You’ve got a problem!

Taming productivity tools that have turned on us

By Paula MacKinnon

Email is sucking the life out of formerly productive people.

According to a recent study by email expert Christina Cavanagh, professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, email is costing corporations millions of dollars each year as it takes up more and more of employees’ valuable time.

But forget about the money for a minute. The study found that we are extending our work day in order to deal with the inbox. We are spending productive time on unproductive tasks. Email is the primary cause for work bleeding into our personal time — on vacations, at home and on weekends. Email-the-Good has turned on us.

While we appreciate the power of being able to get and send relevant information quickly and easily, the volumes of spam and meaningless emails that have no bearing on our work at hand are overshadowing that benefit. Relevant or not, they all get the same treatment: “You’ve got new mail!” And it’s not just the unsolicited marketing junk that is aggravating the situation.

The bulk of the problem is employee-generated. On the surface, it sounds great that email is flying fast and furious between co-workers. We’re communicating! But the value of those communications varies greatly. For example, an email that provides you with a timely answer to a pertinent question from an expert colleague is good value. An email that says “me too” isn’t.

We use email in the workplace for so many purposes, chiefly because it’s a quick way to communicate. But these “conversations” are not always informative or efficient. Sometimes it can turn into an exercise that feels more like playing chess by mail.

Certain tips and tricks can improve how we use “productivity tools” like email that can help fight the tyranny like turning off the notify me feature. If it doesn’t tell you who you’ve got mail from or what it’s about, it’s just distracting. Another tip is to respond directly to the original sender, rather than using the reply to all feature. Yet another is to use folders and filters.

A really interesting solution, however, comes in the form of a new crop of tools and third-party plug-ins or companion programs that can tweak productivity applications in ways that you’ve always wanted. Here are a few that make existing email programs work with us, not against us.

(prices for all of the following products are in U.S. dollars)

Nelson Email Organizer
www.caelo.com

A companion product to Microsoft Outlook, the Nelson Email Organizer (NEO) is specifically designed to address email overload. It’s based on technology that makes automatic organization of email possible in more meaningful ways — by date, by correspondent or by importance (hot, normal and bulk mail). Breaking away from the old Inbox model, which uses a single mailbox where messages pile up, NEO uses indexing technology to automatically sort, cross-reference and display the same message in new and different ways. The Active Mail and ToDo mailboxes help automatically action your mail by having messages automatically appear in more than one location without having to copy or move them. New mail notification takes the form of a pop-up balloon that displays for 20 seconds from the system tray icon and provides more information. NEO works with Outlook 97, 98, 2000 and Exchange Server mailboxes or you can use it alone. NEO is developed by Caelo Software Inc., based in Nelson, B.C. Price: $30.

Copernic Summarizer
www.copernic.com

Summarizer fights information overload by creating concise summaries of any document or Web page so you spend considerably less time reading without missing any important information. The program uses statistical and linguistic algorithms to pinpoint key concepts and extracts the most relevant sentences. The resulting summary is a shorter, condensed version of the original text. Copernic Summarizer can analyze an email of any length, in any one of four languages, and create a summary as short or as long as you want it to be. It can summarize Word documents, Web pages, PDF files and email messages and integrates into most popular applications like Word, Netscape, Eudora and Outlook. Once summaries have been generated, they can be printed, saved or emailed, simplifying not only how you store information but also how you share it with your colleagues. Summarizer’s floating toolbar stays on top of the other applications on your screen–simply drag a file, text selection, or hyperlink onto the bar to have it summarized. Price: $60.

NextWord
www.nextword.com

NextWord creates software that helps us get organized. The Clearview product is a contact manager that works with Outlook to provide single screen access to all of your calendar, communication and contact information. It turns Outlook into a single window Personal Information Manager, giving you a simultaneous view of, and one-touch access to, all of your Outlook folder entries. Calendar, Task, Contact and Communications windows are always open. The AutoReply program allows you to implement an automatic email reply facility for an Outlook client without requiring the Exchange Server. (Automatic replies can often be part of the problem, so if you use it, do so wisely.) Price: $70.

Zlang for Outlook
www.simplis.com

Zlang (pronounced “slang”) is a software technology that can make other software applications easier to use by allowing them to be controlled using natural language (typed or spoken). Zlang for Outlook provides a natural language shell around Outlook. If you want to add a new contact to the Outlook database, just tell Outlook in plain English, either through text or voice. To schedule a meeting, rather than clicking here, there and everywhere, you can say it once.

The language control, either spoken or written, also extends to email and notes, and you can query Outlook using language with requests like, “What’s Paul’s home fax number,” or “What’s scheduled for tomorrow afternoon?” It will also read mail to you. To use the speech recognition and synthesis features, you’ll have to install a SAPI-compliant speech recognition and synthesis engine. You can use your own previously installed engine, or install the included Microsoft engine. Price: $100.

PocketKnife
www.xintercept.com

This system tray add-on lets you quickly look up Outlook contacts, use contact data in Word letters and other documents, assign hotkeys to Outlook folders and tasks, dial contacts, and launch shortcuts. The program ensures your contacts are always on hand by allowing you to look through all contact folders in a single pass, including your private Outlook folders and public and shared folders on an Exchange server. Simply type in the first few letters of a contact’s last name, first name or company name in the main PocketKnife window. Once retrieved, you can use it to address an envelope, prepare a fax cover sheet or address an email message. Price: $30.

Glance for Outlook
www.idviate.com

The Glance plug-in for Outlook aims to help you streamline, simplify, and enhance your interaction with Outlook. The Glance Menu is the heart of the program where you can access Outlook folders, forms and features all within a couple of clicks or keystrokes. Additional features include the Input Panel, where you can create new Outlook items from a unique, easy-to-use command-line tool; the Mail Panel, which pops up to show you new messages in your Inbox, including who they’re from and what the subject is; and Reminders, where you can set quick reminders with a few clicks. Price: $25.

ShortKeys
www.shortkeys.com

And finally, a tool to help you type less and say more. ShortKeys is a Windows text replacement utility allowing you to set up replacement text or paragraphs for any number of user-defined keystrokes. When you type in your macro text or shortcut keyword within any application, it is automatically replaced for you. Text replacements can be up to 3,000 characters in length and is ideal for email addresses, frequently used URLs, boilerplate text and any frequently used phrases like company or product names. Price: $20.

Paula MacKinnon is an e-business writer and researcher located in Ottawa. She can be reached at paula@typo.ca.

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