Applying 80/20 to Outlook 2007
This post covers an experiment in reducing the time I spend on email by 80%.
[backstory] About a week ago, I started tracking with a kitchen timer how much of my time/attention was being spent on online stuff. The results were miserable. I was spending most of each day checking email, forums, Digg and RSS feeds, and getting damn little else done.
At the same time in my never-ending battle to be productive enough so I don’t have to work for a living, I was reading Richard Koch’s Living the 80/20 Way. Here was a guy enjoying life, making money, with four books out and a productivity theory still standing after 7 years.
I decided to 80/20 my RSS feeds. The amount of time I feel I need to spend on RSS feeds dramatically dropped. By about 80%, I’d reckon. What would my life be like if I could do the same to the 800 pound gorilla, email? How much more could I get done with this monkey off my back? And was there anything in Outlook 2007 that could help? [/backstory]
Fear, hope, the Fire Hose and Email
Before I could fix the problem, I felt I needed to understand why the problem existed; why was I checking email dozens and dozens of times a day, squandering most of my ability to discern, to make decisions, to pay attention, on email? I didn’t used to be this way; otherwise I’d be living out of a cardboard box in an alley somewhere. What’s changed?
- Fear. Since 9/11, fear is big business, and a big part of your life if you live in the U.S.. Is Al Qaeda going to blow up Washington or New York? Is some nut going to anthrax San Francisco? What’s the Threat Level? There’s nothing like fear to get your attention – hence I get email alerts from CBS, CNN, the Washington Post and a local TV station. Just to be sure. To be safe. Maybe.
- Hope. Maybe someone has sent me a nice email about the book. Maybe I’ve got several more MasterList Professional registrations to process. Maybe I got that big interview for the next book. Hope springs eternal or about every 15 minutes.
- The Fire Hose. – I have to keep drinking from the fire hose of technical (programming and such) information each and every day because the knowledge I have is turning into "obsoledge" faster and faster. Must keep up, so I read more and more, email included.
For all these reasons, I whack the Outlook tab in the taskbar 30 times a day.
Time for change
So here are the changes to email processing I’ve made. Only the last one is Outlook 2007 specific.
Red Alert – After spending a few hours fruitlessly looking on the web, at Google Gadgets and Microsoft Sidebar Gadgets I decided to create this myself. What I’ve done is created an Outlook Email Rule that if I get an email from BreakingNews@MAIL.CNN.COM or CBS.com with “terrorist attack” in the subject, Outlook should display a New Item Alert and play this sound. Now I can put to rest the nagging fear in the back of my mind that the other shoe has dropped and I’d better check email one more time.
Applying 80/20 to Outlook Folders. A while back, I talked about using Google to tame Outlook by dumping everything into a Reference folder unless it was an active project, and how to create Outlook Favorites for just your active projects. Guess what? Now my active projects are getting to be so many, I need to go another step:
Limit Outlook Favorites to just the following favorites folder shortcuts:
- 20% The Few - These emails are the most important few that provide 80% of the value of all email in.
- 80% The Many - This is everything else I can safely ignore.
- Reply/Task EOD (by end of day) – These are emails of whatever importance I need to reply to, or work on, but they will either take longer than two minutes, or I need to think about them. This folder gets emptied before the workday is done.
- Reply/Task EOW (by end of week) – These are emails which will can be safely left to the last day of my workweek.
- Slushpile – Things to enjoy reading at the end of the workweek when I’m braindead anyway.
- Current News – This is the folder all those non-life-threatening “News Alerts” go to now, now that I created a rule for each sender as they hit my Inbox. If I have time and inclination, I’ll have a look.
- Reference – Everything else (receipts and such).
- Qurb and the Inbox – For convenience's sake.
What about all the folders I had shortcuts to? Use the Shortcuts bar for them, and switch to it when I need to move a bunch of email received that day to a project folder.
Tag and Bag – Outlook 2007 supports assigning multiple color tags to emails – and Search Folders can be set to automatically show emails with specific flags. So for example the 20% and 80% folders above are actually Search Folders set to "Bag" any email I tag with a Control-F2 for 20% The Few or a Control-F8 for 80%. The Many.
The result? – Too early to tell. I’m spending less time checking email today, how well do I do a week from now? Time will tell (and so will I!). Nor is the the only way I can make Outlook 2007 more effective - I need to work with it's newfound support for creating Tasks. But after a decade of category and flag functions that never meshed well enough to be useful, this is not your old Outlook.