When I wrote recently about using Outlook's Journal folder to track the time you spend on different activities, I wasn't surprised to hear from UPDATE readers who do things differently. However, one response got me thinking about how we don't have to limit Outlook's features to their obvious uses. Reader Ty Anderson explained that people at his firm, Credera, use their Calendar folders, instead of the Journal, to track their time. At the end of each pay period, each employee runs a custom application that takes the information from the Calendar folder and posts it to the company's time and billing system.
You probably think of the Calendar folder as a useful tool that can show you what you've scheduled for the days and weeks ahead and remind you of specific meetings and events. But what I find appealing about Anderson's time-tracking idea is that it lets you use any Day/Week/Month view to give you a visual sense of just how full your days or weeks were.
I can think of several ways to organize those time-tracking "appointments" using categories and shortcuts. Let's say you have a task called "Finalize Budget." You might apply a category of "Finalize Budget" to both the task and the series of appointments that show when you worked on that task. You can then use Outlook's Advanced Find feature to find all items with the "Finalize Budget" category, regardless of what folder they're in. You can also add a shortcut in each appointment that points back to the original task.
If you want to add a shortcut in the task that points to the appointments, download the free Outlook Linker tool. Shortcuts don't always work in Outlook tasks, but you can place a text link in the body of the task (e.g., "<Outlook:\\Personal Folders\Calendar\~Diane to call about Web sales>") instead of a shortcut.
After you run the Outlook Linker tool, an icon remains in your system tray, ready to help you create a text link to any Outlook item. Simply select the item in a view, right-click the Linker icon in the system tray, and choose Get Item Link. You can then copy the text link for the appointment into the task. (You can use such links in other types of items, too, of course.)
What about using contacts to track projects? A contact, through the Contacts box on every Outlook item, is the only Outlook item that has a built-in linking method. Therefore, if you use a contact as the main entry for a project, you can link all kinds of other items—contacts, tasks, appointments, messages, journal activities—just by making the appropriate entry in the Contacts box on those other items. The Activities page of that project contact item would then show all the items related to the project.
What other "outside the box" uses have you found for Outlook items? Let me know, and I'll share them in a future UPDATE.