What can you do in four hours at work?

If you live in San Francisco, you can drive to a meeting and back. (That's supposed to be funny, even if you live it everyday--sorry about that.) Most of us can do quite a bit of research, talk to a few colleagues, and maybe even eat lunch at a fancy restaurant instead of inhaling a sub sandwich while we type a business report.

Now, there's a way to gain four hours back. And, if you already use the advanced version of Microsoft Office 365 (called E5), it's available to everyone at your company for free. (Other Office 365 monthly plans can use it as an add-on.)

Microsoft MyAnalytics is a personal productivity dashboard, and it's awesome. In a demo this week, Microsoft reps showed me how the app watches "signals" during your day. The app uses machine learning to see that you're typing up emails in Outlook during a meeting and that both you and that project manager in marketing attend the same meetings every day. It provides a quick snapshot of where you spend your time all week. For example, MyAnalytics lets you pick important people at your company (or outsiders who don't even use Office) and track how often they respond to your emails and how long that takes. The dashboard looks like a set of gauges in your car. It's a smart way to find out, really quickly but using real-time data, whether you've been sitting at meetings all week.

My favorite feature uses machine learning to analyze your week. It's called Food for Thought. Let's say MyAnalytics has determined that you tend to email people in the last 15 minutes of every meeting, based on your Outlook usage patterns. It will recommend shortening meetings because you obviously aren't paying attention or don't need the meeting to last that long. These suggestions are one of the keys to boosting your productivity.

Some of the stories the Microsoft reps has told me about the early beta testers are quite interesting. One employee at a company took a bet from his son that he would not work more than a set number of hours after 5 p.m. each day. MyAnalytics can analyze your after work time and make suggestions about holding meetings earlier. (I never did find out if the son won the bet.) You can also find out how much "focus time" you spend not checking email or attending meetings.

The most telling example has to do with total time saved in a week. The Microsoft reps told me the beta test companies saved about four hours per week per employee by using MyAnalytics. That's amazing, but I had to press a bit to find out why they saved so much time. In many cases, it has to do with sending emails into a void. You look back at the week and realize, how did I spend 15 hours processing email? With better information we can manage our time more effectively. The savings comes in reducing the time we spend in meetings and being more intentional about email--say, only answering incoming messages from 9 to 10 a.m. each day.

The Microsoft reps said goal setting is the critical factor, though. When you think about how much time you spend on an activity, we all tend to manage it more effectively. When we let things play out on their own, that's when we end up working 50-60 hours in a week. The tool lets you set goals for each activity (say, focus time or after work hours) and try to hit those goals each week.

Eventually, Microsoft could use more "signals" like Word and Excel, Skype calls, or even online browsing to find out how we spend our time. Soon, the app will start analyzing team behaviors, comparing the focus time for everyone working on a project or how much time everyone spends on email. I could see how this could be a tool for good--e.g., peer accountability. Companies would have to be careful to avoid micro-managing what employees do during the week, however.

If you already use Office 365, you can access MyAnalytics already. If you start using it and like it, let me know, because I want to find out more about your success. Just make sure you email me when you're not working after hours.