Tag Archives: Getting Things Done

Outlook 2007 and Managing Automatic Meeting Responses

If you spend any amount of time in Outlook and manage meetings, you’ll quickly find almost Outlook 2007 logo overwhelmed by responses to meeting requests you setup with other people. 

As soon as they hit Accept, Tentative or Decline, it will fire off an email to the meeting organizer (you).  At Microsoft, this typically means that for every meeting request I send out, I get at least 6 responses back due to the average size of meetings I run on my team.  Before I hit <delete> on the responses, I always scan them in case the sender included a comment in their reply.  For instance, someone might Accept a meeting request but say “I’m going to be 15 mins late, but start without me”.  If I just delete that right away or use an an Outlook Rule to blanket filter responses, I’d have missed it.

So for years, I’ve been just getting these meeting request responses, and deleting them like an automaton.

Recently, Mike sent me this great tip the other day he found a great post on the Outlook team blog which sets up an Outlook Rule to not only reduce the inbox noise from responses to meeting requests, but also bubbles up the responses that I should read.

Their problem summary is exactly the problem many of us face:

If you’re anything like me, then you send and receive lots of meeting requests in Outlook. In a typical week I’ll schedule around 10 new meetings with different people – if a typical meeting has approximately five attendees that could be 50 responses that come back to my Inbox. I realized a few things about meeting responses:

  1. I only care when people Decline a meeting. I’m assuming most people will attend.
  2. Regardless of your response, if you type a comment in the body I want to see it.
  3. Outlook retains all of the response information on each meeting automatically in the “Tracking” tab.

Their solution is to create a rule to automate this:

  1. If an item comes in that is a Tentative or Accept meeting response, it moves it to my “Automatic Replies” folder and keeps it out of my Inbox.
  2. If it is a Decline it will remain in the Inbox.
  3. If the body has any content in it, regardless of the response type, it will remain in the Inbox.

I didn’t even know you could create a rule that could target only specific Outlook application message types (like Meeting responses). Cool!  My only tweak to their solution is that instead of moving the responses to a separate folder, I just delete them.  Email search is so good in Outlook that “Deleted Items” has become my “Archive” folder and removes another process when triaging my emails – I no longer have to think about archiving vs. deleting.

Check out their full post for the complete details on how to create the rule.

Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done

I’ve wanted to implement the Getting Things Done (GTD) process, especially since I deal with so much email on a daily basis.  After years of haphazardly adopting a subset of the GTD practices, I finally decided that 2009 was going to be the year that I got my inbox, and productivity, under control.

Being a “knowledge worker”, the work I do on a daily basis depends on so many other people both inside my team and outside my team, so a lot of work is done in email and in meetings.  Because of this, the volume of email that I get can be absolutely crazy at times, as everyone else at Microsoft (and other large tech companies) can attest to.

After about a week of re-reading David Allen’s awesome book and listening to Merlin’s Man’simage great podcast (and interview with David Allen), I was ready to dive into transforming how I deal with email and tasks.

One of the first things I did was to bug Mike and Omar, who are the closest thing to productivity gurus that I know personally. Both of them were great in fielding my random questions, giving tips and even pointing out apps and Outlook customizations that might help me in my quest for email nirvana.  Mike even survived my barrage of questions during a recent lunch we had to catch up with what has been going on since we last met up. Little did he know, I was going to turn out social lunch into “GTD 101” 🙂

As of last Tuesday, I’m happy to say that all my hard work paid off.  I finally got to Inbox Zero!  Prior to this, I had over 5000 items in my inbox. 

Getting to this milestone involved a lot more than just hitting the <delete> key (although not being afraid to delete emails is a key step in all of this).  It also involved creating a sustainable workflow in Outlook 2007, which is our lifeblood at Microsoft.  Getting that workflow implemented required a lot of customization in the UI as well as VBA macros.  Another big thanks to Mike for sharing his tips for customizing Outlook – it really got me off to a running start.  My workflow is a very close to his, with some subtle but important differences that make it work better for me.

Here’s a screenshot I took of my inbox about 30 seconds after I cleared the last email out on Tuesday at 10:45pm:


Some important things I learned out of this process:

  1. No amount of software tools is going to help you – you need to commit mentally to the process and have a sustainable workflow that makes sense to you.
  2. While the entire GTD workflow is important, don’t be afraid to customize certain portions of it for your liking. For example, I don’t use many of the @ categories like @Work and @Calls.  Just find something that works for you.
  3. Don’t be afraid of the <DELETE> key. Delete, delete, delete!
  4. The upfront costs you need to invest in seem like a lot, but it’s really not.  The payoff you get in productivity improvement is worth it.  I’m already experiencing less mental weight and improved productivity after 3 days of jumping in.

I’ll be blogging continually on the topic of GTD and productivity, since it’s now a topic that I’m even more passionate about.  Using Outlook 2007, and being inside a corporate environment, I found it hard to adopt some of the existing ideas I read on various blogs.  So hopefully my future writing on my workflow within the constraints of my environment will help someone else and also act as a form of an archive so that if I ever need to explain my specific process to someone else, I can just have them read the stuff I write about on this blog.