I'm a big believer in the aggregation of marginal gains. Make enough small changes to your day-to-day workflow and your productivity will increase disproportionately.
As most of us spend a lot of our time managing emails I thought it would be good to run through some of the ways you can customize Outlook to make it work better for you.
I've added basic instructions for Outlook 2010 and Office for Mac users – these are just pointers and meant to navigate you to the relevant area where you can tweak options.
Go on - enjoy exploring those parts of Outlook you’ve never looked at before!
Before we get going...
If you're looking for helpful hints and tips on how to become more productive, take a look at our jargon-free "Ultimate self-employed productivity" guide. If you find it useful, don't forget to join Crunch Chorus, our own self-employed community, for access to dozens more guides just like this. Better still, Crunch Chorus membership is free, and always will be.
1. Turn off notifications
If you haven't done so already- this has got to the number one distraction. It’s OK not to see every single one of your emails as it arrives. It will take your attention away from what you are working on, so whatever sound alert or pop-up window you have going at the moment get rid of it right now!
Mac users: Outlook > Preferences > Notifications and Sounds
Outlook 2010: File > Options > Mail > Message Arrival
2. Change your calendar view to suit your working day / week
Does your working day start at 9am and finish at 3pm? Do you want to your week to show Monday through to Friday, or Sunday to Saturday? You can easily adjust your default calendar view.
Mac users: Outlook > Preferences > Calendar > Work Schedule
Outlook 2010: File > Options > Calendar > Work Time
3. Get your emails organized
Set some rules for regular newsletters so these automatically feed into your reading folder.
Mac users: right click on the email in question > Rules > Create Rule
Outlook 2010: select the email in question > Rules > select ‘Always move messages from..’ and select the folder you want these moved to (ie your new Reading folder).
4. Conversation view
Love it or hate it, but be aware that you can turn it on or off!
Mac users: Organise > Conversations
Outlook 2010: View > Tick or untick ‘Show as conversations’
5. Change the layout of the reading pane
As with most things this is a very personal choice, so check out the options and decide on the view that suits you best; or turn it off completely!
Mac users: Organise > Reading pane > choose from right, below and hidden.
Outlook 2010: View > Reading pane (and you also get the option to play around with your Navigation Pane too)
6. Make the most of your signature
Use each email as a way to communicate your brand and business by adding links, a logo and social media buttons to your signature. Simply cut and paste an appropriate size logo and images/buttons with embedded links. Make a few - short ones, long ones etc. depending on the context of your email.
Mac users: Open an email > Signature > Edit Signatures. You can also set Default Signatures.
Outlook 2010: Open an email > Signature > Signatures… > create new and you can also choose a different signature for replies or new message and set a default account.
7. Organise your contacts
Use categories to organize your contacts into groups such as clients, suppliers, personal etc., which will make it easier to export the data or look people up.
Mac users: Open up a contact > Categories > select a category or go to Edit categories and get these set up.
Outlook 2010: Open up a contact > Categories > select a category or go to All Categories to edit these.
I could go on but if you start with these 7 you're well on your way, and you'll have explored many useful settings areas you can go back and tweak further.
If you are using anything older than Office 2007, its time to upgrade! Office is now available on subscription via Office 365 from as little as £7.99 a month and you can install this on up to 5 computers (Mac and PC).
If you aren't using Outlook at the moment, but accessing your email via a webmail interface with limited functionality its time to consider upgrading to an Exchange through a service like Office 365 (Exchange Online) account and getting this set up on a desktop client.
Not a fan of Outlook? Fair enough – you aren't alone. You will probably prefer Google Apps for Business via a browser as opposed to desktop email client.
Let me know your favourite Outlook customisations and how you use it to stay organised.