Top 10 Productivity tips

Get a Head Start

The best way to hit the ground running is to start the night before. Before leaving your workspace, or before going to bed, take 10 minutes to look over the next day’s commitments. What appointments can’t be missed? What do you need to have with you for those appointments? (Make sure you’ve gathered those materials and have them ready to go.) What three to five tasks must get done? Decide what you’ll do first. Look at that to-do list and decide whether any tasks on it can be delegated to someone else (see number 9 below) or, even better, crossed off the list altogether (see number 10 below). The busier your day, the more important it is to do this quick survey the day or evening before. It means you waste no time in the morning deciding where to start, or gathering materials (and maybe discovering a crucial item isn’t available when you need it).

Clean Up Your Inbox in One Click

Taking time off is wonderful until the moment you open your email after returning to work. If you work in an email-heavy company, you may have received hundreds of emails while you were out of the office, and now you’re faced with the difficult task of sorting through each one. With Outlook’s clean-up function (introduced in Outlook 2010), you can drastically reduce the number of emails you have to deal with in just a few clicks—whether you're coming back from vacation or you just have too many emails piled up. The clean-up function removes all email replies that are duplicated in a later thread, allowing you to read a single thread instead of dozens of individual emails. To clean up your inbox quickly:

  • While viewing your inbox, click the "Clean Up" button, and select "Clean Up Folder."
  1. Click the "Clean Up Folder" button in the popup to confirm the action. Outlook will automatically remove all duplicate emails, leaving you with significantly fewer emails to sort through. The clean-up function can be a little disconcerting to use initially. What if it deletes something important like a reply that contained an attachment that was removed in a later thread? Rest assured: the tool is sophisticated and will not delete any emails with attachments or text that aren’t exactly duplicated in later threads, and you can always review deleted items in the trash folder if needed.

Use Rules to Automatically Sort Emails and Stop Receiving Irrelevant Emails

Unfortunately, not all emails in the workplace come with an unsubscribe link. Day after day, emails arrive in your inbox that are just a distraction. Some common examples include:

  • Automatic Notifications: If you’re assigned to a team on one of the platforms you use at work—such as customer relationship management (CRM) software—that platform may send an email every time a change is made in the system.
  • "Fun" Emails: Sometimes a team leader or department will send daily/weekly emails with trivia, memes, or jokes designed to make work feel more fun.
  • Threads You Shouldn’t Have Been Included On: Occasionally, someone will send a mass email that gets dozens of replies—none of which have anything to do with you or your job. These emails keep you from focusing on your important work. Use Outlook’s rules function to skip the inbox and send those emails straight to the trash—or to another folder for review. You can also use Outlook rules to automatically sort incoming emails to the appropriate folder, such as always sending emails that are from your boss with a certain subject line to the To-Do folder and emails from a newsletter you regularly read to the Someday folder.
  • Right-click the email, hover over "Rules," and select "Create Rule."
  1. Choose the criteria for the rule:
  • "From [Sender]" will execute the rule any time you receive an email from a specific email address or contact.
  • "Subject contains" will execute the rule any time a specified subject line is used.
  1. Select what happens when the rule runs. To sort emails out of your inbox and into the appropriate folder, check "Move the item to folder," and select the folder where you want the emails to be sent. You can choose the "Deleted Items" folder if you never want to see them, or you can create a separate archive folder if you may need to review the emails in the future. Click "OK" to apply the rule. Want to prevent getting future emails on a specific thread? In that case, instead of creating a rule, you can just use Outlook's ignore function. Right-click the email, select "Ignore," and confirm the action. Ignore automatically sends future replies to that thread to your "Deleted Items" folder so you don’t receive them in your inbox.

Create Quick Parts for Default Responses to Common Questions

If you spend a lot of time typing the same answers to questions you get repeatedly, create Quick Parts to insert that text into email replies in just a few clicks. No need to keep typing the same thing over and over again or having to find an old response to copy and paste. When you’ve finished typing a response that you expect to need to send again, follow the steps below to save the text as a Quick Part:

  • Highlight the text you want to save in the email, and click the "Insert" tab.
  1. Within the "Insert" menu, click "Quick Parts," and select "Save Selection to Quick Part Gallery."
  2. Give your new Quick Part a descriptive name, and click "OK." With this Quick Part saved, you can now add that text to any email with just a couple clicks. With your cursor in the body section of the email, click the "Insert" tab. Click "Quick Parts," and then select the Quick Part you want to insert. The prewritten text will automatically appear in the body of your email, and you can edit and customize it as needed for your new response.

Do Your Most Dreaded Task First

Everyone of us has one or more tasks on our to-do list that we dread doing. Maybe it’s that unpleasant phone call you don’t want to make, or that blog post you’ve been putting off writing because you don’t know how to start, or that project that just overwhelms you because it’s so massive. Whatever it is, it hangs over your head, distracting you with guilt because it keeps getting pushed to the next day and the next. It’s time to end that cycle. Do it first thing. Writer Michael Hyatt talks about slaying your dragons before breakfast—there’s nothing more motivating for the rest of your day than crossing that monster off your list first thing in the morning.[1] But many people instead of doing the tough tasks first, they do the easy ones. If you really want to be productive, there’re some tasks you shouldn’t do first in the morning: To Be More Productive, Never Do This To Start Your Morning So make that call. Pull out a piece of paper and brainstorm ideas for that blog post. Do something about that overwhelming task—maybe you can’t finish it in one day, but you can at least get started. Whatever it is, just do it. Then, let the satisfaction of crossing it off your list carry you into the rest of your busy day.

Use Quick Steps to Take Instant Action on New Email

If you’ve had success with the previous Outlook tips and are interested in getting into more advanced email management, it’s time to take a look at Quick Steps. Quick Steps allow you to automatically perform long strings of actions based on a trigger. Say at the end of the month you receive a series of invoices from vendors or contractors. Your normal process is to review the invoices, forward the invoices to your accountant, and create a reminder to follow up with the accountant a week later to make sure the invoices were paid. Quick Steps can take care of the last two steps for you with fewer clicks than if you performed the tasks manually:

  • Click the "Create New" button in the Quick Steps section of the Home ribbon.
  1. Give the new Quick Step a descriptive name, and select the first action: "Forward."
  2. Type your accountant’s email address into the "To" field.
  3. Click the "Add Action" button to select the second action: "Create a task with attachment."
  4. Click "Finish" to create the Quick Step. After you review an invoice, you can now execute the Quick Step to forward the email and create a reminder task. Select an email containing an invoice, and click the appropriate Quick Step in the Home ribbon. The email forward and task windows will open automatically. Click Send to forward the email, and set a due date and reminder for the task before saving, if you'd like. There are many different ways to use Quick Steps to speed up email processing. Spend some time thinking about the repetitive actions you take on emails, and set up Quick Steps to make managing your emails so much quicker and almost painless.

Turn off Distractions

One of the major productivity killers is the distraction of constant interruptions: emails, phone calls, people appearing at your door… The technology that can (and should) make our lives easier and better also can make it virtually impossible to maintain the kind of focused attention that’s necessary to work efficiently and effectively. But here’s the thing: you can control that technology. When you’ve got an important task that requires attention and focus, create the space to give it your best. Whether it’s a meeting with a client or colleague, or an important letter that needs to get written, or a piece of art you want to create, schedule a block of time to focus on that commitment, and then turn off all distractions. Shut down your phone (or at least turn off the ringer). Silence your email alerts. Disconnect the internet (or at least Facebook and Twitter). Close your office door. Just for that hour (or thirty minutes, or half day), turn off all outside communications and give yourself the necessary luxury of undisturbed time to really focus on the matter at hand. Find out here more about How to Minimize Distraction to Get Things Done.

Take Breaks

There’s a limit to how long anybody can devote deep focus to a task. No matter how busy you are, after a certain amount of time, the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and fatigue—physical and/or mental—starts to impair your effectiveness. Schedule breaks periodically even during the busiest days. Take ten minutes to stand up, stretch, get a drink of water, walk around the block. You’ll return to your work refreshed, both mentally and physically, and ready to be even more productive. If you’re not convinced yet, read this article about The Importance of Scheduling Downtime.

Automate Outlook 365 and Your Other Favorite Apps

If you use the Office 365 Business or Office 365 Enterprise editions, you can connect Outlook to over 750 other apps and streamline even more email workflows. For example, you can send new emails you get from a specific sender to Slack or create a new Trello card for new emails sent to a specific Outlook folder. See all the Office 365 integrations available on Zapier or use one of the workflow templates ("Zaps") to get started right away:

Batch Process

If the demands of your day include routine tasks, try to group similar tasks and schedule certain times during the day to knock them out. Answering emails? Returning phone calls? Entering expenses into a spreadsheet? Instead of interrupting your other tasks to do these things piecemeal, batch them. Set two or three or five times a day to check and respond to emails. Return phone calls at 11:45 am and 4:45 pm (or, if you want to avoid getting sucked into long phone conversations, return them at 12:15 pm while folks are at lunch, and 5:15 pm after they’ve left for the day, and just leave a message!) By batching similar tasks, you save the time lost to ramping up multiple times a day and reap the benefits of momentum.

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