Words about stuff, and things related to stuff

Tools to Live By: ClearContext plug-in for Outlook

I've used MS Outlook for a few years now, as part of my GTD-ish system for tracking tasks, appointments, and of course email messages. After quite a while of using a tricked-out routine using some variations on the built-in outlook categories (those colored dots that outlook lets you tack onto any message, task or appointment), along with the usual gazillions-of-folders for projects, customers, billing, personal messages and every other possible categorization of outlook info - all managed by clicking and dragging messages and tasks here and there - I went looking for a better solution... and I am so glad I did.

Enter "Clear Context" from http://www.clearcontext.com/ - this little add-in makes such a big difference to my day. While it boasts a long list of features ( see the user guide, here: http://www.clearcontext.com/user_guide/ ), I'll touch briefly on the ones I use the most, and let you see for yourself why i am so excited about this tool.

1) Folders as 'projects'. ClearContext analyzes your Outlook folders and uses those as the basis for what it calls 'projects'. The entire application runs based on those folders - replacing outlook's somewhat limited category options with a limitless number of options for filing. When i get a new client or project, i create a folder, and once i've put a message from a client in that folder, CC 'suggests' that future messages from the same person go there as well. Unlike regular message folders, these same project/folder names are applied to your tasks, and CC's easy 'dashboard' view lets me see all messages, tasks, attached files and contact information for anything in that folder or related to that 'project'.

2) Put stuff where it goes with keyboard shortcuts, and smart suggestions. With any message highlighted, i can hit ctrl+shift+m for an intuitive list of likely folders where this message belongs (ClearContext gets to know who you put where and suggests it back to you, becoming more accurate as time goes on). So, without taking my hands off the keys, i can file an entire day's worth of email in a matter of seconds. This is big, and the way it works is super slick.

3) Defer / Unsubscribe. These are two separate features but both of them serve the same purpose - getting things out of your face that you don't want to see! With a single click i can 'defer' any message for a set number of hours or days, or until a set time and date - it is removed from view, and at the set time, it comes back to my inbox as a new message. So, if stuff piles in for 'later' while i am working on correspondence for 'now', i can defer everything else until i am ready to deal with it, and don't even have to look at it until then. 'Unsubscribe' uses the message subject to create a rule which puts all messages using that same subject line into a special folder 'clear context deferred', which i look at and then empty to deleted items every few days. This is also huge - repeat emails, junk alerts, group messages where i am bcc'd but really don't need to be - they all go away, never to be seen, clicked or managed again (unless i want to ... then they are easy to find) 

4) Tasks from messages. More keyboard shortcuts, or a click on a single toolbar icon, allows me to create an outlook 'task' from any message. Even if I file or delete the email message (which i often do, once a task is made) , CC saves a task with the due date i specify, and the email text as the body of the message, with the original message attached. This makes it uber-easy to look through my to-do list , by category, and see what needs to be done. If i mark the task complete, or delete it, the original message is still where i put it, for future reference, without the need to refile it from 'to do' to the project it belongs to. This is incredibly useful for the way i work, and the way i use Outlook.

5) Do not disturb. Turns off auto send/receive for a limited time, and hides the 'you have mail' icon along with any sounds related to same. Click that, leave me alone, I am working.

6) Follow-up. When sending any message, there's an easy option to 'follow up'. This creates an automated alert, again at a time and/or date i specify, which is automatically cancelled when somebody replies to the message (lots of options there for who must reply to cancel the follow-up, etc) . If i send off a proposal (or even more importantly, a bill) and want to make sure the client receives it , I simply click the follow-up button and can put the whole thing out of mind. If the client replies, the alert is cancelled - if they don't, i get reminded to follow up. Super simple, super useful. 

Overall, my goal is to keep things organized and my inbox empty so i don't have to think about any of it. By making easy to file and find all email messages, tasks and other important 'to do' data, I can free my 'mental RAM' from carrying those things around, and focus on whatever i am doing at the time. (Now, what was I doing... ?)

If you use Outlook's tasks, or file your messages by folder, or just like to keep your inbox clean, I suggest you take a test drive (30 day free trial, $89.95 to buy w/ money-back guarantee) of this super useful, well-maintained and carefully implemented add-in. 
You can also check in with other users in the active, well-supported Clear Context forums: http://online.clearcontext.com/forums/  to find how it can help you get more done.



Keyboard Shortcuts I use all the time


Win + Arrow left/right: 
snap open window to 1/2 monitor frame

Win + Arrow up/down: 
up: full screen (maximize window)
down: restore / minimize

Alt + F4:
Exit program / close window

Win + D:
Show desktop


Eclipse (w/ CFeclipse)

Ctrl+Alt+Up/Down arrows
Duplicate line

Alt+Up/Down arrows
Move line

Alt + F > A
Save as

Ctrl + Shft + R
Open file w/ search by name


New Tab

New  Window

Inspect Element (Firebug)

Display Element Information (Web Dev Tools)

Close window (close all tabs)

Close current tab

A whole new Outlook

I depend on Outlook 2007 in a number of ways but it has been kludgy, memory-hoggish and recently, a dead weight on anything else that was running at the same time. Granted, I have a massive storage of email and use the heck out of tasks, but still, it should work once things get loaded. Today I got fed up with the freezes and did some investigation.

I am happy to report I found what seems to be a magic tonic, restoring the Outlook I used to like!

The cause was apparently an "Add-In", and the slowness is a common symptom. I won't go into all I read about Outlook Add-ins here, but it is a little subculture all its own.

The cure, for me, was as easy as disabling all Outlook add-ins... once I found where and how (it is not obvious!)

1) To do this in Vista, you have to be running Outlook as an administrator . (right click on Outlook.exe, select 'run as administrator')

2) Once Outlook starts up, go to Tools, then Trust Center

3) In the Trust Center window, select 'Add-Ins' - you'll see a list of Add-Ins, and below that a select box labeled "Manage:"  Select "COM Add-ins" and click "Go", to bring up the window where you can actually Manage your Add-ins. ( They must over-engineer this on purpose. 1 out of 10 for intuitiveness, MS!)

4) In the Add-Ins window, you can uncheck the box for any that you want to disable. I unchecked them all, not seeing a darn thing there I thought I might ever need. ( And surprised at the number of things that allow themselves to 'talk' to Outlook behind the scenes)

5) Save, OK and otherwise Exit your way all the way out, close Outlook and if you like , reboot your computer.

6) Launch Outlook again like always, and marvel at the speed. Seriously, this made a *huge* difference!





HTML Email on Blackberry


This post on the BlackberrryForums.com site explains how to get HTML email on your blackberry.

I love having the internet in my pocket - what did I do before I had my BB Curve? - but one of the major annoyances has been the way that HTML-formatted email is displayed. Links and images are shown as HTML code, even for multi-part email where the text part would be more appropriate that the messy, pseudo-source-code view.

It seemed strange to me from day one that this nifty device, with two browsers, a dedicated email system and a newsreader all running at once, didn't have a smart way to handle html email messages... until now, that is.


3 approaches to productivity, reviewed by a comedian freelancer


"Freelancer (and funny guy) Chris Hardwick read and tried Getting Things Done, The 4-Hour Workweek, and Never Check Email in the Morning and reports back which productivity systems worked best for him."

I just read this article in Wired today, and then tonight, here it is in my Lifehacker RSS feed... worth sharing, so, I'll share! I've read, and live by "Getting Things Done"  but after reading this short, light review, I am interested in the other two books mentioned as well.

Have you read either of those? Do you use them? I'd love to hear from anybody using wisdom gained from either of these additional 'GTD' methods.

Test your GTD IQ

From the "Getting Things Done" folks, this simple web survey tests your 'GTD IQ".

After quickly answering the short list of questions as honestly as possible, I am proud to carry the designation of "Captain And Commander / Autocrat" . I'm not entirely sure what the point of the survey is, other than to get non-GTD'ers into the wonderful world of David Allen, but it did give me a good perspective on just how much more in control things feel for me now as compared to just a year ago. Thanks largely in part to the original GTD book and a few associated gems, most of the fortune-cookie wisdom imparted to me after the survey was right on target...

"Your answers indicate that you have a healthy balance of perspective and control. You are "on your game"!

...You are Captain and Commander. Your focus gives you effectiveness and your implementation and follow-through give you efficiency. By managing to keep your world collected, processed, organized and reviewed, you maneuver with agility and flexibility"

Right on. That's me for sure... but they left out a few things like: brilliant, innovative, creative genius and of course, ripe with the stench of humility.

And then, some philisophical mumbo-jumbo to deepen the mood...

"The challenge that you face is more about fine-tuning the practices that you already (at least to some degree) have in place. Your improvement opportunity is to pay attention to the more subtle aspects of your work and life. Once you pay attention to what has your attention, you'll discover what really has your attention."

That's deep. I think I'll set up a series of tasks in Outlook, outlining the steps required to figure out just what the heck it actually means.

Okay I am being sarcastic (just a little), but seriously, the GTD strategy, especially as it relates to Outlook Tasks, has helped me achieve a blissfully empty inbox, a solid system for tracking every little thing in every category that i might ever need to do (freeing up my 'mental RAM' for obsessing over other things), and most importantly, given me the confidence and efficiency to squeeze even more tedious junk into each and every joyful day at my desk. As a bonus, syncing Outlook to my Blackberry means I have no excuse to avoid tracking (and thus freeing myself to forget) all sorts of brainstorms, ideas, or simple tasks.

(Now if I could just get the book that shows me how to quit overobligating and code at twice my current speed without overdosing on espresso or going into a sleep-deprived waking coma more than once a month... I better go make a note to make a task to look up the steps required for that, too!)


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