How to use a Personal Information Manager. (PIM)(includes related article on PIMs for notebook and palmtop computers)
by Richard O. Mann
The central purpose of a Personal Information Manager is to organize your time and the information you need on a day-to-day basis. Most PIMs do more than that, but scheduling and the address/phone book are the core of these programs.
Let's look at what a PIM does, function by function. Keep in mind, however, that PIMs vary dramatically in how they accomplish these tasks.
The initial screen for most PIMs is the daily schedule, often presented as a calendar page. Each day's screen usually shows the day broken into 15- or 30-minute slots where you record appointments. Most limit the schedule to the business day, but allow you to stretch the beginning and ending of the day and alter the interval as necessary.
Most programs let you record a beginning and ending time for each appointment and some even color code the time blocks.
As you record each event, you can set an alarm for it, often with an individually set lead time. You can set some of the newest Windows PIMs to run macros at scheduled times, making some procedures automatic.
You usually can record an on-going regular appointment automatically. Some of the fancier PIMs also can handle variables such as the first Wednesday of the month, every other Thursday, or even the fifth business day of the quarter. When you record such a commitment, the programs usually notify you of any conflicts with already-scheduled items.
Once you have a schedule built up, the open-time finding functions can be useful. If you work in a networked environment, some PIMs can search out common open times in the schedules of all the people you need at a meeting (as long as everyone faithfully keeps his or her schedule up-to-date).
You also can look at your time commitments in weekly or monthly views. A few even show an annual layout.
The feature that excites me the most, however, is the ability to attach notes to any schedule item. The PIM pops up a window in which you can record anything. it's an excellent way to keep reminders about the people in the meeting, things you need to take with you, or whatever. After you record the note, it hides itself but leaves a small indicator on the schedule to tell you it's there.
In most PIMs, you can attach a note to anything, not just schedule items. One thing to look for when choosing a PIM is the capacity of these notes--be sure they're big enough for the notes you're likely to make.
Another useful feature is linking. You usually can link individual schedule items to other items in the PIM's database, such as a name and address entry or a to-do item. In some PIMs, extensive linking is automatic, in others you must individually create each link. Following a chain of related linked items can quickly remind you of details you never could have remembered.
Your Little Black Book
The address book usually is set up to include the necessary name and address fields, along with at least two or three phone number fields (work, home, fax). The number of fields varies, and most PIMs allow only a little customization. The address book is likely to be critical to you, so be sure to get a PIM that records enough information.
Address book entries often can have notes attached, as described above. This can be extremely important. If you need a history of your interaction with people, you'll generally do it in these notes. Be sure that the note windows aren't too small.
If your needs include extensive contact histories, consider a contact manager program rather than a straight PIM. Contact managers include more fields and larger areas for contact history.
If you have a modem, you can use your PIM to dial any phone number in the address book. Some PIMs can dial any phone number appearing anywhere in the database. A few PIMs automatically log each call as it's dialed.
The PIM also should be able to dial the extra digits that are required by some alternate long-distance carriers and credit-card charge calls. The program also should be able to track the area code you're calling from and leave off the unnecessary digits when you place a local call.
The amount of help you'll receive with your daily task list or to-do list varies among the programs. Some programs provide outline views that include breaking down tasks into subtasks. At least one PIM lets you record who you delegated tasks to for later follow-up.
Most programs let you assign priorities to your tasks and then present them in priority order. Most track task due dates and automatically carry unfinished tasks to the next day's list.
Linking can be useful here. You need to link tasks with set times to the daily schedule. Links to the address book for people involved in the tasks can show you the history of your dealings with that person and let you record the results of the current task.
Printed Reports and Word Processing
You'll inevitably want to print things from your PIM. Much of your daily work may involve letters and memos to your contacts in the address book. Most PIMs have at least rudimentary word processing for this purpose, though some have links to standalone word processors instead. At the very least, you'll want to pull names and addresses out of the address book and into your letters.
The word processing capabilities vary widely. Some will check your spelling and offer special formatting capabilities, but most do not.
You may not want to bother to learn a whole new word processing module when you already know your standalone word processor. It rarely makes sense to duplicate features. Few hard drives have room for more than one spelling dictionary, for instance.
On the other hand, most PIMs can print sophisticated reports from your data, using special fonts, special paper, and so forth. Many of these programs can print daily schedules and to-do lists in a variety of day-planner sizes. They'll print weekly, monthly, and annual calendars and varying sizes of address books.
Notepads, Journals, and Other Free-Form Text
Most PIMs provide a notepad or other place for you to jot down free-from text. Some present a journal area, while others have a daily record of events. Whatever it may be called, this useful function usually lets you time- and date-stamp your entries. The word processing functions involved aren't fancy, nor is the printing of these notes. But the information is there in your computer, available for searching and quick retrieval.
A variety of other tools show up in PIMs. Pop-up calculators are common, though less necessary in Windows products where the Windows calculator in sufficient. Some provide a stopwatch capability for timing phone calls and the elapsed time spent working on tasks.
Some PIMs are flexible enough to allow you to create your own mini-applications by defining fields and records for custom databases that you can link to your other PIM data.
Many PIMs provide templates and miscellaneous data. Most have the national holidays already marked in the calendar. Some provide data such as world time zones, area code and zip code charts. One even has a module for working out the terms of loans.
Several PIMs provide project management tools. You can break down projects into individual tasks, track assignments and the completion status of the tasks, and track time spent on tasks. Some draw Gantt charts of the projects.
Some PIMs have financial applications built in. Some track and report business expenses, and some track time for billing purposes. One even has a module for tracking and controlling inventories.
And finally, in Windows, you can often link into other applications with DDE to extract or provide information that updates itself when you run either application.
Seek and Ye Shall Find
Now that you have information spread throughout the PIM's many modules, you need access to it quickly. PIMs all provide search capabilities that quickly locate whatever you ask them to find. You can search by name, date, project, deadline, and so forth. You can sort many of the lists an databases and extract subsets for reports.
Many offer unlimited searches for text strings, often using Boolean operators such as AND, OR, and NOT. Generally speaking, you can immediately find any data that's anywhere in your-PIM.
Of course, that's why you go to all the trouble to put all that data into the computer in the first place--so you can call it up instantly whenever we need it.