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Tech & Digital Clutter

does email suck the life out of you?

Does email suck the life from you? Do you worry about missing important emails? Do you wish email supported you better? Here are some new ideas that can help! 

Consider Your Email Style?

Different people seem to be fine with different amounts of emails in their inboxes. While there is a correlation between structure preference and email style, it probably has little bearing on what you’re doing now. Do you see yourself in any of these cases?

  • Inbox 10,000+ – If I need something, I will search for it. If I miss something it’s ok. If it’s really important it will come up again.
  • Inbox 500 to 1500 – It’s unmanageable. I don’t kid myself. I know I miss important things and it does cause stress.
  • Inbox 25/100/250 – I can get it under control. Identifying a number I don’t want to get above cues me to spend an hour cleaning up my inbox. Still, there has to be an easier way.
  • Inbox one page – As long as I can see everything in my inbox, I’m good. Once it goes to a second page, it’s time to pause and clean it up.
  • Inbox Zero – All emails are moved into folders for future action. Nothing stays in the inbox. (Use with caution. For most, since there is no automatic cue once an email is moved from the inbox, it is never thought of again.)

Manage Your Inbox Contents

What belongs in your inbox? Some clients prefer to keep everything in their inbox. However, there is a high risk of losing important emails. Some clients are fine with the philosophy “if it’s important, I’ll get it again,” though most prefer a more proactive solution.

Keeping everything in your inbox is like keeping all your trash on your desk. Unlike paper, however, the problem isn’t finding it when you go to look for it — the robust search function helps with that. The problem is that you won’t know to look for something you don’t know you have.

To have confidence in your email system, the only items that should be kept in your inbox are the to-do actionable items. Those emails you MUST do something with. 

If you have read your inbox shouldn’t be a to-do list, I disagree. It’s inefficient to use it any other way. However, this only works if you move everything except actionable emails out of your inbox.

To have control over your inbox, you need to judiciously decide the fate of each email. There are three options: File, Delete, and Action:

  • FILE emails to keep for possible future reference 
  • DELETE emails you don’t need 
  • ACTION emails remain in your inbox

Clear Out Your Inbox

  1. Create a folder/label called Reference Emails or Past Emails or something that resonates with you that will indicate to you where your older emails will reside. 
    1. You will move all emails over two months old into this file.
    2. You’ll want to move over a few hundred at a time. If you move too many at once, you may overload your computer’s resources and lock them up. 
    3. In order to keep this information current, I’m not going to give you specific keystrokes to identify and move a range of emails. Instead, do an internet search on “batch move emails” and include your computer (PC/Mac) and email platform (Outlook/Gmail).
    4. Some clients are more comfortable moving the old emails into files labeled by year. This gives them more of a direction as to where to look when trying to locate something. On the other hand, it gives more places to search.

  2. You now have two months of email remaining in your inbox. The next step is to process these and remove additional non-actionable email. 
    1. Do a sort by subject —  This will allow you to batch delete or batch file large groups of emails that are not actionable. Look for: 
      1. Projects that have been completed.
      2. Events that have passed. 
    2. Do a search by sender — This will allow you to continue the batch deleting or batch moving process. Look for:
      1. Newsletters you’ll never read.
      2. Ads that are no longer relevant.
      3. Multiple emails of a string and you only need to keep the last one or the ones with attachments.
    3. Set up rules/filters — As you are going through these remaining emails, look for opportunities for similar grouping of emails to bypass your inbox. 
      1. You can tell your email program to route specific emails to specific files without stopping in your inbox. This is helpful for items you don’t need to look at regularly. 
      2. Some use rules or filters for newsletters, forum posts, or the like. Others use them for confirmation emails that don’t need to be looked at yet need to be kept for possible future reference.
      3. To keep things simple, create a file called RULES and direct all emails that you have created a rule for there. It makes searching, scanning, and purging simple. There is no need to overcomplicate this — remember, if it’s not easy, it’s too hard. 
      4. To learn how to use the rules function with your email system, search “how to use rules in Outlook/Gmail.”
  3. You will be left with far fewer emails than you started with. These emails can then be processed into FILE, DELETE, or left in the inbox as an ACTION item.

It is important you do this process in a short period of time. This is a great task to do in one or two chunks this week. To get your inbox under control, you need to reduce the number of emails so when future emails come in, you can process those and maintain the integrity of YOUR system.


This is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of my new book Productivity for How You’re Wired available on Amazon. Many templates are included via the time tools link discussed in the book.

5 Concepts To Set Yourself Up For Productivity Success

Sometimes a good task list just isn’t enough. Which of these hacks can you use to move from to–do to done. 

Plan Today’s Work

The simplest technique is to take a sticky note and write down the top three tasks you want to accomplish for the day. Place it where you’ll see it, such as on the lower edge of your monitor or on your cleared-off desk. 

When it’s time to work, look at the note and move into action. You’ll stop wasting time on inconsequential tasks and get to your important work without hesitation.

Why a post-it and not an app? Every time you pick up your phone it’s an opportunity to get distracted and lose productive work time. The sticky note on your monitor takes NO TIME to glance at.

Batch Tasks

Task batching is the act of grouping related tasks together to create an economy of scale. Large operations do it all the time – think production lines or accounting systems. 

You probably do it often without thinking. Do you put one dish in the dishwasher at a time? Do you run one errand at a time? Do you do laundry every day? For most people, it’s more efficient to do tasks like these all at once. Batching work-related tasks is equally efficient.

When we spend our time thinking about what we have to do, remembering where we were in the project, and then building up momentum to get results, we are ramping up. Nothing is more frustrating than going through the ramp up process to get to the meat of a project and then having to stop. 

By batching tasks, you only have to ramp up once. You gather information, assess the situation, make a plan, and move into action once.  

Multitasking vs. Task Switching 

Multitasking isn’t a thing. It doesn’t exist. The brain can only process one thought at a time. What have you been doing? You’ve been task–switching, moving from one mentally demanding activity to another mentally demanding activity. 

You may be a fast “task–switcher,” which means you can quickly move from task to task. But you are simply shifting your focus from one activity to the next and back. In the long run, this takes longer to complete each task. Because, as we’ve just discussed, it takes time to ramp up, remember where we were, and move into productive action.

Sticking with a task through completion is the only way to get it done.

Note: There is a difference between multi-tasking and low cognitive load white-noise activity. Some people need to doodle, color, play phone games, etc. to stay engaged and focused. That is not multi-tasking or task-switching. The white-noise activities don’t challenge your brain, so you are able to focus on the task at hand. This is why you can listen to a book on tape while you are taking a walk. Walking is rote — you do it without thinking. But cross a busy intersection safely and you will have to go back and listen to the part of the book you missed while your brain was keeping you from getting hit by a car. 

Do It Now

Sometimes, during planning, it takes less time to do a task than to plan to do a task. Additionally, if you have an open time slot that wouldn’t be useful for Focus Work, use that time and get those 5-, 10-, or 15-minute tasks done.

If something has been on your task list for weeks and you still haven’t done it, think about how much mental and emotional energy you’ve put into worrying or thinking about the task. Think about how much time you’ve wasted NOT doing the task. Sometimes it’s best just to do it and get it off your list and off your mind.

And sometimes it feels fabulous to spend a few hours clearing out all the little annoying few-minute tasks, getting them off your plate. Clearing out makes room for more important things.

Create Follow-Up Cues

The brain is not wired to arbitrarily remember new things. Neuroscientists say our working memory can hold between five to nine pieces of new information at a time. To remember everything that needs to be done, we need to create cues to help ourselves move into action.

Have you ever put something in front of the door to take with you? As in – you can’t open the door unless you pick up the bag in front of it? If you have something you absolutely MUST NOT forget to bring with you the next day, have you ever put it in the car the night before? These are examples of creating a cue to remember. 

The more we create cues the less we have to remember. We are setting ourselves up for success and freeing up our valuable working memory for more important things.


This is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of my new book Productivity for How You’re Wired available on Amazon. Many templates are included via the time tools link discussed in the book.

Pings are everywhere. They permeate our workdays and our time off. Interruptions are meant to be disruptive, yet people can’t seem to remember to turn off their audible beeps before going on national television or walking into an important meeting. 

Each time you get a ping, you are also getting a dopamine infusion to your brain. You are addicting yourself to interruptions. Those pings however, are undermining your productivity. That ping is costing you time. Research indicates when you are interrupted, it can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to get back up to speed for the task you were originally working on. In addition to the time cost, that notification could also be affecting your health. In a fascinating study from UC-Irvine, research showed that frequent workplace interruptions cause greater levels of stress and frustration.

I frequently observe clients simply ignoring their dings, pings, and pop-ups. Instead of improving productivity, they are reducing it by giving the user a false sense of security.

If notifications cost time and cause stress, and if we set them to cue us to move into action and then ignore them, resulting in missing an important action or deadline, those pings really are doing more harm than good. 

Are notifications useless? Absolutely not. The question we should be asking is how do we use them to support us?

Use Notifications Prudently and Intentionally

Prudently

  • Start by turning ALL your notifications OFF. All of them. On your phone, your computer, your watch, your laptop, your tablet, everywhere. (Think zero-based budgeting!) 
  • Then ask yourself — which top three sounds really matter? Go back and turn those three on. Turning everything off and then selectively turning some back on will yield excellent results. 
  • If you have a Smart Watch, take it a step further and always keep your phone on silent. You can set your watch to vibrate for important notifications. 

Intentionally

  • Used intentionally, timers and pings can help. Too many pings and you just ignore them. When they occur infrequently, they catch our attention and can support us.
  • Pings can:
    • Cue us to move into action such as check for an important email response, switch tasks, prep for a meeting, start finishing up a project.
    • Cue us to leave or get ready to leave.
    • Cue us to take a break as a motivator to continue working on a hard project.
    • Cue us an ending time is coming.
    • Cue us to be aware of how much time is passing.

Turning off automatic notifications and instead setting intentional reminders is much more efficient. Experiment with the following timer techniques:

  • Voice-activated personal assistants like Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant are easy. “Hey Siri, 10-minute timer” and you’re cued. 
  • Browser – type “10–minute timer” into your browser search bar and you’ll get a ping in 10 minutes.
  • Smart Watch and Smart Phone Timer – Whether via an app, voice activated, or by “complications” on your watch, timers are quickly set.
  • Time Timer® – An analog clock shows the passage of time through a patented red disk. As time elapses, the red disk disappears, helping create awareness around the passing of time. This is helpful for phone calls, meetings, and Focus Work. It is marketed to the ADHD community; however, I have seen it help busy people without ADHD equally well. 
  • Any timer that doesn’t automatically turn off – When it really matters, set a timer that requires you to get up out of your chair and walk across the room to turn it off. If you have a strong need to “just finish this one thing,” find a timer that doesn’t automatically turn off. If you work from home, try your stove timer. If you are in the office, try an old-fashioned alarm clock and place it across the room.
  • The Pomodoro Technique is based on using timers to help sequence your work. Think interval training for your work. Coined “Pomodoro” by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the technique uses a timer to designate work and break times. (It’s called Pomodoro, Italian for tomato, since Cirillo used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to cue himself into action).
    • The original Pomodoro Technique suggests you work 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, and repeat 4 times. After the 5th 25-minute work interval you take a 25-minute break.
    • Many of my clients, however, don’t find the 5-minute break long enough. This is another great opportunity to experiment.
      • Do you want a 10-minute break? Try 50 minutes on and 10 minutes off.
      • Do you prefer working to a logical stopping point? What if you’re in flow and don’t want to stop at all? Try setting the timer anyway. It can be motivating to know a break is coming even if you don’t take it.
    • There are numerous apps available for you to try the Pomodoro Technique. Experiment to help you determine your best work time and break time combination.

Timers and notifications can boost your productivity if you use them prudently and intentionally.  Experiment with these suggestions and watch how much more you get done.


This is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of my new book Productivity for How You’re Wired available on Amazon. Many templates are included via the time tools link discussed in the book.

 

Email – you can’t live with it and you can’t live without it. It seems to take on a life of its own and it seems to impact everyone’s productivity. Today we will look at some email best practices that if we all followed would make everyone a little more productive.

Email Composition

  • Keep the SUBJECT relevant – update the subject line as topics change. Remembering that people search by subject will hopefully motivate you to take that extra second to check that your subject line is relevant. During the course of an email conversation, if the topic changes, change your subject line.
  • Be concise – make your point as briefly as possible. Long and complex emails are often put aside, never to be looked at again. If you want an answer, keep your message simple and short.
  • Be decisive – minimize emails going back and forth by making decisions. Instead of saying “should I call you or do you want to call me,” say, “I’ll call you.” Instead of saying “should we talk at 10 am or 11 am,” say “let’s talk at 11 am.” Better yet, say “I’ll call you at 11 am unless I hear from you otherwise.”
  • Share sentiments sparingly – while “thank you” and “great job” are lovely thoughts, email may not be the best venue to share them. Be mindful of email overwhelm before you share kudos and DO NOT REPLY ALL.

Email Triage

  • Get extraneous emails out of your inbox immediately
    • if you have reviewed an email and it has no use to you, DELETE IT IMMEDIATELY! You wouldn’t leave trash around your house, why would you leave it in your inbox?
    • For emails containing information that you might need some day and CAN’T GET ANYWHERE else, MOVE the email out of your inbox into a folder.
  • Unsubscribe – when sitting around waiting at the doctor’s office, for the train, for carpool, or on hold, use that time to unsubscribe from emails that no longer serve you. The fewer that come in, the more you’ll be able to manage the important ones.
  • Set Rules – if your email client (Outlook, Gmail, etc.) offers the option to set rules, use them to automatically move emails that are not important out of your inbox. I have one folder called RULES that I use for things that I don’t need, but sometimes like to see (favorite store ads, newsletters, political information, etc.)  The rule is set to automatically move those items from the inbox to the RULES folder. That way I can check if and when I want to.

Email Communication:

  • Feel no obligation to respond – just because someone asks you a question or wants your time doesn’t mean it is productive to respond. It is okay to delete something that is unsolicited or not important.
  • Stop the REPLY ALL craziness – Use Reply All very sparingly. Almost all the time your answer is most relevant to the sender and a time suck for everyone else.
  • Use Bcc when sending to a group – if sending out emails to a group be sure to use the Bcc (blind carbon copy) option rather than the Cc (carbon copy) option. This will ensure that others in the email string don’t have access to everyone else’s email address. It is poor form to publicly share other people’s emails with your group.

Shift your Perspective

Think of email like snail mail.

  • Do you feel obligated to open every piece of junk mail that comes into your home and office?
  • Worse yet, could you imagine KEEPING every piece of junk mail that comes into your home and office (gosh I hope not; and if the answer is yes, I have wonderful Professional Organizer colleagues that can help you!)
  • Just like you get rid of the garbage in your physical life it is necessary to get rid of the garbage in your virtual life too!

search bar

Sometimes just the smallest thing makes a difference.  We spend a lot of time on computers and if we could do what we needed to do faster than there would be more time to do the things we want to do.  Here are my Top Ten Google Search Tricks that help me save time.

Tip Issue Type in Results
1. Spell Don’t know how to spell a word? Type in the word spell and your closest guess. As long as your guess is reasonably close, Google returns the correct spelling Spell infintesimal Infinitesimal
2. Google Images When looking for a product, type in product description and select “images” for your search tool (grey options across the top – 3rd one) Desk top file and select “search images” Pages of desk top files pictures that you can shop from
 3. Define Need a definition?  You don’t need to go to a dictionary website.  Type in “define” and the word. Define Complementary Full dictionary definition
4. Minus Sign If you want to find something but leave out certain results use the minus sign Caterpillar – tractor Insect options not machinery company options
5. Date Range To identify a range of years use two periods. I use it often to get the most current technology results iPhone updates 2018..2019 Only listings posted during that range of dates
 6. Timer Let your computer alert you after a certain amount of time?  Type in “timer” and the length of time. Timer 10 minutes A countdown timer that dings when you are out of time
7. Math Don’t have a calculator handy?  Google does equations. Type in the equation and you’ll get the answer 365 * 24 8760
8. Weather What’s the temperature outside weather and zip code 10 day forecast
9. Answers questions Google is just like your smart phone’s assistant (Siri) When is daylight savings 2014 Starts March 9, Ends Nov 2
10. Exact Words When searching for exact words use quotes to delineate the exact words you are looking for  “Michael C. Jones” Only searches that have the words Michael C. Jones, in that order.

 

email

We seem to live in a world of 2 email camps:

  • NEVER look at your email first thing in the morning
  • ALWAYS look at your email first thing in the morning

The “NEVERS” believe that if you get caught up in email minutia you will not get your most important work.

The “ALWAYS” believe that if you don’t know what’s lurking and clear up the “must-dos” than you may miss something important.

I suspect that some of this has to do with the type of work you do and the kind of responsibilities you have.  For those that work globally, email may in fact be your primary means of communication.  For those of us in the service business we communicate with our clients via email and I personally, could NEVER not be an “ALWAYS.”

HOWEVER, it isn’t this cut and dry.  It isn’t about ALWAYS or NEVER.  Like everything, the answer lies in the grey zone.  The question is: What systems can be put in place to ensure that email doesn’t take over your life?  I’ve tried a lot of different things, and I’ve worked with my clients to try different things.  As with ALL productivity systems, there is no such thing as one size fits all, and no one system ALWAYS works for the same person ALL the time.  Different circumstances require different systems.  Here are a few you may want to consider:

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