Prioritize tasks in the right way. Caution: Outlook ahead

On a daily basis you are subjected to an onslaught of tasks and activities.

It is also typical that you have an intense hour for those activities to come in. No matter how hard you try, it is only natural that your tasks will spill over through the entire day, the next day, or even through the weeks ahead. You can use To Do lists, excel worksheets, or Outlook to list down those tasks. The effectiveness of that process is only defined by the effectiveness of the execution.

organize tasks prioritize tasks

The work queue has the rather nasty habit of growing long, and growing strong. There is every chance that you can panic when the list does not shrink with time.

The list of tasks weighs you down – it does not let you focus on the task at hand, it can make you miss important tasks, and loose confidence on your own ability to get things done. As you assume more responsibilities, and are a party to more conversations, the more you loose your productivity with a carelessly organized list of tasks.

Although is quite easy to degenerate into this state, you can avoid that by following a few simple guidelines.

 

Monitor your work queue.

Treat the work queue as sacred as it can be. Maintaining your work queue has to be simple, clear, uncluttered, and proficient. Monitoring the state of work queue, how the inlet and outlook behave, and how important tasks are addressed is half the job done.

You keep a tab on the work queue day in and day out. You continuously focus, refocus and get your attention back to the work items that matter.

 

Prioritize your work queue.

Even with all the monitoring and dedicated effort to clear off the queue, it is possible that you will end up with substantial action items in the queue. Plan for that eventuality.

Prioritizing the work queue the right way will save you a lot of time later. Prioritizing can be as simple as flagging importance of tasks, queueing them in the right order, and identify target dates of action.

 

The Outlook Story

Outlook is invaluable for me.

  • I get emails that I have to work on
  • I can identify the action items that I set for myself
  • I take notes from the current meeting, and track action and follow up action.

In a few words, Outlook has become my all-in-one tool to manage my work life.

But, Outlook can easily become my worst nightmare when not treated with the respect it deserves. Outlook is one of the great time guzzler for me. I have struggled over years on how to be productive while bravely facing the seemingly unending barrage of emails, tasks and other activities marching at me.

To bring that elusive organization to my daily life at office, I tried more than a few things.

I experimented with various Outlook features. I tried a few external tools, used OneNote for some of the tasks, used a couple of GTD tools, and even used a physical note book (yes, we exist in 21st century).

But, kept returning to Outlook due to my dependence on emails to receive tasks and to put them to action.

So, I did some intense trial and error within Outlook to see what best works for me. I set aside time on weekends to play around, and evolved a rather simple system to organize myself.

Take note though – none of the below is revolutionary, or new. I just formalized the process for myself, and am sure will help a few of you as well.

 

Organize your tasks in Outlook

Your daily emails in Outlook have a tendency to get to you sooner rather than later. The emails are easily chained, and threaded feature notwithstanding, your peace is taken away. Follow these simple tricks to unclutter your daily tasks.

  • Always have a clean Inbox.
    This is the first task to do in the morning to have a clear priority for the tasks at hand. Whatever you can reply in 2 min will deserve a reply in 2 min. Move them to subfolders after replying to them.
    Your inbox must have only those items that are going to be replied by the end of your work day. Anything longer MUST NOT be in there.
    The way I do it is to have a subfolder called “Queue”. Inbox has to contain the items that are of immediate priority, and that can be answered at the end of the day.
  • Prioritize emails in the order of importance
    Use the Outlook feature to prioritize emails in the Inbox or in the queue folder. Priorities tell you which tasks have to be focused first.
    If you find Blue/Red et al. as not intuitive enough, feel free to change the name to reflect your own way of identifying priorities.
    outlook prioritize emails category
  • Provide a “Follow Up” date for emails that need action by a date. Set a future date even if you have no date in mind. The tasks that have a due date are automatically flagged in that week, and appear in your To Do list
    outlook organize flag dates on emails

The 1 min Pass

Once you logon for the day go through emails in multiple passes. The first pass should be able to identify those mails where you are “fyi”, where you don’t have to take action, or can respond/assign action within 15 second rule.

Also identify those tasks that cannot be addressed on that day, flag them for a target date, color code them, and push it to the “Queue” folder under Inbox.

 

The 15 min Pass

In your next pass, take up all tasks that can be done within 15 minutes.

Go through the tasks, do your research, solicit advice, get answers and close those tasks. You may recognize newer items to dump in the queue folder.

 

The 1 day Pass

Now, whatever is left in Inbox are the tasks to be completed on that day. Let it be for now.

Start with the Queue folder (or your Tasks screen).

outlook organize emails organize tasks

Are there any items to be completed, or to be progressed on that day?  If yes, can you respond those items in 1 minute?

If yes, address the action item, clear the flag, clear the color coding and send it to another subfolder. I end up creating subfolders based on email topics – e.g. Internal (internal communication), <Project Name>, and Misc. (for emails that cannot find a home).

For the items of the day that cannot be addressed in one minute, take them to “Inbox”.

After these passes on the Inbox, now you have THE LIST OF THINGS for that day.

You can play around the priority, and fuss about the emails – but I rather focus on getting the work done from then on. After the work is done, I simply direct them to one of the subfolders after clearing the flags.

By following these simple guidelines –

  • I keep my inbox, and thereby my life, uncluttered
  • I prioritize tasks, address them on a timely basis
  • I avoid missing critical tasks

 

Avoid clutter, live a productive life.

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