Boost workplace productivity by expanding your definition of a task

A wise person once advised me that if I wanted my son to clear his place after a meal, I needed to change the definition of “meal” so that it included not only eating, but clearing the table and washing the dishes.

If you say “After you’re finished with dinner, please clear your place,” this makes the second action happen at some indefinite time in the future. It separates the necessary clean-up from the task.

If, instead, you speak and act with the idea that the clean-up is part of the task, it will eventually become automatic. “We’re almost done with dinner…”

Here are a few situations where you can apply this at work:

From “making a purchase” to “making and tracking a purchase”

  • Redefine making a purchase to include tracking the expense. You’re not “finished” until you’ve saved the receipt where it needs to be saved. (I keep a folder on my desktop for the current month’s receipts). Yes, the task will take longer. But you’ll get the time back when you file your expense report.

From “answering emails” to “handling emails”

  • Redefine answering emails to include filing the original email. As you respond to an email, also file the email in its appropriate place – a project or person folder in your email system, or the trash. You can set up QuickSteps in Outlook to help with this – for example, to “reply and delete” an email. 

From “deleting emails” to “deleting the nuisance”

  • Redefine deleting unwanted marketing emails to include unsubscribing from them. Many retailers send out DAILY marketing emails. Even if they’re ending up in your “Promos” tab in Gmail, they’re taking up storage space, and eventually your free email system will prompt you to buy more storage. If you don’t want to get these emails, take a moment to unsubscribe from them as you delete them. Not only will you save (or postpone) the headache of running out of storage space – you will also lower your carbon footprint. That’s right – emails do use electricity even if it’s not on your electric bill. Try doing this both at home and on the job!

You won’t be perfect, but things will improve

Expanding the definition of a task is not always easy. If you often feel rushed, you will be tempted to skip the last steps. It requires a shift in mind-set. It’s related to the idea of taking the time to do things right.

Not only will you get back the time later (filing your expense report will take minutes instead of hours), but you will also boost the productivity of your entire work team. Imagine the impact on your accounting team if they don’t have to chase you for receipts. Or the impact on your manager if you’re able to answer her question right away because her emails to you are always filed in the right place.

Where can you apply this principle? Let me know in the comments.

End the confusion of two email clients

In addition to Outlook, Windows has a program called “Mail” that is set as your default email program if you don’t change it on purpose.

For me, this led to a lot of puzzlement. Even after I had figured out how to turn off notifications from Mail (because messages I thought I had already read kept firing alerts onto my screen), I was still getting launched into Mail when I clicked an email link. This was super annoying because my email signature was set up in Outlook, not Mail.

As light dawned over Marblehead, I realized that this was because Mail thought it was my default email program. If you’re in that situation, these easy instructions from Lifewire will help you set Outlook as your default email program.

Role-based email addresses

Whether you’re a small business person or a Fortune 500 company, you probably have a few or many accounts that are set up under someone’s name.

What happens to your Shutterstock account (or your company iPad, for that matter) when your marketing guru leaves? Very little, if you’re using a role-based email address (like “” or “” to manage these assets.

It’s smart to set up this email address as an “email group” instead of as its own account. Then you can provide more than one person on your team with access to that email address. If someone leaves or joins your team, you simply remove them from that email group. Even if you’re a sole proprietor, this practice makes sense because it prepares you for growth.

Turn off notifications from Mail and Outlook

I thought I was going crazy! Many times each day on my Windows machine, I’d see a notification on the bottom right side, saying I had a new email message. I’d click the little arrow to dismiss it, and five minutes later it would come back again. The same thing happened for calendar events. Part of the problem is that Windows has its own “Mail” software program that, just like Outlook, can be used to answer emails. Worse, I felt so alone, because no one else seemed to be talking about this scourge….

In case you’re having the same issue, it’s important to know that there are three places you may need to turn off notifications: in Windows “Settings,” in the Mail app itself, and in Outlook. If you need a little more guidance, MakeUseOf discusses how to disable Mail notifications, and Microsoft has an article about how to disable Outlook notifications.

Bend time with Gmail

Awareness is creeping into corporate culture that it’s not a good idea to email your subordinates too far off work hours — people too often feel pressure to respond, creating an unhealthy work-life balance that can quickly blossom into all kinds of nastiness.

Last year, Google somewhat quietly introduced a “Schedule send” feature to Gmail, enabling the rest of us to do what considerate Outlook users have been able to do for a while. Now, if you write emails while you watch the 11th Hour, you can schedule them to be sent at the beginning of God’s next time block instead of right as you’re thinking. This feature is accessed through the teeny-tiny white triangle that’s part of the “Send” button. This trick can also be used for evil purposes — but you wouldn’t be that kind of person.

Set a recurring date with yourself to peek at tomorrow’s schedule

If you’re frequently double-booked for meetings or find yourself rescheduling appointments on the fly, it may help to set a recurring daily appointment to review your next day’s schedule. This allows you to reschedule meetings with more than a few hours’ (or a few minutes’) notice. It also reminds you of anything you need to do to prepare for a meeting (including allowing enough time to get there!) To make this technique more effective:

  • Create the appointment as a calendar event instead of a task to increase the likelihood that you’ll get it done.
  • Use your judgment about setting the time to show as “Free” or “Busy” on your calendar, and experiment with different times of day. For a long time I had my “daily review meeting” set to 4:30. When a meeting landed on my calendar at 4:30, I’d often skip my daily review. This almost always had a negative impact on the next day.
  • Schedule the meeting during working hours to make certain you get it done without compromising your work-life balance.