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Balance your business and your life with Office: 10 ways to get an hour back

Maintaining a healthy work/life balance is the biggest single factor in business owners’ definition of success. This is the perhaps surprising result of a recent survey from the Enterprise Council on Small Business.

Admittedly this is a US-based organisation and here in the UK we’re renowned for working the longest hours in Europe, but here too, success is no longer defined simply in monetary terms. Here are ten ways you can free up an hour a day by using technology to help you.

Spend half an hour a month checking that correct contact details have been created for new colleagues, suppliers and customers. Although Outlook will add new email addresses to your contacts list or address book when you first use them, it won’t add their phone numbers, websites and other details.

Sort them out monthly and there’ll be no more scrabbling about for dog-eared business cards or the last email they sent you- just go straight to your contacts and all the right information is in one place.

Synchronise your phone

Once your contacts are up-to-date, synchronise them with your smartphone, PDA or any other mobile device. You’ll have the right contacts to hand at all times.

This is easier if you treat one contact list as your master, then sync your other devices with the master list (it probably makes most sense to use Outlook as the master). Make sure you are clear about which way the synchronisation will work or you could overwrite new contact details with old ones; although current versions of most software are so sophisticated that they keep update timelines in the background to solve this problem- it’s never been easier to have contacts perfectly to hand.

Automatic email filing

Setting up simple rules for your email software organises your mail before you’ve even read it. For example, if you’re the sort of person who likes to file email by the sender, set rules to move them into an appropriate folder when they arrive.

Outlook’s ‘Rules Wizard’ will help you set this up; and it’s extremely versatile. In Mail, click on Tools > Rules and Alerts > New Rule and follow the instructions. Here are some other suggestions for handy email rules that might fit the way you want to work:

  • Store emails from distribution lists (as opposed to personal emails) in different folders to reclaim your inbox
  • File emails with certain words in the subject line or email body in project-based folders
  • Forward emails sent to an old account to your new one (and you can automatically reply to inform the sender of your new address).
  • Send emails on a particular subject, or from a certain domain, out to distributions lists immediately, without having to do anything.

Embrace the Office clipboard

Do you often copy something into the clipboard, meaning to paste it somewhere? But then you get distracted, so when you finally come to paste the information it’s now something completely different? Or you want to copy three things and paste them in another document but in a different order?

If you have Microsoft Office open, activate the Office Clipboard by hitting Control-C twice in any Office application. The clipboard sidebar will come up and show you up to 24 items. No more going back to find “the thing that you meant to copy before you overwrote it with the other thing you meant to copy later”, if you know what we mean…

Colourful reminders

Is your Outlook Calendar always completely blocked out, all in one colour? Assign categories so that different types of appointment come up in different colours to help you see what’s happening at a glance. Separate work from personal stuff, for example; or see at a glance what sort of demands different projects are making on your time. Having travel time blocked out in a different colour helps a lot too.

Keyboard shortcuts

If you sit at a keyboard for a long time each day, you’ll know that it can be frustrating to grope for your mouse just to click on one menu and then go back to the keyboard. Go into Help for all the software you use and search for ‘keyboard shortcuts’. In Office, hit the Office button (top left), then Word Options > Customize > Keyboard Shortcuts to specify your own shortcuts. Oh, and hit the Alt key anytime to see keyboard shortcuts in all their glory.

Keyboard shortcuts are faster not only because you can leave the mouse to one side for longer periods, but also because they tap into muscle memory. They become ingrained in the same way as operating the control pedals of a car: you no longer have to think explicitly about them. The result is faster working.

Macros and templates

Doing a lot of repetitive tasks? Automating those tasks with macros can easily grab back time. Both Word and Excel have very powerful macro languages that can do amazing things, but you only need to set up a few three- or four-step macros to hugely simplify repetitive tasks.

Use templates as well. A day spent setting up and honing half a dozen templates or master copies for documents, spreadsheets and presentations will pay dividends a dozen times over. Tap into Office Online templates and see the templates that Microsoft and other Office users have made available – why reinvent the wheel?

Work on the move

Notebooks, tablets and smartphones are now available at the sort of prices even the smallest of businesses can afford. Use them to work in time that would otherwise be dead: waiting for meetings, and travelling (although not while you’re at the wheel!) time all become productive.

Of course, it’s only worth doing if you then reclaim that time for yourself at the end of the day. Be strict about turning them off once you’re done.

Reclaim your lunch hour!

Use Outlook to set a recurring appointment for your lunch hour every day. That’s the first step: it’ll stop other people booking meetings in the middle of it. If you’re worried about people seeing it, you can make it a private meeting. And if that’s too suspicious, invent five innocuous and vague recurring events, like ‘one-to-one’, ‘progress meeting’ or even the dreaded ‘HR discussion’… You are allowed a break, so take it, and even if you only go for a walk around the block you are likely to be more productive in the afternoon as a result.

Outsource work electronically

Look at the work that you do during the week and think about what you can delegate to someone else. You’ll have to pay, of course, but paying someone eight pounds an hour is worthwhile if you can then use that hour to earn a good deal more. You’d be surprised at the services you can buy and how easily you can tap into them.

There are many websites (try www.elance.com for starters) where you can post a request and willing helpers will pitch for your work. This, of course, drives the price down, but choose someone who will give you great service rather than just the very cheapest.

Broadband is enabling this market. Use email and Windows Live Messenger to keep in contact with your sub-contractors. It’s never been easier to grow your business and buy back some time in the process.

And there you have it: ten ways to improve your quality of life and fast-track your business using technology you’ve already got on your desktop.

Article Source: Microsoft Small Business Centre

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