In my last post, I talked about establishing a project context for email. But we knowledge workers don’t live by email alone (as much as some of us may try). How can we establish the context for all those other project materials we encounter?
Ideally, we’d like to bring this project information together into the same place so that we could reference it and work on it as a unit. There’s a few big benefits to working this way:
In the good ol’ days, when everything was written on paper, it was pretty easy to collect project materials together.
But sadly, most software applications keep information segregated from each other, forcing us to flip between multiple tools and websites to get a clear picture of what’s going on. It’s difficult to maintain a unified project context so long as our email and files are separated by the Great Divide, but there are some tricks we can use to simulate a combined view of your information.
Though I’ll show examples from Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Outlook, you should be able to generalize these tips to the office applications you use regularly. Most of them work in similar ways.
Fortunately, both your email system and your file system make use of folders to organize information. We can use that to simulate a combined view of your files and email. It’s a simple trick I learned from looking over the shoulders of coworkers and clients as they did their work. I noticed some people moved information around a lot faster, and spent much less time hunting for the things they needed. Here’s how they did it.
First, create a folder in your email for each of your projects, if you don’t have one already. Second, in your Documents folder, create a folder for each of your projects if you don’t have one already.
Make sure that the project names match exactly, including using the same lower or uppercase letters. We want the names to match so that we can recognize our projects at a glance, without actually needing to scan the names to find the one we want. We also want the names to match so that they sort alphabetically into the same position. This allows us to use both our visual and spatial memory to find the project we need, rather than having to read the labels.
Ah, but you’ve already run into a snag, haven’t you? There are folders in your email already. Some of them, like “Personal” and “Travel” don’t map to specific projects. You have a similar problem in your Documents folder, where some annoying programs have decided to dump their files into your work space. This means you can’t easily line up items in your email inbox and your file system.
There are two ways to solve this problem:
Most likely, you’ll have to use a mix of both approaches to get your project folders to line up properly. It’s a hassle to set up at first, but once you’ve done it, you’ll notice how much simpler and quicker some basic tasks become.
For example, when a project email comes in, you can put it in your project folder in your inbox. And you know exactly where it’s file attachment should go — into the project folder with the same name in your documents area. Likewise, if you can’t find a file in your documents, you’ll know right where to look for it in your inbox — it’ll be attached to an email in the project folder with the same name.
Neat, huh? But we’re not done yet.
Outlook keeps all your calendar events in one big bucket. This is useful when you want to see your master schedule, but what if you want to figure out how much time is being consumed by a particular project?
And how can we group our tasks by project, and associate particular contacts with particular projects?
Outlook used to support putting each of these items into folders, just like email. But it wasn’t obvious how to do it in older versions of Outlook, and in Outlook 2010 the feature has all but vanished from the user interface. But there’s another way to establish a project context for contacts, tasks and appointments. We can use categories.
Categories are a very useful feature in Outlook, but few people take advantage of it. You can apply a category to any item, including email. Categories can have both a name and a color, and in the case of your Projects, you should make sure that they have both. The color will help you identify at a glance which items belong to which project when you see them on your calendar or address list.
Be careful to name your project categories exactly the same way you do in your folders. Consistency is key. Our goal is to instantly recognize which items belong to which projects, and to know exactly where to look to find what we need.
There! You’ve now created a few buckets for your project information. You’ve reduced the scope you’ll need to look at when browsing or searching for information. You’ll be able to find things faster, too, since it’s easy to use folders and categories as search filters. If you’re a true power user, you can set Outlook rules to automatically assign categories and folders to incoming items.
This gets all of your essential project data organized, but most of the real benefits come later: when you can begin pulling items together to get a complete picture of each project, when you can stop working on something and quickly pick it up again later, or when you can get a new coworker up to speed on a project without hunting for stray bits and pieces.