Archive for the ‘organization’ Category

Every now and then I listen to a podcast where the host is interviewing an author – and the question comes up as to why the interviewee wrote their book.  The reply is usually something along the lines of, “I had to write this book”, or “I felt compelled to write it”  or “Something inside me was bursting to get out….I couldn’t not write it.”  There are two topics for myself that come to mind when I hear that.  This post is one of them.

In full disclosure, the content for this speech was influenced by material that can be obtained in David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) book and methodology, as well as from the Asian Efficiency podcasts (Episode 1, Episode 2) on this topic.  I have yet to read Getting Things Done, but am familiar enough with the methodology.  Reading the book is on my Book To Do List.

While I didn’t feel 100% confident giving the speech prior to reading the book, I am a big proponent of Inbox Zero.  I work at a very large company, and when I saw someone write a blog post about how they manage their inbox, I had some concerns.  Their approach, while doable, involved a lot of categorizing and labeling.  I thought my approach was more efficient and time saving.  I don’t think it’s perfect, and I may have changes after reading the book.  So without further adieu, here is Toastmasters Speech #2:  Invest in Yourself: Own Your Inbox, Own Your Day:

There are those series of Capital one commercials where Samuel L. Jackson asks, “What’s in your wallet?”  Today, I’d like to take a spin on that and ask you, “What’s in your Inbox?”

A lot of my daily work revolves around email.  It’s the primary way I send and receive communications with colleagues.  Yet, I was finding that I was constantly struggling with ‘trying to keep up’ with the constant flurry of emails that come in.  I was having trouble getting back to people on critical emails, yet I was also doing ‘too good a job’ of keeping on top of emails that were, in retrospect, less important.  I had to find a way to plan, process, and prioritize my inbox.

Today, I’d like to share some advice on how I took control of Outlook, and explain how I focus on doing the right work at the right time.

Before I get into the details of my presentation, I wanted to share some quotes with you.  You can read them yourself, but the one that sticks out to me is “Email is a ‘To Do List’ that you let other people write on.”


In today’s world, where we’re all too accessible, we let ourselves get carried away with the compelling need to respond to people right away – that we forget about what’s important – and that is making sure we’re working on the right things at the right time, and doing them the right way.

Before I go on, I wanted to provide a brief disclaimer.  The approach I am about to describe is what works for me.  This is not the one solution to your email problems.  These are some steps I’ve taken that help me manage my day better.  Feel free to apply one, some, or all of these concepts in different ways that fit to your daily routine.  At the end of the day, do what works best for you.

What does your inbox look like?  Would it look something like this?


There are 20 unread emails sitting in our Inbox.  There are countless red flags spread throughout marked ‘For Follow Up’.  The main Inbox has a bunch of subfolders for categorizing emails, because, you know, we plan on looking them back up someday.  Last but not least, in the main Inbox, there are over 4,000 unread emails.  Let’s try to go from something like that, to something like this…


Here, on the right hand side, there are no unread emails sitting in our Inbox.  No red flags marked for follow up.  We have one subfolder for archiving old emails.  And last but not least, when we’re done with our email management routine, there are zero emails sitting in our main Inbox.

The Foundation

How do we get there?  There are really only two main parts to get this going.  The first part is setting the foundation.  once this is set up, you’re good to follow the process.


In setting the foundation, there are a few things you would modify.  In the middle of the Outlook toolbar is a section called “Quick Steps”.  If you click the arrow in the lower right corner, it will bring up a window to “Mange Quick Steps”.


In that window,  you can re-arrange the content and order things appear in the Quick Steps toolbar.  In the screenshot above, ‘Archive’ is the first quick step.  I also have a shortcut key assigned to this action.  At the press of a few quick keystrokes (personally CTRL+SHIFT+1), I can quickly archive an email I am done with.  To the right of that, I also set up a quick step to Create a Task (with my shortcut key personally being CTRL+SHIFT+2) with the email as an attachment.  I’ll walk you through how this all works shortly, but in summary when an email requires some follow up action, I can quickly set up a task to track those actions, and attach the email inside that task.


The other thing that needs to be set up is to create one, and only one, archive folder.  Those of us that have been around email long enough have memories of the difficulties of finding old emails.  However, Outlook’s search capabilities have greatly improved over the years.  The other thing to think about is what is referred as the ‘search/sort tradeoff’.  How often do you actually pull up old emails?  Probably less often than you think.  Then why do you spend so much time trying to sort it in the right folder?  Dump it all in one archive folder, and have faith in the search tools.  Now that we’ve set the foundation, let’s talk about how to use it.

The Process

There’s something called the “Two Minute Rule”.  When reviewing your emails that come in, you want to ask yourself these 3 questions.

  1. Does this email require some action on my part? – If no, then archive the email.
  2. Does this email require an action that can be completed in less than two minutes?  – If yes, then do it now.  You’ll spend more time trying to figure out ‘what to do’ with it than the time it would take to actually complete the task.
  3. Does this email require an action that would take longer than two minutes to complete?  – If yes, it becomes a task.


In the screenshot above, we see an email (1) that has come in.  It requires an action that takes longer than two minutes to complete.  I can utilize the shortcut in the Quick Actions toolbar (2) that we set up earlier to automatically open a new task window and attach the email within the task itself (3).


There are some additional things to think about when adding details to your task.

  • Subject Name –  Put an action verb in the subject name.  Give it a meaningful title that clearly states what is being asked. (This will help later when looking at your list of tasks.)
  • Start Date/End Date – Feel free to utilize both.  Maybe you want to delay the start date of your task if it isn’t urgent.
  • Reminders – This may come in handy if you need to follow up with yourself or with others on tasks that require additional actions of others before you can mark it complete.
  • Prioritization – Self explanatory.   I personally keep most tasks at Normal, but you can set some to high if you wish.
  • Descriptions – Finally, in the body of the task window, enter any meaningful descriptions that will help you later on.  This could include action items that need to be completed prior to the task being fully complete, dates those action items are completed, and any additional information that might help you when working the task later on.  I tend to forget things easily so I take advantage of this area to help me remember details that would be useful when working the task.


The main Tasks window can be accessed by clicking the Tasks button on the far left in in Outlook.  Here, you can see a list of all outstanding tasks.  This window can be customized based on your preferences.

You have many options for sorting and/or grouping tasks.  One option is to sort/group by status.  One status that can be helpful is “Waiting on Someone Else”.  There may be a task that you are ultimately responsible for – but in order for you to continue you need a deliverable from someone else.  Be careful with this status however – although you are waiting on something from someone else, you are ultimately responsible for seeing the task through to completion.  I tend to set weekly calendar reminders for myself to check in with people associated with tasks that I am responsible for completing.

Tasks can also be sorted by any of the available date fields.  some may prefer to see tasks sorted by due date.  others may wish to look at them sorted by start date.  another option is to sort by category.  I personally don’t use this option, but others may find it helpful if they like to organize their tasks into categories.

Final Tips

Be sure to dedicate time to the process.  Develop a cadence that works for you, whether it be daily, a few times a week, or once a week to do a review of your inbox.  Avoid attraction to distraction.  Disable or decrease notifications.  Personally, I have my new email notifications set to 3 seconds at 20% transparency.  I forget what the default is, but I believe it is around 5-7 seconds, which feels like an eternity and can be a major distraction.

Don’t hesitate to go offline.  I promise you we’ll all be here when you get back.  And last but not least, don’t overdo it with the sorting/categorizing.  Remember the ‘search/sort tradeoff’ we spoke of earlier.

These tips have really helped me ensure that I get back to the right people, at the appropriate times, while at the same time reducing my sense of feeling overwhelmed.  I hope you’ll take some of the tips I’ve suggested to take control of your Inbox.  Thank you.

Extra Credit

This next slide wasn’t in my official speech.  However, this was one slide I wanted to include but had to ‘cut for time’.  I decided to place it at the very end of my presentation document, because I liked it a lot, but just couldn’t fit it in the 5-7 minutes I was given.  However, my speech ended up being well received, and one of the other Toastmasters asked for advice on how to separate urgent/non-urgent and important/non-important emails.  You would have thought I planted her in the audience.  I laughed, and brought up this slide in the Q&A that followed.  I couldn’t have been happier that she asked the question.

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I have been working in the corporate world since 2004.  During my time, I’ve witnessed, and at one time or another committed, some office etiquette blunders.  I thought I’d take the time to write about my biggest office pet peeves, as well as those of friends and colleagues.

‘Office’ Office Etiquette

I am going to start off with ‘Office’ office etiquette, that is, Microsoft Office, and the things you should be doing to use it effectively.

Utilize the ‘Location’ field for Conference Call Information (So it Appears in Meeting Reminders)

I attend a lot of meetings.  Several a day, and dozens a week.  Nothing ticks me off more than to have to click through the reminder popup to retrieve the conference call information.  The meeting coordinator should put that dial-in information in the Location field.  Don’t worry if you’re also booking a room; you can modify the location field after you add the room to include the call-in information.  One of the worst feelings in the world is when you’re 30-seconds late for a meeting and you have one more click to get the phone number.


Only include the participant dial-in information in the location.  If you copy and paste all your call-in information, some poor soul is going to accidentally dial the host number.  Then the host won’t know what’s going on while everyone else is on the call waiting.  The next 5-10 minutes of the meeting are wasted trying to figure out who it was.

Meeting Reminders/Recurring Meetings

Always use the reminder feature.  It is typically on by default, so this shouldn’t be an issue.  But once in a while, there’s that meeting that gets set up and the creator didn’t set a reminder.  The next 10 minutes are spent rounding everyone up.

Make a conscious effort to properly utilize the recurrence feature.  In the unfortunate instance where you must set up a daily meeting, make sure you use the proper selection of everyday vs. every weekday.  Every weekday will only schedule meetings Monday thru Friday.  If you quickly, and likely inadvertently, select everyday then everyone with a smartphone will get an alert on weekends.  If you’re an electronic victim like me, you likely sleep with your phone inches away.  There’s nothing worse than being alerted on a weekend at 8:15am to for your upcoming non-existing meeting.


This next piece could probably go into my regular ‘Meeting Etiquette’ section, but since it typically involves Outlook, I’m going to include it here.  Set an end date to your meetings.  I once was invited to a recurring weekly meeting.  I noticed it started getting cancelled week after week.  I deleted it from my calendar.  It never came up for over a year.  All of a sudden, the meeting organizer sends the invite again to occur every week without an end date.  So I assume they want to start it up again.  So the meeting time comes, and the meeting doesn’t happen.  What the heck?

Attendees: Read the Information Before you Email a Question

Sometimes you have to have a special password or a bit of key information you need to share with users. One would think putting “THE WEBEX PASSWORD IS 123ABC” in big bold letters right in the subject of the email invite would get their attention.  To my amazement, people clicked the link to the WebEx, and then followed up via email with “Hey, what’s the password to the WebEx?”

Organizers: Send the Agenda Before the Meeting

For weekly meetings, you send out the agenda right after the meeting.  Between then and now I get 577 more emails.  So when the next meeting rolls around, I have a hard time finding the minutes from the previous meeting.  So either send it out again right before the meeting (which nicely reminds people of the upcoming meeting) or make it available on SharePoint (which is probably a better idea since the most recent document is in a central location.)

Meeting Etiquette

I’ve mentioned some of these in the past, but they are worth repeating.

Be On Time, Start on Time

Be on time for meetings.  If you’re joining a meeting via conference call, dial in a minute early.  If it’s in person, try to be right on time.  Don’t be the person that has to be constantly reminded that they’re supposed to be attending a meeting, and then shows up 2 minutes late.

End on Time

Be respectful of other people’s time, and end the meeting at the scheduled end time.  People have a lot of other things to do and going late messes up their schedule.  In the event that the meeting looks like it’s going to go longer than scheduled, end at a good stopping point and schedule a follow up.

Don’t Schedule Too Early/Too Late (Factor in time zones)

It should be an unwritten rule that no meeting should start earlier than 9:30am or 4:00pm.  When people first get to work, they check e-mail, follow up on the last minute things they couldn’t finish the night before, etc.  At the end of the day they wrap everything up.

You should make an effort to leave work on time.  You’ll feel better, have more time to do non-work related activities.  In most non-emergency situations, it’ll all be there in the morning. A difference of 4:55pm tonight and 8:35am tomorrow morning won’t mean much a month from now.  Abstaining from scheduling meetings in those early and late hours helps avoid working late.

Factor in the time zone when you are scheduling meetings for people in different locations.  Try to be respectful of the 9:30-4:00 rule taking into account in their time zone.

Respect the Conference Room Booking Process

Every company has a different method of booking the conference room.  Whatever the process, It should be respected.  The same employee will go from “I booked the conference room at this time” to “Oh I didn’t think we still used that system to book the room.”  Use whatever system your  company follows, and stick to it.

Interrupting People When They Are in a Meeting

The following is a true story.  I was in a meeting where people could see inside the conference room from the main area.  A co-worker was looking for me and realized I was in the conference room.  So first they just stared at me from outside the door.  I gave a face that said, “I’m in a meeting we can chat later.”  They stared at me for another 5 seconds.  I had my computer at the meeting, and noticed an email came in.  It was from the gawker, “I need help with xyz.”  To which I replied, “I can’t help you right now, I’m in a meeting.  I can help you when it is over.”  They were persistent, “But I really need help with xyz.”  I knew it could wait.  So now I’m losing focus on the meeting because this person thinks they have an emergency.

This next scenario has also happened to me a hundred times.  I’m on a conference call in my office.  Someone peeks in and one of three things happens.  Rarely, they make a face that says  “I’ll come back later” and leave.  More often than not, they look at the phone to see if you have it muted, and then just start talking as if my meeting isn’t important.  Occasionally, they don’t even have the decency to do that, and just start talking anyway.

If you need to talk to someone and they are in a meeting, whether it be a in person or a conference call, wait for them to get out of it before you sidetrack them.

Attendees: Respect the Meeting

I try to schedule as few meetings as possible.  So when I do, it’s usually for a good reason.  I also keep my meetings as short as possible.  So for the 20 minutes I ask you to meet with me, put the phone down and give me your attention.

For those dialing in, we can hear everything around you.  This includes, but isn’t limited to: chewing food, driving in your car, and the barking dog.

Organizers: Don’t Have Meetings for the Sake of Having Meetings

I’ve mentioned this in the past: Limit the number of recurring meetings.  If there isn’t a reason to meet, cancel the meeting.

Try to limit who you invite.  Don’t invite someone if their time is better used somewhere else.

In the Office

This section has to do with communication and respecting others while physically in the office.

Don’t Take Advantage of Cube Location

There are three main spots where this is typically abused:  the bathroom, the kitchen, and the exits.

Like the children’s book says, everybody poops (more on this later).  Don’t pounce people on their way in or out of the bathroom.  Don’t make people think twice about going to the bathroom because they’re worried they’ll have to go through you.  (Side note: Who knows, maybe it makes them more productive, I read somewhere that people make better decisions when they have to pee.)

Everybody goes to the kitchen, likely multiple times a day.  Don’t make people go hungry or thirsty because they’re worried they’ll get stopped every time they go to the kitchen.  At the same time, respect the people whose desks are near the kitchen.  Don’t heckle them for the two minutes and thirty seconds it takes to cook your Hot Pocket.

Everybody in the office has to come in and exit through the front door.  Don’t stop them.  When they’re coming in, they probably haven’t had that cup of coffee yet, have all their belongings strapped on their shoulders, and just want to get to their desk.  When they’re leaving, they just want to get home.  The last thing they want is for you to say, “Hey, got a minute?” as they’re almost out the door.  It’s never a minute.

I used to work with someone who was so bad at this that I would have a co-worker leave at the same time as me and we would pretend to be engaged in serious conversation just so we could get out.  Also respect the people who work near the front door.  Don’t start up a conversation with them on your way back from your cigarette break, coffee run, etc.

Beginning of Day, End of Day Interruptions

Let people settle in when they get into the office.  Give them a good 20 minutes before you hit them with something if it can wait.  At the end of the day, leave them alone for the last 20 minutes to wrap things up.  People typically designate these beginning and end times to gather all their thoughts and tasks.

“Working Through Lunch”

I’m probably not working through lunch.  I’m probably catching up on my RSS feeds, reading the news, taking my mind off work.  The last thing I want when I’m eating my sandwich is for you to come in and talk about work.

Quota on Interruptions

There should be a quota on how many times, whether in person or electronically, you are allowed to interrupt someone.  I’m all for interaction, but when I’m trying to work on a specific project and you visit every 20 minutes, I lose focus.


In offices with thin walls, use speakerphone sparingly.  In cubicles, use speakerphone only if you’re the only one left in the building.  Someone once told me a story where three people all within 10 feet of each other, all on the same call, were all on speakerphone.  One person was in an office with the door open, one in the next office over with the door closed (I may have been the victim here), and one in a cube across from them.  You could imagine how annoying the delayed voices were on the various speakerphones.

Personal Calls

Be aware of your surroundings.  No one needs to hear about the status of your latest medical condition or what’s for dinner.  Talk softly or go outside.

Food & Cleanliness

Don’t be ‘that guy’.

The Water Cooler

I’m all for being green.  Go ahead and re-use that water bottle.  Just don’t stick the mouth of your bottle up and over the spigot.  Chances are you weren’t that good at Operation as a kid, and that bottle is going to touch the spigot.  If your hands (or anything else) touch the spigot by accident, do the right thing and give it a wash.

Replace the water cooler when it’s empty.  If you are strong enough, offer to replace it for others.  If you’re not, ask someone for help.  The same could be said for filling up the coffee pot.

The Fridge

If you brought something in but decided not to eat it, you are responsible for seeing that it gets thrown out.  If you bring something in to share, you are responsible for seeing that it gets thrown out after it’s edible time has passed.  No one wants to see, or smell, a furry science experiment weeks later.

If you didn’t bring something in but want to eat it, too bad – it belongs to someone.  Don’t steal food.

The Sink

Your mother doesn’t work there.  And even if she did, you’re an adult.  Wash your dishes.  When they’re dry, put them away.

The Microwave

That soup that  just exploded all over the inside?  Clean it up.

Bathroom Etiquette

When I walk towards a urinal or toilet, I don’t want to see a foamy pile of pee waiting for me.  Flush.  Then, wash your hands.  I don’t care if you didn’t get anything on them.

Shut the light off when you’re done, and leave the door cracked.  Don’t keep people waiting making them think you’re still in there when you’re long gone.

If you made a mess, for whatever reason, clean it up.

Final Thoughts

Leave a comment if you have a good office etiquette story.   Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts when I talked about creating this post.

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Inc Magazine had a great article in their April issue aimed towards helping companies find talented candidates in a crowded talent pool.  I read the article and thought, “I can turn this around, so it can be applied to the candidates themselves.  The same tips they are telling the companies to look for in people can be used to stand out to those companies.  It’s win-win.”

The Problem for Both: The Shotgun Approach Has a Low Success Rate

The article opens with a story about a Dallas fast-food chain looking to hire 32 employees in anticipation of opening a new store.  They posted positions on the 2 major online job boards (Monster and CareerBuilder).  They bought ads in the Dallas Morning News and advertised over the local radio stations.  The result:  10,000 resumes.  It’s the recruiting version of the shotgun approach.  “Just send out as many postings as possible, that’ll give us the most resumes to look through…”  The problem:  They didn’t focus their efforts.  Blasting the openings out across all media outlets will result in all different kinds of people with all different kinds of skill sets applying for positions.  The same can be said for applicants who send their resume to 1000 different job postings in the hopes that someone will bite.  I wrote here and here how this just doesn’t work.

Solution 1: Focus on the Industry

It’s okay to use job boards, but go local.  For recruiters, this allows them to reduce the number of applicants that don’t have the qualifications.  For candidates, this narrows the competition because not everyone uses the local job boards.  You stand out more.  The article lists a lot of unique websites but I would recommend doing your own searches to find out what works best for your needs.

Solution 2: Make Sure the Resume Has the Right Words

The article recommends using special recruiting software that is designed to automate the screening process.  It helps companies narrow the results by ruling out candidates that do not have enough education, or aren’t skilled in a particular area.  For candidates, my recommendation would be to make sure your resume contains the facts needed to get through these screeners.  If the job you are applying for requires project management skills make sure it is mentioned in your resume.

Solution 3:  Pass the Test

They recommend testing the candidates early in the process to measure various skills.  Examples used are typing speed, QuickBooks knowledge, or even people skills.  My recommendation: You probably shouldn’t be applying to the job if you don’t think you are going to pass the test.

Solution 4:  It’s Who You Know

This one is obvious.  Use social-networks such as Linked-In, or ask friends for referrals.  Try and find someone that works at the company and reach out to them.  Being referred internally greatly increases your chances compared to an outsider.

Final Thoughts

It was very easy to apply these recommendations to the candidate even though the article was written for companies.  If you’re stuck in your search don’t be afraid to try to apply a story written for them and relate it to your situation.  Who knows, it just might work.

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In some of my upcoming posts, I am going to start reviewing some books I read.  I’m a slow reader so they won’t be frequent, but will hopefully be a good in depth recap.  One of my reasons for doing this is selfish.  I think that when reading non-fiction books, I may find them ‘too easy to relate to’ or say to myself ‘oh I already do that’ and breeze through certain points.  Or I may think a book is great at the time, and forget about it once I move onto the next one.   By recapping the book as I read it, I think it’ll help me retain some of the important points found within the book.

I was thinking of maybe using Google Notebook or Microsoft OneNote to track my recaps, but then I realized if I blog about it they may be beneficial for others if they’re considering reading the book.  

I’m still debating the format of the reviews though.  The two options I’m considering are separate posts for chapters or parts of the book, or recapping the book in one long post.  Here are my pros and cons of both approaches:

Separate Posts for each Chapter or Section of Book

  • Pro:  Each post is shorter in length.  Some people (myself included) look at long posts and skim through them.  If the post is shorter, I usually read the entire thing.  Recaps can be posted as I read the book.
  • Con:  Posts might get ‘lost in the shuffle’ and become disorganized.  Users who don’t mind reading ‘longer’ posts will have to click through the posts to get the overall picture.

Each Review Contained in Single Post

  • Pro:  Each review is cleanly organized in one post.  They’re easier to find and read.
  • Con:  People may see the long post and skim through it, catching only certain points.   I will have to finish the book before a review is posted.

I’m leaning more towards putting the reviews in one single post.  That way they’ll be more cleanly organized.  If people don’t want want to read the entire review, that’s their choice.

Process for Remembering Good Points While Reading

I keep every book I read.  I envision living in this large house someday that has a room dedicated to just books.  The library will have shelves surrounding the walls with all my books organized by genre, author, etc (having quite figured that part out yet, but since I’m OCD about organizing media I’m sure there will be some sort of system).  I also like to keep my books is good condition, so I don’t like bending or marking them up.  So, I’ve thought of a good solution that will allow me to keep track of good points as I read.

As I’m reading the book, I have these mini post-it notes by my side, similar to the slimmer ones found here.    

Staples Post-It

Staples Post-It

If I think a brief section of the book is a point I want to reference in my post, I stick the post-it length-wise across the page and keep reading.  If think an entire paragraph is a good point, I stick the post-it vertically so it covers the point I want to reference and keep reading.  That way, I don’t lose my train of thought, and won’t forget to reference something I thought was important later on.

When I’m done with the chapter, I then start organizing my thoughts of what I thought overall, and go to my first post-it.  After I make sure I document it properly, I put the post-it aside.  I’ll re-use the post-its until they lose their ‘sticky’ factor.  I think this is a good method for keeping track of points you want to make while keeping you engaged with what the chapter so you don’t lose your train of thought.  

So that’s that.  Expect my first review in a few weeks.

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