Exchange and Outlook Blog

Untangle Your Brain (Or at Least Your Outlook Inbox)

Today has been typical: My work (that is, interacting with both internal and external colleagues through email and IM and Twitter) has prevented me from doing my work (that is, writing and editing and all the other tasks necessary to publish content for websites and magazines). I've probably said this before: Outlook is a plague, but it's a plague we can't live without in the business world. Although there certainly are days I'd like to just rip the whole thing out, delete everything, and start from scratch.

Do you have similar trouble managing your Inbox, calendar, and other streams of communication? Perhaps there's a tool that might help you to revise your habits or simplify your behaviors. Xerox Corporation has just released a free tool called Business of Your Brain, which analyzes your Microsoft Outlook email and calendar data and presents you some interesting statistics about what people, topics, and other nonsense is occupying all your time.

Quadrants of Your Brain

When you launch the Business of Your Brain application, it takes a few minutes to scan through your Outlook data. When it's ready, it gives you four options for analyzing your data:
  • Activity: This area gives you an hourly break down of the number of messages sent or received, as well as highlighting words appearing most commonly in subject lines, messages over 300 words long, and the number of messages marked as urgent.
  • People: In this section, you can see who sends you the most messages with attachments, who sends the most messages marked urgent, who sends the longest and the shortest messages, and who you exchange the most messages with. You also see which senders you're most likely to ignore, and you can see a ranking of your top contacts.
  • Events: This section looks specifically at your calendar and lets you know your total number of hours spent in meetings as well as who's booking those meetings and who you're most likely to be in meetings with. On the monthly view, an at-a-glance calendar shows which days you're most heavily booked and points out the number of recurring meetings throughout the month and the number of meetings scheduled for more than an hour.
  • Vocabulary: Here you'll see the words that appear most frequently in messages you send along with the number of times each appeared.

Within each section, you can view the information for the day, the week, or the month, and set other options in most cases. The stats you'll get for a specific day could be interesting, but looking at a week or a month is probably much more useful. The interface is fairly intuitive, but also seems rather "heavy" with animations, making it a bit slow to respond.

I think it's important to note, as stated in Xerox's promo video, this tool is based on "a breakthrough in unproven, completely unscientific mental-activity analysis." That's right—it plays mostly for fun. However, it nonetheless provides some good information that you might put to use in streamlining your working day and uncluttering your Inbox.

For instance, is your Most Ignored sender someone (or something) that you could block from your Inbox? Maybe it's a newsletter you're not reading anymore or some other mailing list that you're receiving and just haven't taken time to figure out how to unsubscribe from. And when you look at your monthly calendar, perhaps you can see ways to spread meetings out more sensibly—or, hey, how about just eliminating any that you find aren't actually productive?

Adding On: Distraction or Problem-Solver?

In exploring the features of Business of Your Brain, I was reminded of the Outlook add-on Xobni, which many people are probably already familiar with. Xobni provides analytics that give you a picture of your mail traffic, response times, and similar statistics. In addition, Xobni adds advanced search functionality to Outlook, greatly enhances and automates information for your contacts, and even integrates with Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to give you up-to-date statuses of the people you interact with.

Xobni also is a free tool, although it's available in a Pro edition that offers more features for a monthly fee. Xobni can truly change the way you use and interact with Outlook and easily provide you with the right information to make quick decisions; on the other hand, it might just be another source of distraction getting in the way of getting anything done.

Because Xobni is an Outlook add-on, it changes the Outlook interface, adds its own sidebar, and is essentially an "always on" feature once installed. Of course, it adds features that can be quite useful. By contrast, Business of Your Brain is a standalone application. Although it reads the data, it doesn't integrate with Outlook; you run it as a separate program only when you want to view the statistics.

A Business-Savvy Solution

As much as I'd like to do it, throwing out everything in my Inbox—burning it down—really isn't a business-savvy solution to the problem. Tools such as Xobni and Business of Your Brian offer a glimmer of hope, perhaps. And the price is right—free—to at least give them a try. For more information, visit the Xerox website to find out about and download Business of Your Brain, and go to the Xobni website to find out all about Xobni. Let me know how they work for you.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
Follow Windows IT Pro on Twitter at @windowsitpro

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