Improving Efficiency Using Outlook
This year I worked strategically at improving how I manage my time. Like a few others I have spoken to on campus I now rely on my Outlook Calendar to help me plan when I am going to do certain tasks. Learning to make better use of Outlook’s features has really helped. Outlook offers a lot of tools that I recommend getting familiar with to save time. It is worth exploring the features that work for you.
I find colour coding and categorization of calendar entries helpful. You can use categories to colour code your calendar for a quick visual of where you are spending your time in the past as well as in the future. The list of categories I use is still evolving. Click here for Microsoft’s instructions showing you how to use categories.
For some tasks it works to give myself a time limit. I can’t do that well with everything yet (like class prep). Checking email is a prime example of something I limit my time doing. Have you ever sat down to check your email and got lost in time? That happened to me all the time.
Or maybe told yourself that you would answer an email later but forgot. I use to leave emails unread that I could not answer right away and answer as many emails as I could in one sitting or immediately throughout the day. I tried flagging them but found I ended up with too many flags.
I still check my email often, but move items that will take longer than about two minutes to my calendar. My response time is still excellent. I move emails to a time when I can do it, when it is due or to a time when I can decide when I will do it (usually a time when I can multitask). I have found that this technique improves my efficiency and helps me be worry-free about remembering to address the emails.
Items in the future that can be moved are marked as tentative so students and faculty can book me. If I ever find myself not booked I can easily see what needs to be done, move it to that time and mark it as busy while I complete it. When tentative tasks start to get urgent I also mark them as busy to protect my time.
I also put tasks that I want to do only if I can get time in the evening. As I reassess (quickly) how realistic it is to do tasks I either move them to the future or delete them. Sometimes the want to do things fall off the side of my desk and get deleted because I have too many must-do items. for example, sometimes innovations or professional development items get deleted due to a lack of time. This blog post is something that has been repeatedly moved to the future until it became more important because people started asking me about what I do. Sometimes I put blog ideas or questions I need to research in my calendar that get deleted because they become irrelevant or get answered.
My calendar is always open. Usually it is on my small screen when I am docked with three monitors (two large one I work on and the laptop screen for Outlook). This approach helps to keep me on task (and keeps me on time). Reassessing my priorities helps me get what must be done completed and reduces the amount of time I spend wishing I could do things. I find that I feel more productive when I am able to set and accomplish goals for the day using my Calendar. Creating this sense of urgency helps me get more done in less time.
Reduce Administrative Task Waste
I book meetings with faculty or staff through Outlook. Keeping my Outlook up to date enables them to use a busy search to see when I am available (which only works for some colleagues). When someone sends me an invite without checking my schedule I reply by proposing a new meeting time. Using these features saves a lot of back and forth emails.
The scheduling assistant saves time when scheduling meetings. This feature works best when my calendar has openings. I like to scan the availability or use AutoPick the next time. However, when schedules do not align clearly, a due date is tight, or when I have access to read other people’s busy calendars I prefer to open their calendar and overlay it on mine.
Shared calendars are great for communicating with trusted colleagues. That way they can see what I am scheduled for, which helps them pick an optimal meeting request time for meetings. I caution against sharing full calendar details with anyone that may be judgmental of when or how much you are working.
Even without a shared calendar the best way to schedule a meeting is often by opening the other person’s calendar and overlaying it on my own. We all have access to busy/free data of employees in our organization. When their calendar is overlaid it helps me pick a time faster than the scheduling assistant because I can easily see what I have scheduled adjacent to any possible meetings. This view helps me quickly assess if it would be worth me moving something to allow for a common time to meet. I need to thank Sidney for showing me this trick.
I allow students to book me using Calendly, which decreases back-and forth emails. I highly recommend that institutions develop an easy way for faculty to allow students to go to a link and book themselves into time slots for meetings. It saves a lot of time (but needs to be more intuitive to accomplish for non-techy faculty). For students who opt not to use the link I reply to their email with a calendar invite.
Tracking my time has helped me look back to see visually what I am spending too much time on. In addition, I now have access to an Excel Dashboard that Yahel (a student of Sidney’s) made for analyzing my time. Come to the Hub on Monday to see how it works and decide if you want to use it to maximize your time.
For advanced calendar tracking and analysis to work well, use categories (discussed earlier) and consistent wording in your calendar entries. For example, always include the word “meeting” in the subject line for meetings.
Do not have two things in your calendar at the same time (unless you are consistently using it for data analysis purposes). I often plan to have two things in my calendar at the same time when I am unsure of what I will be doing. However, I but always update my calendar to show what I actually did as I am doing it. For example, in the screenshot below I was scheduled for drop-ins but no one showed up for most of that time.
I was physically available but working on other things. I can choose to delete the event for accurate representation of what I was doing OR keep it but mark it as not actual time spent by changing the category or name. In this case it is relevant to show when my bum was in a seat and how effectively that time was used so my boss can decide if my bum needs to be tied to a chair. I am therefore changing the name to “Scheduled for drop-ins (represents physical location of work not actual time spent).”
PS: I still have a lot to learn about how to use Microsoft products to improve my workflow. However, I feel like I have come a long way in the last year.