April 03, 2019

Being Solo

David Leffler


You are inundated with lists, whether written or unwritten. Lists of active client matters, lists of to do items for client matters, lists of personal errands, lists of books that you want to read and movies that you want to see, and sometimes even lists of lists.

How about a method for getting all this under control—with a cure that isn’t worse than the disease and requires very little to implement?

For many people, Outlook Notes has been sitting within their Outlook program without being touched, or at best, being used sporadically. It looks like another version of electronic “sticky notes” that you can put on your computer screen. Wrong! It’s far more powerful and effective than that.

I have failed countless times at attempting to work off of a list system, but after many years, I found Outlook Notes to be the cure, and now I use it to keep and maintain lists that are a tremendous help with my law practice and personal life. I will describe my methodology and use of Outlook Notes that help me achieve this breakthrough and what specific features of this program make it effective where other programs fail.


The Basics

You do need the Outlook program, but the Notes feature goes back a ways, so you don’t need the latest version of Outlook. Even better than just having Outlook is having your BlackBerry or other smart phone automatically sync with Outlook, including Outlook Notes (for purposes of this article I assume that you have this feature).

Outlook Notes is a simple program to use, which is a big plus—it isn’t bloatware with tons of bells and whistles that you don’t need. There is hardly anything to learn to use this program, other than the fact that there is no “save” feature: Just close the note to save your content. Your prior experience with almost all programs that require you to click on a “save” button before closing a document will make you hesitate to do this at first, but you will get used to it soon enough.

To create a note, just go to the Notes section and click on the Toobar “New” command, or simultaneously press the keys “Control + Shift + N” from anywhere within the Outlook program. A new note will pop up, and you can resize it or click on the bar that runs across the top of the note to get a full-screen version of the note. Then just start typing. That’s it.

The key thing to remember is that the first line that you type will be the name of the note when it is in its icon form, so choose that carefully to make the icon easily identifiable.

The auto-sync functionality permits you to create a note, add to a note, or rewrite a note on your computer and have these changes automatically reflected on your smart phone. And any of these changes that you make on your smart phone automatically will be reflected on your computer.


What Makes Outlook Notes So Special

When you create a note in Outlook, it is a click away on your Outlook program. I keep my important lists open on a second monitor so I can always see them. My previous attempts at creating lists were on a word processing document, which left it buried somewhere on my computer, or perhaps as an icon on my desktop, which unfortunately got lost among all the other icons on my desktop. I had a short experience at trying a sticky notes program, but I found that I quickly forgot about my lists on this stand-alone software.

Yes, the simple fact that the notes program I use now is part of Outlook makes an enormous difference to me because my notes do not get lost and forgotten—I use Outlook every day for my e-mail and schedule.

Another big difference is that I can check on, modify, and add to my notes wherever I am, and any change that I make on one device will be changed on the other device. This permits me to maintain my lists, which helps guide me and assist me in organizing my work schedule, which further integrates my lists into my life, making it that much more unlikely that I’ll forget about them.


Making Outlook Notes Work for Me

My two primary lists are my “To Do—Client Matters” list and my “To Do—Office Admin” list. The first lists all my active client matters. The second lists business items that I have to complete that are not client work, such as thanking someone for a referral, signing up for a networking event, or writing my “Being Solo” column. A few more important personal items sometimes slip in here as well.

I’ll usually prepare a separate to do list for a particularly active client matter. This is a big help in not letting things slip through the cracks.

Creating a to do list for the day can be done in two ways. One is to print out my two master to do lists (“Client” and “Office Admin”) and mark up which items I am going to do. Usually I mark them by numbers to indicate in which order I will do them. I find that this takes some of the stress out of the day because I always know what I am supposed to be doing and what I have left to do that day. It does take some practice to learn how not to over-schedule your day and be realistic about getting things done with the unanticipated interruptions that often occur.

The other way of creating a to do list for the day is to create the list on a new note. You might find it useful to print out the daily to do list to make helpful notes as you go through your day. Also, I find the best time to make a daily to do list is the night before rather than the following morning; that way, I am not attempting to plan for a day that has already started. It also gives me a sense of relief after completing my list to know that tomorrow is all planned out.

I create separate lists for personal items, such as my shopping list. My shopping list has been a great success because I no longer forget on my way home about that loaf of bread or carton of milk that I need to buy for tomorrow’s breakfast. Whenever I think of something that I need to buy, I enter it onto the shopping list wherever I happen to be, and I just check my shopping list on my way home to see if I need to buy anything. Once I buy it, I take it off the list. It’s simple and effective, the way technology always should be.

Other personal lists can be favorite restaurants, vacation plans, friends with whom to follow up, and specific lists for each member of your family—your spouse, each child, and the family dog.

I start the names of my personal lists with the letters “ZZ” so that they are sequenced by Notes’ auto-alphabetizing feature after my business-related notes. For example, a note containing a list of books that I want to read is entitled “ZZBooks.”


Putting It Together

To make all this work, you need to keep your lists updated, but this becomes much easier because your notes are always in your face and because you can do this at your office or on the go with your smart phone.

Need one more use of Outlook Notes to convince you that it is something that you should adopt? I wrote the first draft of this column in a Note riding on the subway on my way to work. 

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