I rode the train to Toronto on Monday and back yesterday.Â Along the way I had a transformational experience.Â For the first time, in what must be a decade, I have an empty email inbox. I didn’t delete everything, nor did I simply ignore messages that were old.Â I used the Outlook 2007 beta, and it changed the way I handle mail.
LetÂ me explain.Â
Like so many people, I’ve used the inbox as a temporary holding area and to do list for years.Â As IÂ finishedÂ dealing with theÂ email, I would file it into an appropriateÂ Outlook folder. Â The task management features in Outlook were just too limited to do anything useful with.Â What that meant was that mail piled up in the inbox pushing older “tasks” to the bottom of the heap as the primary task became simply dealing with email.Â In a large organization, where you can afford the luxury of being a single very focused worker, or manager of a team that has a small very focused set of tasks, this can work.Â In a start-up it’s a dead failure.Â There are simply too many unrelated tasks, too many balls in the air at any one time, to keep track of everything.Â I used to pride myself on never having more than 50 emails in my inbox needing my attention at any one time.Â Lately, it’s grown to 300 and 400 at a time, with never any sign of abatement.
I’ve tried using the old Outlook task lists, but it simply became a dumping ground for stuff that I would look at later.Â It wasn’t efficient because getting through the stuff in my inbox always became a higher priority.Â And, I’ve tried flagging messages for follow-up, and then filing them, relying on Outlook to remind me at some point in the future that I needed to follow up.Â But the Outlook reminder mechanism, more suited to meeting reminders, was too easy to ignore.
With Outlook 2007, Microsoft has made a couple of very simple changes.Â All flagged items, in any folder, now appear on the Task List.Â That means I can respond to a mail, flag it for follow up in a week, file it, and a week later it appears on my task list highlighted as something to do today.Â The second thing they’ve done is move Tasks, with a new feature called the Task Bar, front and center.Â The Task Bar is a drawer that pops out from the right hand side of the screen which shows all of the tasks you have on your plate for today.Â Â It’s a simple and easy way to at a glance see what’s on your plate.Â And the third thing they’ve done is added explicit follow up durations to the context menu.Â You can now right click and select follow up today, tomorrow, this week, next week, and and so on, rather than going through the cumbersome pop-up system that used to be there.
Now Outlook tracks all my tasks and follow-ups in one place, and overdue items show up highlighted and at the top of the list. Office 2007 is still in beta, and there are still lots of warts to work out, but what I’ve seen of Outlook’s future I really really love.