How to Increase Productivity
with Outlook Quick Steps
Sometimes it’s the little things that add up and eat at our productive time. We try to battle this by arming ourselves with gadgets, tools and tricks, yet often it’s not about new tools we should be using, but the existing tools we’re not using to their full potential. Sure, there’s a time and place for adding new tools and gadgets to the process. But as always, the devil is in the details.
Let’s look at the thing most of us have to deal with – email. We all have our own approach to dealing with it and our own convictions on what works best. But there’s always room for improvement.
While it is losing it’s popularity, Microsoft Outlook is still the email client many use. Some of us are not left with much choice, because it’s a company demanded standard. Others use it out of habit. Whatever the reason, it is a tool that offers much functionality.
There’s one specific feature that I’ve come to love, and have not seen mentioned very often. It’s called Quick Steps. They allow you to automate repetitive tasks, giving you the option to basically program your own buttons. Most work will still probably fall to the good old Delete button, but things such as “reply & delete“ or “mark as read, archive & forward”, can be completed with a single click.
Most people never touch it and it just sits there with its default settings
First things first – let’s create a new quick step. If you already know how to do this, feel free to skip this next section and continue HERE.
How do I set up a new Quick Step in Outlook?
The tutorial below shows how you can create a quick step using Outlook 2010. There might be some minor differences if you are using a newer version, but you should be just fine. Note that the Quick Step functionality is not available in MIcrosoft Outook 2007 or earlier.
- On the Home tab, click “Create New” in the Quick Steps section.
- Give your new Quick Step a name.
- Select the first action you want the Quick Step to do, then add additional actions with the Add action button.
- (optional) Select an icon for you Quick Step. If you skip this, the Quick Step will be represented with the icon of the first action from your list.
- (optional) You can get even further and assign the Quick Step a keyboard shortcut by choosing a combination in the Shortcut key dropdown menu.
- Click Finish and you’re done.
How do I get more done using Quick Steps?
You know how what Quick Steps are for and how to set one up, but that in itself does not help one bit. What you need to do now is put it into practice, and that can only be done when you identify email processes you could automate. I find it easier to set up systems when I have the bigger picture in mind, following certain best practice and methodology.
Getting things done with folder structure
You might already be familiar with David Allen’s cult book Getting Things Done. While we won’t get into details here (I highly recommend you pick up the book), let’s tap into the big idea from the book – here is what the Getting Things Done workflow looks like.
Now lets look at it from an email standpoint. You get all kinds of messages into your inbox. The first thing you need to do is to ask yourself what it actually is and if it requires any action. If not, you will either:
- delete it (e.g. spam and other email that is not relevant),
- incubate it (store it to take action sometime in the future),
- or file it into the special folder (for reference).
The other possible answer to the “is it actionable?” question is Yes. In that case, the next thing to ask yourself is “what is the next action?”. If you can complete it in less than 2 minutes, do it right away – write that quick reply and move to the next item in the inbox. If somebody else is a better fit for completing the action, forward it to that person (but track the status of the task). If the email instructs you to do something and has a specific date and time (e.g. meeting), put it into the calendar. If not, leave it in your inbox – it is the to-do item for the day.
This concept is also mirrored in the folder structure in the Outlook client. I’ve tried many different folder setups and I am convinced this works best. The tip has also helped many others, so there just may be something to it.
- Inbox is where all new email lands. No surprises here.
- Done is where you move messages that you have read and were not actionable or once you compete the required action.
- Reference is where you put useful content that might come useful sometime later, such as templates and other information. This messages also automatically end up in Evernote.
- Waiting for is where you put messages with tasks you have delegated to other people. At least once a week you need to go through it check what the status of each task is; you might need to remind somebody about something he or she should do.
Outlook Quick Steps for putting productivity theory into practice
Some of the Quick Steps I most frequently use are:
- Done: mark email as read and move it into the Done folder
- Reply and Done: mark email as read, move it into the Done folder and open the Reply to all window
- Reference – mark email as read, move it into the Reference folder and forward the message to Evernote
Another little hack – use email rules
It also helps to have a few simple rules set up. You can learn how to create a new rule in Outlook here. The one rule that helps me the most is this: “whenever I send an email to myself, mark it as unread and move it into the Waiting For folder.
With that in mind, another Quick Step I use a lot is:
- Forward and Waiting For: mark email as read, move it into the Done folder, open the Forward window with my own email address in the BCC field.
The ultimate email machine
Another great way to deal with email is to use the Outlook app for iOS. Guy Kawasaki uses it as an integral part of what he calles “The Ultimate Email Machine”. Witness it in action here: Facebook video