Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 4

outlook_icon.gifSo far in this series, I have addressed the idea that Outlook could be improved by re-building it around the fundamental practices of time management.  The fundamental, Emptying, is the most important one for many users, and it also could be improved in Outlook if it were redesigned.

In this particular fundamental, a user goes through each of their capture points and moves each item to a different place in their time management system.  The word “Emptying” is used because that is it’s goal — to leave behind an empty space in each Capture Point that allows it to accept new items.

There are several ways that Outlook could facilitate this practice as it pertains to email.

One is to prevent the user from reading an email and leaving it in the Inbox.  Outlook could force an opened email to be placed elsewhere, and offer the user a software-assisted means way to Empty with ease.

Also, while Emptying is occurring, the user could be given the option of turning off the receipt of new email, in order to focus the activity.

Another would be to prompt the user to check other Capture Points once the Inbox has been emptied.  These could include the voicemail inbox, a paper pad and incoming paper mail that all represent new time demands.

As Emptying is being done, Outlook could make it easy to decide what to do with a piece of email by presenting a standard set of options that correspond to the choices that they have when they Empty, according  to the 2Time approach.  When an email is read, the program could ask the user how to dispose of it, giving a list of options such as the following:

1.  Delete It?

2.  Store It?

3.  Take 5 Minutes to Act On It Now?

4.  Schedule It in Calendar?

5.  Add It to a List?

These are all actions that are possible to accomplish in Outlook, but they are all hidden way in the program’s functions rather than given a prominence that underlies the fact that these are the ONLY options a user can exercise at that moment of decision.

Microsoft designers might argue that they don’t want to constrain users.  Perhaps, what they fail to realize  is that the current design actually already prompts the user to do what most do, most of the time — which is to leave their email in the Inbox.  While this may seem like an innocuous option when it comes to managing email, from a time management perspective it’s the start of real trouble.

When Emptying is not done effectively (i.e. frequently and completely) the eventual result is an overflowing Inbox — the greatest complaint that email users have world-wide.  The fact is, Outlook’s design makes it easy for this outcome to occur — call it an unintended by-product of its design.  It contributes to a user’s feeling of overwhelm that hits them when they open their Inbox and have the thought that “something isn’t right” when they see the number of items they have sitting in various states.

In the future, it would be powerful if Outlook could become the single location for all Capture Points, but the technology isn’t advanced enough for that to occur.  It would mean routing voicemails, faxes, incoming mail, email plus all the items written in a paper pad to one grand Capture Point in the program.  At the moment, that’s not easy to do.

Until then, one of the major changes that Outlook could make is to facilitate the user’s process, or workflow.At the moment, Outlook offers no interface that acknowledges that most users follow a set pattern of activity each day.  It also fails to help users to create patterns for themselves that optimizes their flow of activities.

At the moment, the way that Outlook is designed is that it “prompts” users to use it as an email-retriever.  When users open Outlook, they are directed towards their Inboxes.  Regardless of the number of items they contains, read or unread, the system leads them to download more email.

As users sit, their system pulls down every piece of new email, regardless of whether they have 1 minute, or 100 available at that moment to deal with them all.  It’s no surprise that many feel a growing sense of overwhelm.  Outlook’s design as an email management program inadvertently produces problems in the area of time management, and this is especially true when the goal of a time management system is to maximize peace of mind.

If Outlook’s interface were re-designed as a process, or wizard, it might take a user through a series of screens, with each on representing a phase.

If I had the freedom to design a series of screens to represent my regular start-up activity, it might look like the following:

Screen 1 — Clean up from yesterdayTake out items from yesterday that have not been processed.  Some might be in my inbox, or sitting in my calendar.  I’d be discouraged from moving to the next screen until I’m done with the first.

Screen 2 — Download emailBefore downloading, the system would tell me how many unread emails I have.  I’d tell it how many to download, in order to balance the time I have available with the number of emails I choose to work through.

Screen 3 — Process Email to EmptyOn this screen, I’d be prompted to dispose of each item in the way I described above.  At the end of my processing, the Inbox would be empty once again, apart from those I have not yet read or clicked on.

  • Screen for Tossing — this might just be a prompt to make sure I want to delete the item
  • Screen for Storing — this would offer me a set of folders in which to place the item
  • Screen for Acting Now — this would just be a timer that pings at the appropriate time interval
  • Screen for Scheduling — the calendar would be immediately offered
  • Screen for Listing — a screen showing the user’s lists would be offered as a starting point

These choices would be ideal, and would allow me to balance incoming email with the time I have available to process.The result might be a greater peace of mind, and all it would take is a reshaping of the Outlook interface.  Of course, this new design could be applied to any time management software, and I strongly believe that the first software company to build proper time management software could produce an iPod-like winner.


Understanding Emptying – The Story

typewriter.jpgFor some time, I have played around with two ideas.

One is I to teach the 2Time principles in the form of a story (or stories) rather than a set of abstract theories and principles, such as the ones I have used in this blog.  The first business book I ever read written in this format was “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt in 1989 or so, and its impact on me as a young professional was profound.

The other idea that I have had is that I should write a book as a way of reading a wider audience.

Putting the two ideas together yields the obvious — a book on Time Management 2.0 principles that describes one person’s journey as they learn the 11 fundamentals, the latest habit changing technologies and some of the basics of the approach I lay out in the MyTimeDesign and NewHabits-NewGoals programs.

I decided to spend some time drafting a single chapter, to see what the results would be like.  As a result, the first draft here online, with the hope that I’ll learn that if I’m making a huge mistake that I might find out earlier than later!

The truth is, I learned a lot from writing this chapter on Emptying.

In it, I tried to chronicle the process I went through as I learned this fundamental practice that is probably the most difficult one to master out of the 11 practices described in the 2Time approach.

At the end, I discovered that it revealed a few aspects of Emptying that I doubt that I would have discovered if I hadn’t tried to use this approach.

The chapter is still in need of a good editor, but I’d like to hear what readers are able to learn from reading it, even in its current form.Click here to access the chapter:

Emptying Chapter(v4)


Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 3

outlook-ms-office-2003-outlook-256x256.pngIn my prior post I brought up the notion that Outlook was designed to solve user’s problems with email, rather than the bigger problem they have with time demands.

I also mentioned that the company that understands this shift would be able to produce radically different software.  Not just different, but better.  It would help users do the job they are really trying to perform.

I would call this a change in “philosophy,” and not just clever marketing or repackaging.

Having a  philosophy about how people manage time, and how they learn time management skills is also important, because this also influences the way software is designed.

For example, in the 2Time approach, there is a clear path that users take as they advance from one skill level to another (as measured by belt levels.)  One skill that changes over time is the way that the practices of Listing and Scheduling are used, with the higher belts doing much more scheduling than the lower belts.

A decision to develop software that reflects this progression in skills would have to contend with this particular philosophy, and not just for intellectual reason, but for practical reasons.

The current philosophy that underlies Outlook seems to be “more features are better than less.”

I’m not a software expert, but I suspect that the reason my Outlook 2007 runs so slowly is because this philosophy has run the show for too long.

An unfortunate by-product of this particular design decision is that a White Belt is given the same interface as  a Green Belt, even though they use the software differently.  It also has meant that the interface is cluttered with bells and whistles that a user must navigate, and always be selecting from.

Many of them have nothing to do with time management, making the interface (to repeat the mantra) a clumsy one.

Perhaps a better  philosophy might be “give the user only what they need to manage their time, and produce peace of mind.”

My point here is not that this particular philosophy is better, but it IS that Outlook seems to have stumbled into becoming a time management tool with the addition of lots and lots of features.  For all I know, it may have stumbled into other things as well (a dashboard, contact manager, etc.) but I am convinced that a different philosophy would yield different (and better) design.

This much I know — starting with a particular, and well-defined time management philosophy would help Outlook to become a better tool for time management.

I think Gmail’s success has not come because Google employs smarter people, but instead it comes from teams working with a different philosophy about email. (Plus, they were able to start from a blank sheet of paper.)

I suspect that  a company that does the same for time management will also produce a breakthrough of sorts.


Advanced Interruptions

In the 2Time Management system, there is a fundamental practice called “Interrupting” which is essential in helping to bring a user out of the Flow state when it’s time to move on to the next time demand, or it’s time to attend to an ermegency of some sort.

An article from 2008 in the New York Times entitled “Meet the Hackers” looks at some sophisticated ways to think about interruptions.  Here is an excerpt:

When Mark crunched the data, a picture of 21st-century office work emerged that was, she says, “far worse than I could ever have imagined.” Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task. To perform an office job today, it seems, your attention must skip like a stone across water all day long, touching down only periodically.

The article is worth reading, even if it is a bit outdated.  One scientist is researching the effect that Windows has on people’s productivity, which made me wonder if the tail wasn’t wagging the dog.

In other words, shouldn’t they be studying how people work, and then build software to help them accomplish the job they are trying to do?

I do hope that Microsoft and others are doing that kind of research.


Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 2

outlook-ms-office-2007-beta-2-outlook.pngA program that is built for time management purposes would assist a user in executing the fundamentals, but also allow him/her the freedom to use its features to support their particular time management system.

Ideally, a user should be presented with as clean an interface as possible, with unnecessary features hidden away from view, so that they provide no distractions.

The purpose of such a system could be stated as “assisting users to manage their time so that they experience peace of mind.”

What needs to be understood at the outset is that “time management” is code language.  While it’s actually impossible to manage time, all that can really be managed are habits that are related to one’s daily activities.  They all, of course, consume time.  Having said that, the system needs to help a user to make it easy to follow the actions that comprise their time management system.

Here in 2Time, we say that every time management  is made up of 11 inescapable fundamentals.

The word inescapable is used quite deliberately to indicate that professionals around the world, regardless of industry, job or position, must undertake the same set of fundamentals to get their work done.

For example, the fundamental practice of capturing is one that everyone must undertake in order to allow new time demands to enter their system.

Outlook and most other programs like it are built around a single capture point — the Inbox that contains email downloaded from a remote location.

I used the word “clumsy” in a prior post to describe Outlook’s design, and its disregard for what users are trying to do with the program nowadays.

The design of the Inbox is an example of the inelegant design for those users who are trying to manage their time.

Why so?

By definition, Capture Points are the locations where time demands enter a professional’s time management system.  Example include the following:

  • email inboxes of all kinds
  • memory
  • post-box or equivalent
  • voice-mail box on our phone
  • pager or cell-phone for text messages
  • paper in a pad in our pocket
  • stack of Post-It notes
  • Twitter updates
  • Facebook message Inbox

The items that enter our Inboxes all have one thing in common — they have the potential for taking time out of our day.  They are meant to act as staging points for the rest of a user’s time management system.  As such, they are meant to be kept clear, and when they aren’t, a time management system can collapse entirely.

The perfectly designed Capture Point would have the following characteristics:

  1. it would be reliable, and hardly ever fail.  There would be some kind of backup available
  2. a user would have control over its use, and have the ability to turn it off and on as needed
  3. it would be designed with a way to prevent it from being overfilled
  4. it would make it easy for the user to move time demands to other points in a user’s system
  5. it would encourage the user to keep it empty, or very close to empty

The Outlook email Inbox is a Capture Point that is not designed as such.  Instead, it’s designed as a place to receive email.

If it were designed as a Capture Point, it might have the following:

  • auto-backup to a secure location outside the program
  • the ability to limit its size, and to issue warnings depending on how close the size is to its limit
  • built-in warnings regarding items that have spent too much time in the Inbox
  • a default setting that forces the user to accept email only on-demand, or at least on a daily schedule
  • appointments would be easier to make from incoming emails
  • there would be statistics that measure how well the Inbox is being managed
  • allow Twitter updates
  • the program would offer incentives (via games or visual cues) to encourage users to empty their Inboxes
  • a different location for the Inbox, pulling it out of the list of folders where it is visually lost, and given a huge icon that is more in line with its status as a major entry-point into the time management system

These are just preliminary ideas, and I am sure that there others.  One that I am fond of is a dashboard that shows the current state of a user’s time management system.  One very prominent indicator of good health is the state of a user’s Inbox — it’s a little like peering into someone’s eyes with a microscope to get a glimpse of their overall health.  On the dashboard would be a large graphic of the Inbox.

I imagine that there are many other ways in which the Inbox could be understood as a Capture Point — the only folder in Outlook that plays that very special role.  The key change in thinking is the new understanding that we now have — it’s more important for us to track time demands than it is for us to track emails.

This is especially true now, in 2009, when we know that not all email is useful, and for most professionals most of it is useless.  Instead, we have learned that time demands are much more important, and it so happens that quite a few incoming emails contain future time demands that must be carefully managed.

To be clear, the critical unit is not an email message, but a time demand.

The first Outlook-like program that is designed around time demands rather than emails will have a chance of bringing some much needed elegance to these programs.

Software Managed Interruptions

As I mentioned in prior posts, it’s quite important for a user of the 2Time approach to appreciate the goal of getting into the Flow state as often as possible.

This requires a minimum of interruptions, and luckily for us, there are some companies that are thinking about ways to manage email so that only the most urgent messages are presented as interruptions to whatever task we are doing.  For example, I am writing this article and don’t want to be interrupted, unless an email comes in that tells me something that requires urgent attention.

(Although, honestly, it would have to be life-shattering to stop me from completing this task.)

This line of thinking is shared in the article I found at BusinessWeek entitled May We Have Your Attention Please?

Soon, however, the same kinds of social networking software and communications technologies that make it deliciously easy to lose concentration may start steering us back to the tasks at hand. Scientists at U.S. research labs are developing tools to help people prioritize the flood of information they face and fend off irrelevant info-bytes. New modes of e-mail and phone messaging can wait patiently for an opportune time to interrupt. One program allows senders to “whisper” something urgent via a pop-up on a screen.

Hmmm…. that sounds promising.

It sounds like a big challenge, and I think these scientists are headed in the right direction.  After all, they are implicitly acknowledging how important it is to preserve the state of flow, and are trying to find ways to preserve it as much as possible.

However, I don’t know it if it’s more valuable than teaching a user to be more disciplined, and all the reasons why.  After all, users need to understand why Flow is important, and that it’s more efficient to check email a few times each day rather than every few minutes.  An effort spent to teach discipline would probably do more than new software would, especially as a user can ruin all the benefit of this new software with bad personal habits.

In other words, software might fix a problem that users have in the future, but it’s better to focus one the fact that they don’t understand the problem they have now.

Article: High Tech Time Management Tools

tecyhnology.jpgI often complain that there is too-little research into time management techniques, and that academics have failed to give humankind a workable set of principles, definitions and rules of thumb to work with in this area.The result is software that simply misses the mark.A recent article in BusinessWeek entitled High-Tech Time Management Tools seems to promise something that would help, but only hints at some work that is happening in different places that may or may not be useful. The article says:

Achieve, which Horvitz hasn’t demonstrated outside the company, takes initial input from a user, who might tell the software he needs eight hours to accomplish a set of reviews for his group, wants to finish as close to the specified deadline as possible, but doesn’t want to spend more than two hours a day on the task. The system locks up time on the user’s calendar so others can’t book it. When the work is at hand, the software warns the user his communications are about to be shut down so he can focus. If he’s not ready to start, Achieve looks for new time to book for the project. Eventually, Horvitz says the system could be the basis for a Microsoft “platform for time management” that other companies could use to develop software products that understand concepts of hard and soft deadlines, have access to users’ calendars, and understand what windows workers left open the last time they were working on a project so they can quickly resume when they pick up the work again.

It strikes me that  the focus on others booking time in a user’s calendar is missing a critical point — most people who use Outlook operate as what we call White Belts here in 2Time.  In other words, they use the calendar to schedule meetings and activities with other people only, the way a doctor would use his/her appointment book.

They have not developed the habit of scheduling their own activities into their calendar.

Perhaps Microsoft should start by designing its software to help users improve the way they schedule themselves, before they care too much about scheduling other people’s time.

I believe that there must simple ways to help users to use their Outlook calendar more effectively. I often think that one of the main problems that people who do research and develop software for time management have is that they spend a great deal of time solving the problems that other people have, before solving their own.  In other words, there is no way to get the necessary insight into personal productivity without going through a process of self-improvement.

Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 1

In prior posts on the blog, I have made the point that Microsoft Outlook’s design is one that is not meant for time management purposes, but instead appears to have been made by engineers who simply added feature after feature after feature.

Recently, a reader of the blog posted the following request in a comment in an earlier post:

Can you clarify your point about Outlook’s process being “clumsy” and like an “afterthought”? I’m curious about areas where it could be improved, as I’m sure the Outlook PMs would be as well. How would you suggest this procedure be made easier/simpler/more efficient? Any thoughts or feedback to help better understand this would be appreciated.

I compare Outlook to the design of Gmail, the Palm and the Apple iPhone (although I am not an expert in any.)

IMHO, they all suffer from the same approach — design a cool email program and then add on other interesting stuff such as appointment calendars, to-do lists, reminders, contacts and the like.

What if Outlook and all the others were designed as time management systems that were built around the fundamentals, rather than a collection of features that must be beaten into the shape that a user must suffer with in order to get it to do what they want?

Why is this even important?

The way Outlook, Gmail and others are designed actually shapes the way a user develops his/her habits.  The design has a powerful effect on the way they manage their time, because their time management systems are nothing more than a set of habits that they repeat.

Case in point:  Apple just announced the release of its iPod OS 3.0, which now allows a user to copy and paste a block of text from one place to another:  Next Up for the iPhone:  A Basic Left Out Before.

Now, a user can copy the contents from an email to an appointment calendar.

The only way that a piece of software could leave out this particular feature entirely is one that either isn’t focused on assisting the user with time management or one that doesn’t understand what a user needs as they move through the fundamentals.

I’d bet that it’s the former.  After all, music, video and camera functionality are much more sexy features than those related to time management.

Not that Outlook is much different.   Until I used an add-on which cost me almost $100 a few years ago, I couldn’t do something as simple as drag an email into my calendar to make an instant appointment.

It’s clear to me that the design of software shapes a user’s habits, and a design that makes dumb things easy, and easy things hard, is one that will get in the way of the natural flow of activity from one fundamental to another.

For example, it’s easy to make To-Do Lists in Outlook, even thought they often grow to be infinitely large, only to be abandoned by their creators.  Also, Outlook offers no statistics on how well someone is managing their time management system.  In other words, it offers absolutely no form of numeric assessment, even as it’s becoming clear among most users that there is something dangerous about having an inbox containing 3000 unread items and 5000 “read” items. ( A simple warning bell would be invaluable.)

The problem with these software systems starts from the point of conception.

A  brilliant article in a recent Harvard Business Review entitled Reinventing Your Business Model makes the point that the iPhone, Tata motor car and the Gillette Razor redefined the markets in which they operated, and did so by asking the following question: “What important job is the user trying to do?

Outlook and its contemporaries — Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo et al — answered the question in the late 1990’s with: “Dealing with email effectively.”

I believe that asking that question today, in 2009, for the first time, would ultimately lead to a different design, and that today’s salient answer might be something like: “Managing my time to experience peace of mind.”

I think there’s room for a company to design a software system around this answer as a starting point, using the fundamentals of time management.  It would include email management, but that would not be its centerpiece.

Perhaps there will be a product for time management that is invented that plays the disruptive role of an Apple iPod, but I’m a bit doubtful that it will come from Microsoft.  After all, it has a major investment in Outlook, and the article makes it clear that it’s hard for established companies to turn their trusted and faithful business models on their heads.

Converting Email into Scheduled Items

Ever since I learned that I could take an email and immediately transform it to an item in my schedule with its own start and end time, I have engaged in the habit almost daily.

In Outlook 2007 it’s a simple matter of dragging the item to the day in the calendar.  Outlook automatically opens up a new appointment on the given day, and from there it’s a simple matter of entering the appropriate times.

In other applications, the task is a much more difficult one to undertake.

In Gmail, doing this simple task is no mean feat — in fact, I’m not sure how to do it at all.  Google calendar is a different but related program that opens into a different window altogether (I’d love a reader to answer the question of to convert a Gmail item into an appointment for me.)

In like manner, stand-alone calendars might by useful but their lack of connection to daily email is a big no-no.

Good software should mimic the way a user processes items that enter their time management systems, but they seem to be thinking about each function in isolation, which leads to good software for calendars (e.g. Leader Task) and good software for email(e.g. Gmail) and only Outlook that even attempts to link the two… in a clumsy way that seems to have been added as an afterthought.

The new internet PDA’s such as the iPhone and Blackberry seem to be great at email, but weak at the full suite of 11 practices that make up a time management system,and especially “Scheduling.”  (I can’t admit to knowing a lot about either PDA, and am willing to be educated by reader who can let me know if I’m wrong.)

Hopefully the day will come when someone builds an integrated system starting with the 11 Fundamentals.  I think it could be quite powerful.


Falling off the Wagon

wagon.jpgFrom time to time, a user of a time management system may find themselves “falling off the wagon,” neglecting to perform one or more of the critical habits that underlie the 2Time approach.

For example, they might forgo manual capturing, and instead try to remember everything  without writing anything down.

Or, they  might allow their capture points, such as their email inbox or voicemail box, to become full, or heavy with time demands.

They couldt even forget about scheduling altogether and just try to use their memory as their guide to tell them what to work on next.

In any case, their time managment system starts to fail under the weight of a practice that is not being undertaken.

In my experience the short-term solution is to set time aside to correct the error.  The more permanent fix is to take a good hard look at the underlying habit, and to use it as a learning moment.

There is some reason why the practice has not become a habit, and there are usually some supports to put in place in order to help solidify the practice.  For example, in order to remember to floss at least twice per week, I learned to tie my floss-er to the razor I use to shave my head.  Because I shave my head twice a week, it means that I cannot fail to remember to floss, as it is impossible for me to start shaving without separating the two instruments, and therefore remembering.

This worked for me, but the point is not that everyone should start tying different objects together in order to remember to use them.

Instead, I have discovered that for MY habit-pattern, this approach works, and now flossing has become irrevocably linked to shaving in my regular practices, much to the satisfaction of my dentist.

When we fall off the wagon, it’s a signal from the universe that our habits aren’t working, and that we don’t understand ourselves well enough to succeed at changing habits.  It’s simply a call to further self-development and self-knowledge, and an opportunity to learn how to “work on ourselves.”