Book Review - Effective Time Management
I think it's safe to say that nearly everyone who's had to use email on the job has used Microsoft Outlook. I was one of many people who learned just enough about it to get by, and never thought of it as anything more than an email program that could also print calendars. My boss knew less about Microsoft Outlook than I did, so I always printed out the departmental calendars for her. So, imagine my surprise when I saw the title of this book! Using Microsoft Outlook for time management and organization? This, I had to see. Could it be used that way even by people with only basic skills? I was very eager to find out.
NOTE: I'm just going to refer to the book as Effective Time Management from here on out—thus taking up less of my time and yours.
No expertise required
The introduction was very reassuring. Yes, this book is for people with only basic Microsoft Outlook skills. The authors do ask that the reader understand the basics, since this is not a "how to use Microsoft Outlook starting from square one" type of book. The only part of Microsoft Outlook that will be explained "from the very first click" is Tasks, because that's the part that most people either haven't used or haven't used extensively. The authors say that the book is also for the experienced Microsoft Outlook user, because it presents a system of organization and time management that's better and more efficient, and may show even the most experienced user how to get even more out of the software. With this kind of introduction, I was eager to read more.
Each chapter starts with an overview of how problems start, followed by a section called "Let's get started and change this!" and ends with a "You try it" section that summarizes what the chapter has taught and gives the reader a guided tour of what needs to be done. One of the best things about the book is that it's not tied to one specific version. There are instructions in here for Microsoft Outlook 2003, 2007 and 2010, so no one gets shut out.
Not drowning in email
I like the image of the "email flood" that the book wants to keep us all from drowning in. For many people it's the only way to describe it. I've seen people talk about hundreds or thousands of emails still sitting in their Inbox and more pouring in all the time. There's no way anyone can read all that email—what they need is a solid, effective way to deal with what's already there, and keep it from piling up again. And, of course, if one starts with a "flood" of email, getting the situation under control isn't going to happen in a flash. There has to be a step by step plan. That's exactly what Effective Time Management lays out. The authors identify the main causes of the problem (like getting distracted, clicking "Reply All," and not having a system for dealing with incoming mail) and then take the reader through the steps necessary to get a handle on what's already there and set up a system so it doesn't happen again. I really think anyone who takes time to read through this section and follow the authors' advice (and, most important, stick with their system) will find that it works. They are honest about how much the reader is going to have to change his or her own behavior in order to get things in order, and why it's essential to make those changes. Each necessary step (like turning off notifications, setting aside blocks of time to deal with email and leaving it completely alone at all other times, and creating reminders, tasks, and appointments directly from incoming email) is described in detail for each version of Microsoft Outlook. They talk about creating your own set of folders and flagging important messages so you don't overlook them, which is something I wish I'd known about when I was using Microsoft Outlook at work. There are detailed instructions for setting up rules so that messages get sorted into appropriate folders automatically. That, more than anything else, can help tame the inbox clutter and keep people focused on what's really important.
Keeping your priorities straight
The section on using Tasks to set priorities also gets right to the point, and uses the example of a fictitious, perennially disorganized worker to show how getting distracted can have serious consequences. Then the reader is taken through several methods for determining what tasks are really important, and which should take precedence over others. This is something that most people have trouble with—figuring out what's really important and what can be put off a bit while the top priority tasks get taken care of. The authors stress the importance of writing things down. This is a key concept in several well known time-management systems, and quite rightly so. Nowadays, we just have too much to keep in mind, and not even Einstein could manage it all. Writing things down is the key. The authors go beyond the simple act of writing and explain how and why people should have written plans. They acknowledge that getting started on written plans is not a simple task when one hasn't done it before, and they explain why it's essential for good time management. Effective Time Management describes a straightforward system for setting up appointments and tasks (and clearly explains the difference between the two) and for setting up views, filters, and categories to make sure that you can find exactly the information you need quickly and efficiently.
Categories, tasks, and time
The first chapters in the book deal mainly with what Microsoft Outlook can do in a workplace. Starting with the chapter "How to gain more time for what's essential with an effective week planner," the authors move on to describe how Microsoft Outlook can be used to plan non-work time as well. They go through the necessary steps to set up categories, and to color-code them if you wish, to help with setting priorities and keeping tasks organized. They stress the importance of weekly planning, and of including time for personal matters such as exercise and education as part of the overall plan. It may seem odd at first to put personal, non-work activities on a Microsoft Outlook weekly plan at work, but the authors clearly explain why this is actually a very good idea, stressing the importance of balance in professional and personal lives. They do take note of the fact that not all workplaces allow private planning and not everyone has access to their work computer from outside the office, and they provide strategies for dealing with this. It is clear that they have a solid understanding not only of their subject but of the realities of the workplace.
Planning in real life
The story of the fictional disorganized worker continues in the chapter on real-life planning. Most people don't really know exactly how long any given task will take because it's a very rare task that stands alone. The trip to the office also includes time for getting to the car, parking the car, and walking to the workplace, and many people only think of the actual driving time. People get distracted, or things happen that put the usual work day into complete disarray. People do what they want to do and somehow manage not to do the things they don't want to do (which fouls everything up for anyone depending on that job getting done). In this section, the authors really take a good look at human nature and show how an effective day plan can make everything run so much more smoothly. Keeping accurate track of the time necessary for each task is the key here. No more estimates or ballpark figures—the actual amount of time for each task from start to finish. Essentially, the authors want the reader to create a time database, so instead of just guessing or winging it, the reader can look up the actual amount of time for any given task and plan accordingly. They also ask the reader to evaluate their own "Productivity Hours," those times of day when people function at their best, and their own "Disruption Hours," those times of day when they're most likely to be interrupted. Then they set out a plan for scheduling blocks of interruption-free time during peak productivity hours, and they acknowledge that this won't happen overnight since by definition other people have to be trained not to interrupt you while you're working. And they stress the importance of building in "buffer time," so that if things take longer than expected, the rest of the day doesn't get totally disrupted.
Meeting, meeting, who's got the meeting?
Meetings seem to be a fact of life in business, and they can be enormous time wasters and productivity killers. Effective Time Management acknowledges this and explains in detail how to set up meetings through Microsoft Outlook and coordinate meeting times with others. Its most valuable advice, though, can be summed up in the statement "The best meetings are the ones that don't take place." Meetings take people away from their jobs, interrupt the workflow, rely too much on everyone being able to show up and able to participate in a meaningful way, and actually cost a company money because people are in meetings instead of doing their jobs. So, after explaining how to set up meeting requests, the authors suggest that meetings be scheduled only rarely, and other means of communicating (such as Windows Live Meeting or conference calls) be used instead as much as possible. If meetings are necessary, there's a plan for making them run more smoothly and produce better results. This covers all the bases and should increase everyone's productivity and waste the minimum amount of time. It would be an excellent resource for any workplace.
Less paper, more productivity
Many people still prefer to keep their information on paper (I must admit to being one of those people). But paper's easy to lose track of and misfile, and after a while, the sheer mass of paper becomes so unwieldy that it might just as well be sent to the shredder. Effective Time Management sets out a method for taking effective notes and keeping track of electronic files efficiently. The authors suggest that the reader use Microsoft OneNote, but acknowledge that it isn't included in many versions of Microsoft Office (especially the older editions) and has to be purchased separately, which many people can't afford. I wish the authors had offered some suggestions for alternatives to Microsoft OneNote, since it's clearly a very useful program and can integrate effectively with Microsoft Outlook. Effective Time Management walks the reader through using Microsoft OneNote to take notes, make plans, set up calendars, and set up a structured and organized system for keeping track of everything. It clearly shows the advantages of using electronic notes and files instead of paper. I must admit I began to think differently about all my folders full of notes and printouts after I read this chapter, and I'm going to start looking into getting Microsoft OneNote or some other similar program to help me keep track of things more efficiently.
Summing it all up
Effective Time Management closes with a short chapter called "How to truly benefit from this book" that puts all the previous chapters in perspective and explains the best ways to get started using Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft OneNote to get organized in your professional and personal lives. The authors make it clear they don't expect the organization to happen overnight and they don't expect it to happen without the reader's determination to make it work. But they also explain why it's more than worth the time and effort to follow their plan. Even if one doesn't use Microsoft Outlook, this plan can work. There are other programs that offer much the same features, perhaps not in such a convenient package, but usable nonetheless. I understand that the book's focus is on Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft OneNote, but I think it would have been useful for the authors to suggest a few other programs that could be used to follow the same system even without a full copy of Microsoft Office on hand. That's just a minor suggestion, though, and I'm sure that anyone who's interested in following this system can make it work with whatever software they have on hand.
Effective Time Management really is for everyone. We can all benefit from finding balance in our professional and personal lives, from using our time more efficiently, and from making the very best use of the tools we have at hand. Even people who are certain they've got everything under control can find useful suggestions here. The authors clearly understand both the software and human nature and take a step by step approach and explain why what they're describing will work. I'm glad I got a chance to review this book, because now I can start putting its plan into effect to get my own time managed more effectively.