At last week’s Effortless Inbox workshop (which was a great success, thank you to everyone who attended), we briefly discussed the Out Of Office assistant that comes with many email providers. This nifty little gadget is basically an answerphone for your email; if someone sends you a message when it’s turned on it sends a pre-written message back to them saying you aren’t around.

It’s a very useful tool, and one that is perhaps underused. Although it can be frustrating to receive an OOO (isn’t that a good acronym?) reply, it’s better than hanging around waiting for an email that’s never going to come. And it provides peace of mind when you leave the office that incoming messages are being dealt with.

The best thing about the service is that it’s customisable, and so there’s no reason not to tweak it to fit circumstances. You can use it in a variety of circumstances, not just holidays or business trips. If you’re going to be in meetings all day an Out Of Office message will let people know. Because email is instant, people have begun to expect instant replies. Fair enough, but that requires you being online at all times, something that simply isn’t practical. Everybody knows this already – everybody has to pop to the loo occasionally – so no one is going to be hugely aggrieved to find you aren’t at your desk 24/7 (so long as you have a good reason for leaving. “Can’t answer emails: too busy playing Angry Birds,” is NOT an acceptable Out Of Office message!)

A quick Google will show that there are even guidelines online to help people construct appropriate, professional Out Of Office messages. Try it and see the difference it makes, if only to your peace of mind. Since the Effortless Inbox session I’ve noticed a few more Out Of Office replies coming my way, so it seems like people are finding it useful.

Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week is one of my favourite books, if only for the dreams it inspires. 4 hours of work a week, and the rest is mine. I think I’d spend it with my kids, rather than daredevil skiing and winning kick-boxing championships like Ferriss, but the book’s concepts are still useful. One of my favourite parts is his suggestion about outsourcing (it includes an amusing article by AJ Jacobs, editor-at-large for esquire magazine, who outsourced his entire life to assistants in Bangalore).

Some of Ferriss’s suggestions might be a little dramatic, but the concept behind them is interesting. If your Out-of-Office message is an ‘assistant,’ what other little assistants are out there that could help your productivity? There might be some neat little gadgets you can delegate to. Here are some suggestions we’ve come up with in the office, feel free to add more in the Comments section below, or tweet them to us (@INSPIRErational).

• Your answering services. Your answerphone message is often overlooked, or seen as a vanity piece. Instead, consider what information a person reaching it might need: further contact details etc. If you get called often about a specific inquiry or issue, consider providing information relating to that. You can change and customise your answerphone message as you like (just don’t forget to change it back if it’s tailored to a specific situation!).

• Stock emails. Ever feel like you’re sending the same message over and over? Why not write it once, as best as you can, and then use it as a standard response? Merlin Mann ( has some great suggestions for draft emails, and circumstances to use them. Go here to see some of his templates.

• FAQs. If you find that people ask you the same questions a lot, consider including an FAQ on your website somewhere. People may not always look at it, but everyone who does is saved some time and effort, and you are saved an email.

• Your email signature. There may be some useful information that you can put here to preclude upcoming questions. At the very least consider including some other contact details. No smiley faces though, please!

Remember, technology is supposed to make your life easier! Time to delegate.