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The end of 2015 is approaching quickly, which often means more tasks to handle and less time in which to do so. In productivity-speak, it’s a time when people have overflowing buckets, a mess of open loops, an unruly tangle of loose ends. These stray bits can increase stress levels at any time of the year, but can be more overwhelming during the winter holiday season.

In his book Getting Things Done, productivity expert David Allen explains why too many “open loops” are so detrimental to productivity:

“You’ve probably made many more agreements with yourself than you realize, and every single one of them—big or little—is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you,” he writes. All of these open loops pull at your attention, and also cause stress levels to rise.

To effectively deal with these tasks, Allen writes, you must first identify the loose ends that are pulling at you, and then make a plan to handle them.

“That may seem like a simple thing to do, but in practice most people don’t know how to do it in a consistent way,” he adds.

With about a month and a half left until the new year, there’s no better time to start than now. Below are end-of-year tips that can get you started emptying buckets, closing loops and tying up loose ends.

Outlook Rules enable you to automate repetitive tasks and increase your productivity

Outlook Rules enable you to automate repetitive tasks and increase your productivity

Clean up email

Email is by far the biggest productivity sap in today’s workplace. According to a McKinsey & Company survey, the average worker spends 28 percent of the workweek handling emails. Other studies have shown even greater amounts of time spent on email.

Yet despite the daily time investment in email, a majority of workers would still say they feel overwhelmed by their inboxes. Whether email fatigue will ever go away is anyone’s guess, but you can fight it with a two-part approach:

  • Invest a little time cleaning up your mailbox before 2016 starts. Avoid the message-by-message method and instead use Outlook’s many search options and Views to move, categorize, delete and archive messages in bulk.
  • When you are finished tidying up, assess your current organizational system and try other tactics. For example, try using Outlook’s Rules feature to automate some of your repetitive tasks:
  • Set up a rule that alerts you when you have a new message from a particular person, such as your manager. No more emails lost in the inbox, and less scrolling and scanning to find what you need.
  • Set up a rule to automatically forward, move, delete, or take other actions on emails that have a common variable. For example, if you use Basecamp to collaborate with colleagues, you may find the notification emails distracting. You can change your Basecamp settings, of course, but if you want to read the digests, you can set up a rule to automatically move them to a separate folder. The emails are available when you are ready to read them, and they will not pollute your inbox.

Email is by far the biggest productivity sap in today’s workplace. According to a McKinsey & Company survey, the average worker spends 28 percent of the workweek handling emails.

Quick Steps is another Outlook feature that enables you to automate repetitive tasks. With one click, you can apply multiple actions at one time to email messages. Examples include pasting the text of an email into a new calendar appointment, attaching an email message to a new appointment, creating a new message addressed to specific people with a specific template, and more.

Organize files, folders and shortcuts

Before you get into the thick of January, be sure to give your virtual workspace a tune-up. “Archive” the files and folders you will not need regularly. This includes projects that have been completed or moved to a back burner. Evaluate your current folder structure: Does it work for you? Are you able to find what you need quickly? How can you improve it? If necessary, create a new folder structure, but not without careful planning.

Don’t overlook your shared workspaces. If you use SharePoint, OneDrive or other collaboration applications to work with colleagues, you may not need to save everything in your individual folders. Archive or delete your own redundant files, such as older draft versions of documents that have been finalized, stored and archived on your team site. Initiate a team site cleanup with colleagues.

This is also the ideal time to clean up your Start menu and taskbar—remove items you never use and replace them with shortcuts to your most frequently accessed locations.

Evaluate overall approach and goals

In addition to revisiting your filing system, use this time at the end of the year to evaluate your overall approach and how well you achieved your 2015 goals. Identify where your productivity could improve—both in general and with regard to specific goals. For example, instead of relying on email to collaborate with colleagues, explore alternatives like SharePoint, OneDrive for Business, OneNote or Yammer (if available at your company). Find out if your organization provides training and sign up.

Carving out time for a year-end cleanup is a smart investment. It will enable you to set more realistic goals for 2016 and help you to actually achieve them.

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