612 – New Year, New You (someday/maybe)

clip_image002The years go by so fast, let’s hope the next beats the last”– a sentiment that rings so true over the last couple of new year celebrations. Whether setting resolutions to do new things, read more, lose weight, be a better human etc, we all tend to reflect, even if just trying to do the same things as before but a bit better. Steve Clayton’s Friday Thing for the end of December had some great tips on things to do and try in the coming year.

If we can’t reduce volume of professional communications (be that emails, Teams messages, whatever – just look at Steve cleaning his mailbox and removing >100,000 Sent Items from a single year), then maybe we could do a better job of managing the stuff that we have to deal with. Much ink has been spilled on how to be more effective and how to get things done, but one useful time/focus management principle to revisit is sometimes known as Eisenhower’s Matrix, of which a variety of depictions exist:


The premise is that any task has separate degrees of importance and urgency; we tend to prioritize urgent and overdue things versus things that are actually important. Discipline in task management can give us the clarity to not worry about seemingly urgent yet non-important tasks, and to stay focussed on things which are important, regardless of their urgency.

Carve out 75 minutes if you can – because this stuff is important – to watch Randy Pausch’s lecture on Time Management, with the context that when it was recorded, he knew he only had weeks left to live: talk about prioritizing important vs urgent.

How you put time and focus management into practice will differ depending on your own style and what tools you want to use. For the Windows / Microsoft 365 user, there are a few quick wins to consider:

  • clip_image005If you use flags in Outlook to mark messages needing your attention, think about setting a “Follow Up” search folder as the top of your list of Favorites. You can even make the Follow Up folder the default one so Outlook always opens that instead of your Inbox. You could try setting up a scheduled task to open your Follow Up folder every day (since most of us don’t restart our PCs very often, Outlook will typically stay running; this way will make sure you’ve got Follow Up open first thing every day)

  • Take better notes – remember that you can quickly create a OneNote notes page from an Outlook appointment; we’ll see some improvements coming to the original OneNote client in 2022, so if you’ve switched to using the Metro Modern Store app “OneNote for Windows 10”, then it’s worth revisiting the original. Do check out the fantastic OneCalendar addin to desktop OneNote, which helps you look back on notes you took.
  • Remember that Outlook Tasks and Microsoft To Do integrate with each other; see the Ignite session for how to use them more effectively. You can also highlight action items (from your meeting notes?) in OneNote, and quickly create Outlook tasks. While Tasks and To Do items don’t quite have full interop, there are 3rd party solutions out there and there are lots of templates in PowerAutomate which can do groovy things with Tasks, notifications and so on.
  • The Windows 11 Clock app has a nice new “Focus sessions” time management feature, to help you concentrate on important tasks, and it now supports signing in with Microsoft 365 credentials so you can see your corporate Tasks / To Do items in the list.


    clip_image009To help maintain focus, you can quickly set your Teams status to Do Not Disturb by hovering over the application icon on your Taskbar and clicking the appropriate status.

    If you’re easily distracted, you could also switch Outlook to Offline mode so you don’t get any new email whilst you focus – a good alternative to closing Outlook down altogether, since you may need it for whatever work you’re doing.

    clip_image013Go into Outlook, under the Send / Receive menu, click the Offline button on the taskbar and you won’t get any more email until you click the Offline button again to reverse the process and re-emerge later.

561 – Password clean up

clip_image001As most of us look to put 2020 firmly behind us and take some down-time over the festive season, there may be a list of jobs which get left to this time of year – filling out the annual tax return, maybe, or clearing out that drawer with miscellaneous stuff in it.

clip_image003You could set your sights higher, even – like gathering all the papers scattered throughout your house (user guides, receipts, utility bills etc etc) and putting them in one place, as recommended by Getting Things Done guru, David Allen.

Or just scan them all in then recycle…

Maybe it’s time to finally sort out all the passwords you use for different websites. Even though Multi-Factor Authentication is gradually replacing the need to enter a username & password every time you access a resource, there’s still often a need to create a username and password combo when you sign up for something. If you’ve used Edge or Chrome to remember your passwords, you might find there are many hundreds of them, and being weak carbon-based lifeforms, we’re quite likely to use the same ones for many sites. Naughty!

clip_image005There are browser addins and other tools you can use to remember the passwords you use, and (using LastPass as an example) can give you the option of generating something strong and unique at the point of signing up on a site, then syncing that username and password back to a central service so you don’t need to re-enter it next time (or remember something truly unmemorable). LastPass recently announced their 2020 stats – they’ve generated 94 million secure passwords and been used to log in more than 10 billion times.

Microsoft Edge offers some password management capabilities – as well as being able to remember passwords within the Edge browser, and sync them between different machines or mobile devices, Edge is also getting to be capable of suggesting and storing complex passwords for new sign-ups.

clip_image007Edge is beefing up its password security in other ways, offering proactive warnings if your passwords have shown up in databases of leaked credentials (at the moment, this is a test feature in the dev builds). One-by-one, you can use Edge’s “fix leaked passwords” function to check what the existing password is for each site, and then click a button to jump to the site to reset it – in some cases, going straight to the change password part of the site.

clip_image009Finally, the password sync feature is getting some extra legs – using the Microsoft Authenticator app on your phone and it’s new beta Autofill feature, you can use that app to provide the username/password for website or even mobile app logins. There’s a Chrome extension too, so if you want to switch back and forth between Edge & Chrome on a PC, your passwords will be available to both.

In some senses, storing passwords and allowing them to be automatically filled in feels like a security risk – anyone with access to your unlocked computer or phone could potentially access your online services. Using Autofill and Authenticator, though, the default setup is to require biometric authentication – so you’ll need a fingerprint or camera, or unlocking with a PIN, before the auto-fill will happen.

Also, it’s more important to have complex passwords that are hard to break or guess, and to have different ones for each and every site or app you use.

This is the final ToW for 2020. Let’s hope ’21 brings us all better luck.

In the meantime, have a great holiday season, stay safe, see you on The Other Side!

Tip o’ the Week 310 – New Year, new Outlook discipline

Now that the festive period is behind us, it’s time to get back to the mundanity of the New Year. The salad bar in every restaurant is heaving, every gym has lots of red-faced semi-exuberant new members, and offices are chock full of workers who want to do things better this time around.

Those of you who ended 2015 with a clear inbox and task list, well done! Those of us who have a new resolution to get more organised in 2016, well, read on.

The “Getting Things Done” methodology (or GTD to its many devotees) espouses a system for making sure you don’t forget stuff and that you can prioritise what’s important, and like any similar system, it shies away from telling you which tool to use – if a stack of printed cards works for you, then go for it. There is, predictably, much discussion online as to which software tools to use and how to set them up “just so”. YMMV.

Out of the box, Outlook isn’t a fabulously GTD-optimised tool. There are numerous addins and guides online to try to get it set up in a suitable way (such as ClearContext, as featured in ToW #233), but true GTD evangelists often give up trying to wrangle Outlook tasks to do what they want: Wunderlist has a new tranche of fanatics. It’ll be interesting to see if and how its task management ideals start to bleed into other tools like Outlook.

Follow me, follow you

If you are a habitual email user and Outlook is your main tool, there are a couple of simple things that everyone could do without needing to get stuck into categories, tasks, projects and the likes.

  • Change your startup folder – When you start Outlook, do you really want to jump straight to your inbox, with all of the distractions it contains? What about starting in Tasks or Calendar instead? Easy – just go to File -> Options -> Advanced and you can pick a different place for Outlook to default to.
  • Create a search folder for your flagged mail – if you routinely flag messages for follow up, then it’s a good idea to keep track of them all. The Outlook tasks view can do that for you, but it can be a little confusing, especially if you rely on Wunderlist or some other tasks management app.
    If you expand the Search Folders list in Outlook (in the tree view on the left) you’ll see special folders that are actually a saved query, presenting the results to you from across your mailbox. If you don’t already have a “For Follow Up” folder (or similar), just right-click on the Search Folders heading, click New Search Folder and choose Mail flagged for follow up. This will create a new search folder fo you, and could even be set as the default folder (as per the first bullet).

Scheduled start

The problem here is, most of us don’t start Outlook from scratch very often – laptops get put to sleep and woken up again, and it could be days or weeks between reboots, so most of the time, you already have lots of Outlook windows open.

To work around this, we can fall back on a technology that’s been part of Windows since NT 3.1, all of 22 years ago – the AT command. This allows the console operator (ie you) to schedule some background task within the bowels of the OS, and to specify how it runs as well as when – will it be silent, will it be able to interact with the current logged in user?

The intrepid among you could delve into AT (just start a command prompt by pressing WindowsKey+X and choose the Command Prompt (Admin) from there) but most of us would prefer to use the Task Scheduler UI that was built to make the process easier. Reading the instructions below, this might sound like a faff, but if you follow them step-by-step, it’ll take 2 minutes.

What we’re going to do is to set a time when a new Outlook window will be fired up, at a specific folder. So, you could say at 7:00am or the next available time after (ie when your machine wakes from sleep), then create a new Outlook window pointing to the Follow Up search folder we just created above.

Start by running the Task Scheduler (press start, type task s…). Don’t be put off if you see lots of tasks you don’t recognise. Expand the Task Scheduler Library and right-click on Microsoft then Create Basic Task.

This will walk you through a wizard to set up the task.

  • Call it something like Daily Outlook (next), choose a frequency – daily (next) then a time (7am?) (next), You want to start a program (next)
  • Now you need to find the path to the Outlook executable – it’s likely to be
    “C:\Program Files (x86)\microsoft office\root\Office16\OUTLOOK.EXE” or similar – try copying that text and enter it into the Run command (WindowsKey+R) – if it launches Outlook, you’re in business. If it doesn’t, then you might need to search your computer for OUTLOOK.EXE, and copy that path to the appropriate file.
  • Enter the appropriate path, wrapped in quotes (“”), into the task wizard Program/script box and in the Add arguments box, enter /select “outlook:search folders\For Follow Up”, or whatever folder you want to open (just put the path and folder name in the bit after outlook: in the argument above).

    • To test that argument, try just running (via WindowsKey+R)
      outlook /select “outlook:search folders\Sent Items” (or whatever your path is)

  • When you get to the end of the task wizard, tell it that you want to open the properties dialog for the task when you click finish. Navigate to the Settings tab, and check the box that you’d like to Run task as soon as possible after a scheduled start is missed – this way, if your laptop was still asleep at 7am, it would run Outlook up next time you log in. You might as well check the “restart every…” one too.

Now you can OK out of the properties and return to the task list view – right-click on your newly-created task, and try “Run”- you may not see the Outlook window come to the fore, but if you look on your task bar, at the collection of Outlook windows you may otherwise have, then it should be there. If you see the “Last run result” in the task view showing something other than (0x0), then something went wrong – you may want to open the task up again, and check that you’ve got the right path to Outlook and the right path to your chosen folder.