Ten years ago, not many would believe that e-mail would eventually become a mission-critical application. Yet today it has taken over many work lives and is gaining an even firmer grip as PDAs, BlackBerries and other mobile devices become widespread.Sadly, most users have little, if any, training in how to effectively organize and follow through with the mass of messages that they receive each day. Little or no planning goes into personal implementation.

IT typically rolls out a new application with a few tips and says, “It’s intuitive.” Right — but! The following questions offer an indication of how much e-mail has taken control of your life.

* How many hours per day do you spend handling e-mail?

* Do you have 100-plus messages in your inbox?

* Do you print e-mails out and stack them, so you don’t forget a task or important information? (If you have over 1,000 sitting on your desk, your system is out of control.)

* Have you had at least four hours of training about how to manage e-mail?

* Do you pride yourself on instantly responding to e-mail — even from your PDA?

* Do most of your firm’s meetings involve people who read and respond to e-mails during the meeting?

* Do you spend evenings and weekends catching up on e-mails?

These questions bring to light just a few of the issues in today’s ever-connected world, and most partners and staff in accounting firms are doing a poor job of managing e-mail, tasks, documents and their calendars. This stems from a lack of training and a trusted system. The solution is a workflow process that increases confidence by clearing the mind and eliminating worry about work and personal commitments.

I must admit that I have experienced many of the issues indicated above — along with the worries and frustrations. Like many of you, I would simply drag e-mail from my inbox to the appropriate folder. I even printed some e-mails in PDF format before storing them. While this process reduced the size of my inbox, it did not address action items or due dates, and did not provide a suitable solution for filing documents and content in a searchable format. I worried regularly about potentially missing a task or due date and failing to respond appropriately. I researched many ways to improve my system and am happy to share with you the results.

If this sounds similar to your experience, know that you can get control and reduce stress related to e-mail with just a little time spent planning, visioning, brainstorming, organizing and processing. You can design your system to focus on both personal and firm objectives — areas where thinking and planning pay big dividends.

Our firm uses Microsoft Exchange 2007 and Office 2007, so we’ve always had the tools — we just were not using them correctly. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, because we were knowledgeable about parts but not the whole. After some planning, reading and research, I am now able to clear my inbox in the morning and evening with confidence. I am also getting better at responding to e-mail on my own terms.

STARTING IN OUTLOOK

1. Set your view in “calendar” to show a week rather than a month and include the “to-do bar” at right with “tasks” below. Tasks do not clutter your calendar, but appear below it based upon due or assigned dates. This alone is helpful and reassuring.

2. Turn off the e-mail reminder. It’s a continual distraction.

3. Use the following terms to categorize tasks (you can expand upon these, but this is enough to get you started):

* None (where all tasks start).

* 1:1 Name (one to one with the person’s name. Use as many as you need, but start with three to four primary contacts).

* Clients.

* Telephone calls.

* Personal.

* Someday/maybe (for tasks you want to do but are not critical — e.g., a skiing trip during tax season).

4. Drag and drop from your inbox. For example, say you need to compose a response but don’t have the time right now. Drag the message to “tasks” and assign a due date. This will remind you in the tasks window, rather than putting it on your calendar.

5. Use Microsoft Office OneNote, a powerful program that sets up notebooks with folders and tabs. All notebooks are searchable, and you can transfer documents there to file later (or never). I started with three notebooks and now have five. Notebooks can be shared over the network, among machines or just on one machine. Documents, sections or notebooks can be password-protected if desired. The first three notebooks I created are:

* BCI (company information), which includes meetings, conferences, research and travel.

* Clients (client information), which includes my current projects.

* Personal, which includes my reading list, medical and legal documents, etc.

6. Compile tasks you can identify into the “none” category (with or without dates). Transfer them later to other categories if you wish. I find it useful to compile tasks before I speak to individuals, so I use the 1:1 categories often. I also review the list each week and submit my weekly planner for our team meeting on Monday.

7. Start processing e-mails by deleting, dragging and dropping them into tasks or calendar. Use the OneNote button to transfer documents and e-mails for later reference.

Once this set-up is complete, you will feel relieved and confident with a trustworthy system. (Note that this also works on a Mac.) If you do not have OneNote, create client file folders. OneNote is a worthwhile investment, however, so I recommend that you give it consideration. I am certain you will find it to be powerful, helpful and easy to use.

I realize this is a high-level response to a complex problem faced by most accountants and knowledge workers. Nevertheless, the steps outlined here will help you begin to devise a simple process that can significantly boost your personal productivity and organization. Take back control of your life!

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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