Picture the scene…

You need some work done on your car, so you take it to the garage. While you’re there, you spot an interesting looking tool, so you ask the mechanic what it’s for. The mechanic replies, “I don’t know really, but I use it for removing wheel bolts.”.

Are you going to leave your car there? With a mechanic who doesn’t know what his tools are for, or how to use them?


These are the tools of the mechanic’s trade, they use these things every day to fix people’s cars, and they don’t even know what they do, or how to get the best out of them. How do you know that this person is capable of choosing the right tool for the right job if they don’t even know what all the tools are for, or what they can do?

How can you trust this person to do a good, timely job on your car if they don’t even know how to use their tools?

Show Me Everything

When I was at University, I spent the summers working with my Mum in the Accounts Payable department that she ran. We used a financial system called JDEdwards, it was one of the old green text on a black screen systems that have largely died out now.

I have a clear memory of sitting down with her one evening and asking her how it all worked, literally, “Show me everything.”, I said. What every screen was for, what process did the AP clerks use, which screens did they go into, what did they put into each field, everything.

A week later, I’d gone from doing the filing to covering for the clerks while they went on holiday. By the end of the summer I’d covered every clerk, I knew every system, I could sit in any seat in the department and pick up whatever was needed.

I wanted to know how to use the tools of this trade, all of them.

The Tools of Your Trade

Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, Word, Teams… these are the tools of the knowledge worker’s trade.

Don’t forget Windows (or macOS if you’re fortunate), we literally spend all of our workday using the operating system our machines run on, before we even open an application.

But when was the last time you learned how to do something new with one of these? When was the last time you took the time to learn how to get the best out of them?

When was the last time you stopped to think, “There must be a better way.”?

Let’s Look at Outlook

Many knowledge workers spend a good portion of their day in their email or their calendar, which means that most spend a chunk of their day in Outlook. But when was the last time you stopped to ask what Outlook was actually capable of, let alone learned how to do something new in it?

Most people learn how to compose or reply to an email, and how to schedule a meeting, and that’s it, the learning ends there. Until they need to remind themselves how to set an out of office, that is.

But let’s take a quick tour of some other things it can do…

  • Rules – Rules allow us freedom for email noise, they enable us to manage the flow of information into our inboxes, and they give us the opportunity of reaching inbox zero (something which I achieve daily).

    Two rules I couldn’t do without are the cc rule, and the meeting invite rule, both of which I have written about before.
  • Templates – Using templates for quick responses can be a huge time saver, I have two canned responses that I set up everywhere.

    “Perfect, thanks.” it a swift response whenever anyone has let me know they have completed a task and, “No problem, that’s done.”, allows me to quickly let someone know that I have done something they asked of me.

    (Outlook for the web has a “Like” thumbs up button, which is a massive timesaver, however it’s only available on the web currently.)
  • Add Ins – Add ins allow Outlook to work with external services like Trello and Asana, and they give us options for quick meeting scheduling through FindTime, or finding a room through EMS.
  • Automation / Quick Actions – Outlook for Windows has Quick Actions, which can allow you to put several actions together and initiate it with a single keystroke. For example, you can reply to a highlighted mail using a response template (like “Perfect, thanks.”), and then archive the original mail using a single keystroke that you define.

All of the above tools can have a significant impact on your day by removing unwanted emails, cutting down on noise and automating away a number of low-value tasks. All of which frees you up to deliver high quality, high-value work, or alternatively to pursue your own goals.

However, most people never use them. In fact, most people claim to be too busy to learn how to use these tools and then put them to good use.

I say you’re too busy not to.

And it’s not just Outlook; Excel, PowerPoint, Word, Teams; they all have advanced features that most users never touch, but that can make a huge difference to your day-to-day work.

If you don’t learn how to use them, then you’re just like the mechanic, you only use a different toolset.

How Can You be Better?

So, how can you improve, what can you do to be better at learning how to use your tools?

  • Take this seriously – Understand that being able to use the tools you have to hand effectively will make you better at what you do. It will free up time to do more or to focus your attention on things outside work.

  • Don’t be the Mechanic – Ask yourself, if I don’t know how to use my tools effectively, then how good am I at this? Really?

  • Look at the tools available – You don’t have to become an expert on everything all at once. Just take 20 minutes to look at your company’s office suite, drop into each tool, and understand what it’s for. You can always come back to it later if you have a use for it.

  • Challenge yourself – When you’re doing something, ask yourself, can I do this better? Would one of those other tools be better suited to this task? Is there unexplored functionality in this tools that would make this easier? Is this an opportunity to learn something new?

Professional Curiosity

Part of being a professional is being curious; asking how something works, why it’s done that way, if there is a better approach, can it be improved?

These are things that you ask yourself in your professional field every day.

Shouldn’t you be asking it of yourself as well?

How can I do this better? Is there a better tool or approach that I can use? Is this a value added activity, and if not, what can I do about that? Why do I do this thing this way?

You should be asking yourself these questions every day, in everything that you do. Continuous Professional Development is part of being a professional, and these questions are at the very core of it.

Don’t be the mechanic, understand how to get the most out of the tools of your trade, understand what is the right tool for the right job.

And don’t forget, under the bonnet of a car today is very different to a car of 20 years ago, mechanics have had to come up with new approaches and lean to use new tools to keep modern cars running.

Just like them there are new tools coming to your workplace every day, blockchain, AI, advanced analytics; these things may change the nature of your work, when they arrive, will you be ready to make the most of them?

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