Outlook – the Personal Productivity Tool

Most law firms use Microsoft Outlook and most people only think of it as an e-mail client that happens to have a calendar stuck on it. In reality though, Outlook, especially Outlook 2007 or newer, is quite a bit more than that.

Outlook 2007 introduced the “To Do Bar” – a panel on the right side of the screen when you’re looking at the Inbox – that shows you the next couple of appointments on your calendar as well as any tasks or flagged e-mails that you may have. It’s the ability to flag e-mails for follow-up that I want to focus on in this article.

Will You? Won’t You? Could You?

In my own practice, as a consultant, more than three quarters of the tasks that clients give me are given to me via e-mail these days. I get a dozen messages a day asking me to send a certain report, address a particular problem, call the client next week when he gets back in town, schedule some training, etc. Keeping on top of all those tasks in my busy practice can be a big challenge and Outlook 2010 gives me some great tools to help manage it.

If you look at the e-mail list in Outlook 2007 or 2010 you’ll see, on the right end of each message, a translucent flag icon. Right-click that icon and you’ll see a context menu that offers you a number of different date options to flag this message for follow-up. If you select one of those options Outlook will color the flag a shade of red (darker shades mean it’s due more immediately) and place it in the appropriate place on your To Do Bar. The options are:

  • Today. Fairly self-explanatory. You want to follow-up with on this message sometime today.
  • Tomorrow. Same as today…but later.
  • his Week. Outlook is going to set this item to be due on the last day of your working week. By default, and for most of us, this is Friday. If you go into Outlook’s calendar options you can change that to any day you like, however.
  • Next Week. Same as This Week…but a week later. Next Friday by default.
  • No Date. This is for items that are “someday/maybe” items that don’t have a specific due date. I strongly advise that you DON’T use “No Date” for your items for two reasons:
    1. First off when you flag items as “No Date” they get placed at the TOP of your To Do list which then crowds your Today items (clearly more important) off the screen. There isn’t, currently, any way to sort the “No Date” items to the bottom of the list where they belong, so I don’t recommend using “No Date”.
    2. Secondly, from a basic productivity standpoint, tasks that don’t have a due date tend to not get done at all.
  • So what’s the solution for those “Someday/Maybe” items? Use the final date item on the list, Custom, and assign them a date way out in the future. Give them a due date 3 months from now. It will sort to the bottom of the list, out of the way, but it will gradually work its way back up to the top of the list, which means it has a hope of someday actually getting done.
  • Custom. This option lets you assign ANY due date you like to the item. I use this option so often I’ve created a keyboard shortcut for it. In the date fields you can use all of the Outlook date tricks. Such as:
    • “Tue” or “Wed” for Tuesday or Wednesday. Short abbreviations for the days of the week will insert the appropriate date.
    • “Next Tue” will insert the date for the following Tuesday.
    • If you want to give it a particular date of the month, like the 25th of the current month, just type “25” and it will insert the 25th of the current month.
    • If you want to use a date in the current year just type “12/30” or “Dec 30” (for example) to assign the date of December 30th in the current year.
    • If you want to schedule the message to be due 10 days from now just type “10d” and Outlook will insert a date 10 days from now.
    • If you want it due 3 weeks from now type “3w” and Outlook will insert a date 3 weeks from today.

Setting any of these options will place the message on your To Do Bar under the appropriate date and Outlook will keep the message on the To Do Bar even if you move the flagged message to a subfolder. No more worrying about forgetting about that message a week from now. Flag it, file it. You won’t forget it.

If the task is especially important, one of the options on the follow-up context menu allows you to set an Outlook reminder for the task. You can have it pop a dialog box, and play a sound, at any date/time you specify to remind you to follow up on this message.

If you double-click a message on the To Do Bar Outlook will open the message for you so you can read it, and respond to it, even if the message has been filed away in a subfolder.

When you’ve done working with the message just left-click the flag on the message (or on the To Do Bar) and Outlook will mark the message as complete. It will remove it from the To Do Bar but keep the message in whatever folder you’ve put it in, now with a check mark replacing the flag, to indicate that it’s done.


E-mail has become the most common way for us to communicate with clients and colleagues. Often those e-mail messages contain action items. Outlook 2007 and 2010 make it easy for us to schedule and track those action items with follow-up flags and the To Do Bar. Now I can go check off the “Write my SLAW Column” item.

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