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Managing Outlook Tasks

One of my favorite Outlook features is the program's ability to create new items of different types as you drag email messages from your Inbox to other folders. For example, I often drag a message to the Contacts folder to add a contact for the person who sent the message. Not only does this action pop up a contact record with the person's name and email address already filled in, but the contact item contains the body of the original email message. Saving the email message in the contact helps me remember the context in which I decided to add the contact to my address book and records other contact information that the sender included in the email signature, such as a phone number.

If much of your job involves responding to other people's requests, many of which arrive by email, you can use the same feature to create tasks. Just drag an incoming message to your Tasks folder. The subject of the message will automatically become the subject of the task, and the body of the task will contain the message. You might want to add the sender of the message to the Contacts box at the bottom of the task. (I wish Outlook would do that automatically!) Then, you can double-click the person's name to display his or her contact information when you need to get in touch with him or her about the task.

Clearing out your Inbox by making tasks of the items to which you really need to pay attention is one way to deal with the glut of incoming email messages. The question then becomes-–how do you deal with the glut of tasks? You might want to have Outlook start up in the Outlook Today view, the Tasks folder, or the Calendar folder with the TaskPad displayed. To change the startup folder, go to Tools, Options, Other, Advanced Options. In the Outlook Today view, you can click Customize Outlook Today to change the filter on the tasks so that you see either all tasks or only those active for today. You can also choose to exclude tasks with no due date and sort by Importance, Due Date, Creation Time, or Start Date. If you start Outlook in the Tasks folder, you can go to View, Current View, Customize Current View to change the filtering and sorting of the view.

Seeing all your tasks is one thing. Managing them is another, and for that chore, I got some good ideas recently from UPDATE reader Chad Thomas, a systems engineer at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Chad reminded me that you can press Ctrl+Shift+K to quickly create a task when you think of something new for your to-do list. If the task has a definite start or due date, Chad adds the date(s). Otherwise, he leaves the dates blank. (You can create a task with a due date but no start date. The reverse isn't true—if a task has a start date, it must also have a due date.)

Chad relies on the Calendar folder's TaskPad to show him the most important tasks for the selected day. You can use the View, TaskPad View menu to change the TaskPad view. You also can right-click a column heading in the TaskPad, then choose Customize Current View from the pop-up menu to modify the TaskPad view.

Another key property to help you classify tasks is Status. You can set a task to Not Started, In Progress, Completed, Waiting on someone else, or Deferred. (These values are built into Outlook—you can't add Status values.) Chad sets the TaskPad to show only active items, and says, "This way, if I set a task to Waiting on someone else, it disappears, and when that person gets back to me, I'm obviously reminded of the task. Then I change views and edit the task, adding notes and changing the Status back to In Progress or whatever." Once a week, Chad reviews all his tasks to make sure each one's Status is correct.

Could this system help you manage your tasks? Let me know what works.

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