasks can actually do the job without having to use another piece of software that isn’t already open on your computer.

Part 1 – Creating your shared personal task list

In part one, we’ll start with the most basic and utilitarian form of the Outlook task list.  Stay tuned for parts 2, 3 and beyond for more and more advanced concepts in the coming days and weeks.  Including some new and exciting features for integration with Hosted SharePoint 2010!

As the old saying goes, “… a vitamin a day, keeps the doctor away”.  Much in the same light – a task list that your manager can view from his own computer will help him/her feel more at-ease about due dates and, well, whether you actually do something in your cozy little cube all day long.  Since I don’t care if I’m corny, “… a task update a day, keeps your boss at bay”.

For the sake of this “part 1” that is already extremely long, I’m going to assume that the people reading this already understand how to create a task in Microsoft Outlook.

Step 1 – sorting, grouping & filtering… oh my!

Outlook task views out of the box are a mess.So, you’ve got this task list (pictured).  It’s comprised of a bunch of different variables – due dates, priorities, categories, etc… The first step is to organize this mess into something that makes sense.

In the left column of the task pane in Microsoft Outlook, you’ll see a listing of all the standard views that Outlook comes with.  For the purposes of demonstration, let’s create a new view so you can come back to this “Simple List” that is most likely already pictured on your monitor and compare in the end.

Define Views Menu

  1. With your task list showing, go to View > Current View > Define Views
  2. Select “Simple List” from the list of views, and click the “Copy” button.
    1. Name it “Detailed List – My Tasks”, and choose the radio button choice that reads “All Task Folders”.  Click ok.
  3. You should see the following menu:

Outlook Tasks Cutomize View Menu

(1.3.1) Organizing the list with columns

Let’s start with Fields – this will allow us to choose the vertical columns that display in our view.  Choosing from the “Frequently Used Fields” drop-down menu, add the following fields in order:

  1. Priority
  2. Complete
  3. Subject
  4. Status
  5. Due Date
  6. % Complete
  7. Categories

(1.3.2) Grouping tasks by category

Next, let’s make our list group by Categories.  We’ll go into more detail with the benefit of categories a little later.  Click on “Group By…” and choose Categories from the first drop-down with the Ascending radio-button selected.  Click ok.

Outlook Tasks - Sorting Criteria Menu for custom views

(1.3.3) Sorting method for tasks

This part can be tweaked to your personal preference according to what criteria you want to use to determine which tasks show up “first” at the top of your list.  The most useful 4-tier sort I have found is:

  1. Priority, descending
  2. Due Date, ascending
  3. % Complete, ascending
  4. Modified, descending

(1.3.4) Filtering your task view

Once you’ve decided on your sorting criteria, click ok – and then click on “Filter”.  This is how we “clean up” the view so that it only shows you the task items that are relevant to you.  This part will be utilized heavily later on when we start talking about creating views for Project Management functionality.

An introduction to the power of Filters + Categories

The whole point of customizing your task view in Outlook is to make it easier to find, modify and aggregate task data.  Filtering plays a huge role in this for a few obvious reasons.  The first reason is that you don’t want to view tasks you’ve already completed right alongside the tasks you’re currently working on.

The second reason is that with filtering, we can store that great idea – or that midnight request from your boss that you know will be on the backburner for a while.  You need to record the idea, the email, save the document, or whatever – but you don’t want to look at it or ponder its implications every time you’re looking at the sizeable list of tasks that actually does need to get done right away.  Chipmunk

Think of it like a Chipmunk who is saving that really big chestnut for a rainy day.  Instead of leaving that task or project that will be important in a few months in an email – put it in a task.  You can even define the scope and timeline of the project if you know those details already, and set an alert for the day you know you’ll need to start working on it.

By combining filtering and categories, you can assign the not-so-urgent task a category of “HOLD”.  The task and its accompanying documents will still be stored in your “master” list – but hidden from the custom view(s) you’ll be using for every-day productivity.

You can then remove the category when it becomes active, and voila – it appears in your active task list view again! The combination of categories and filters is by far the most powerful way to enhance Outlook tasks – and we’ll discuss in much greater lengths when we discuss Project Management views in parts 2 and 3 of this series.

Now… on to the part where we actually start filtering our view.

Custom Outlook Task Views - Filter Menu

  1. When you click Filter from the menu (pictured in step 1.3.0), you’ll be presented with four tabs.  Filtering is an incredibly rich and powerful tool – but for the purposes of creating the views that have provided the most value in my experience, we’ll use the third tab from the left – click “Advanced”.
  2. From here, click on the “Field” drop-down menu.  Go to “Frequently-used fields” and choose “Status”.
    1. In the “Condition” drop-down, choose “equals”.
    2. In the “Value” drop-down, choose “In Progress”.
    3. Repeat steps a-c two more times, choosing “Not Started” and “Waiting on someone else”.  This filters out the Status “Completed” from our view – since we don’t want to see those in our active list.
  3. Quick time-saver note: You can copy/paste or just type the field name into the text-field if you don’t want to have to search through the drop-down menus each
  4. Next, click on the field drop-down menu.  Go to “Frequently-used-fields” and choose (or type in) “Categories”.
    1. In the “Condition” drop-down, choose “doesn’t contain”.
    2. In the “Value” text-box, type “HOLD”.  This allows you to assign a category of “HOLD” to any task that you want to exclude from your active tasks view.
  5. Click OK to apply your chosen filters.

(1.3.5)  Using fonts & colors to enhance the functionality of your view

This part is somewhat optional.  However, I’m a graphics/UI expert – and a fairly OCD individual to begin with.  So, I’ve come up with a color scheme that helps me get a quick high-level overview of what tasks need attention simply by glancing at the view.

  1. Click on “Other Settings” and choose the fonts/font styles along with the options checked as shown in the screenshot to the right.
  2. Click OK.
  3. Click on “Automatic Formatting”.  This will allow us to assign certain font properties and colors to tasks that have specific traits like “overdue” or “unread”.  Outlook has some standard coloring for most of these – but I like to tweak their formatting, and add two automatic conditions of my own.
    1. Choose “Overdue tasks”, and make the font red 10pt.  Calibri Italic
    2. Choose “Unread tasks”, and make the font black 10pt.  Calibri bold
  4. In the Automatic Formatting menu, click the “Add” button.
  5. First, we’ll add a rule called “Modified Recently”.  This rule will make the view display tasks that have been created or modified in that last 7 days display a certain way.
    1. Click on “Font” and choose black 10pt.  Calibri regular
    2. Next, click on “Condition”
      1. This will open a filtering menu almost identical to the standard filtering tabbed menu we dealt with in step 1.3.4.
      2. Using the same filtering steps, make your “Advanced” tab criteria read like the screenshot pictured to the right.
      3. Click OK.
  6. Click the Add button again.
  7. We’ll name this rule “Stale Tasks”.  This rule will make the view display tasks that have not been modified recently show up as a medium gray shade so it’s easier to pick out the tasks you’re actively working on once your view starts to fill up with a large number of tasks.
    1. Click on “Font” and choose gray 10pt.  Calibri regular
    2. Next, click on “Condition”
      1. This will open a filtering menu almost identical to the standard filtering tabbed menu we dealt with in step 1.3.4.
      2. Using the same filtering steps, make your “Advanced” tab criteria read like the screenshot pictured to the right.
      3. Click OK.

(1.3.6)  Applying the new Outlook task view

Once you’ve finished with your automatic formatting rules, Click OK again in the “Customize View” menu, and then in the “Custom View Organizer” menu, click on “Apply View”.  If you didn’t already have some tasks in your list, this will probably be a moment of great disappointment – as not much is going to happen.

Start creating tasks based on some of the situations I’ve described in this first part of the series – and your view should start to resemble something like this:

Be sure to stay tuned for Part 2 – where we’ll dive into syncing your task list with a company SharePoint Intranet site.








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33 Responses to SharePoint Tasks Lists, Microsoft Outlook & You

  1. Claudine says:

    @Klaus Gadeberg
    Yes, I’m looking for the same thing: how to combine multiple SharePoint Task Lists into one common view in Outlook. Can this be done?

  2. Dominique M says:

    @Claudine

    I am also attempting the same thing, however, I’ve taken it a step further.

    I would like to be able to sync Outlook and SharePoint so that any task that is created in Outlook will automatically sync to SharePoint. The reason I am looking to accomplish this is because our recruiter currently utilizes Sendouts. He leaves Sendouts to send us an email to start the new hire process. I then go to SharePoint, create the new hire tasks associated with a new hire then leave SharePoint. I would love for him to be able to create the task in Sendouts, which automatically syncs to Outlook tasks, which in turn would update SharePoint and alert HR they need to take action.

    Please email me at dominique.mcgill@itsourcetek.com if you need more information.

  3. Cato says:

    Great tutorial. I’ve in the past stayed away from outlook tasks, because of the messy interface, but you cleaned it up nicely. Thanks.

  4. Mike says:

    Stumbled across this by accident. Great post. Love all the formatting tips. I’ve been using sharepoint task lists for a while and linking to outlook 2007. Very useful as we have email alerts hooked up and Team members get notified when changes happen. IT Dept upgraded our team to outlook 2010, and guess what? integration with sharepoint doesn’t work. trying to fix it. but our task list never looked this good :) I guess part 2 is not gonna happen at this stage? Here hoping….

  5. Yrr Geirs says:

    Great post! How about those parts 2 and 3?? :)

  6. Clear and concise post.Your post is very well crafted and I have learned so much about Microsoft Outlook. Waiting for Part 2.

  7. UI Guru says:

    I’m happy you learned new stuff! I’m hoping to have part two up next week. Be patient with me though, I’m actually implementing this system company-wide right now, and these blog posts are a sort of journal as I go through the process. If you haven’t already, I would recommend subscribing to our feed, as we have many bloggers who will be posting regularly, too about topics like SharePoint 2010 installation and administration testing in beta.

  8. Dan says:

    Nice post. Expecially is interesting how categoires\projects are organized between outlook-moss. When can we expect 2nd part ?
    Thanks Dan

    • UI Guru says:

      I’m going to do my best to get it done sometime in December. We’re extremely busy right now – blog writing has been knocked down a few notches on the priority list. Thanks for reading!

  9. Bruno says:

    Very nice, I found your blog by chance and I have already done all the changes it’s amazing what a few changes will do . I wasn’t using it (maybe 10 %) now I will use the tasks in Outlook like a mad men LOL
    Thank you very much

  10. Hilderbeard says:

    I’ve hated Outlook tasks all these years and this was all I had to do to fix it? I love the way this works. But get out of that procrastination flowchart, man. I NEED part 2!

  11. Bill says:

    Nice Post. Quite Helpful. Can’t wait for the next part, but I know how these series posts can be impossible to get yourself to finish sometimes… been there.

    I had a couple questions… First, why does your display show “Categories / Project” and mine only shows categories? Makes me think i did something wrong… Second, Any ideas on how to organize tasks that are assigned to multiple categories? I have 3 or 4 broad categories that all of my tasks fit into, based generally on the “type” of work. I then categorize tasks within those broad categories into their specific projects… so I have multiple tasks per project and I have multiple projects per broad category. Using this view all categories are sorted separately, meaning that there are tasks that display twice. Any ideas how I could make this work efficiently with my categorization system?

    • UI Guru says:

      Bill,

      We have recently been using the field “billing information” to classify projects so that tasks within multiple categories can still be associated with a larger “initiative”. We then have a project list in sharepoint, and create projects with unique project id’s. By placing the project id into the billing information field in the task, this enables you to create views in both outlook, and in sharepoint that show “rollup” views for each project by “grouping” the tasks by billing information, instead of by category. These views display individual tasks and the amount of time invested in them – along with a rollup sum of all time spent on the larger project. This has really helped us to establish baseline ROi and more for numerous types of projects here at Fpweb.net. Let me know if my answer helps you out… I’d be happy to go into more detail for you if necessary.

      And yes, I’m still trying to find the time to write the rest of the series – it’s a busy time for us right now with the looming launch of SharePoint 2010 hosting! Thanks for reading.

  12. Thomas S says:

    Tasks are getting better indeed, but it seems Microsoft project teams are still not coordinating between themselves for such corporate software (gasp!?)

    Case in point: Sharepoint – the action item list we maintain on our groups sharepoint has the tasks, and for each task there is a priority, which is a numerical value in sharepoint, 0 decimal places. Priority 1 is highest, 59 is lower, 39834 lower still, and so on. Its a toteming mechanism. Works great on the sharepoint.

    Now you link this action item list within sharepoint to outlook 2007. Ok, there it is, task list for me to see. But wait, what is this??

    Outlook 2007 task list shows the tasks, but the priority column is being interpreted very badly. Outlook sees it as ‘text’.. there is no way to tell outlook, hey its NUMERIC you silly software. This screws up the sorting, since if we sort by priority, its now alpha sorted on the string representation for priority numbers. So a priority 1001 task is listed higher than a 135 task, which is totally wrong.

    Beyond that, the numbers are converted to text with maximum decimal places, so what I really have is task 135.00000000000 is of lower priority than task 1001.000000000. This makes for a VERY MESSY and stupid looking task list in Outlook 2007 for what is a very well functioning task list in SharePoint.

    That, is just messy integration.

  13. Paul says:

    Very useful information ….

    I have been eagerly awaiting your next installment but was wondering if you could help me with a problem I am having right now? I have successfully linked Outlook to Sharepoint but we have numerous task lists in sharepoint and these all appear as separate task lists in outlook under the “Other Tasks” heading.

    Is there a way that I can have one Task list in Outlook that references multiple task lists in Sharepoint? The only think I have found is the To-Do list in outlook?

    • Paul,

      Thanks for reading. With Office 2007, there is no way to take multiple SharePoint Task Lists and have them sync into one list in Outlook. This functionality might be possible with SharePoint 2010 and Office 2010 – I’ll be looking into it.

      The entire system I designed is predicated on having everyone share the same task list – and then create personalized lists & views by using filters within the view options in both Outlook and SharePoint.

  14. Bill says:

    @UI Guru
    Good idea. I wrote a macro (cannibalized from others’ macros) that creates a new task from an email and uses the email’s categories to give the task the appropriate “BillingInformation” value. It works good for me. http://goo.gl/ezz3

  15. Ed Caggiani says:

    Was the follow up ever posted? I want to sync my Outlook tasks to Sharepoint (not the other way around) because I use Outlook Tasks synced to my Android phone, and the Sharepoint tasks don’t sync to the device, even when synced to Outlook (since it creates its own “other tasks” section).

  16. Leigh Thorpe says:

    Hi, Aaron,

    This was a great post and I am going to try some of your suggestions about color coding from 1.3.5.

    However, I would like to ask a question about using formatting inside the task window. I wanted to have a table as part of the text. I was able to paste in a table from an Excel file and was pleased to see that the formatting functions allowed me to edit, color cells, etc. I spent some time getting things just the way I wanted, and when I saved the task, all the formatting disappeared. When I reopened the task, the table was simply a list of the table text, but the formatting was gone. I can add a table to an email message in Outlook, and the task window has all the formatting commands. How come I can’t save it to see another day? If you have any experience with this, I’d really appreciate some tips.

    Leigh

  17. Sean says:

    Excellent post! Will the follow-up be released?

  18. Dave says:

    UI Guru, you had me at Outlook Tasks Save the Day.

    Would love to see your follow up posts. Trying to get a small company of 30 to be more productive with their task management.

    Help!

  19. Klaus Gadeberg says:

    Hi, I am currently trying to figure out how to combine multiple Sharepoint Task Lists into one common view in Outlook and believe that your part 2 will provide the answer to my quest. But where can I find Part 2?

  20. MaryK says:

    I stumbled on this by accident trying to find a workable solution for an action tracker / planner my team uses. Part 1 is really useful and like others I am hoping there will be a part 2.

  21. Is there a PArt 2? And, if yes, how do I get to it?

  22. Hi! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which blog platform
    are you using for this site? I’m getting tired of WordPress because I’ve had
    problems with hackers and I’m looking at options for another platform. I would be awesome if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  23. Zebulon Pi says:

    Aaron’s not at Fpweb any more (he left in March 2012 apparently, so unless someone else at the company decides to blog about what he did in setting this up (if he ended up doing it at all), we’re not going to see it.

  24. Jill says:

    I agree. I would love to see Parts 2 and 3. Any chance at all of those being completed…. ever…. ?

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  28. Hannan says:

    Can someone tell me if there is a capability in the Micro Tasks to allow multiple users not only view the same task but be able to edit and also create there own reminder updates on the same task as another user?

    I have only been able to Assign a task, but once it is assigned it becomes the other users task and I am no longer able to edit or put in reminder dates.
    Please help!!!

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  30. I am truly happy to glance at this web site posts which consists of
    plenty of useful data, thanks for providing such statistics.

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