How To Be Productive When Everything’s Blocked At Work

How To Be Productive When Everything’s Blocked At Work

There are lots of killer productivity apps out there, but you might be left out of the party if you work somewhere with strict IT policies. It can be hard to convince your IT department to let you install Evernote or a Chrome app to help you get things done. Here’s how to stay productive with the tools you probably already have and sneak in some of your favourites.

Title image by Nick Criscuolo

Unleash the Power of Microsoft Office

If you work in the type of office where everything is locked down, odds are Microsoft Office is your company’s productivity suite of choice, and Exchange is its preferred email platform. That’s not a bad thing! Microsoft Office is packed with features that can help you stay on top of your to-dos and keep your inbox organised. They may not be as flashy as some other apps, but they get the job done. Here are a few useful tools:

Turn OneNote into a Note-Taking, To-Do Organising Powerhouse

How to Be Productive When Everything's Blocked at Work

OneNote is one of our favourite note-taking tools, and with good reason. If you have a copy of Microsoft Office on your work computer, you might already have OneNote installed. OneNote is great for quick notes, rapid outlining, to-do checklists and brainstorming. It’s surprisingly easy to learn, considering the rest of Office often hides some of its more powerful features in menus and checkboxes.

Unlock OneNote’s Potential with Templates: Microsoft has dozens of OneNote templates that you can install (or take to work on a USB drive). Once loaded into OneNote, you’ll have custom notebooks for everything from project management and meeting minutes to a tabbed notebook for group projects. These daily calendar templates can help you get your arms around your schedule. If you’re not sure how to apply a template you’ve downloaded, this Microsoft article shows you how. Many of Microsoft’s best OneNote templates are showing their age (and were built for Office 2007 or earlier), but they still work well in later versions, and once you have them loaded you can tweak them to fit your specific needs. If you’re going back to basics with your note-taking techniques, some of these empty templates give you a blank slate you can use any way you choose.

Extend OneNote with Power Plugins: If you do have the option to install something on your work computer, consider the Clip to OneNote extension for Chrome, Firefox and Opera. The add-in easily saves items from your browser right to OneNote. Similarly, OneTastic is a powerful OneNote plugin that adds robust calendar templates, built-in macros that automate common tasks (such as search and replace, or resize all images), favourites and shortcuts. It really extends OneNote’s built-in capabilities, and it works with OneNote 2010 and 2013.

Capture Anything with OneNote, Not Just Text

Take Your OneNote Notes on the Go: Finally, don’t forget that OneNote is also available for iPhone, iPad, and Android. If you have access to SkyDrive at work, you can sync your notes and notebooks with it, and access them anywhere on your phone or tablet. For more tips, head over to Microsoft’s OneNote blog. It regularly posts tips and tricks along with product news.

Bend Outlook to Your Will

Entire books have been written on how to optimise Outlook for productivity, but you don’t have to read them to get the core message: Outlook is a tool you should use to be more productive, instead of letting it use you. Don’t jump every time it dings or obsessively check your inbox — tweak it so it works better for you and only notifies you when you’re ready.

How to Be Productive When Everything's Blocked at Work

Use Outlook to Take Back Your Day: Some of our best productivity tips for handling your email and your calendar work really well with Outlook (and I say that from experience — I used them frequently at my last job). For example, setting Outlook to check for email less often than the default gives you plenty of time to work and focus before the inbox rush comes. Ninety minutes is my taste; it’s just long enough that I can get work done without missing anything big. Tell people to contact you through other means if it’s urgent. Tame your calendar by blocking off time to actually work, and then schedule your breaks and relaxation times so people won’t book you end-to-end for meetings or conference calls. Any time you want to actually be doing something, put it on the calendar — that way others won’t assume that because nothing’s on your agenda, you’re free.

How to Be Productive When Everything's Blocked at Work

Save Time Typing with Quick Partstext expansion can save you hours of typing

Use Delayed Delivery to Send Messages on Your Terms: Delayed sending is another great feature built-in to Outlook. Just click the Options tab in a new message window (or open the Option menu) and you’ll see Delay Delivery. It’s perfect for when you want to schedule a message, retract a message before it actually sends, or you like answering emails at night but don’t want to send them at 2am.

Customise Outlook Views and Make Old Messages More Searchable: Custom views give you visual cues to specific types of messages so you always see the important things first. Click the View tab or menu, select “Current View”, then “Customise”. You can create all sorts of rules for them — I used to set all messages sent directly to me to appear red. This old tip for changing the subject lines of old messages and these Outlook tweaks are just as good today as they ever were, although you may have to look a little for the same options under new menus or ribbon buttons. If you can’t get them to work, or you’d rather have a tool that does it for you, previously mentionedToutApp is a combination web service and Outlook plug-in that’s pretty powerful. Of course, you have to be able to install things for it to work, so there’s that.

Embrace Portable Apps

How to Be Productive When Everything's Blocked at Work

If you really miss your favourite apps, there may be a portable version you can drop on a USB key (or on your smartphone) and run without installing anything at all. Some offices even restrict the use of USB ports and log attempts to connect USB devices, and some portable apps won’t work on computers where the OS is locked down to approved apps, so make sure your company is OK with it before you give this a whirl.

We love portable apps. You get a consistent experience across computers, no junk files left behind by an installation, and you don’t have to run afoul of your IT admins, who would rather you not install anything (and certainly aren’t about to give you admin rights to your PC). Check out the directory, Portable Freeware and NirLauncher to see what’s included. Some of our favourite productivity tools are available in portable flavours,like DropboxPortableAHK, a portable version of Dropbox (with Auto Hotkey included), AutoHotKey itself, and FocusWriter. If you don’t like the idea of hunting for portable versions of your favourite apps, there are entire portable app suites you can download and load onto a USB drive with a few clicks.

Even if your favourite app doesn’t seem to be available, do a little digging. You may find an open-source clone that is portable, like Nevernote, a free, portable Linux-based Evernote client. It’s not as elegant as Evernote’s interface, but if you need access on the go, on a normally unsupported OS, or on a locked-down machine, any option is a good one. Worst case, you might find instructions on how to make your favourite app portable, or use an app that does the job for you.

Make Your Smartphone or Tablet Your Base of Operations

everything you need to be productive

From there, you can work on your computer, and switch over to your tablet or smartphone when you want to update your to-do list app, fire up the app you use for note-taking, or update your calendars and alerts. If you need help getting started, we have a guide for you.

Use Pen and Paper, Whiteboards or Other Offline Productivity Methods

Many people still prefer papera good notebook goes a long wayproductivity methods that cater specifically to paper journals

Similarly, consider productivity methods that don’t need any special tools at all. If a method like the Pomodoro Technique fits well with your workflow, you don’t need apps or notebooks to make it work, all you need is a timer. Don’t be afraid to pick and choose methods that work given your situation. If you can find a method that works well without apps or extra tools, or only requires a smartphone app, a whiteboard or some Post-it notes (Personal Kanban is a great example here), pen and paper, or fits nicely with something you do have access to, you’re in good shape.

Photos by Blake Patterson, Kārlis Dambrāns, and Dennis Hamilton.


  • Having worked in a pretty locked down government department (which still runs on Windows XP and IE6) for several years, these suggestions pretty well cover it. One other option though – while our IT department will only reluctantly install non-standard software they were happy to provide access to a virtual drive where I could download and install programs as required.

  • But what if your organisation runs Lotus Notes, and locks down your device because their BYOD policy is just as draconian as the Windows XP SOE?

    The answer, of course, is to buy a Moleskine notebook & planner. Users of Evernote, OneNote and Outlook Calendar will find its interface strangely familiar and intuitive. It also has the advantage of being allowed by almost any IT security policy, and you never have to worry about battery life.

    But seriously, WTF is it with Lifehacker’s obsession with Calendaring and To-do apps?! In this scenario you have the entire world’s knowledge on the Internet no longer available to you, and Alan Henry’s primary concern (to restore your productivity) is replacing evernote?!

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