You get an email from a colleague.
Hi Dan: Jordan and I were going over last month’s projects. It seems we could consolidate some of our work and save a lot of effort. Could you look over your work and see where there’s overlap with the rest of the team?
What happens next? Well, if it were me, I would have jotted this down on a pad, circled it, and probably written “DO THIS BY MONDAY!” next to it.
Invariably, Monday morning would come, I’d go through my pad and see the note. My next thought would be, “Well, Monday morning is technically until midday…”
I’ve come to realize that the world is divided into two types of people. First, some people are almost physically uncomfortable with disorder in their workdays; being organized is a state of well-being for them.
Then there are the people who are fine with disorder. However, these people also recognize it’s impossible to function without some form of organization, so they’ve developed strategies and shortcuts for becoming organized.
(If you fall into the second category, it’s OK. Just call yourself a creative and people will nod their heads and say “ah,” as if that explains everything.)
As a member of category two, I’ve come to embrace shortcuts. And the shortcuts I love the most when it comes to ordering my digital tasks are plug-ins, add-ons, and extensions.
What are plug-ins, add-ons, and extensions?
A plug-in, which can also be called an add-on or an extension, is third-party software that adds new functions to a host program on a computer, without altering the host program. Basically, they allow you to add new components to a host program or extend its capabilities beyond its original design.
For example, plug-ins can reduce the number of times you jump between the computer programs by allowing you to perform simple tasks from one place – whether that’s an internet browser, Microsoft Outlook, SharePoint, etc.
Plug-ins can be a smaller version of a program embedded into another piece of software, to be called upon when needed (I’ve downloaded an app for the Commission’s project management software into my Outlook account). They can also be designed to work alongside you, like adding the Grammarly extension to your browser so it can suggest grammatical changes as you type.
Now, let’s go back to the email.
When I receive that email nowadays, I simply click on the project management add-in in Outlook, create a task, add a due date, and move on. Outlook automatically integrates with our project management platform, so the task is added without me having to toggle between programs.
I simply click the “Create Asana Task.”
Then fill in the details, assign it to someone, and click “Create Task.”
I have the same functionality with Microsoft Teams, the messaging app we use here at the Commission, so a quick reminder IM can become a project task in 10 seconds.
Software developers are increasingly recognizing that users rarely use all of the features a platform has to offer but rely on a few of its features regularly. That’s where the best extension tools shine – by providing ways to automate a few simple tasks that you do each day.
Which plug-ins should I use?
So how do you pick which plug-ins to use? Chrome alone has nearly 140,000 extensions, so it can be a bit overwhelming.
The key is to think about what you’re trying to accomplish and the tools you already have in place. If you’re completing a process that takes a few steps – whether it’s scheduling an appointment, taking notes, searching contacts, setting up Zoom, reviewing your calendar, etc. – there’s probably a tool to help you do it more efficiently.
Poke around in the programs that you frequently use to see if any app or plug-in options will connect the program to others you frequently use.
To identify and enable the plug-ins, extensions, or add-ins you’ve downloaded to your browser, look for an icon or menu at the top of your window.
Chrome has a jigsaw puzzle piece next to the address bar:
Microsoft Edge uses a menu that can be accessed by clicking on the ellipsis:
Safari houses its extensions in the “Safari” menu:
When it comes to Outlook, the software provides a range of add-ins that you can browse. Depending on your version, you can access this “Get Add-ins” menu directly in the Home tab or the Options menu.
For example, here is a screenshot of my Outlook ribbon. Using add-ins, I can (from left to right) send an email or document in Microsoft Teams, create a task in Asana (the Commission’s project management tool), take notes about a message in OneNote, and get insights on upcoming due dates, email requests, etc.
The key is this: While I could do all this before, I often wouldn’t because it would involve moving from one program to another, potentially losing focus.
A word of warning
It’s important to note that because plug-ins are usually third-party software, they can affect the performance of your browser or applications and some can even be actively malicious. If you notice a change in performance after downloading an add-in or extension, simply go back to your add-ins/extensions menu and disable or remove it.
This short Wired article (a 2-minute read) outlines some of the threats you can face when granting blanket permissions to extensions and add-ons.
Like most things online, exercise caution, stick with trusted names and brands, and be careful about the permissions you’re providing.
Ready to try it out?
So, if you’re intrigued by this idea and haven’t (at least knowingly) used extensions, plug-ins, and add-ons, where do you start?
Well, for the plug-in curious, I would start with Outlook. Think about a multi-step or inconvenient task you do every day, click the “Get Add-ins” button on the Home tab and browse using the search box.
Another option is to think about a time you thought “It would be great if I could [insert task], which would make my life easier.” Sometimes someone has thought of exactly that. For example, a Zoom plugin that allows you to instantly meet with team members via Outlook, a task-list app that keeps all your requests handy, or a grammar/spelling assistant for your emails.
Programs have been talking to each other for years, now it’s time to get them to work for you with plug-ins, add-ons, and extensions. So, embrace your creative side and find those shortcuts that bring a little joy to your day.
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