Boosting Productivity by Quieting Outlook

2014-04-08 7:52 PM

Developers need large chunks of time in which they can focus intently on tasks to complete work well. In general, we cannot context switch with perfect compartmentalization: if I'm working on a project, get called to a meeting, then come back to the project, I've lost way more time than just the minutes that the meeting took up.

Since there is tons of information on why interruptions are bad, I'm going to omit that from this post and go directly to attacking Outlook. It's an okay tool for mail and planning, but its built-in defaults are terrible for developers and other concentration-type mental work.

My actions taken against Outlook are a direct response to this post on productivity by Scott Hanselman. If you don't subscribe to his blog, you should.

Turn off desktop notifications and sounds

It's amazing how much this one item helps: simply eliminating that little envelope that told me someone (or something) wanted my attention decreased distractions immensely.

I disabled all of the following things:

  • Desktop notifications
  • Sounds
  • Outlook icon flashing in taskbar
  • Outlook icon changing in taskbar

That last one is pretty subtle, but important: essentially, the goal here is to change Outlook from a "LOOK AT ME NOW" notification system to a "Check it when you have a few minutes" polling system.

Yes, I understand that this is a regression in technology, and even harks back to ye olde hotmail days. It makes you "check your email" instead of always being on top of all information at all times.

But, as it turns out, having a constant in-flow of communication makes it impossible to concentrate on any task.

Turn off 15-minute-prior meeting notices

One thing that took me a long time to realize was a huge hindrance is the 15 minute meeting notice. By default, Outlook decides that you need 15 minutes' advance warning of a meeting.

Now, this may be the case for some people, but I would posit that your average developer, who is much more concerned about writing good software than cramming for every meeting, does not need this.

So what do you do?

Two minutes' notice.

This is enough time to gather some context about the meeting, grab a cup of coffee and get to the conference room.

What are you waiting for? Tell outlook to do reminders at 2 minutes instead of 15! There's no reason that you should be interrupted that far in advance, wasting 13 precious minutes of concentration time.

Auto-sort into "Don't Care" inboxes

When you start getting a lot of email, your job description starts to feel like "deleting email." That's an antipattern and it is wrong. How can you combat that?

In short, you have three inboxes:

  • Inbox (External): From anyone outside of your organization
  • Inbox (CC): Emails that you're CC'd on
  • Inbox: Emails that don't get caught by either of those conditions

By doing this, you auto-filter out most of the junk that clogs your inbox and makes you an email-deletion-automaton.

Hanselman describes how to do this better than I could, so I'll just link out to him.

Read this.

Bonus: Lump your meetings into one day

All of the previous suggestions can be executed by you, on your machine, in a few minutes. This one is much more organizational.

Get your organization/department/team to have as many of its meetings as possible on a single day every week.

We started this a couple of months ago. Tuesday is meetings day.

Tuesdays suck for personal productivity, but boost company communication and collaboration.

But sacrificing most of one day means that Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are much freer from disruption, and can be more wholly dedicated to personal work.

Does this mean that you can't have meetings outside of your designated meeting day?

No. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but rather an affinity. Try it out, it should help you if you can get your team on board.