Bill Gates once said “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
Though conceptually, I agree with him, but I would replace “lazy” with “smart,” after all, isn’t it smart to get something done correctly, efficiently, and with as few errors as possible?
As project managers, we are often faced with hard jobs. They are repetitive and time-consuming. Over the years, I made an effort to create some business tools that help me automate my job. Most of these are extremely easy to implement with some skills that can be picked up from the usual sources, Google, YouTube, etc.
Keyboard Mapping and Hot Keys
Like many people I have multiple email addresses, tasks that require multiple keystrokes, applications I launch on a regular basis, and all kinds of repetitive daily actions for which I use my keyboard and mouse. This is where AutoHotKey helped me tremendously (Link). Using small files and small code snippets, I program what various key combinations and mouse actions do. For instance, I use ctrl+e to automatically enter my primary email address in any application or web field. Shift+ctrl+e is my secondary address. I use the center button on my mouse to launch several daily use applications like Outlook, Excel, OneNote, or a browser. There are a ton of ideas on their forums, and it takes just a few minutes to write a small script to save you a ton of time. You know how some new keyboards don’t have a microphone mute toggle anymore, (important now that we all seem to be on video conferences)?
I wrote a small example of how to do using my F1 key:
SoundSet, +1, MASTER, mute,12 ;
SoundGet, master_mute, , mute, 12
Repetitive Email Tasks
Email management can be a headache. Outlook provides a ton of automation tools to manage your workflow. Here are three simple ones to help you better search for mail, manage action items, and categorize your mail, as well as how they can be used together.
Search folders are one of the best tools for those constant searches. For instance, I have a search folder that only flags emails from my boss. Now, when I look for a particular email, I simply click on the folder, and I have a complete list of emails from or to him to sort and filter through. The search folder groups your emails by a set criterion, while allowing them to be maintained within your existing folder structure. For example, if you store emails in folders labeled Important, Team Related, and your Inbox, it creates a central collection of these emails without removing them from their original folders. More info on search folders can be found here.
Categories are really helpful in conjunction with search folders. Emails can be categorized using custom names and colors. In my case, I have a category labeled “To Do” that is dark red. When I have an email with a task I need to accomplish, I categorize it as “To Do.” Now I have a search folder that looks for anything categorized as “To Do.” In conjunction, I also use the “Mark Complete” flag, to filter on complete so I am only looking at open items. You can use categories in other ways as well, such as marking emails as “read later,” or “discuss with the boss.” For additional information on categories go to this link.
Quick Steps are a great way to save time on those regular emails you send. It is a preconfigured email generated at the click of a button. You can address it with a distribution list, hardcoded address, or just leave it blank. The subject and body can be prepopulated. You can even have the email automatically send after one minute. This is just one example of a Quick-Step; you can also create meetings, mark emails as read or for deletion. Many functions can be automated with a click of a button. Remember that categorized email “discuss with the boss?” There is a pre-configured Quick Step that allows you to forward those emails (categorized or not), to your boss. Here is a link on how to use email Quick Steps.
Visual Basic and Macros
If you haven’t used macros in any of the Microsoft Office products, this is a great time to start. I use macros to do tasks as simple as changing the capitalization of words, and as complex as loading entire data sets, formatting them, and creating tables and charts. Once you get the hang of it, it’s quite an easy process to do. Often, it’s just a matter of using the macro recording tools, recording your steps, and playing them back when needed. Just for fun, here is one that allows you to search for Google results, right from Excel:
‘This uses your default browser to google something within Excel.
Dim MyURL As String
Dim search_string As String
Dim query As String
query = InputBox(“Enter here your search here”, “Google Search”)
search_string = query
search_string = Replace(search_string, ” “, “+”)
MyURL = “https:/google.com/#q=”
ActiveWorkbook.FollowHyperlink Address:=MyURL & search_string
Here is some further reading on macros and visual basic.
Automation can be highly useful in the day to day drudgery of repetitive tasks. It creates an opportunity to get things done faster, with a higher degree of accuracy, and keeps you better organized. Use these ideas as a kick start to unlock your own daily efficiencies and automation!