Perhaps most of what I am about to mention here applies to the Consulting world (and I would request you to excuse this fact as what I’m presenting here is my self-learnt knowledge of Outlook usage, which in turn, is limited to the Consulting world, and that too at a nascent stage). With this I begin.
Welcome to the world of MS Outlook. If you (like I was almost a year back) are a first-time user of Outlook, I won’t be exaggerating when I state that this, my dear friend, is going to take over your WORLD of emailing. In the corporate world, your day (and life!) will begin and end with your Outlook mail ID and it will do you good if you quickly make it your BFF!
Outlook will, at a first cursory glance, look like any other mail ID that you might have been using in the past. But once the emails start to flow, if left unattended, your Inbox will quickly start to resemble your closet just before Spring-cleaning (no offence to all the Monica Gellers out there).
For a campus hire or a new hire who hasn’t used Outlook before (and especially for someone who has joined the Consulting world, where time doesn’t really care about your Outlook skills), trying to figure out whether Outlook is just a long list of emails squeezed into 1/4th of the normal space can be a daunting challenge. Top it up with your Team Lead asking you to refer to that email from that client on-the-spot can lead to several embarrassing moments.
Here I will provide some very simple and basic tips on how to quickly get up to speed and manage your Inbox within the first week of your joining the company and before you receive too many mails (which you will later have to sort out one-by-one). This will ensure that you don’t miss out on any key communications sent to you by your HR, Team Lead or that dreadful person from the client team. If nothing else, you will at least be able to keep a track of where you can find the relevant email. Besides, Google has done us all one good thing, we now know how to search, always assuming we know what we are searching for, that is. 🙂
So here goes.
(Disclaimer to all who have been using Outlook for quite a while: this is in no way the most exhaustive list you will ever see. This is merely a collection of what helped me get up-to-speed in sorting out my emails. I am sure almost every Outlook user has his/her list. If you have any tips that can help the readers, please feel free to leave a comment).
Note: As you get familiar with Outlook, I’m sure you’ll develop your own style of organizing your mails. The things I have mentioned here will at least ensure you a smooth sail in your first couple of weeks (or even months) with your new friend. 🙂
The quickest way to organize your mails is to create folders right away. The only challenge you might face here to understand what the categories should be. In case
of the Consulting world, where we work on a project-to-project basis, the best way is to create a folder for every type of project you undertake.
So consider this: some projects that we do relate to our external clients and some to our internal activities, like say Organizing get-togethers/competitions/events etc. Hence, the logical (main) folders shall be: “Client Work”, “Internal Initiatives”. Preferably, create these folder outside of the default “Inbox”, “Outbox”, “Sent”, “Trash” folders (so that they are at the same hierarchical level).
Now within these folders, start creating sub-folders relating to each type of project work that you take up (I believe each project will have a unique name).
Piece of cake right? Not so fast, I’m afraid. The real trick is to systematically drop each mail that you receive in the folders that you create. There is no sense, mind you, in creating so many folders and then not transferring any mails into them from the Inbox.
A lot of people don’t like transferring anything out of their Inbox until they have worked on the action-item mentioned in the email (just so they have it right in front of them). This is fine. See what suits you best. If you wish to transfer mails out of your inbox and into these folders only once you have worked on it, that is your choice. Just make sure you do indeed transfer them. Just don’t let them lying around in your Inbox for decades- the purpose of creating folders shall get defeated.
(Tip: Don’t just stop at creating folders for the Client work/initiatives. Another common category can be “Training”, in case you wish to store all your training related information in once place. Although for practitioners involved in Learning and Development, they might want to break their folder structure down using the various activities they are responsible for. Take a re-look at your Job Description. That is a great starting point.)
I don’t know about you but I find the sight of too many emails lying around in bold font quite daunting. If you like using your preview pane, chances are, most of your emails shall remain lying around in an “Unread” state, leaving a large number written next to “Inbox” (E.g., Inbox (56) ). A handy tip, if you’ve read a mail (it was rather short so you didn’t bother double-clicking it and opening it), just right-click it and say, “Mark As Read”. And if it does not have an action item, move it to a relevant folder immediately. This way, it reduces the clutter from the Inbox and you know where to find it, if you need it.
Conversely, if you wish to re-visit a mail that you haven’t read completely, marking it as “Read” is probably not a very good idea as, chances are, you won’t be getting back to it anytime soon.
Always a tricky area. One is just too afraid to delete any mail (and I know of a lot of people who, to be on the safer side, don’t delete any mails). I suggest you check with your IT team about the archiving facility and how exactly (more like what exactly) do they archive. If your organization archives everything, then delete away to glory my friend. Just a word of caution: when in doubt, don’t delete.
(I shall cover Archiving a little later in the blog).
Ah! Have taken a sneak-peak into an old-timer’s mailbox? Chances are, that the little box just below the calendar has miniature text and cute flags (all in red), making you shudder just how important this person is to the organization! (Secret revealed: these are just mails that they’ve ignored for too longer than what they were supposed to. So yeah, don’t really get impressed).
Flagging an email (Today, tomorrow, this week, next week) helps you keep a track of a mail that requires an action on your part. The best part about flagging is that in the little box below the calendar where the mail title and flag appears is where you can double-click and open the relevant mail straight away.
This is the most natural and intuitive way anyone “flags” down action-items. Chances are, you would’ve discovered this even before you came across this blog.
A piece of advice around flagging: this is a great way to keep a track of action items provided you have just a handful of them. Believe you me, if your action items cross more than 10 (average), this section will end up looking very messy and you’ll lose track of what you are supposed to do.
In such a situation, I suggest flagging the super-duper critical tasks for the day only. For other tasks, use colour-coding.
5. Colour Coding
Right next to the Flag on the Standard Toolbar will you find a square set of colours (I am not sure if this applies to Office 2010 as well, but it should). This button will help you colour-code your emails by showing the colour to the right of an email title (next to the flag).
I find colour-coding a great way of knowing the nature of the email. If you are the kind of person who associates colours to different themes instinctively, I say go for colour-coding your mails. You can re-name each colour as per what you wish to associate it with.
For example, I like to colour-code all my “urgent/must-do-straightaway” mails with red. My “Appreciation” mails (where I receive any appreciation for good work done) with green, my “Must remember/to-keep-a-note-of” mails with yellow and so on. Use your instinct while creating these categories, because at the end of the day, you will end up colour-coding and using these mails by intuition.
I find this a great way to label mails in the long run. What happens is, your folders will eventually start to fill up and pretty soon, searching for a mail will also require you to scroll up and down within a folder for a solid 10 minutes. In such cases, I look at the colour and immediately know, without putting much thought into it, as to what the nature of email is. Do remember though, you must not colour each and every mail! That won’t help in any way (apart from transforming your Inbox into a makeshift rainbow- which can be amusing for like a couple of minute but guarantees frustration afterwards).
Using colours sparingly and effectively is the key.
To be Contd.
DISCLAIMER: Microsoft Outlook and related terminology/images copyright Microsoft. I, in no way, own the images or the terms used here.
The content mentioned here is just my opinion on Outlook’s usage. The usage is in no way limited to what is mentioned above. Also, any resemblance to ideas already published by others is purely coincidental (it’s good to know we have the same way of organizing!) 🙂