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.
Don’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.
I 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).
- I can’t read the stinkin’ list once I get more than 10 or 15 tasks in there.
- It’s fine for personal tasks, but I can’t track multiple tasks within one project.
- I love Microsoft Project – it’s more powerful than Outlook Tasks.
- Microsoft stinks. Bill Gates is the Anti-Christ.
Luckily, I have answers for all of them – and screenshots to boot!
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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.
- With your task list showing, go to View > Current View > Define Views
- Select “Simple List” from the list of views, and click the “Copy” button.
- Name it “Detailed List – My Tasks”, and choose the radio button choice that reads “All Task Folders”. Click ok.
- You should see the following 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:
- Due Date
- % Complete
(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.
(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:
- Priority, descending
- Due Date, ascending
- % Complete, ascending
- 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.
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.
- 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”.
- From here, click on the “Field” drop-down menu. Go to “Frequently-used fields” and choose “Status”.
- In the “Condition” drop-down, choose “equals”.
- In the “Value” drop-down, choose “In Progress”.
- 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.
- 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
- Next, click on the field drop-down menu. Go to “Frequently-used-fields” and choose (or type in) “Categories”.
- In the “Condition” drop-down, choose “doesn’t contain”.
- 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.
- 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.
- Click on “Other Settings” and choose the fonts/font styles along with the options checked as shown in the screenshot to the right.
- Click OK.
- 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.
- Choose “Overdue tasks”, and make the font red 10pt. Calibri Italic
- Choose “Unread tasks”, and make the font black 10pt. Calibri bold
- In the Automatic Formatting menu, click the “Add” button.
- 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.
- Click on “Font” and choose black 10pt. Calibri regular
- Next, click on “Condition”
- Click the Add button again.
- 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.
- Click on “Font” and choose gray 10pt. Calibri regular
- Next, click on “Condition”
(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.