I like to think of myself as someone who uses Outlook's capabilities to a fairly high degree. Most people I've worked with tend to use it for email alone and then occasionally for calendar items that are shared among a group (e.g., planning meetings in a workgroup). It seems a minority of people use its Tasks capabilities, which are probably the most important thing in Outlook for me (otherwise, I'd likely just use OWA).
By using the GTD approach to capturing everything (and syncing it to my phone), I've always got a good-sized list of the things that need to be done now, later, and eventually.
Until the other day, though, I didn't realize that Outlook 2007 added a method for viewing task items alongside the calendar items. When I came across this blog post from the Outlook team, which describes the Daily Task List view, I initially thought, "sweet, I'd like to see my calendar alongside my tasks in a more complete way." The new "To-Do Bar" in Outlook 2007 gets me close (right)... and I do like having it over there all the time in the Inbox view. It lets me quickly see month calendars (handy during phone calls when you're coordinating something for a week or more out), along with the next 3 items on my calendar (where I can configure how many items are shown), and then a customized view of my Task items.
It's these tasks that are the bread and butter of my daily planning. Like most folks who use (or in my case, try to use) a GTD approach, I use categories to assign an @context to each task -- then when I'm in that context (@home, @office, @computer, etc), I simply go through the subset and tackle those tasks based on priority. This removes the need for A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 types of priorities and only occasionally will I even use the Low/Medium/High option on a task. Because I try to put everything I need to do into my Tasks (there are typically a couple/few hundred across all the context/categories), trying to prioritize all of that would take so much time that I might not actually get anything done.
The problem with the To-Do Bar is that it only shows you the next few appointments and doesn't show you the grid/schedule style view of your day. You have to read each appointment's details to know when it occurs and then the grid view that is so handy for knowing when you've got available time is left to your imagination. So while I have complete control of my Tasks in the To-Do Bar, its value for viewing the time available to those tasks is minimal.
The "Daily Task View" sounded like just the ticket as I read the post... until I looked into it further and realized the major flaw (for me). Only tasks that have a start date or due date will appear in the list. The list of daily tasks is configurable to show items for each day based on either the start date or the due date, but any task that doesn't have a date assigned to it won't appear at all.
My approach to using tasks is such that I don't use start or due dates at all.
Look at an example task -- "Record screencast to demonstrate new features added in this release." Now let's assume that this imaginary release is January 31, so I'd like the screencast wrapped up two weeks prior (January 17) to allow time for editing, proofing, etc.
I don't put a due date on this task because I don't want it filtered between now then. Instead, I want it in my @computer list every day between now and then so I can make progress on it as time and circumstances allow.
If I DO decide to assign a due date of January 17 to that task, it won't appear in my Daily Task View until that day. Today is December 9, so there are more than five weeks between now and that due date. If I wait until that day to get the screencast recorded, I have failed. I can be a procrastinator at times, but this approach to planning my tasks would spell disaster. Something more important will come up that day. We'll be approaching the release and dealing with a major quality issue. The microphone will break down. The software will crash.
And with that, my hopes for a single, unified "dashboard of my day" we dashed. Ideally, this dashboard includes:
- My inbox (I keep the message count here in the single digits).
- A schedule grid for the day (with an option for a compressed week view)
- My complete task list, grouped by context and filterable to exclude certain contexts (e.g., don't need @home in the office)
- A small calendar view that can be configured for 2-3 months.
- The nav bar on the left so that messages can be dragged and dropped into archive folders
What would really rock would be to have a collection of views like this that could be arranged by the user. Each view would have its own customizations available for sorting, filtering, grouping - just as most of the standalone views in Outlook do today.
Maybe Outlook 2011?