My Top Ten Tips for Excel 2010

Excel 2010 is a great spreadsheet program – and here are my ten tips

1. Hide the ribbon

I hate the ribbon. If you need to do anything in Excel that requires clicking through the ribbon, you’ll end up wasting loads of time clicking with your mouse (see #3 for why, and #2 for what to do instead).

2. Fill the Quick Access Toolbar with all your favourite commands

The quick access toolbar is the answer to the ribbon! All your favourite commands in one place – no matter which ribbon tab you’re on!

Follow this link for a detailed blog on how to set this up.

3. Learn the Alt Keystrokes for your Quick Access Toolbar

Replace lengthy mouse sweeps and clicks with speedy key commands! All your items on the quick access toolbar are available as key commands; just press and release the alt key and the numbers appear next to the command.

Also don’t forget the classics: control S = save, F12 = save as – and so on. If there is a key command available – then you should use it where possible.

4. Remove Duplicates

My favourite function. If you have a set of data where one or more rows repeats itself, and you want only unique rows, then this function quickly does this for you.

5. Clear all filters

Don’t you hate going through your filtered table, trying to find the columns which are filtered? There is now a function that will clear all filters for you instead!

6. Conditional formatting

Conditional formatting got good in 2010. A quick trick, try hovering over the various options with your mouse and your data previews the changes live.


SUMIFS is like SUMIF on acid. You can choose more than one criteria to sum on. Did you know that you can also use logical operators such as * and <> (“all” and “not equal to” respectively).

8. Sparklines

Mini graphs that fit inside a cell. This a really quick way to add instant graphical context to your data.

9. Intellisense (formula autocomplete)

When you start writing out a formula, have you noticed that auto complete options come up? If you press Alt then this option gets selected. Try it now – type “=VL” and then press the alt key. Voila! VLOOKUP formula!

10. Filter by colour

Certainly one of the most popular amongst my finance colleagues. You can filter data by cell colour AND text colour!


I hope you enjoyed my top ten tips for Excel 2010. Most of the above tips will help your speed and effectiveness in using this spreadsheet tool.

My big fat Evernote and GTD fail

If you’ve been following my blog you will have noticed that I have attempted to implement GTD and Evernote in order to become more productive.

Sadly this attempt failed! This blog is going to share the reasons for the failure in order to help me (try again), and help you (avoid these pitfalls)…

Too busy

As I began the implementation of GTD and Evernote I was entering a really busy time at work (budgets and pricing) and at home (selling and buying a house). Looking back this was a bad idea…

The first 2 weeks were like a honeymoon; the new processes were shiny and exciting and I found time to make sure that I prioritised them. Sadly I found myself struggling to hit deadlines as the weeks rolled on so I needed to focus on the ‘must do’ actions.

The learn from this is that I need to find a quieter month to allow the new system to embed itself in my life and become second nature. GTD and Evernote will have become my way of working so that when I’m really busy again I’m already up and running.

Didn’t finish reading David Allen’s book before I started

This is me all over – not reading the manual and diving straight into the processes. The main issue here is that I ended up partially applying the themes and processes of GTD. Anyone who knows anything about GTD knows that that’s not a good way to approach it!

The learn from this fail is that I need to finish the book, and then probably read a second time before attempting to implement it.

Didn’t do a weekly review

A key feature of GTD that you hear experts (such as Daniel Gold) recommending is the weekly review. Hands up, I just didn’t do this.

The outcome of this was to end up building a really big pile of crap (ie lots and lots of notes) that just gets bigger every week and started to make me feel like I didn’t know where anything was. Even though it was ALL in Evernote!

The learn for next time is to prioritise and schedule my weekly review. I’ll probably sneak off at lunch time on Friday to do this 30 minute activity.


In short, implementing GTD is hard enough – but doing it at the same time as Evernote during a really busy time is not smart!

If you want to give GTD or Evernote a try, then I hope you learned a bit from my fails. Don’t forget to check out David Allen’s original GTD book on Amazon, and Daniel Gold’s GTD and Evernote book on Amazon.

Implementing Evernote and GTD

I’ve decided to take the plunge and implement Evernote & GTD (“Getting Things Done” – David Allen’s approach to Productivity) in one fell swoop.

This series of blogs is going to track my progress, my learns and my fails.

What is GTD?

GTD is a complete approach to task and life management developed by David Allen. The original book was published in 2001 and has now sold over 100,000 copies!

I can’t cover all the intricacies of GTD in a blog post; for that you’re going to have to read the book (link at end of post). However there are several key factors that are worth understanding:

  • Get everything out of your head and into a trusted system
  • Perform regular reviews to ensure that you know what tasks you have
  • Allow yourself peace of mind knowing that you’ve captured everything

For me this is attractive; I currently have a work calendar, a work to-do list, a home calendar, a home to-do list, a a bunch of thoughts buzzing round in my head at any one point. I’m hoping that GTD will help me find some peace!

What is Evernote?

Evernote is a program that allows you to create ‘notes’, store them in virtual notebooks, tag them, and then find them easily.

Notes can be text, images or audio, and Evernote can search for words within your own handwriting! How good is that?

The other great thing about Evernote is that it works with all your devices. Smart phones, tablets, PC or Mac; there’s even a web version if you’re not allowed to install software in your work computer. This means you are never very far away from your system!

Evernote and GTD together

So I’m going to use the GTD philosophy, coupled with Evernote as my trusted system in one Big Bang implementation. Lots of people follow this structure, and I’m really excited to see how much I can leverage this.

Wish me luck as I embark in this new challenge in my search for better productivity…

To buy a copy of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity, click the link. You can also find further content from the great man himself on

How to say “No” and increase your productivity

Kid Saying NoDo you wish you were less of a push-over? Do you find yourself agreeing to other people’s deadlines and then staying late to do your own stuff?

If so, it sounds like you could do with saying “No” a bit more often. In this post I’ll help you identify when to say “No”, and then give you some tips to help you actually say it.

But firstly – here’s why it’s good to say “No”…

Why it’s good to say “No”

All my career I’ve had feedback that I’m a “Yes man”. At first I thought this was great – I’m obviously helping everyone out and getting noticed for it. Then came the budget, month-end and divisional presentation to be delivered in one week. Guess what I did that week? Spent 12 hours in the office for 3 days straight.

Did I receive amazing feedback from this? Did I nail every piece of work? Did I manage to sleep that week? No, No and No.

I’d created the situation by saying “Yes” to people. It’s good to say “No” because then people are aware of what is possible. It’s also good to say “No” because you give yourself achievable deadlines. And it’s great to say “No” because people respect you more because of it. If you let people believe they can walk all over you then they will walk all over you.

When should you say “No”

This is all very well. Saying “No” to people is not that easy – and you’ve got to be careful to pick the right situations to say “No” in.

Be aware of your objectives and accountabilities – if a task contributes to these then it’s probably OK to say yes.

Be aware of importance of requestor – if the person can directly influence progression or your career then it’s a smart move to say yes.

So if a request does not help you achieve your objectives, and the person requesting is not important, then this is a good time to say “No”.

How to say “No”

First thing is a mindset change – it’s OK to say “No”. You deserve the right to decide how to split your time. So change from a “Yes” mindset to a “No” mindset. Make your default position a “No” position.

OK; mindset altered? Now follow these three steps when you next need to say “No”.

  1. Be honest – let them know why you can’t do it
  2. Be firm – if they appeal to you don’t change your mind
  3. Begone! Don’t get into a discussion, don’t offer any other solutions, and don’t dwell on the decision after they’ve gone

So let’s have a look at an example.
Paul: Oli can you run a report for me for tomorrow please?
Oli (being honest): Sorry Paul, I’ve got loads of other stuff on at the moment; I’m not going to be able to do that mate.
Paul: Oh… You see John’s demanding this right now – he says it’s really urgent – is there anyway you could help me out?
Oli (Being firm): I’d love to mate, but it’s not going to work with my current workload.
Paul: OK mate – thanks anyway…
Oli: Cheers mate.
Hopefully here you can see that it doesn’t take many words – you don’t need to be impolite – and you’re now back to your own priorities within 1 minute!


I hope this has been helpful – as someone who doesn’t like saying “No” this approach has helped me.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, why not have a look at some of my other posts? I’ve written one about procrastination and a few on priorities (five year plan and importance Vs urgency).

Please do share this with your social media buddies – there are some ‘like’ and ‘share’ buttons underneath this post. The awesome shot of the kid screaming comes from Flickr user mdanys – check out her page on the previous link.

Get Tough with Meetings!

Image of calendar

Do you have too many meetings in your diary and struggle to get things done? Do you feel out of touch with what you’re doing and bounce aimlessly from meeting to meeting?

Don’t worry, this is quite common – today’s flat organisational structures encourage cross functional team-working (a good thing) but also lead to too many meetings. Today I’m going to show you how to get tough with meetings by getting you to ask a specific question at each part of the meeting life-cycle.

This post is part of my productivity philosophy; eleven steps to help you get back in control of your time. Previously I’ve written about keeping a clean calendar, which is worth a read if you haven’t already. This follows Golden Rules #2 and #3, Save a Little Time All the Time, and Push Back.

Get tough – ask questions

How do you respond to a meeting request or invite? Do you simply click the accept button? When was the last time you said “No” to a meeting request?

The subtle message you are sending here is “if you think this is important, then I’m happy to invest my time in this”. People will start to respect your time less than theirs.

Asking questions of the organiser is a really good way of showing them that you respect your time, and they are going to have to work hard to make it valuable for you. You are not just going to accept every request you get, but challenge and question the value of your time investment.

So try these questions out next time you get a meeting request…

The Invitation

You’ve just received the meeting request. Ask yourself this:

“Is this a good use of my time?”

How do you know if this is a good use of your time? A good guide is if the meeting is going to help you achieve your objectives. If not – unless someone important is asking you to go, then I would seriously consider declining the invite.

Check out my post on The Five Year Plan to help you set your objectives…

So you’re happy this meeting will help your objectives? Now ask the organiser this:

“Do you really need me for this meeting?”

How awesome is it if the answer is a No? You’ve just freed up some time! And you got the other person to decline it for you!

The Acceptance

Clearly you are needed, and the meeting is important. You can accept the meeting, but in your acceptance, ask this:

“Can you forward me the agenda?”

Wait for the embarrassed silence… Perhaps this particular organiser doesn’t value agendas? Perhaps the culture in your organisation is to have lots of small informal chats? Break the chain – make people realise that if they want you to invest your time in their meetings, they better have a good plan…

The Prep

I often wonder the value of meetings where nobody has done any prep. Before the meeting organiser has walked away from your acceptance question, ask this:

“Do I need to prepare anything for this meeting?”

This is great, because now if there is something that you need to prepare or read, you know about it. You can plan this into your tasks and turn up calm and prepared – impressing everyone else at the meeting. You’ve also given the meeting organiser a chance to think about what they want you to do. Get agreement for what you need to prepare and they can’t add to it later.

You’re now entering the meeting room itself – ready to embark on this important and value adding meeting.

The Introduction

At the beginning of every meeting, there is an amount of time while everyone gets settled into their seats and gets ready for the meeting. In this brief hiatus seek out the meeting chairperson and ask:

“How long do you think this is going to take?”

The subtle undertone has been set; you’re worried about wasting time and want this meeting to go as smoothly and efficiently as possible. The chair is hopefully now thinking that they’d better make sure the group stay on topic.

The Meeting

During any meeting there will be times when the topic moves away from the ideal. Perhaps Maggie is elaborating on her favourite topic, perhaps Sarah is reminding everyone of that time she did that really great presentation. These are not productive uses of anyone’s time, so why don’t you ask:

“Is this really relevant to this meeting?”

You don’t need to be rude – just speak plainly. I bet everyone else in the room who has heard Maggie’s rant before will be thanking you. If you’re worried that you’ve annoyed Maggie/Sarah – grab them afterwards and apologise – but explain why you did it.

The Closer

The end is in sight – the meeting has been efficient and engaging with few off-topic diversions. Just before you leave, why not ask:

“What are my actions?”

The chair will then look through his/her notes and explain what they think you should do. Compare this to your own notes and actions – did you miss anything off?

The Follow-Up

The final question you ask is immediately after The Closer question:

“When do you need this by?”

Don’t be the owner of timelines of something you’re doing for someone else – they want it – get them to tell you when they want it by. Now is the time to let them know if their timelines are realistic or not.

The Bottom Line

You’ve come to end of my post – perhaps you think that I’ve been quite harsh in my approach? Maybe you cannot imagine yourself asking these questions? You don’t need to go from zero to hero in one go – why not cut your teeth on some of the less harsh questions? I think The Introduction question is quite an innocuous one (“How long do you think this is going to take?”)

In using this approach you are giving out the following signals:

  • You respect and value your time
  • You will not waste your time
  • You are happy to speak up when you feel your time is being wasted

As you build in confidence you will find that others also start to respect and value your time, and worry about how they can ensure they are not wasting it!

Get Tough with Meetings questions
Print this handy reminder and hang it up somewhere prominent on your desk

The photo used with this post was downloaded from Flickr – a great shot from Daniel Moyle – you can view it here.

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.


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…


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.


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

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.


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!


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.