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Secrets of an Information Junky
(tools, software and tips for keeping your head above water!)

Written by Eileen Parzek, © 2004

Whatever you’re doing to grow your business, how you manage and maintain the information that is coming in and out every day is critical to how successful you are. When a client calls, you need to be able to find the answer quickly. When a colleague asks for assistance, it’s great to be able to quickly respond with a solution. All through your day to day business experience, it pays to be organized. Make use of these techniques or find others that work for your business, and you’ll keep your head above water!

Outlook in the middle

Outlook is a surprisingly robust tool for managing a small business – especially if you beef it up with some of the available add-ons here. I use it as the centerpiece of my customer relationship management, as well as to manage email, a calendar and task lists. The key is to really “work it” and get to know some of the less obvious features. For example, I create a record for everyone I meet, with notes about who they are, and categorize them by such things as prospects, vendors, media and referral sources. That way I can find them quickly, and generate lists for mailing information later. I also attach contacts to every task, and calendar item, so they are all connected. This allows me to go back and see a history for any contact later. I color code calendar items by category so I can see at a glance what my week is sizing up to be, and manage every appointment, personal and business, in one place.

Filters and Flags

For years, I have filtered incoming mail so the newsletters I am subscribed to go into a folder where I can plough through them when I have time. Once there, I skim headlines, and only read what is relevant. Outlook allows you to set up flags and reminders attached to emails, which I use a great deal to schedule my time throughout the day. For example, an email might come in and I know I have to tend to it – just not now – so I immediately throw on a flag with a reminder date and time. I mark things with flags like Reply or Read so I know what I have to do when the reminder appears.

Up to the task

Running a small business, particularly as a solo entrepreneur, requires you to do an immense number of tasks each day. I stay on top of it all by using the task list in Outlook. The secret is that every thought becomes a task, immediately. I might be in the middle of something and think of something I need to do, so I quickly create a task with a start and due date and go back to what I’m doing. That way, the list is always there for me to check off things and stay on top of priorities and due dates. It might seem like a nuisance to stop what you are doing but if you forget, you’ll wish you took that moment!

One of the tools coming up will help with this process.

Feed me!

In the beginning, information junkies went foraging on the web for information. And then came e-zines and HTML newsletters. But after a while, we had so many of those to choose from that we never got around to reading them. Enter RSS, the newest solution to reading what is going on in other people’s heads and web sites. If a publisher offers the option, I subscribe and use Bloglines to manage the RSS “feeds” that are relevant to me. The web based reader works on my desktop, laptop, or Treo 600, so I can catch up on reading while waiting in line, sitting around for appointments, during TV commercials.

See you later, aggregator

I also use a number of web based aggregators for filtering and delivering information. The simplest of these is - it finds pages on Google which meet keywords I set up. A more complex example of an aggregator would be Marketing Power, from the American Marketing Association, which sends me a weekly routine email full of headlines and summaries, on the topics I ask to be alerted to.

I only wish that one were in RSS format!

I’ve got the power

I use Powermarks software, from Kaylon.com, to manage web site links. I gave up keeping favorites in Internet Explorer years ago, replacing it with this nifty database for storing bookmarks. It installs in the browser window and when you see a site you want to recall later, you click a button and add it to the database. It uses the meta-tags of the web page to categorize links, and you can add your own notes and keywords before saving it. I stash a TON of stuff in PM while I'm reading RSS feeds - I'll see a piece of software or a tool or a web site I know I will want to find later, and rather than reading on it in depth now, I save it to PM, and read about it when it becomes relevant.

Look Out, Outlook!

Outlook is powerful but it is still missing a few key features, like the ability to find things fast, amongst a few thousand email messages. Now there is an add-on called Look Out which acts like a Google for your email. I have been testing it for a few months and can’t live without it. Basically, it puts a little search box up in the menu of Outlook, and creates an index which it updates periodically – the first index takes some time but afterwards it is practically effortless. Any time you need to find an email, a task, or any mention of someone, you type in the box, and fast – it spits back every piece of data related to your search: emails, appointments, tasks, notes, and so on. Theoretically, you could stop sorting or filtering mail altogether, let it pile up in one place and search for it when you need it.

Save me

Are you aware that a regular text reader like MS Word or Notepad can not read the format of your email in Outlook? Perhaps you want to export all the emails from a particular client to text. Another possibility is that you need to archive email and want to be sure it can be opened anywhere – even without Outlook. Message Save is the tool to do this. You can select any folder, and sub folders, and tell it what you want the file names to be – I usually use the To, From, Subject and Date – and it creates copies in plain text format. The free version appends the words EVAL to the file name, but its inexpensive to register and get rid of that. I only wish I had this during the past nine years when wanted to save correspondence from dozens of friends around the world … it would have made a nice memoir some day!

It’s a Knock Out

Okay, I’ve told you about all my information gathering and organizing secrets but I saved a good one ‘til last. Knock Out is another little free add-on to Outlook which sits quietly in your system tray, providing a conduit to Outlook. This means that even if you’re in the middle of something else, even if Outlook isn’t open, you can click on Knock Out and create a task, a contact, a calendar entry, an email, or a sticky note, and go about your business. It also provides a quick way to shut down Word and Outlook which sometimes ‘hang’ and don’t want to shut down – or hang invisibly while still loaded in memory (admittedly, this happens more when people like me stuff it with cool add-ons!).

I don’t know about you, but the last few years of the information age have nearly drowned me. Okay, I'm an information junky – the thrill of being able to find the answers to any question that pops into my mind, by the wiggle of a mouse and click of a finger, is as fresh as the first day I saw the Web. Now you know the tricks and software I use to soak it all in and stay on top of my business.


Eileen Parzek is an award winning graphic and web designer providing digital and print graphic design and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, Business Design Studio (www.businessdesignstudio.com) helps small businesses make a big impression.

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