Ignore distractions!

This is a blog for all those people who find it hard to get important stuff done because they get distracted. Distractions are a key barrier to using your time effectively and productively – and this post forms part of my productivity philosophy.

This blog is going to talk about what we get distracted from, followed by what distracts us, then we’ll look at some strategies to deal with your distractions.

What do you get distracted from?

What are we distracted from
Fig 1: Capture the tasks or activities that you find yourself being most distracted from

The first thing we need to understand is what we get distracted from. Some tasks are just distractible – as soon as you sit down to work at them your mind starts thinking about other things.

Grab a pen and paper and draw 5 circles. In these circles write examples of the tasks you get distracted from (as in fig 1). Don’t worry if you can’t think of 5 right now, a couple will do.

For me, doing a tax return has got to be one of the key activities that I get distracted from.

So what distracts you?

What Distracts Us?
Fig 2: Write down the key distractions that get in the way of you completing the important tasks in the bubbles.

The next step is to understand what things distract you. For each of the five circles, write a brief list of the things that distract you from completing that task.

As you can see from fig 2, the key distractions for my tax return are “TV on in background”, “Facebook” and “Writing blogs”. Continue to write these lists for each of your tasks.

This mapping exercise is very useful – and helps us to form strategy 1. I refer to this as a Distraction Map in the rest of this post.

Strategy 1: Know Your Distractions

This strategy uses the distraction map you’ve just completed, and encourages a degree of self awareness. The key to this is minimising the distraction potential when you embark on a distractible task. Plan your time to do the task, and make sure you can’t be distracted.

For example when I do my tax return I ensure that I don’t do it in the living room (TV distraction), that I leave my Smartphone elsewhere (Facebook distraction) and that my blog notebook is hidden in a drawer somewhere.

These simple steps have placed a barrier between me and my distractions. I’m far less likely to be distracted now.

Oli Note: There’s nothing to stop me getting up from my chair and going into the living room, so you still need a good measure of self control for this strategy to work.

Strategy 2: Know Yourself

Are you a morning person? Or do you prefer evenings? Knowing when you are at your best is important to helping deal with distractions.

Say (like me) your best part of the day is between 08:00 and 09:00 when the office is nice and quiet. This is the time for you to work on the most important pieces of work.

My worst time is probably between 3-4pm; this is when I find myself most easily distracted.

For my best time I block time out in my diary – nobody else can have that time unless it is incredibly urgent and important. For my worst time I try to schedule meetings or use the time for planning or reflection.

Try to work out your best and worst times of the day, and plan your schedule around them.

Strategy 3: Ignore stuff

This is simple: ignore the ringing phone, close your inbox down, don’t have social media open, and zone out of peripheral conversations.

Easy to say, harder to do.

Strategy 4: Stay healthy

We are far more distractible when we are:

  • Hungry
  • Tired
  • Dehydrated
  • Screen overload
  • Stressed
  • Caffeine or sugar high OR low

Make sure you eat properly, sleep properly, drink plenty of water, take breaks from your screen, laugh, and avoid short term stimuli like coffee and chocolate.

Summary

By recognising when you get distracted and what distracts you, you can learn to avoid these situations. Have a look at your distraction map you created earlier; what are you going to do differently?

Learn your patterns; when you work best and worst, and make sure you make the most of your best time. Finally ignore stuff and stay healthy, and I reckon you’re in pretty good shape!

Check out some of my other posts if you’ve enjoyed reading this – are you a procrastinator? Or perhaps you struggle to prioritise? Let me know what you think!

Don’t sit on it! Instant process mapping for the procrastinator

Facebook update page showing a procrastinating postAre you a procrastinator? Do you sit on tasks when they first come to you, waiting for that magical moment when you’ll know that the time is right to do it? Do you find it hard to commit to completing things?

I know I do!

This blog is going to offer you some ideas for how you can get yourself out of your cycle of procrastination, by discussing an approach called instant process mapping. It will show you how to quickly remove task dependency from you, freeing up your time to focus on important things that matter to you…

Removing procrastination from your workflow is a key activity in my productivity philosophy, and fits in with Golden Rule #1: Don’t do it twice. Every piece of procrastination steals a small amount of your time – quickly adding up to minutes and hours in a month that you could have invested in much better activities.

So lets talk procrastination…

Why do we procrastinate?

Procrastination is the art of replacing high priority activities with lower priority activities. A great example can be found from school or university, just before the big exams. When you are supposed to be revising anything seems like a better idea. My room was never so clean as when I had exams coming up!

Why do we procrastinate?I’ve come up with a graphic highlighting some of the reasons we procrastinate – it’s not an exhaustive list but highlights some of the major drivers.

Procrastination can also be psychological – linked to feelings of low-self-worth and self-defeatism. Whatever the cause – if you can tackle this head-on and improve yourself then you’re on the road to a more productive tomorrow.

Process mapping – treat tasks like mini-projects

I came across SIPOC recently – a Lean methodology which helps to summarise and understand a process so it can be improved. As I was listening I realised that this could help in my day-to-day work. By fully questioning the what, when, how and why of tasks I would remove many of the procrastination causes. I call this questioning approach Instant Process Mapping.

Instant Process Mapping
Instant Process Mapping

When you get a new task or activity given to you – ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who needs to give you stuff?
  • What stuff do you need?
  • What actions do you need to take?
  • What stuff do you need to deliver?
  • Who wants it?

These questions don’t even take a minute to cover off – and if you don’t know the answer to any of them then fire off an email or pick up the phone while it is still fresh in your mind!

Lets do an example. Paul has asked me to do a report for the board covering off the new markets we were thinking of entering – he’d like it by the end of next week.

  • Who needs to give you stuff? George and Ringo
  • What stuff do you need? Market stats from George, latest trading figures from Ringo.
  • What actions do you need to take? Summarise the market stats and trading stats, come up with a recommendation
  • What stuff do you need to deliver? PDF report by the end of next week
  • Who wants it? Paul and the rest of the board.

One minute later – you’ve got everything you need to get started, and you’ve gained some momentum while you’re at it!

Dependency – the enemy of getting things done

In the example above, Paul is dependant on you to deliver the report in time for the board. But you are also dependant on George and Ringo. It is very common for people to sit on that dependency until the deadline approaches, and then desperately request the eleventh-hour information from George and Ringo. Apart from not being fair on the guys, you run the risk of George being on holiday, and therefore you cannot deliver the board report for the deadline. Career limiter!!

Don’t sit on it – after you’ve completed the instant process mapping questions – fire out a couple of emails to George and Ringo explaining what you need, and when you need it by. You never know – they may have some further dependencies of their own! At this stage, you might hear the your timelines are unachievable – NOW is the time to flag this to Paul when you have time on your side. Then you and/or Paul can come up with a viable alternative (or go over George and Ringo’s heads to get what you need…)

The big win here is that you’ve got time to do something. You appear relaxed and on-top-of-things and will win respect from Paul, George and Ringo for this approach.

Oli Note: The observent amongst you will notice that I reiterate this ‘remove dependancy’ approach in my Clean To-do List blog – I’m nothing if not predictable and repetitious…

Summary

Being a procrastinator is a human condition that we all suffer from to a greater or lesser degree. By performing instant process mapping you can remove many of the barriers to getting started, and remove the task dependency from you. This will free up your time and allow you to appear calm and in control – improving your perception to others in your organisation.

Oli Note: I really enjoy instant process mapping – these questions really help me to get started and I’ve noticed a big increase in my productivity. This is one of my steps within my productivity philosophy, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Alongside long term planning and short term prioritising, this approach should really help you reduce your procrastinating tendencies! Please feedback your thoughts – it’s really great when people ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ this stuff.

Get Your Priorities Right! Part one – The Five Year Plan

Being productive has always been important to me, and a key skill that can help you improve your productivity is prioritisation (I think it’s important enough to be Golden Rule #4 in it’s own right…)

Prioritisation means dealing with or organising in order of importance. The most productive people are those who get lots of important things done.

Global goals vs day-to-day actions

In order to prioritise, first you need some actions/goals. These can be split into two levels:

  1. Global – important goals that impact your life (e.g. career, where to settle etc)
  2. Day-to-day – actions that matter today, or this week (eg finishing that piece of work)

You need to be clear on your global goals and allow them to guide your day-to-day actions. It is easy for it to be the other way round – i.e. your life plan being defined by your deadlines today – this is the tail wagging the dog.

So to create focus on your global goals, create a Five Year Plan.

The Five Year Plan in summary

5 Year Plan Graphic
A diagram showing the three steps I follow for a Five Year Plan

Lots of businesses do these, but they really work personally too. The point of a five year plan is to set stretching, aspirational yet achievable goals to achieve within five years.

The steps are as follows

  1. Five year plan
  2. One year plan
  3. Action plan

The Five Year Plan

Start off with a dream – where would you like to be in 5 years? What will you be doing? How is your career doing? Where will you be living? How will you be feeling? What would your Facebook updates be saying? What would your photos look like?

Be as aspirational as you like, but try to be realistic. I will never pilot a spaceship to Mars; putting it on my plan is pointless. However there is a chance that I could become an Financial Controller or a Finance Director in 5 years, so these are great aspirations.

Once you have defined your dream, you need to turn it into a series of outcomes. I find it useful to think in the following headings, and to use a spider diagram to capture the outcomes.

  • Family/personal life
  • Work
  • Health

Examples might be move house, or get a professional qualification, even lose a stone in weight.

When you look at these goals you should feel excited and inspired; if you’re not I’d recommend revisiting and trying to be MORE aspirational. Now you’re ready for the One Year Plan.

The One Year Plan

You’ve now done the fun and easy bit of this plan. I would recommend taking a couple of days away from the plan, and then come back to it afresh.

The next step is The One Year Plan, which gets you part of the way to your Five Year Plan outcomes. You now need to come up with a series of one year outcomes that will support you achieving your five year outcomes.

For example, if your five year outcome was to relocate to Germany, your one year outcome might be to study a German language module, or actively network with the Germany division.

Do this for each of your five year outcomes – where do you need to get to in one year to achieve what you desire in five years? Again, map this out on a spider diagram.

Again these need to inspire and excite you, however the goals need to be more realistic than aspirational while still giving you the opportunity to hit your five year goals.

Now you turn these one year outcomes into actions.

Action Plan

You’ve now got some pretty top-level aspirational goals to achieve within one year. To give yourself the best chance of hitting these you need to come up with an action plan.

Look at each of your one year outcomes. What do you need to focus on today to make that happen? What actions can you ensure that you do this week/month/year to fulfill that outcome?

For the relocation example above, your action plan might be:

  • Buy German study materials in time to start a course
  • Research courses in time for September start
  • Create a list of all the colleagues in the Germany division that you could speak to
  • Plan a discussion with you mentor at your next one-to-one

From this exercise you will end up with a series of actions – try to make sure they are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound), and write them down!

You now have your priorities

These actions are your priorities that will help you achieve your global goals. I believe these are your most important priorities. Just to be clear, I don’t expect that you will drop every other task or action you are currently doing to focus on these, but these actions should be at the forefront of your mind through the year.

The next blog will help you understand how you can find time in a busy week to make steps toward achieving your One Year Plan, and ultimately your Five Year Plan.

Oli note – I do a five year plan once a year, each time measuring how close I came to hitting the one year goals, and how realistic the five year goals are now. This really helps me stay focused, and inspired to work toward who and what I want to be.

Clean To-Do List

This is the third step in my productivity journey – we’ve already looked at cleaning your inbox, cleaning your calendar – this week I’m looking at creating a ‘clean’ to-do list.

How can you know what you need to do next, if you don’t know what you need to do?

When I talk about ‘clean’ to-do lists, I’m talking about a complete task list that gives you all the information you need to know about your outstanding actions, and helps you prioritise in a way that will achieve your goals.

We’ve all been there – a task list in your notebook, one on Outlook, one on the back of an envelope, with a bunch of emails waiting your attention and no time to get into any of these because you’ve got back-to-back meetings! So let’s have a look at my strategies to help you nail down your task list and increase your productivity.

Go ‘Online’

My first strategy is to keep all of my tasks in one place, on a computer. This isn’t to say notebooks / paper don’t have their place (how do you get your actions down in a meeting otherwise?), but I would add these notes to my master list once I’m back at my desk.

The key reason is productivity. When you have filled a page with all your actions and started to cross them off, at some point you will need to rewrite out the incomplete actions onto a new page. Not only is this going against Golden Rule #1 Don’t Do it Twice, but you’re actually spending more time rewriting the less important tasks out over and over again.

Computers allow cut/copy/paste from easy keystrokes, so if you do need to move lists it becomes super-quick. I use Microsoft Outlook as my email/calendar and task manager and it works just fine for me. You may have a different email client which you could use, or even just keep a list in a notepad editor. Plenty of bespoke software also exists – Evernote, Omnifocus – just do a google search for to-do list and you’ll be inundated.

Leverage your smartphone

This tip does require you to use a program to store your list that can be synced with your smartphone. For me, Outlook 2010 offers a syncing protocol named ‘exchange’, which allows me to view and edit my emails, calendar and to-do list.

Having your to-do list in your pocket is a seriously good idea if you’re worried about being productive. This is a great way to use up some of that dead time while waiting for your meeting to start or in the queue for coffee (happily fulfilling Golden Rule #2 Save a Little Time All of the Time). Even if you are simply refreshing your memory of outstanding tasks this helps focus your mind and get you ready to complete your tasks.

Go SMART

You’ve probably heard of SMART objectives – that is:

Specific
Measureable
Attainable
Realistic and
Time Bound,

and I would recommend applying a scaled down version of this to your tasks. Make sure that you are SPECIFIC by including an unambiguous title, and TIME BOUND by ensuring you have a due date included. I then also include IMPORTANCE (High or Low) and a CATEGORY. These steps take less than 10 seconds at the point of creating the task and make sure that all your relevant information is where it needs to be – on your list!

Remove Dependency

Oftentimes you’ll find that one of your deliverables has a dependency on somebody else (e.g. a report from Jim that you need in order to make a recommendation to Neeru). But before you are dependant on Jim, you need to tell Jim what you need. Therefore, you are actually dependant on YOU.

At the point of creating the task ask yourself the question “do I need anything from anybody else?”. If the answer is yes, send your request out NOW, giving timeframes and reasons for the request. There; you’ve just removed the dependency from you and transferred it to Jim. Sorry Jim!

How many times have you had people running up to you saying “Hi – I need you to do XXX for me – and I need it NOW”? They will often have known about the deliverable for weeks – and their own poor time management is now being passed onto you. Don’t let this be how you behave – and DON’T accept this behaviour from anyone else.

Summary

I’ve talked about 4 specific strategies that should help you make sure your task list is lean and clean and ready to go; I’ve recommended keeping the list on a computer, leveraging your Smartphone, ensuring that you are SMART and reducing your inherent dependencies on your to-do list. I hope you have enjoyed reading this post, and hopefully you will be able to put some of these ideas into practice to increase your productivity – freeing up your time to concentrate on the things that matter!

Oli Note: I use Outlook 2010 at work, and I make sure that this is the one place I can go for guidance on what I need to achieve. It allows me to turn emails into tasks, and link due dates with my calendar. It also allows categorisation which helps me invest my time across my different work streams appropriately.

Other resources

One of my favourite management theory books is by Stephen Covey, and is called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This for me was a game-changer and has hugely improved my time management and effectiveness.

The new buzz on the street is about Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity – an approach by David Allen. This is what all the cool productivity kids are talking about.

If you’re more of a click-click person, have a read of this blog from Mindtools, talking about to-do lists. It really is a comprehensive read, and backs up and expands on many of the themes in this text.

Clean Calendar

In step one of my productivity blogs I talked about having a clean inbox, allowing you to focus on your own priorities. This second step looks at focusing on achieving a clean calendar.

So what is a clean calendar? For me there are 5 characteristics:

  1. Only contains meetings that add value
  2. No unresolved clashes
  3. Have space and time put aside for your priorities
  4. No outstanding requests
  5. No offline meetings

Do any of these characteristics sound familiar to you? If so then read on…

Why is this so important?

Your calendar is your gatekeeper to your time, and if you allow it to become messy, disorganised or cluttered with junk you may very well start coming across as messy or disorganised.

Do you ever find yourself rushing from meeting to meeting, never quite on time for any of them? This comes across as unprofessional or rude at best, not to mention the wasted time for everyone waiting to start meetings. Golden Rule #2 Save a little time all the time applies here.

Some people are meeting-o-philes who’d rather book a half hour to discuss an issue than send an email or make a decision. If you’re not careful and accept every meeting request you get you’ll end up spending most of your time on other people’s priorities – not your own!

Oli Note – this is a similar point to one mentioned in Step One: Clean Inbox – if you allow your inbox to drive your activities, you end up managing other people’s priorities.

Strategy 1: Question Every Meeting Request

When you get a meeting request through in your inbox don’t just blindly accept it. Perform a few quick actions at the point you are looking at the invite that will ensure that you are streamlining your meeting attendance.

Ask two questions to yourself:

  1. Does this meeting help me meet my objectives or help with my priorities?
  2. Is the person requesting the meeting someone I want to invest time in?

If either of these answers are “Yes”, then the meeting should add value to you and your priorities. If both are “No”, then I would recommend thinking very carefully about accepting this meeting. Why would you want to waste 30 minutes of your precious time on something that will not help you, or help those that are worth investing time in?

Oli Note: A future blog Getting Tough With Meetings will look at ways to improve your productivity when in meetings, and will look at how you interact with the meeting organiser.

Strategy 2: Resolving Clashes in your Calendar

Resolving meeting clashes is quite easy – one meeting needs to stay and the other is dropped or rescheduled. The really important bit here is that you need to resolve the clash as soon as you are aware of it. This ensures that you have plenty of time to reschedule the second meeting at time when you are free.

So how do you work out which meeting is more important? I use the Meeting Prioritisation Matrix.

Meeting Prioritisation Matrix
Meeting Prioritisation Matrix

In essence, this model prioritises those strategically important meetings that have a large number of attendees. The exact number attendees that define Many varies between organisations, but a good rule of thumb is 5.

If one of the two meetings is in the Business Critical box, then it wins out, if one of the two meetings is in the Catch Up box, then it loses out. If both meetings are either Action Plan or Team Meeting then you need to use your judgement as to which stays and goes.

If both meetings are in the same box, then you again need to use your own judgement.

Oli Note: These days, you can often have access to colleagues calendars within your own organisation. This should mean that meetings are only booked when all attendees are free. In reality sometimes it is hard to find appropriately free time, but in some cases colleagues don’t seem to care. Repeat offenders get short shrift from me I’m afraid 🙂

Strategy 3: Book Time for YOUR Priorities

This is a classic strategy which I have used with great success over the years. Book a meeting with yourself! This ensures that you have the time flagged as “busy” in your diary, and people will be less inclined to book it out.

Work out what priority you want to work on, and set yourself some targets – it’s really as simple as that. I try to give myself 2 hours a day by using this method, and it really helps me achieve my goals.

Strategy 4: Outlook Tip – Colour Coding

Golden Rule #5 tells you to Categorise for your Lives – and this is something I think that adds value in your calendar. Outlook allows you to categorise emails, tasks and meetings by a number of customisable categories.

Outlook Categorise Button
The categorise button allows you to assign categories to your emails, meetings and tasks – and assigns each a colour

This is really useful – at a quick glance I can see how much time I am spending on each of my workstreams and then take action if the balance feels wrong. By keeping your calendar categorised and clean you can be sure that you are investing your time in the most productive way.

Strategy 5: Regular Spring Cleaning

Once a week I like to go into my calendar and check to make sure that it’s looking nice and clean; guess what? I put this in my calendar too! During this time I perform strategies 1, 2, 3 and 4 – just in case any clashes or other messiness has entered the calendar. I normally do this at the start of the day on Monday allowing me to enter the working week ready for anything!

Summary

I’ve talked through 5 strategies that should allow you to stay in control of your calendar and your time, ensuring that you are focus on your priorities and making sure that you are using your time wisely. Question every meeting request, resolve all clashes, book out time for your priorities, colour code your meetings and make sure you stay on top of all of these by regular spring cleaning.

I hope you’ve got some value out of this post – let me know what you think via comments below, or by the social media link buttons on the page!

Other resources

Harvard Business Review have an excellent blog coming from the management perspective, and focuses on priorities.

Another great article to read comes from Business News Daily, focusing on some of the tools you can use to help streamline your calendar.

Clean Inbox

This post is step one of my productivity philosophy, which you can follow to help you find more time to concentrate on the things that matter. For the introduction to my philosophy and its golden rules, please visit here.

Step 1 is called ‘Clean Inbox’ which describes an email inbox which is not cluttered with previously read mail, allowing you to focus on your priorities and decide how you want to spend your time. This post is for you if any of the following are true:

  • You have more than 20 emails in your inbox right now
  • You sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of email you receive
  • You long for the day when you are ‘on top’ of your inbox overload

What’s the fuss?

Email messages are either about your priorities, someone else’s priorities, or are simply junk. By keeping all those messages you are allowing those priorities to become blurred. You are allowing your priorities to be driven by the people that email you the most.

Email that sits in your inbox is like a loan. The longer it spends in there the more you will read, reread and rereread it. You are paying the interest in your time.

Not only do you waste time, you are far more likely to act on emails more than once if they are sitting in your inbox. This is duplication of effort and goes against golden rule #1 – Don’t do it Twice.

I’m not alone here – there are plenty of other people out there who agree with me – if you’re still unsure, why don’t you also have a look at the Inbox Zero philosophy.

Strategies

Below are the methods I use to help me stay on top of my workload. They’ve been honed from years of research and trial and error.

Smart Categorisation

First things first, apply golden rule #5 to the problem – Categorise for your Lives. In order to do this you need to setup a sensible folder structure within your email program. If you’re not sure how to do this, follow these steps from Addictive tips (great site BTW). I use the following folders in my email client:

  1. Incoming folders
      1. Inbox,
      2. CCd,
      3. Meeting Requests,
  2. Filing folders
    1. Business Area 1,
    2. Business Area 1,
    3. Business Area 3,
    4. Misc.

The Incoming folders are the folders that I use rules to filter incoming mail – see below. The Business Area folders should be named after your three or four big work-streams in your role. I wouldn’t advise having many more than 4 to keep your categorisation nice and simple.

After you have created these folders you can do the one-time activity of moving all your mail from your inbox into the filing folders. As you move each item – if there is an outstanding action on the mail – flag this for follow up in your email client. If you’re not sure what folder to put something in – be brave and throw it into the Misc folder. Life’s too short right? Once you’re done you can sit back and admire your empty inbox – feels good doesn’t it?

Weekly spring clean

Every Monday morning I spend 5-10 minutes repeating the above steps of flagging emails and moving them so I start the week with a blank canvas. This ensures that all actions are on my task list, and my inbox is clean ready for the weekly onslaught. Golden rule #4 – Plan your Priorities means that you should put aside time for this activity (perhaps by booking out your diary) to ensure that your priorities are achieved.

Rules

Many email clients (e.g. Outlook) allow you to create rules that automatically send mail to specified folders. There are two rules I use:

      • Mail that I’m CCd on goes straight in the CCd folder. Already this is like a low priority filter (if I’m not the main recipient then it can’t be too vital – can it?)
      • Meeting requests go straight in the meeting requests folder – this also provides a nice visual to show how many outstanding meeting invites I have.

Don’t go mad on rules, you can end up setting up very complicated filters that actually don’t add value.

ABCD

This is an incoming email action plan that gives you four actions you choose between on any incoming email.

A – Action (i.e. deal with/answer the email if it is a quick one, then delete or file)
B – Bin (i.e. delete the email)
C – Categorise (i.e. flag for follow up and move into the relevant folder)
D – Delegate (i.e. send to the appropriate person if not you)

The key thing here is to follow golden rule #1 – Don’t do it Twice. You should only ever read an email once when it’s in your inbox. While you’re reading the mail decide which of A B C D actions you wish to take, and then follow through.

Summary

So if you follow these steps you should find yourself with a Clean Inbox, which should help you to prioritise your time and concentrate on things that are really important to you. We’ve looked at Smart Categorisation to help you keep everything in its rightful place, Rules to use your email client to make your life easier, the Weekly Spring Clean which resets your inbox back to a clean place, and ABCD actions that should help you stay on top of things

Other resources

A popular book available on Amazon is Taming the E-mail Beast: 45 Key Strategies for Better Managing Your E-mail Overload which is a great start if you’re like me and enjoy reading books to help formulate a plan.

Microsoft always have good stuff about their Office products, and they have an email productivity post here which is a good read.

The Mind Tools website has an excellent post on email productivity focusing more on how to stay on top of your inbox.

The Get It Done Guy has a great podcast series, and this link takes you to a page where he talks about email productivity in his own unique style.

The Quick Access Toolbar

Excel 2010 shipped with loads of great new features, however the one I use most is actually from their 2007 update: The Quick Access Toolbar.

In a nutshell this is a horizontal tab that runs above or below the ribbon (I prefer below) and allows the user to add common commands to the strip.

Oli's Quick Access Toolbar Setup
This is my setup for the Quick Access Toolbar. You can see that I’ve chosen to located the bar beneath the ribbon. This works for me – but you may prefer to have yours above the ribbon.

From this there are some key advantages:

  1. You can keep all your favourite commands visible – no matter what ribbon page you’re on,
  2. You can access your favourite commands as keyboard shortcuts,
  3. You can add macros to this list

This is a fantastic way to tailor Excel to your way of working. At the bottom of this post I have listed out my Quick Access Toolbar setup.

Beat the ribbon

Lots of people dislike the way Excel organises the commands using the ribbon. This means you need to click on each ribbon menu when you want to access the commands on that strip.

By ensuring all your commands are on the Quick Access Toolbar you are in control of what commands you see, and they’re present no matter what ribbon strip you’re on.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Anybody that has worked with me knows how much I love keyboard shortcuts. They allow you to minimise your mouse clicks and maximise your productivity.

The Quick Access Toolbar allocates a keyboard shortcut to each command on it. Just press and release the alt key and you’ll see a prompt which tells you what the keyboard shortcut is.

Oli's Quick Access Toolbar Keyboard Shortcuts
This is how my Quick Access Toolbar looks after I have pressed and released the Alt button. If I then press (for example) 1, I will get the command ‘Paste Values’. The macros show up as a small box surrounded by three boxes.

So this opens all excel commands to be set up as keyboard shortcuts! Neat huh?

Oli note: I wouldn’t use the Quick Access Toolbar to hold commands that already have a keyboard shortcut (e.g. Control-O is “Open”). I think that is a massive waste of space on the Quick Access Toolbar. The default commands on the Quick Access are things like ‘save’, ‘print’ and ‘undo’ – all of which are classic keyboard shortcuts (control – S, P and Z respectively). I’d lose these if I were you!

Macros and the Quick Access Toolbar

Excel unfortunately does not offer all the commands that I require as keyboard shortcuts (e.g. removing gridlines from the sheet) – so the Quick Access Toolbar can offer a solution. By adding macros to the Quick Access Toolbar you are able to fully flex Excel to meet your needs.

In order to achieve this, I have a ‘startup’ file, which opens whenever I start excel. Within this are some common macros that are accessible by all open workbooks, and are available to be stored on the Quick Access Toolbar.

Summary

For me, the Quick Access Toolbar has been a game changer. I hope you found this useful, and give the Quick Access Toolbar a try.

I’m a big fan of the ‘For Dummies’ series of books, and Excel 2010 for Dummies (available from Amazon) is no exception.

There are some other good links that are worth a look. The Microsoft Office site is always a good place for hints and tips. For an alternative view, check out Windows Secrets, which comes from a Microsoft Word perspective.

Oli’s Quick Access Toolbar Setup

Alt 1 – Paste Values
Alt 2 – Paste Formulae
Alt 3 – Macro – Format as Currency
Alt 4 – Wrap Text
Alt 5 – Fill Colour
Alt 6 – Font Colour
Alt 7 – Set Print Area
Alt 8 – Format Painter
Alt 9 – Increase Decimal
Alt 09 – Decrease Decimal
Alt 08 – Crop
Alt 07 – Autoshapes
Alt 06 – Remove Duplicates
Alt 05 – Data Validation
Alt 04 – Freeze Panes
Alt 03 – Clear Filters
Alt 02 – MacroColour Cell
Blue
Alt 01 to Alt 0H- Macros to colour cells specific colours that fit my corporate reporting needs
Alt 0I – Macro Hide Gridlines
Alt 0J – Macro Turn Off Auto Calculate
Alt 0K – Macro Turn On Auto Calculate
Alt 0L – Borders (external and internal)

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