How to become extremely fast to process emails and tasks using Outlook

Have you ever felt like you’re spending hours of your day doing the fireman in your Outlook mailbox, and you’re not doing any of your work? You’re not alone.

Many people have experienced this, including me. At some point I had to go through lots of emails, perceiving them all as important. I wanted to take action and respond immediately to their sender. In fact, it was counterproductive. People would get the slow response from me. I was spending my days in the mailbox and it affected negatively my performance. I would get stressed, spend long hours at the office, not progressing towards my objectives.

The good news is, you can master your mailbox and make it a weapon to increase your overall performance when managing your tasks. I will show you how. And despite what you will hear from fancy app making companies, you do NOT need ultra-sophisticated software to make miracles with your productivity! And not a complex system. Simple rules and the good old Outlook in its recent versions.

Outlook and only Outlook

Outlook is present on most of the desktops in today’s businesses. Very useful functions are implemented such as quick-actions, flags, colored categories, as well as a powerful search engine built in the app. And your email app is available with you wherever you go on your desktop or mobile.

Using many apps to manage tasks across your work laptop, mobile, calendar, paper notebook is a difficult mission. Less is more. We will only use Outlook to manage all your tasks/emails. In fact, you can use any other email app and will be able to do 95% of what we are achieving with Outlook.

Using one system is key. All tasks will be unloaded from your brain, paper notebook, or incoming email. You will never stress about forgetting to send this important report to your boss again.

Farwell old habits, hello to the new workflow

In order to improve your effectiveness and efficiency, you need to have a simple yet robust system to handle your emails and tasks in general. And unlearn whatever you have done until now:

  • Using more than one tool to track your tasks: you cannot have the overview by scattering your tasks in many places. We use Outlook only, forget the other ones,
  • Keep tasks in your head until you are at your desk: you load your brain unnecessarily. Immediately send yourself an email with the task description in the subject,
  • Filing emails: when going through your email, filing email has no value whatsoever to your overall objective. The powerful search engine of Outlook helps you retrieve this old email you’re looking for. Stop filing,
  • Responding immediately to an incoming email. At best you will respond to an important and not urgent email, but likely you will not focus on that important and urgent task awaiting,
  • Keeping all your emails in your inbox: having an inbox with thousands of email and many of them unread stresses you. We will aim to keep the inbox empty every day,
  • The above sounds familiar? Then jump to the next section. We will start by setting up outlook and then go through the routine that will give you control back on your tasks and email.

Implement the tool step by step

Setting-up the system consists of creating specific mailboxes and setting up flags to prioritize actions. It should not take you more than a few minutes.

  • Create and organize mailboxes

    Your mailboxes
    Your inbox with new mailboxes
  • Inbox: it’s the place where all emails come in by default. You don’t need to do anything.
  • Action Pending: All actions you should focus on will be there.
  • Cabinet: Need to have a place for keeping your last travel receipt or this super important email for reference, this is the place.
  • Waiting: All pending actions for which you are waiting for someone else action to progress are stored there. This is the list of activities that you should follow-up on.
  • Completed: stores all completed actions, or all emails that are either not actionable or not relevant to you

 

Your inbox with new mailboxes

  • The follow-up section should look something like this.
    The follow-up section should look something like this.

    Define and set-up typical follow-up flags: you need to find a frequency system that is simple, flexible, and meaningful to your activity.

    • Now: what you need to do right now. The most critical tasks.
    • Next: what you will need to do after your most critical tasks if you have time.
    • Later: what is not critical and you do not necessarily need to do now or after your most critical tasks
    • Some Day: Something that is important to your overall objective but is not a priority for now. You just don’t want to forget it.
    • Today, Tomorrow, Next Week, or Specific Date: You can also use a system based on specific dates.

The follow-up section should look something like this.

  • Define the Outlook Quick Steps. This will accelerate significantly the processing of all tasks and emails. In fact, all the processing of email boils down to this small number of actions.
    • Create “Delete” action:
      • Move the email selected to the trash
    • Create “Cabinet” action:
      • Move the selected email to the Cabinet folder
      • Mark the selected email as read
    • Create “Waiting” action:
      • Move the selected email to the Waiting folder
      • Mark the selected email as read
    • Create “Action Pending” action:
      • Move the selected email to the Action Pending folder
      • Mark the selected email as read
    • Create “Done” action:
      • Mark the selected email as “Complete”
      • Mark the selected email as read
    • Create “New task” action:
      • Create a new email
      • Put yourself as the recipient
Your Quick Steps panel should now look like this.
Your Quick Steps panel should now look like this.

 

 

Implement the workflow step by step

Once you have the mailboxes and set-up complete, you can proceed with implementing the routine.

Once, twice or maximum 3 times a day

  • Read through all emails in the inbox, and for each email, ask yourself “Is it actionable?”
  • If NO:
    • You will never need it: Quick Action “Delete”
    • You need it for later / archive: Quick Action “Cabinet”
    • It may be an action in the future: Quick Action “Pending” and Flag “Someday”
  • If YES:
    • Are you waiting for information or feedback from someone? Quick Action “Waiting”
    • Is it for you: Quick Action “Action Pending”
  • Go through each email in the “Pending Actions” mailbox:
    • Can it be solved in less than 2 minutes? Just do it, and Quick Action “Done”
    • Do you need to allocate/delegate to someone? Allocate/delegate it, and Quick Action “Waiting”
    • Can you outsource? Out-source it, and Quick Action “Waiting”
    • Is that something you can take action on but takes some time, decide on when you will do it by giving it a Follow-Up Flag (Now, Next, Later, Soon, Some Day). Remember your overall objective and decide on the priories keeping in mind all your actions
    • Is that something for which you need to wait for the feedback of someone to take action? Quick Action “Waiting”
    • Are you missing an action? Quick Action “New task”
  • Once you have been through the entire list and are confident that A) all actions are listed B) all priorities have been determined, go through all your “Now” actions
  • For every completed task Quick Action “Completed”
  • Once you have completed your “Now” actions, reassess your “Next” actions, and decide of which ones to move them to “Now”

Once or twice a week

– Do a check of all pending actions and ask yourself: are they making me closer to my overall goal?
– Review Follow-up Flag of each action, and determine whether you should put more or less priority to each action. Change the flags accordingly.

Initialize the mailbox for the first time

During the first utilization; you will probably have a lot of folders that you used for filing. I suggest using the Quick Action “Completed” on all emails unless they are an outstanding task. In a few minutes, you will be able to empty and delete all folders that you used for filing. Your mailbox will be much cleaner and leaner. Fewer mailboxes mean fewer reasons to stress.

The Trap of old habits

From personal experience, you need to decide dedicated times to go through your inbox in the morning and afternoon and not more.

At first, it will be difficult to focus on the tasks in the “Now”. You will be tempted to go through the email list as per old habits and do whatever you see.

To maximize your productivity, you can use the Pomodoro technique, or simply group your action completion is one block of time while constraining yourself to a short time (e.g. 25min). If you are interrupted all the time by phone, people talking to you, or stop while doing a task, you reduce highly the benefits of the routine. I will cover this aspect in another article.

After a few days of discipline, you will quickly develop this new habit, and wonder why you didn’t do that before, and why you lost so much time filing email.

Next steps

The system I present here is a simple adaptation of the one presented in the book Getting Things Done (by David Allen), or its adaptation called The Secret Weapon. You have the possibility to integrate the Outlook system with the Evernote, OneNote or other taking notes apps. I personally manage my personal tasks directly in Evernote and corporate tasks in Outlook.

If you have any suggestion, questions or comments about some points, do not hesitate to leave a message in the comment section below.

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Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. That means I may make a small commission (at no cost to you) if you make a purchase. This will help to support theleanfox.com!

 

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8 Responses

  1. Dear sir, many thanks for your adice I just went through the article and implemented a few items, now the key issue will be to follow the steps. But just already the limitation of email inboxes make sense.

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