Things to know about Outlook: 2 Categories and Calendaring

Using categories to calculate time spent on various activities:

One or more categories can be assigned to an appointment in the outlook calendar. It is then possible to sort appointments by a number of criteria including categories. The latter is useful if you want to track the number, type or time spent by category or group of categories. For example perhaps you need to track  the amount of time spent each month on a particular project or with a customer. To do this first create a category for the project/customer and assign to appointments accordingly. Next we apply a filter to view all the appointments which meet the condition (ie have the desired category) and view the results. Though it may also be possible to program (using VBA etc) a process which counts the hours for you, I simply count up the hours myself. It is also possible to include only meetings which have been accepted, as well as filtering by any other appointment property, eg organiser, duration etc. This would allow very fine grained sorting, for this example however, category alone is good enough. As mentioned previously using a location category allows a quick visual indicator of the location of appointments, which some may also find useful.
Here is a screen-shot of the process of filtering by category:

As ever click on the image to view full size.

category filter


When in calendar view, use ctr+alt+4 toggles the view to month view ctr+ alt + 2 returns to work week.


You may have noticed that Outlook is able to overlay multiple calendars which is a useful alternative to to using the scheduler when planning meetings. For example, as may have noticed, I use the Oxford term dates to keep track of our somewhat idiosyncratically/traditionally named terms. The settings can be tweaked to alter the number of calendars which may be viewed in this way.

Posted in Calendaring, Colour, Outlook, Planning, tools | Leave a comment

Things to know about Outlook:1 using rules to auto delete or move emails

Delete is often your friend, but what about persistent spam from which there is no escape, how often do you have two keep using the delete key when you could automate? Many of my systems administrator colleagues hold that if you are going to do something more than eight times it is worth considering automating it in some way.

You have tried to unsubscribe from that supplier list, or asked the individual persistent spammer to desist, or perhaps you hold the position that it is best not to unsubscribe because you have found that this merely proves to the offender that you have a valid email address to send more spam to. What we need here is a rule, to move the offending emails straight to the deleted items. This will work if the emails come from the same person, same (but unique) domain or contain the same subject; i.e. there is something from which we can form a rule.

Rules are useful if you want to move emails from a particular person or mail list into a particular folder, other than the deleted items (trash) which is really just another folder. Below is an example of moving all emails from into a folder called orders-goods.


I have selected this example to avoid giving credence to particular spammers, causing offence, invite legal action or ire of some sort by revealing any valid email addresses. There are several other criteria by which to select emails, for example, those emails from or addressed to a particular email address, by subject line containing a particular word or phrase. By the way, keeping a consistent subject line if you are sending emails on the same subject is important to allow your recipients to set up such rules. You may have noticed such is the case in my Amazon example, eg dispatched, order update, kindle all these are distinguishing conditions from the same domain ie

How else can rules be used?

rules-wizardIt is possible to; flag messages for follow up, move to a task list and more. The conditions by which to set a rule and define actions can be found in the Rules Wizard (shown on left).

tasskiconSending emails to a task list; in my images you will see something which doesn’t look like an email folder, which uses the clipboard icon (which represents a task) it is named groupstore. I can send emails to myself  by, creating a rule based on a whole, or part of a  repeated subject line and have all emails  delivered straight to a specific task list: in this case the groupstore task list. For example create a subject line always containing ‘groupstore tasks’ plus some changeable text eg remember to do task x. Or, maybe I want to take all emails from the finance department and add them to a task list if they have a subject line containing, for example planning.

You may have a regular event you are notified about by email say a security update/event that you want to have flash up on your notification bar, or maybe it is an email from your boss. In that case you can set up an alert (audible or a notification bar item) using rules, or you could automatically flag it as urgent or otherwise define properties to mark it as requiring urgent or a specific action or kind of attention.

Rules have conditions which trigger one or more actions and are very flexible. Many email clients have rule functionality, you just need to find the terminology used to describe the function. For example Mac Mail has the concept of VIP to highlight, notify you based on sender.

Next week we will look more at outlook tasks…

Posted in Email, Outlook, tools | 4 Comments

Six hats and six honest men; the art of asking good questions to get better answers.

Developing critical thinking and asking questions when reading is a good way to remain actively engaged with a topic and to retain learning. Or maybe you are in a discussion which seems to not be going anywhere, what is missing or needed to help move things forward? It might be asking questions!

“I keep six honest serving-men
 (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
 And How and Where and Who…
I send them over land and sea,
 I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest”  Rudyard Kipling

Asking good questions at the right time leads to getting good answers. Edward De Bono’s six thinking hats are based, in part, on Kipling’s six honest men. The scheme is well known and whilst it may seem a little dated, there is room to dust off the hats  and put  them to good use.

This mind map is part of a simple well written blog summarising the Six hats [1]

So, how do the hats relate to technology and productivity anyway?

The hats or honest men are really another tool to bring out when working and studying, they can also be used to develop good communication skills. As open questions they should lead to more information than closed ones, which often result in one word, yes or no answers. Active reading and learning involves asking the same kind of critical questions of the author as you would or a person. Getting better answers, leads to better understanding and therefore an increased probability of a better outcome.

As to practical application; I use sticky notes or highlighter pens (physical or digital) the colour of the hats to  write  a question,  make comment or add a marker. For example I would use green hightlighter  for interesting and novel content or yellow where I see a benefit or positive. Using this scheme allows for quick reference back to sections read and to the questions or comments I made. I should here credit Anna and Lev Goldentouch for suggesting this novel use of the hat colours, on their Key to Study Skills Blog.

Sometimes, I also use the hats to help construct mind maps in order analyse information or a situation.  There are ready made templates for mind mapping software such as the excellent, open source and cross platform,  Xmind [2] .

Below are links to a couple of quick < 3mins youtube videos to reiterate and to learn the system. The first  [3] is Edward De Bono himself discussing how the hats lead to a better outcome compared to using argument alone. The second [4] is a simple review of the six hats.

For the eagle eyed, you will by now have noted that this is not about task management, nor outlook. Apologies, I have decided to write a series of things you can do with outlook, hence a delay. Hope you feel free to ask questions and leave comments (though it is not possible in colour!).





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Marmite, love it or hate it? Mastering Mind Mapping

One of the things I have found most helpful in recent years is learning how to use mind maps. Some people are able to draw the most incredible mind maps, that store information in a unique, creative, memorable and beautiful way. I have one such friend who I study with, I envy him, as ever Google images will provide many examples should you wish to try this. However, in the past it is this which put me off using mind maps, until I discovered mind mapping software, which requires no artistic skill at all!

I have tried quite a few mind mapping software packages, some helpfully integrate with outlook, allowing you to manage tasks as a fully synced mind map (Mindjet Manager). However I have settled on the free, cross platform and open source package Xmind. It is simple to learn and there is plenty of help and examples on the forums. Warning… mind maps are like marmite; love it or hate it. Thus, care is needed when presenting information to others to ensure your ideas are presented in the best way for your audience… I suspect that mind maps are most likely to appeal to visual and kinaesthetic learners (I love changing the status flags, colours or icons and moving topics around, especially moving completed items to the done ‘folder’).

Xmind has various icons which can be used to highlight or add visual meaning to an item. I use the same colour system as for categorising email statuses. I am a great advocate of design once and use many… If there are not enough icons for you it is possible to add your own and save as a custom set. Xmind, like spreadsheet applications, allows multiple sheets per single map. I sometimes have a simple braindump sheet for unsorted thoughts. This allows me to get thoughts out quickly, per GTD collection method. Using Dragon Naturally Speaking (or other voice recognition software, even those built into windows or mac), allows even faster collection. At least for me, as I speak much faster than I type!

Here are some of the things I use Xmind for:

  1. Managing a to-do list: (for those that want information about more sophisticated to-do list and task managers, be patient a post is coming).
  2. File system map:Planning and mapping out my filing system, including notes of what to store where, in disputable cases. I am indebted to John Ireland, for his basic outline of a generic, repeatable filing system. I use the same principles for high level email folders.
  3. Reusable meeting template: into which to note any general preparation (location, time, pre reading etc) record my agenda items, actions, and make notes.
  4. Gantt Chart/Managing small project;(including generating a simple Gantt chart (pro version required for this). At least there is no need to learn complex project software, though this kind of simple Gantt chart is unlikely to satisfy funders or your project management team (for that you probably will need the standard business software).
  5. Resource Safe: Using it as a file that contains links to various documents in my filing system or online documents, bring together multiple resources into a single place, a sort of bookmarking system that covers more that URLs to websites.The link can  use  a relative path feature meaning that is using a server or cloud based sync and share filing system such as;  OneDrive, Subversion or Dropbox, the links work across multiple devices. Links can also refer to another Xmind file, sheet or topic heading. A nice touch is Xmind displays the icon for each document type.
  6. Structuring Documents: Making study notes and planning the structure of essays or briefing documents etc.
  7. Analysis: Thinking/analysing/planning situations.

If you are interested in other diagramming tools or learning about the differences between and maps and concept maps check out the links below:

Concept vs Mind Mapping

Diagramming general

I have provided screenshots/images of non sensitive examples below, click on the images for a full size version. Coming soon a series of things to know about outlook. Next week 6 men and 6 hats???




Posted in Colour, Focus, Learning Styles, Planning, Preparation, Task Management, tools, Visual Processing | Leave a comment

Organising the Inbox

If you read the GTD post 2 weeks ago, by now you will know that your email inbox is certainly a place that you will need to organise and capture information from. So, how do we do GTD, mark next actions, defer or delete or make an item a tickler for later reminder/action? There are many ways to do this, whatever you chose has to be quick and easy to be sustainable.

Firstly how you deal with email depends on how you prefer to ‘file’ emails. Some subscribe to inbox zero, that is get everything out of the inbox immediately and certainly by the end of the day. Some like to file everything into discreet folders (beware too many nested folders, this can slow your client down) and, there is an actual restriction on the number. Others still rely on the search function and filters to find emails simply left in the inbox or, filed in one or a small number of folders.

The beauty of digital resources is that they (to my mind) are much more easily searchable than physical written materials especially those without an index! There are also many ways of tagging to describe them making it possible to store, find and retrieve items without having a very complex folder or filing system which takes time to maintain. Like physical folders, some things may need to be cross referenced, this is where tags/categories come in useful.

Each email client will have different functionality that can be used to better manage email. I am choosing Outlook as it is widely used and is available free to all staff and students either as part of the campus agreement or by downloading Office 365. It is a powerful, flexible tool available for: Windows, MacOSX, iOS and Android) for Linux users wishing or needing to use Outlook are restricted to Outlook Web Access (OWA) client via a browser.

My GTD system uses these two basic features:

  • Follow up flag
  • Categories

In addition there are these optional advanced features, which will covered in another the post (probably in two weeks time):

  • Quicksteps (similar to macros, a repeatable automated action triggered by a keystroke or click)
  • Tasks (allow annotation of emails, add notes, set reminders and more)
  • Filters (provide a view of a restricted set of information an example we see today is the category view)
  • Rules (provide a means to define criteria to make actions happen as email arrives in the inbox for example move all email from advertiser x straight to trash)

When reading through new mail, much can be deleted straight away, this is a quick win, the delete key is your friend! For those emails to which you must reply or return to I simply flag quickly for further triage. Emails which are for information only and require not action, file wherever they belong according to your system or use categories…

Categories are like tags or labels, I use them to categorise items using a mixture of words and colour, mainly I rely on colours, because the colour is always visible in the client which is not so for the written category label. You should also be aware that the written category label is also visible to recipients of tagged messages or calendar events. Choose your words wisely, or keep the category description as the default which is simply the colour name.

Here are my categories


You will see that some of the labels are simply colours. I use these as status indicators for my GTD system, waiting, urgent, next action, follow-up, defer, delegated etc.

Others are used to denote locations which I use in my calendar as a quick visual reminder of which office I need to be at for an appointment. It is entirely up to you how you use categories. You can have multiple categories which I find allows me to file an email in one folder and still refer to another topic, status or folder. If you like, it forms the equivalent of the index found in a book.

A quick word on follow-up flags, before filing but after an initial triage, the default flag is set to follow-up today. I may add further categories, or change the follow-up flag from one of the built-in due dates before filing. You can also customise the flag description, add a reminder as well. If you use categories to mark status you will want to remove or update the categories. To remove all categories use ctr + shift + 1, or the category is toggled by clicking on the category to add or remove it, or using the keyboard  shortcut which you assigned.

filterLastly you need to use a filter to see what you have marked. Outlook has a default flagged filter to show you all flagged items and a categories view which shows you anything with an assigned category.

I know this is a longer post than usual, but it is a flexible system that is easily customised to suit your needs, even before you add in additional filters to give the view you want or adding quick steps!

Posted in Email, Outlook, Planning, Task Management, Time Management, tools, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Screen Lighting: A State of Flux?

Blue light on eyes

Ever find that after a while looking at the screen that your eyes are tired and strained? Generally, our monitors are set to have a very blue-based light, which emulates natural daylight. Some of us find the white is too bright and there are a couple of ways of dealing with this, apart from adjusting the monitor itself.

If, you find your eyes are strained at the end of the day then try flux [1] . Flux, tries to adjust your screen based on the kind of light that would naturally be occurring for the time of day. That is, it emulates sunrise and sunset, and becomes more golden yellow over the course of the day.

The Flux website claims that, blue light at the end of the day or before bed has a negative effect on sleep, by suppressing melatonin and interfering with circadian rhythms [2]. This is also been the subject of some media articles [3] google,as ever, will reveal much! I like flux, it is free, open source and easily adjustable, which means that you can choose to reduce blue, back lit glare even in the morning.

Another way of, changing the background colour to reduce eye sensitivity, is to use either a screen overlay or a screen shader. If you are going to spend money on text to speech software Claro Read and Read Write Text both have screen rulers and dimmers included in the package. A high proportion of dyslexics benefit from a screen or page overlay as this reduces visual distortion and improves reading speed. I will compare these two products later in another blog. Next week, a look at email tips and tricks.

For now, try:
Flux free [1] Mac and Windows, iphone and iPad

For Mac OSX only
My point shade [5] (currently 79p in apple store), enables a full range of colours to shade the screen and is very configurable.

Android: none that I know of, please leave comment if you are aware of shading apps for Android.

Posted in tools, Visual Distraction, Visual Distress/Sensitivity | Leave a comment

Getting Things Done (with less stress)

Last week we had the pomodoro method to help us focus. Before we move on to looking at time or task management tools…

If like me you often have the feeling there is something you should do but you can’t remember, David Allen’s well known philosophy; ‘getting things done’ could be for you. Allen suggests that we waste a lot of mental energy trying to remember and organise amorphous “Stuff”. If we can capture that stuff when we think of it and put it into a single collection bucket for further processing then our mental space will be freed up to think about creative ways of addressing the important things of life rather than fretting about the Stuff itself.

Ideally we want to have a single place where all stuff goes to get sorted; a sort of single inbox or intray. Why is it important to have a single bucket? Have you ever tried to remember where something is if it could be anywhere in the house. Stuff in you head is a bit like that you could open many drawers before you find what you are looking for!

In essence  of getting thing done is to  capture or collect, process or sort then take the next action: delete or defer, finally  and perhaps, most importantly of all to review. Reviewing should include a mini review daily, then weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually. The less frequent reviews are to review goals and longer term goals and plans.  I like the GTD methodology, it is not prescriptive and whilst there is plenty of software you can use, pen and paper suffices too.

To explain the methodology fully would take more than a single blog post. So, for now, I include a great 2 minute summary on youtube, a summary diagram and a  link to Ted talk by Dave Allen (about 20 mins) and this short  wikisummary. There is plenty of information if you google GTD or getting things done or check out the official GTD website or buy the book. If the you tube video doesn’t show up below check out this link, well worth the 2 minutes to watch!

I recommend exploring further if you struggle to manage complexity and many small tasks (which are not manageable just using a calendar) it is a really simple method and having done a version of this since 2004, I find that it really does free up space to thinking creatively and to spend on other, more interesting things and bring order to life.

Next week to allow you time to investigate further (or not) we take a look at screen glare and its effect on us…

Posted in Organisation, Planning, Task Management, Time Management | 1 Comment

Getting focus from a simple tomato?

There are many reasons why we procrastinate, perhaps we don’t know where to start, or the task feels too daunting. We probably already know that we need to break the task down into manageable chunks and focus, but how?

320px-Tomato_scannedFrancesco Cirillo, invented the Pomodoro technique [1] whilst he was a university student, so that he could break up his work into manageable chunks and take frequent breaks. He found that having regular breaks enabled him to be more productive. Popular research supports his assertion that taking frequent breaks helps our productivity and that we are more likely to take in what we are reading and learning.

He used a simple kitchen timer in the shape of the tomato, hence the name Pomodoro, to track his work and break periods. He advocated, 25 minutes study, and a five-minute break and set the timer accordingly. During the 25 minutes,  make a contract/agreement with yourself to totally focus, knowing that when the timer goes off you have freedom to do Facebook, email or whatever other distractions are competing for your mind space. On the third lap (pomodoro) of 25 minutes take 15 minutes for a longer recharge. Personally, I prefer a 50 minute stint, and a 10 or 15 minute break because I feel I get more done with fewer interruptions without task switching. I really like my 10 or 15 minute break to get a job done, make coffee, check emails or whatever.

When reading complex material I sometimes do go for the standard 25 or even reduce to 15 minutes, and 5 minutes break. This allows me to make brief notes and commit to longer term memory what is in my short-term memory. I have been told that many people have found that knowing  your working memory limits and using the timer to read to them and  then break to process material can be useful and improve comprehension and long term retention.

A variation on the same theme is taking frequent breaks to relieve RSI, totally possible to use the pomodoro apps, or try workrave (

The choice is yours and of course you can experiment. The technique is documented here [1] and there is plenty of research and other information available online and off, but it is a simple technique, so what more is there to say or read?

Recommended Solutions:
These installs will require administrator rights on windows based machines.

Whilst there are pomodoro apps that try to be both a timer and a task or a to do manager, I have chosen simple timers.
Ipad/Iphone (iOS): Flat tomato [2] free (but not open source)
Windows/Mac (free and open source) tomighty [3] a simple application which allows you to choose both the pomodoro and break length
Android: Clear focus [4] free
Old fashioned: wind up kitchen timer or indeed a digital bleeper

Posted in Concentration, Concepts, Distraction, Focus, Task Management, Time Management, tools | Leave a comment

We need clarity- clearly

Evernote Clearly 128x128 Given that you’re reading this blog, I guessing that you do probably do a fair amount of reading online. If that is so, then it is important to be able to read as quickly and efficiently as possible. For this reason,I have picked this item to tackle as my first post.

For some, the background colour, the font and it’s size are really important to readability. Whilst the theme of IT Services blogs is,from a user’s perspective not customisable, it is simple, clean and the font easy to read (though some do prefer serif fonts of course). Sadly this is not necessarily true of all online materials; leaving aside issues of poor website design, we are bombarded with adverts and images and other extraneous material.

Enter, Clearly  a free browser extension which provides a clean, distraction free view of the current webpage and allows the user to customise the font size, font, and background colour. Also very useful is the clearly highlighter, which allows you to annotate the webpage.

evernoteBeing an Evernote product clearly integrates well with Evernote: once you’ve opened the webpage in clearly, you can simply click to save the cleaned, clearly rendered version of the webpage (along with any annotations you made) into Evernote using the evernote web clipper. Evernote, in case you never heard of it, can be used to save webpages and documents in a cloud-based repository. Once in Evernote, its contents can be viewed on any of your devices via a browser extension or device client. I use evernote as a supplement to bookmarking, for articles to read later, to share (via a url/web page) or more often because I wish to annotate them, more about that in another post…

Of course some of you are wondering what a browser extension is, and how to install it. If you click there are instructions for installation for the browser which you are currently using, no fuss and no need for administrative privileges. Clearly is available for Chrome, Firefox, Safari and possibly others. Internet Explorer users might like to try read on the web  .

webclipperEvernote webclipper is available for Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Safari on iPad (last used it was very slow, a better way of saving to Evernote iPad is, using the share icon)
Evernote desktop/phone/tablet clients are available for Windows, Mac OSX, Android, iOS (iPad/iPhone).

As I no longer use a Linux desktop regularly I can’t add anything here, nevernote/nixnote client did use to work with evernote.

Posted in Visual Distraction, Visual Processing | 1 Comment


picture of cogs, technology, work, productivityI am the sort of person who likes tweaking, finding the most efficient and effective way of doing things. I am a technophile, I like problem solving and gadgets, but not the sort of gadgets that you use once and lose to the bottom of a kitchen drawer, never to be found again. No, I work on the Pareto principle of trying to be the most efficient for the tasks I do 80% of the time; at work that means reading and processing information efficiently, planning well, time and task management, staying focused and making best use of the tools available to me to do my job. I try to use standard business and open source tools where possible. However, sometimes the standard business tools simply don’t do what you would like them to even with, shall we say tweaking (I want to say coercion) or indeed at all. Where that is the case, if something is important  enough to warrant it, I try to find a way to deal with it, even if that means using a new tool.

Whilst this blog is not about dyslexia (or any other neuro diverse condition or disability)  I am dyslexic. I remained undiagnosed for many years until last year. The diagnosis finally explained much: in the meantime I have found some smart tips and tricks and ways of working in order to overcome some of my inefficiencies. Of course you do not have to be a dyslexic have suboptimal ways of working! I don’t want (nor do I want you) to spend inordinate amounts of time learning new things for little gain, your mileage might vary, but I hope to share quick easy wins, that will assist you. So, this blog is about sharing ways of making the most out of technology in order to be more efficient, more effective and more productive, at work.

My aim is to post tips and tricks weekly on a Tuesday morning at 0730, why then? It’s early enough to be able to read a short article before starting work and, Tuesday is the first day after the start of the busy week!
…If you add comments before 0830 there is every possibility of a reply to you before 0900 on the day of posting. I intend to review this blog within a year, in my opinion there are too many derelict blogs already. One more blog for the graveyard, will not add value to anyone. Hope to ‘see‘ you next week… Lyn

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