I returned from the ABA Annual Meeting resolved to try to make better use of Outlook Tasks to improve my life. A tip about Task due dates from Michael Linenberger, author of Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook, is a part of that strategy. So far the results are mixed, but I haven't bought the book yet.
I have a hard time writing about e-mail management because I don't feel I have a handle on it, but most people tell me they don't either. I should note I use Outlook 2007, which is much improved over Outlook 2003. With Outlook 2003 you have to customize the view to see your task list when you view your inbox.
As Mr. Linenberger noted, your Outlook inbox should be like the inbox on your desk in the pre-digital world. It is where people send you memos, requests and assignments. You wouldn't let that one fill up several hundred deep as you might miss something important. So why do our inboxes get so clogged? Simple. Many e-mails require your action. It may be you need to respond. Or it may be a project, an assignment, a great opportunity, a or any number of things. But if it was just reading or deleting e-mail, we could probably keep up with that. But, no, it is stuff to do! To wit, it is a task.
So if an e-mail only needs a short reply or if you can forward it to someone else who then has to do the task, it is easy to do right then. But so many of these require time for research, reflection, contemplation, a decision or other "processing" that you cannot do right now. So the natural tendancy is to leave it in your inbox, so you do not forget about it.
Well, of course that is totally bogus, right? If your e-mail is anything like mine it will take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or so for the new incoming e-mails to shove that one down so it is no longer visible on your monitor. Then it becomes part of the "out of sight, out of mind" group. Hopefully you will remember or scroll down and be reminded, but who knows?
So if an e-mail is being retained because it is really a task, save it as a task! Drag it from the inbox to Tasks on the lower left hand corner of display in Outlook 2007. A new Task appears with the subject line and contents of the e-mail. Then do three quick things: edit the subject line to whatever it is you need to do, give it today's date and determine what the due date should be. It there is a hard due date, add it here. It you need to start on it several days in advance, then give that date as the due date and chance the task(subject) line to "do X by Y date."
But Mr. Linenberger states that for most of these e-mails dragged into tasks, set no due date! Now I recognize that goes against the way we lawyers work. If we don't docket, it we might drop the ball. But, here is what may be a liberating thought for you. We get more requests to do stuff in our inbox than we can possibily do. Most of us could spend all day responding to the requests that people toss into our inboxes and never get them all done. Surely you have noticed how many people can write a few short sentences in an e-mail with tasks that would take you hours to fully complete.
If the e-mail is an important assignment from a supervisor or on a client file, give it a due date on your task list. If it is an old classmate wanting you to search your records for contact info for these 20 people so she can contact them about the reunion, that's a "No Due Date" task. Bear with me.
The next step is to get that e-mail out of your inbox. If you made it a task, usually you can delete it. All of the text in that e-mail is now stored in your Tasks so it is fine to delete it from your inbox. Sometimes you have to file it, as when it is e-mail on a client file. If you aren't using another e-mail filing method (like practice management software) then drag it to an Outlook folder. You should have lots of these folders set up, including one for very major project you are working on. But you should also have general folders just so you can clear your inbox, like Friends, Recreation, Hold, Unsure, 2009 Junk or WhenBored. The point is to move everything out of your inbox, either to a task or file it in a folder.
OK, back to those No Due Date Tasks. You want to collapse the view so they are not in the way for your day-to-day work and then at least weekly check them to see if any now should be assigned a due date or now have passed and can be deleted. A good review time would be Monday, Friday or anytime you seem to be getting caught up on your tasks. The No Due Tasks serves as your triage system. You just hope no salvagable patients die. But it may be that you can't save them all.
So let's end this discussion with a couple of time management clichés.
OHIO- Only Handle it Once. After you open an e-mail, either delete it, file it, handle it quickly or make it a task. But don't just close it and leave it in the inbox to be handled later. Again you should feel free to make a folder that is named DontKnow or Unsure if you are having trouble filing all e-mails in folders.
The pros refer to the Four D's: Do, Delete, Delegate or Defer. But you cannot defer by leaving it to get buried in your inbox. So you Defer by either making it a task (which you will likely get to) or filing it in a folder, which you might get to at some time, but probably won't.