Office Work Hacks

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Marie. You can read more of Marie’s articles over at her own blog, Family Money Values. Enjoy! 

Getting along and getting ahead in the office involve age old problems.  Here are some problems with ideas on solutions.

Inability to focus is causing you to be less productive.

You head into the office each day refreshed and ready, but once you get logged in to your applications, the next thing you know it’s lunch time and you haven’t accomplished anything!

Hack: Downsize distractions and focus on priorities.

You can’t control your office environment, but you can change its effect on you.  If the guy in the next cube has a constant stream of visitors, talks to himself out loud, plays loud music or just otherwise distracts you – put on your headphones (they will discourage visitors from approaching and can block the noise).  Reduce clutter in your area so that you aren’t distracted by it.  If you are in a high traffic area, see if the company will put up some noise and sight protection in the form of higher cube walls, signs or other preventative measures.

Focus on priorities by writing down the very most important things that you accomplish each day, and listing tomorrow’s priority tasks.  Check in once in a while with the boss or project leader to make sure you are on track.  Avoid diverting phone calls, emails, text messages, and non-essential or less important project tasks so that you have laser like focus on the priority items.  BUT, if you get stuck working on priority items, it is OK to switch off temporarily to work other items – as long as you get back on track fast.

You feel invisible to the boss.

A boss or mentor higher in the corporate chain of command is an important ally when trying to advance your career.  He or she can steer special projects to you, make you known to other executives, put you in for a raise or bonus, push your ideas, save you from a general layoff, or help in a myriad of other ways.

Hack:  Go face to face

Electronic or phone communication is fine, but your boss is inundated with it day in, day out.  Get to know the boss by going face to face on select topics.  You won’t be invisible long – but take care to be visible in a positive way!

Here are some ways to to meet person to person with your boss.

If he assigned a task or deliverable to you and you finish it successfully, try hand delivering it with a very short verbal reminder of what it is and when it was requested.

If your boss does an annual evaluation, request a touch base meeting once a quarter or twice a year to ‘verify that I’m on track’ with what is needed.

Ask around to see what your boss’s outside interests are, and if you have similar ones, strike up a conversation in the lunch line, bathroom or break-room about the topic.

Volunteer for special projects or activities in which your boss is also involved.   Working directly together on a project will allow you to directly demonstrate your ability, creativity and productivity.

If your boss is not at the same location as you are, try using the phone, video calls or attempting to schedule a visit to his or her location for a special meeting on something important to the boss.

Your work performance suffers due to co-worker or staff member office socialization.

Yes, you are part of a group.  Yes, the group is important.  Some socialization is good for the group and good for productivity, but too much is just a waste of time.  Creativity can be spawned by some group socialization, but so can negative, hurtful gossip that distracts you from the job at hand.   If your good friend in the next department makes a habit of stopping by for a chat each day, and ends up talking for half an hour, the benefit of inter-department communication is outweighed by the loss of work time from both of you.

Hack: Turn the talk back to work subjects.

Don’t be a jerk, do visit for a few minutes, but then gently turn the talk back to what is going on with the project, or a new idea you had to make things better, or a discussion of how to go about the next steps you both need to take.  Don’t get me wrong, managers can gain a lot of good perspective by being open to informal communication with their staff and peers, but perspective on who will take the Superbowl may not be all that beneficial.

Use off hours (such as breaks, lunch and after work time) to really socialize with co-workers.

Meetings suck your office time, then you have to stay late to get your actual work done.

As a manager, I attended and ran a lot of meetings.  There were very good reasons to hold many of the meetings, but often the purpose was not realized.  Sometimes (actually many times) the meeting participants are unprepared to fully participate in what could be a great meeting. Sometimes the meeting organizer isn’t aware of other work that should be happening in the meeting time frame.  Meetings don’t equal work done (usually), but can be beneficial in some cases.

Hack:  Make your meetings meaningful.

When you attend a meeting:

  • Understand its purpose.

Question the meeting purpose it doesn’t make sense or if a meeting is not the way to achieve that purpose, but question in private.

  • Make sure you should be attending – are you an interested party, can you contribute? Check in with the meeting organizer or your boss if you are unsure why you are attending and then:
  • Participate fully.

As the meeting organizer:

  • Make sure you have a purpose.

Consider carefully whether a meeting is the very best way to achieve that purpose.

  • Verify that each and every meeting participant is required.
  • Hold the meeting for the shortest possible time, with the tightest possible agenda.
  • Lead efficiently.
  • If you hold a lot of meetings, get training on how to lead effective ones and how to accomplish things without meetings.

Any meeting where the leader talks and everyone else sits around fidgeting is a failure!

Work sucks but you don’t feel like you can do anything to change the way things are.

When we lack seniority, we often don’t feel empowered to put our own imprint on our work place.  If we try, sometimes we are told “This is the way we do it – it’s always been done this way”.  Yet you do know of a better way – or at least think you do.

Hack: Figure out how your company solicits or allows input. 

Most companies have implemented multiple ways for employee ideas to trickle up to higher levels of management.  Many companies long for the great employee suggestions and go to great lengths to make sure they are heard.  You just need to figure out what those currently are.

A few methods I have seen at various employers include:

Company wiki’s with sections for various parts of the company – where anyone can post an idea.

Ongoing braintrust meetings – open invites for certain departments, levels or mixes of employees gather to present and discuss ideas for new products, process improvements and etc.

Awards – formal channels to submit written proposals to an award committee to review and get implemented.

Third party award systems – third parties sometimes are hired to come in and solicit money saving suggestions from the folks closest to the work.  These usually come with some pretty significant ‘prizes’.

Special calls to action – a director or vice-president is on a special mission and requests ideas on how to accomplish that mission.

Company Strategic mission committees – most companies have a mission, with goals, strategies and tactics to get to them.  Ask around to find out who is eligible to work on these committees, offer up strategies and tactics or be on the projects to implement them.

Brainstorming meetings – typically held around one particular topic.

Once you understand the change procedures, explore the particular item you want to change.  Learn the history of how and why the process came to be.  What was tried before, would it fail again now?  Was your idea previously suggested?  How could it be implemented differently to be more effective?

Of course, you can always just talk it over with the boss or your other co-workers.  Building support for your change can give its chances of adoption a big boost.

The above work hacks are based on my own work experience and may not necessarily work for you.  It’s always good to get the lay of the land before diving in head first on some of these things.

How about you all? What work hacks have you seen?  Are there issues in your workplace interfering with your productivity?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

***Photo courtesy

Google Gmail and Calendar vs. Microsoft Outlook – Which Is Better For Productivity?

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It’s pretty amazing to me to think about how much the world’s usage of technology and telecommunication has changed in such a short time since the year 2000. When I graduated high school in 2004, almost nothing related to school was accessed online. The teachers didn’t communicate with students via email, BlackBoard, Collab,  or other online document/course management systems. In fact, I think the only reason I ever used a computer back then was either a) to chat with my friends using AOL Instant Messenger or b) type up reports whenever it was absolutely required! In fact, AOL seemed like it was one of the only popular Internet and email providers.

Now, it’s hard to find people with an AOL email address (I still have one, but all that it receives is about 20 messages of SPAM per day). Furthermore, the AOL service is now free, instead of paying $30 per month like we used to.

My my how times have changed. When I graduated from college in 2008 from the University of Arkansas, I had four email accounts – 1 from college, a Gmail account, a Yahoo account, and my old AOL account. The professors communicated everything via email and online course management systems – from class notes to exam grades and coordinating meetings. I even had started and run an eBay selling business! However, at this time, I still was only checking my email maybe once or twice a day. Why? Because I didn’t seem to receive that many emails.

After college in 2008, I started my first job as an engineer with a large publicly traded pharmaceutical company. It was then that the use of email become very widespread for me, with me having the temptation to constantly check it during the day. In fact, I found myself at times purposely ONLY checking it 2 times during a day in order to maximize productivity (see Getting Things Done by David Allen and The Hamster Revolution for more details on this)

During this time, my eyes were opened to (a new tool for me at least) the Microsoft Outlook email/calendar/task management software. At the company I worked for, nearly everything was managed through Outlook: there was a handy dandy directory in Outlook that told you everyone’s contact info as well as their physical work addresses and supervisors, it was used to reserve rooms for meetings, and was used to manage email.

Since my exposure to Microsoft Outlook 4 years ago now, I have been able to compare Google’s Gmail and Calendar features to Microsoft Outlook head-to-head. As such, the purpose of today’s post is to share some of my thoughts about these two products so that you can determine whether Gmail or Outlook is better for you. 

Comparison of Calendar Capability – Google vs. Outlook

In my opinion, Google’s calendar and Outlook’s calendar are fairly similar – probably because Google modeled their calendar after the features that were tried and testing in Outlook. Below is a summary of the similarities and differences:


  • Both allow you to create and schedule events (either one time or recurring), invite attendees, and program reminders as pop-ups on your screen. 
  • Both allow you to share calendars with others. 
  • Both allow you to view your calendar in multiple formats – daily, weekly, etc. 
  • Google calendar allows you to program email reminders. Also, you can program reminders beyond the maximum 2 weeks allowed in Outlook. 
  • Google calendar also features a “search” capability, making you able to search all of your events.
  • Outlooks allows you to work “offline” more easily than Google does, in my opinion. However, Google does have offline browser apps for Gmail and Calendar now
  • Outlook allows you to drag and drop EMAILS directly from your mail to your calendar. This is very handy for me since it is easy to see what the email chain contained when an event pops up on my calendar. 
  • Next, Outlook’s Calendar content is stored on your computer, not online like Google is. This can be either a plus or minus, depending on how you look at it. 

Verdict – In my opinion, both Google and Outlook’s calendars are good, so I recommend using both. 
However, because I really like the Outlook drag and drop feature, I choose to mainly operate, add, and manage events through Outlook. But, you can easily take advantage of the features of Google’s Calendar by simply using the handy Sync function developed by Google to automatically copy all events between the two programs. 

Comparison of Email Capability – Google vs. Outlook

Overall, I think most would agree that Gmail and Outlook have a very different ‘feel’ when it comes to how each program handles email. On one hand, Gmail is very rapid, and allows for you to shoot off many emails within a minute, while Outlook requires a few more clicks with multiple reply screens needing to pop up, and then you have to click the Send/Receive button to send the email right away. Listed below are some of the similarities and differences between the two programs:


  • Of course, both enable the user to send and receive emails, mark the emails as read or unread, and create folders in which to place emails. 
  • Both seem to have good SPAM/Phishing controls, which prevents the automatic downloading of external new content that could potentially harm your computer. 
  • Both allow email notifications on your desktop, if you desire. However, I personally don’t recommend this because it can distract you from the current task you are working on in favor of checking your email. 
  • Both allow you to have a signature below every email you write. However, there are some differences here. See the Outlook section below.
  • Both have Out of Office Notification capability. 
  • Both allow you to send mail using other email addresses that you own/control.
  • Both are ‘searchable,’ meaning that you can search folders for specific words or email addresses. However, as you can imagine, Google is a little better/quicker at this search feature than Outlook I think.  

Differences – Email Features Provided by Gmail

  • Has the Gchat feature, which is good for people wanting to communicate quickly with other people online. Webcam conferencing is also possible with Gmail, as well as calling people on the phone. 
  • Has the “Conversation View” feature, which appends conversations of the same topic within the same window. 
    • Personally, I hate this feature. I am never able to find WHERE in the window the newest email letter is, unless I search for it for about 3 minutes. 
    • The other option to this is to turn off the Conversation View, which is not any better because it doesn’t place old emails in the same chain within the same window, making you unable to view the progression. 
  • Gmail has an auto-forwarding feature, which allows you to automatically have any new messages sent to your account to another account. This is great for enabling you to maintain multiple email accounts, but only having to actually log in to one every day. 
  • With Gmail, all emails are backed up online, away from your local computer. This is a good thing for safety. You also have 10 GB of free storage space, in addition to your Google Document/Drive folder. 

Differences – Email Features Provided by Outlook

  • Unlike Gmail, when you click “reply” on Outlook, it simply copies the text from your current email chain below the new message you are writing. There are no tricks to finding out what order the emails were sent. 
  • Signatures. 
    • Simply put – I love the signatures feature in Outlook. Not only do I have my contact information in my signature, but I also have about 15 common email responses pre-typed in these email signatures that save me loads of time/pain each week. 
    • Gmail does have a somewhat new “Canned Responses” feature that is similar to this in Outlook. However, when I tried it, the canned responses had to be entire previous emails, not just a specific copy/pasted text like in Outlook. I think that Google will eventually improve this, but for now, I found Outlook to be better for this purpose. 
  • Folders.
    • The folder capability in Outlook is extremely flexible and truly maximizes my organization abilities. 
    • First, you can create as many folders as you want, and unlike Gmail (where they are “hidden” and you have to click ‘view more’ through in indiscernably organized list), the folders are very easy to view on the sidebar of the screen. You can view an example of the folders I have set up in the picture below:
    • In addition, in each Outlook folder, you can either specify that you’d like to display the total number of items or the total number of unread items. This ‘total number of items’ display feature is especially useful for actionable folders (like the ones with the @ sign shown above) because even though I have already read all of these emails, they still need a response/follow up, so I don’t want to lose sight of them. 
    • Lastly, with Outlook folders, you can drag and drop emails from your inbox in to the proper folders. With Gmail, you have to click a drop down menu and select the destination folder from a somewhat long list. This takes up more time than is necessary in my opinion. 
  • Outlook can connect and download email from web-based email services, such as Gmail and Yahoo, using POP and/or IMAP protocols. 
  • Control How Often You Send/receive Email and Go Offline.
    • Another thing I like about Outlook is that you can specify how often (if ever) that your emails are automatically downloaded. This can be as much as every 30 seconds to every 30 minutes, or never, if you set Outlook as offline. 
    • For me, I only like to read my email several times throughout the day so that I don’t get distracted from being strategic about the order that I tackle things to do. 
    • So, what I do is set Outlook to stay “offline” and just manually send/receive my email when I am ready by pressing the F9 button.  
  • Change Arrangement of Screen Elements.
    • With Outlook, it is very easy to change the orientation of the email reading pane and folders. 
    • For example, I like to have my reading pane on the right side of the screen. However, you can also have it on the left or on the top. 
  • Mark Comments in An Email.
    • Another cool feature of Outlook is that it allows you to (if you desire) automatically mark comments in a previous email in a different color text. This is particularly useful if you are reviewing someone’s proposal or responding to a list of questions posed in a previous email.  

Verdict – In my opinion, for maximizing productivity for folks that receive 50-200 emails per day (not uncommon in today’s working world), Microsoft Outlook is head and shoulders above Gmail because of the customization options available. In particular, the capability that Outlook provides with folders, signatures, and logically appending past email text is much better for people that are short on time.

On the other hand, Google’s Gmail is slightly ‘quicker’ at sending individual emails, and as such, is well suited for people that receive only a couple emails every day and do not need all of the hierarchy of organization with folders, etc. 

In fact, in order to have the benefits of both Gmail and Outlook (email and calendar), I would actually recommend doing what I do and have a Gmail email account/address, but operating all of your email and calendar activities on a day-to-day basis through Outlook. This is very easy to set up using the POP/IMAP downloading and Calendar Sync features discussed in the previous sections. By doing this, you can have the Gchat, auto-forwarding, and online backup of all emails (even ones sent through Outlook) while keeping the organization of Outlook.

How about you all? Do you use Gmail (or another online email provider) or Outlook to manage your email and calendar on a day-to-day basis? Which do you think is better and why? 

Share your experiences by commenting below!

    ***Photo courtesy of