For you non-Mac people out there, Entourage is Outlook for the Mac. I don’t really understand why Microsoft made the two products so different, but I’m glad they did. Entourage is better suited for a good off-the-shelf GTD implementation. The key, which I overlooked for months after getting my Powerbook, is the "Project Center." This little feature is pretty sweet. It’s not a silver bullet, but it does a lot. I understand that DavidCo is putting together a workflow process for Entourage. I’ve been waiting long enough and I decided to figure it out on my own, as best I could. What follows is what I’ve learned so far…more to come, I suppose. One great source of information was the ‘Take Control of What’s New in Entourage 2004‘ ebook. It’s a bargain at $5 (all of their titles are bargains, actually). Another great source was this MacZealots article (with pictures!).
The top left corner of any Entourage screen contains six icons: Mail, Address Book, Calendar, Notes, Tasks, and Project Center. You can access these by holding down the ‘command’ key and numbers 1-6 (cmd1=Mail, cmd2=Address Book, cmd3=Calendar, cmd4=Notes, cmd5=Tasks cmd6=Project Center).
TIP: In any screen but the Project Center ‘Overview’, you can hit the command key and the letter ‘N’ to quickly pull up a new email/task/note/whatever.
For our GTD project purposes, we’ll be focused on Notes, Tasks and Project Center, though the following applies to any Entourage data including calendar events and email messages. Each of these share some common features:
- Links. Notes and Tasks can have multiple links to other information in Entourage and elsewhere. You can link to individual emails, contacts, contact groups, calendar events and other Tasks and Notes. You can also create new Tasks, Notes, etc. when needed. Additionally, you can link to individual files on your computer or network. Links are indicated on all screens by the presence of a gray link icon to the left of the Note/Task/email/whatever. Clicking once on the link icon will bring up a dialog box that allows you to view currents links, edit them or create new links. Clicking in the link column next to an item that has no link will also bring up the dialog box for that item, allowing you to make new links for it. Links are cool, but can get messy real quick.
- Project association. You can associate Notes and Tasks (and pretty much anything else in Entourage) to specific projects, on a one-to-one basis. That is, each Task or Note can only belong to a single project. When you associate an item with a Project, that item immediately becomes available via the Project Center. Depending upon the nature of the item, it will either show up in the Overview screen, or in one of the other screens in the Project Center.
- Categories. Entourage has "categories", which in GTD-speak would be "contexts." Each Note or Task (or email, calendar event, etc) can be assigned a single or multiple categories. Categories can be managed in pretty much any screen in Entourage. As any dedicated GTD’er will tell you, next to the Weekly Review, categories/contexts (Merlin’s got some good ideas here) are probably the most important aspect of the philosophy.
Notes are just that. Simple notes with rich text formatting that can be added to any project. From a GTD standpoint, Notes are useful as reference information. If you have links or snippets of information that should be associated with a project, keep it in a Note. As mentioned previously, Notes can have multiple links throughout your system as well as multiple categories and can also be assigned to a single project.
Tasks are pretty self-explanatory. You can associate Tasks with multiple categories (contexts in GTD), but each Task can only belong to one Project. As with everything else, Tasks can have links, categories and be associated with a Project. Each Task also has a text field for short notes related to the Task. Tasks also can be assigned Due Dates, Reminder Dates and can be set up as a recurring event. If you set dates on tasks, they’ll pop up onscreen to remind you.
The Project Center has several ways to view your information related to a Project. At the top of the Project Center you’ll see seven buttons: Overview, Schedule, Mail, Files, Contacts, Clippings and Notes. These are generally self-explanatory, but we’ll run through them real quick.
- Overview The Overview screen is my favorite. This shows you a strip of calendar which displays yesterday, today and the next 5 days. Below that is a list of all the Tasks associated with the Project. Below that are two lists: email items on the left and files on the right. The Overview gives you an at-a-glance perspective of your project. Very nice. Of course, as in all the Project Center screens, the individual items can be clicked into for more info.
- Schedule What it says. This screen displays a full month on top and individual tasks below that.
- Mail Split-screen view with individual emails associated with the Project listed on the left and their contents on the right.
- Files A full screen vertical list of files associated with the Project. It’s important to note that only associated files will be displayed here. Files linked by Tasks, Notes or other data won’t show up in the Files view. This can be confusing until you figure it out.
- Contacts You know, contacts associated with the Project. Contacts appear to be the only information in Entourage that can be associated with multiple Projects. When you add a contact to a Project, the Project association is automatically updated.
- Clippings Clippings are clunky and weird. In order to add a "clipping" to a project, you must first have the "scrapbook" window open (available through the Tools menu). You can add stuff to the scrapbook via the "Add" button. Once something is in the scrapbook, it can be added to clippings. You can remove clippings from a project without affecting the scrapbook, but if you remove something from the scrapbook, you’ll also delete any clipping location as well. I’m skeptical as to how useful the clippings feature is. Since you can just copy/paste something into a note, why bother jumping through the hoops of adding an item to the scrapbook, then adding a Clipping? The only benefit I can imagine is that Clippings can be associated to multiple Projects, but Notes can only be associated with a single Project. Clippings still seem goofy though and I’ll probably never use it.
- Notes Notes are nice. Notes in the Project Center are very similar to the Notes function in Entourage. Basically, in the Project Center you can add Notes that you’ve created previously, or create a new Note just as you would in the other Notes screen. The difference is that new Notes created in the Project Center are automatically associated with the particular Project you’re working on.
The Project Center allows you to manage all your Projects, and there’s a lot to manage. You can set up your Projects (new or existing) to import all items from a particular category or from other Projects. You can set up ‘Watch Folders’ which are constantly monitored by Entourage. If you set up a new Watch Folder and add items to it via drag/drop on your desktop, those items immediately become available to your Project. You can also associate particular email addresses with a Project, and/or specific email subjects, and/or specific email Rules. If your Project will be longstanding, and not simply ad hoc, it’s probably worth it to build some sophisticated rules for email filtering.
In case all that blathering didn’t inspire you to a greater understanding of how the Project Center is useful in a GTD implementation, here’s a brief example to ponder. Let’s say you’ve just been handed Project XYZ, via email. The first thing you do is create a new Project, making sure to create a Watch Folder alias on your desktop. Next, you’d associate that first email with the project by opening it and selecting the new Project from the Project drop down menu at the top right corner of the email message. If your organization is such that all messages related to the project will be coming in with a particular subject line, be sure to add that to the Project options. If you have a dedicated listserv for the Project, be sure to get that email address associated with the project.
If you know about specific tasks that must be associated with the project, build them in and associate them with categories/contexts (@phone, @internet, .Tom, etc). Same with appointments. If you have specific hard copy files that belong to the project, make a Note about the name of the folder, and where it’s stored and associate that with the Project. As email comes in regarding the project, associate it as needed using the top right pull down menu on each email, or using the Projects column in the Mail view in Entourage. As you create spreadsheets or other documents associated with the Project, drop them into the Watch Folder alias that you created on your desktop–they’ll immediately become available via the Project Center.
As you use it, the Project Center becomes your total Command Center for all your projects. The longtime question in GTD circles about how to associate your tasks with your projects is resolved. Everything is (or can be) intertwingled within the Project Center, and the seven views give you immediate access to all that information spread across your various digital work spaces. Nice, huh?
- All of that is really great, and I’m glad I figured it out. But man, I wish I could get all of that stuff on my BlackBerry. Not so much for editing/adding stuff as for simple reference. I live on my Powerbook in the office and at home, but my BB is with me everywhere else. Sure it’s easy enough to pull out the Powerbook (LOVE that sleep mode!), but the BB is just easier, and I’m a lazy sucker.
- One of my biggest wishes is to have the ability to categorize Projects. Since Projects are auto-sorted by alpha, you can hack your own categories by giving Projects a particular prefix like ‘@’ or ‘.’, but it’d be nice to have proper category support. The reason I say this is because after you have a few dozen Projects going, for various contexts, you’ll quickly wish you could control your views better. To be fair, Entourage does offer a ‘Custom Views’ option, which allows you to set up your own criteria for viewing Messages, Contacts, Calendar events, Tasks and Notes in one long list. That’s okay, but I really prefer the Project Center ‘Overview’ screen. Personal preference, though. Others probably won’t be bothered by this.
- I wish that the clippings feature wasn’t so convoluted. I’d probably use it if it didn’t entail constantly opening another window in Entourage (or moving it around). At the very least, the ability to add stuff to the Scrapbook without actually opening the Scrapbook would be pretty useful.
- I wish that linked files would show up in the Files screen. Maybe a split screen to differentiate associated files from linked files. That’d be real nice.
- It’d also be nice to use Quicksilver to make new Notes or Tasks. I bet that’s already possible, but I’m too much of a knucklehead to figure it out. Maybe a Kindly Reader will help us all.
I’m totally stoked about using Entourage as my GTD command center. Project setup is a breeze and is easily modified after the fact. I love that all my data can be accessed via a single interface. I’ll keep working on getting some Quicksilver integration, etc, but things are good as they stand. You love GTD but are still stuck with Outlook? There are lots of sources around that’ll help you with your workflow, most notably the GTD add-in for Outlook from DavidCo. The better bet, though, is to just make the switch. 🙂