I'm a good secretary, but help me be awesome
February 13, 2013 8:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm an administrator and I have lots of different systems to handle - Google docs, calendar, Outlook, 2 different email accounts, multiple "bosses" / sets of people to confer with, and 3 separate programs I work for that I'd like to keep separated and organized. If this sounds like your job, what are your organization hacks, from physical files to electronic stuff?

This question isn't prompted by any sort of complaints at my work - I do a good job and everyone praises my organization, but I can't help thinking there still must be better ways to make things easier. I'll break down some of the things I'd love to know how to simplify:

- Email. I have 2 different email accounts related to 2 separate job duties. They need to stay separate because one of them has joint access and one is just me. I've tried to set up mail forwarding to Gmail, but they don't seem to play well together and not everything gets forwarded. I'd be afraid of missing things. I used to use webmail because Outlook seems clunky to me. Is there a way to make Outlook more like Gmail in terms of labels that stay both in your inbox and in a separate folder?

I get lots of email about several different areas of work, and I need a better system for how to quickly VISUALLY see what email is related to what. It takes too long to manually send each email to the right folder, and I end up with the inbox from hell. Right now I have different folders set up in Outlook that automatically move emails from certain people in, but then I have to remember to check multiple folders. I've seen the color categories thing on Outlook, but it seems like that tiny color square isn't going to help me much. What else is there?

Is there a way to interface my incoming emails with my to-do list? That is, is there a way I could get, on a daily basis, something that combines showing me both emails, calendar, and to-do list stuff related to Job Area 1 and then switch to Job Area 2?

- calendar. Right now I use Google calendar to see what is happening for events/rooms. I like Google calendar's interface way better, but Outlook is easier for when I get an email with a small request like "remind x to do y at z time", because then I don't have to switch tabs. I'm ALSO in charge of updating my boss's Icloud calendar... I ALSO have a big paper desk calendar, that I like to put notes on. It seems ridiculous to update my Outlook, google calendar and paper with the same info. Is there a way to interface this better? I'd also love to have the most noticeable popup reminders I can get... my computer has no sound so I can't get alarms.

- I really like a combination of paper and electronic to-do lists, since my job consists of little day-to-day tasks and bigger long-term projects. I tend to use paper lists for day to day stuff because it's easy to cross off and throw away, whereas the long term projects I need to have a copy of forever.

- In general, I'm in charge of 2-3 completely different programs with different sets of events, checklists, etc. What's the best way to organize them considering that in any given day I have to multitask between these programs? Right now I have hanging file folders for each program, with manila folders within each one. The problem is that since I multitask, I end up with 10 folders on my desk related to different stuff, so when people want to know what's going on with X, it's quite likely that X is not neatly organized, it's in a pile on my desk because I need to work with 10 different folders and I get interrupted a lot, so it would be pointless to keep putting those folders away when I'll need them again in 10 minutes.
posted by nakedmolerats to Work & Money (8 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Outlook can handle multiple email accounts in one interface. It's really easy stuff. Here are some general instructions on adding accounts to your Outlook.
posted by xingcat at 8:57 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The problem is that since I multitask, I end up with 10 folders on my desk related to different stuff, so when people want to know what's going on with X, it's quite likely that X is not neatly organized, it's in a pile on my desk because I need to work with 10 different folders and I get interrupted a lot, so it would be pointless to keep putting those folders away when I'll need them again in 10 minutes.

There are tons of good organization schemes, but the one I've learned (which goes along well with most other schemes) is Close-out And Plan. CAPping your day means that you take time at the end of every day to roll up the previous day and prepare yourself for the next one. Close your door (or some other visible sign that you are Done And Not To Be Disturbed) and sort through all the stuff you handled and did that day. File everything appropriately (actual or virtual), including files for "Things To Do Tomorrow" and "Things I Will Need Tomorrow." Use those files and your calendars to assemble the plan for the next work day.

CAPping is a good method for people who don't like organizing as they go -- your desk can be as chaotic as it needs to be all day, but then you spend a little time getting it cleaned up.

Other bonus features:
  • You know exactly what you do day-to-day, which comes in very handy for performance reviews and salary negotiations.
  • If you're sick, you just tell your boss or your temp replacement, "My to-do list for the day is at the bottom left corner of the desk, and the day's calendar is a Word file on my computer desktop named after today's date."
  • It provides a very definite break between work and not-work. There are numerous psychic benefits to having such a break.

posted by Etrigan at 9:09 AM on February 13, 2013 [11 favorites]

Look at Categories again-- you can use Categories just like Gmail's Labels. Categories are the only reason my work emails stay organized! The colored square, though small, is surprisingly effective.
posted by samthemander at 9:12 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Set up categories in Outlook + a Search Folder for each category. (For Outlook 2010: Right-click Search Folders -> New Search Folder... -> Categorized mail -> Choose... -> [choose a category]). This is similar to using labels in gmail.

Also in Outlook, in your inbox, change the View to "Show as Conversations."
posted by hooray at 9:31 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Amazing suggestions! I hope this is helping other people too!

One note is that I work in a shared/main office, so as much as I'd love it, I can't close my door or ask not to be disturbed... part of my job description is to be Available For Disturbing.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:53 AM on February 13, 2013

As much as I also dislike Outlook, a lot of what you want to do can be accomplished most effectively using it. For example, in terms of integrating email and to-do lists, you can drag an email in Outlook to your Tasks, and even edit the text to remind you what you have to do with it. So, for example, right now on my task list I have "ask T about X" and double-clicking on that line will bring up the email conversation about X to remind myself what to ask about.

Outlook's calendar can also be very useful, if you take some time to figure out how to use it and maybe color-code your entries so they're easier to read. Also, Outlook's search functionality has improved a HUGE amount, making it almost as easy as Gmail to search your entire email system for any specific topic.

If I had 2-3 different programs I was in charge of, I could color code EVERYTHING -- emails and my tasks on my electronic task list (using color codes), my paper task list (using highlighter), my manilla folders or at least their labels, everything. That might make it easier to see at a glance what the status of each is.

Also, just because you're an administrator doesn't mean you have to have everything ready to produce immediately. For your last example, if someone came up and said "Hey, what's going on with X", it might be better to say "X? Let me pull the file for that and bring it right over to your desk" rather than frantically scrabbling around on your desk for the file for X while the person hovers over you. This depends on your office culture, of course, but helps me keep from getting too frazzled.
posted by EmilyFlew at 10:13 AM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

One note is that I work in a shared/main office, so as much as I'd love it, I can't close my door or ask not to be disturbed... part of my job description is to be Available For Disturbing.

If you make it clear to people that the 15 minutes that you fence off are making you more efficient, they'll be surprisingly understanding about it. Schedule your CAP time (and yes, you should schedule it, if only to provide yourself a good "This is the end of your day -- go home" reminder) as late as possible, put up a sign or put on your headphones, and tell people, "I should be out the door by now anyway, so you can't interrupt me and you have to act like I'm not here." Make it a joke, if you're that sort of person. At one office, I would say, "I'm a ghoooost! You can't seeeeee meeeeee! Oooohhhhhh..."
posted by Etrigan at 10:37 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I understand that massive flow of e-mail that comes in. One thing that's helped immensely is a search plugin for Outlook, like Xobni (the free version is adequate for what I need). I file things away in larger bucket folders as soon as I'm done with them. If I have to find something specific, I'll use the search function. It's not perfect because it doesn't have the same search functionality or power as Gmail search tags do, but it works.

Sometimes Xobni doesn't play nice. If you find your Outlook hanging when it's trying to open, try opening it in safe mode (in Start, type/search "outlook.exe /safe"), closing, and reopening normally.

Zero inbox: my inbox functions as a living to-do list. Everything I've taken care of gets filed away into the buckets/folders right away. (Shortcut: Ctrl+Shift+V) If you find yourself hesitating because you're not instantly sure what folder it belongs to, then you need to broaden the folder/category. At a glance I can see which e-mails/tasks are left in my inbox and what to tackle. Some of my coworkers use colored flags to signify what follow-up is needed. Cleaning up your inbox is something you can do at the end of the day (EOD) during your CAP time.

(My handwritten to-do functions as a brain dump for details that are not in e-mails or in the calendar.)

I only use rules for e-mails that I know I want to look at later (like the fun activities listserv or the daily news update) but disrupt my work flow. I need everything else to come into my inbox so I make sure I see it right away.


I'm afraid I don't color code my e-mails, only in the calendar. But it's AWESOME. It helps me mentally prepare for each event or meeting because I know at a glance what it's about and what it probably requires.

It is also helpful to take a 30-60 minute chunk at the beginning of the week and at the start of the month to review what you have on the calendar, what major things need to be accomplished, etc. One coworker of mine (who is fantastic at her job like whoa crazy) puts a to-do list in these calendar invites/reminders for things that don't need to be addressed right away. For example, "Let's come back to x in two weeks"--she goes to the calendar invite 2 weeks later, drops the context and to-do in it, and voila! She won't forget.


For the different interfaces, I bucket what types of things I use them for. For example, perhaps you can continually have your boss's calendar open to reference, but for your tasks or reminders for yourself, use your own personal Google calendar or write it on the desk calendar. It's a waste of energy to update everything all the time, so decide exactly what lives on each calendar.

As for the multitasking, that used to be my creed... and it still is, to some extent, but I've recognized that I'm prone to dropping the ball or neglecting small yet important details when juggling too much at once. For me, it's much better to focus on one thing at a time (while keeping in mind competing priorities!) and finish things as quickly as possible to tackle the next item. If I know something will take 2 minutes or less, or it's stressing me out majorly, I'll finish it right away so I don't have to worry about it anymore.

Closing out the end of day

Agree on everything said about creating that space for you to take a step back from the reactive, set some respectful boundaries, and plan out how to tackle the following day. I'm a bit of a Sesame Street-type personality so people have no problem stopping by and saying hi or asking for a favor. I've had to learn to smile and say, "Let me finish this, be with you in 15." Be kind to yourself.

I'm constantly reviewing my systems and trying to make them better and more efficient. I have a wonderful manager who knows how tough it can be, and he provides good, constructive feedback when it comes to logistics and workflow. Don't be afraid to ask your team/coworkers/managers to help you be successful in your work!

Apologies for this being so long. Thanks for posting this ask -- this has inspired me to maintain a more consistent CAP time :) Good luck and share what works for you!
posted by sums at 7:56 PM on February 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

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