Canadian Consulting Engineer

Workday Control

August 1, 2006
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

U.S. workplace efficiency expert Michael Linenberger teaches courses on how to control e-mail and weave through the deluge of other information that floods across our desks....

U.S. workplace efficiency expert Michael Linenberger teaches courses on how to control e-mail and weave through the deluge of other information that floods across our desks.

Linenberger is the author of Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook: Eight Best Practices of Task and E-mail Management. The book was published this year by New Academy Publishers. Linenberger’s organizing system is based on using Microsoft Outlook software. He claims that it could increase a person’s productivity 25 per cent.

“Think about it,” Linenberger says, “If you can add what amounts to two more hours of productivity to your workday, you can go home at 5:30, say, instead of at 7.30. I don’t have to tell you how that simple change can transform your life. It has implications for your career advancement, your relationships, your social life, even your level of happiness.”

Following are some tips from Linenberger.

* Resolve to quit storing e-mails in your inbox. Most of us leave important e-mails in our e-mail inbox with the intention of returning later to act upon them. (You know where “good intentions” get you.) Even worse, e-mail is just one place you’re likely to be storing your tasks. Others include telephone voice mailboxes, notebooks, random sticky notes, and — worst of all — “in your head.”

“You must track all tasks in Outlook’s Task system,” says Linenberger. “It’s the key to everything. The relief of having one prioritized place to look for To Do’s is amazing.”

* Immediately convert e-mails to tasks — as soon as you read them. It’s simple. Just click on the e-mail and drag it to the task icon. You’ll have to give it a name and the naming process alone helps you think in terms of taking action.

“Let’s say you get an e-mail from a supervisor with the heading, ‘Can you believe this weather?'” says Linenberger. “And maybe buried inside the e-mail, after her comments on the blizzard you’re experiencing, is the task you need to do. You will put the actual To Do — ‘Fill out new insurance form,’ maybe — right in the appropriate task list. Once you start doing this, you’ll cease needing to constantly re-read e-mails, which saves a huge amount of time.”

* Make two task lists: one daily, one long-term. Not surprisingly, your long-term list will be much longer than your daily list. The “two list” system allows you to (1) keep the most important tasks right in front of you, (2) keep lower priority tasks out of sight so you don’t feel overwhelmed, and (3) separate long-term tasks from short-term tasks. “Having everything in one list is like having a three-foot tall stack of papers on your desk,” reflects Linenberger. “Yes, it’s all there in one place, but it’s too paralyzing to deal with.”

* Break down tasks into bite-sized mini-projects and next steps. “Maybe two of the items on your long-term list are ‘Write Quarterly Report’ and ‘Landscape Yard,'” says Linenberger. “Both of these are big tasks that you can’t do in one day, especially given all your other obligations. You must break them into small mini-projects and then figure out which next step should go on your list. So you might add to your daily list, ‘Call Susan and request last year’s report’ and ‘Call Jim and ask who landscaped his yard.’ The simple act of making a big task manageable dramatically increases the likelihood that you’ll do it. It staves off procrastination.” Linenberger says all tasks entered in Outlook’s TaskPad should follow this rule.

* First thing every morning, prioritize with the “going home” test. Prioritizing is definitely a tricky proposition. (Who hasn’t been given three big tasks to do with the supremely unhelpful directive, “They’re all top priority”?) Linenberger suggests that you start your day by asking yourself, out loud, the question, “What two or three items on this list, if they’re not done, will keep me from going home today?” Then set a goal to get them done early in the day. “The earlier you get these high-priority items out of the way, the better,” he says. “It is a huge relief to know that after your self-imposed deadline the rest of the day is yours. You can then give 100 per cent of your focus to strategically important things instead of feeling nagged by those items that keep you at work late. And best of all, at 5 p.m. you can actually go home — no guilt, no tight stomach, no plea-filled calls to your spouse. It’s a great feeling, and it can change your whole attitude about work.”

* Sort your tasks with oldest tasks in the lowest position in your list. Interestingly, most systems recommend that your oldest incomplete tasks should get the most attention. They may suggest that you put the oldest items at the top of your list, marked in red as “overdue.” Linenberger strongly disagrees. “You should put your newest tasks at the top of your list,” he asserts. “Why? Because they hold the most energy. They are most relevant. And doing so will keep your task list fresh and useable. Later, if an old task takes on new life, you can re-set the date to today and move it to the top of your date-sorted list.

Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook: Eight Best Practices of Task and E-mail Management, was published in 2006 by New Academy Publishers.


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