I hope that everyone reading this blog has a great Thanksgiving.
I think the blog is off to a great start, and I really appreciate your readership. Incredibly, we’re already at 1,000 subscribers!
If I get the chance, I’ll still do a few posts over the long weekend. Mostly we’ve been focusing on getting unpacked, arranging furniture, and things like that since we just moved a little over a week ago. I hope to get most of that behind us over the weekend.
However you’ll be spending the holiday weekend, I hope you enjoy it and have a meaningful Thanksgiving. And thank you for reading this blog!
David Allen talks about viewing your work both horizontally and vertically.
The horizontal perspective is the process for actually carrying out your work — the five stages for executing your workflow. The vertical perspective pertains to how you define your work.
Allen uses an aerospace analogy to illustrate the six horizons from which to view our work. He defines them in this way (see Getting Things Done, page 51):
- Runway: Current actions.
- 10,000 feet: Current projects.
- 20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility.
- 30,000 feet: One- to two- year goals.
- 40,000 feet: Three- to five- year vision.
- 50,000 feet: Life (mission/long-term vision/values)
Each horizon “drives” the items at the level beneath. In other words, if you want to know where most of your next actions are coming from, there is probably a project (multi-step outcome) at the level above creating them. Likewise, if you want to know where your projects are coming from, there is probably an area of responsibility or larger goal at the level above creating most of them.
I have some nuances to bring to the exact way we should define these horizons, and a new horizon to introduce (the concept of operations, which fits in one way or another within areas of responsibility), but for now it is simply helpful to observe that we need to think of our work in terms of multiple horizons.
The upshot is this: If you want to get something accomplished, you need to break it down into its next-level components. For example, if you have a goal that you want to accomplish (30,000 foot level), you can’t just write it down somewhere and forget about it. Instead, you need to create a project or two (10,000 foot level) whose accomplishment will bring you closer to reaching your goal.
Likewise, when you have a project to accomplish (10,000 foot level), you need to determine what the next concrete actions are (runway level) that will bring you closer to completing your project.
Breaking things down to the next level beneath is a fundamental principle for getting things done.
I’ve heard the following message a couple of times now while waiting for my flight at the Philadelphia airport. It goes something like this: “If you feel that you have been overcharged in any of our shops, please let us know.”
That does not instill much confidence in those shops! It almost sounds like a form of reverse advertising.
I just got an email notifying me that a new account has been set up for me at a new Basecamp site we’re using to manage some projects.
Basecamp actually has an RSS feed you can subscribe to in order to stay up to date on your projects. Nice.
But a lot of sites that we need to use frequently in our work or regular life don’t have this. For example, to review and analyze our Google Analytics reports, I go to the actual site. Likewise with any agenda lists we keep online, financial sites, and other such stuff. Everybody has a bunch of stuff like this.
Here’s what I do when there is a site that I need to use frequently like this.
First, after I’ve created my account, I put the username and password in my passwords document. Even though Firefox (or IE if you use that) stores the passwords, sometimes the browser just won’t fill them in for me (this mostly happens with financial sites). This is also important for when the time comes that you switch computers, or browsers, and all that data doesn’t transfer in your browser.
My passwords document is a bit of a frustration because it is 16 pages, but it is simple. Each site is given a bold heading, then the username and password are underneath. There are some applications that seem to manage passwords well (like 1Password), but I haven’t taken the time yet to seriously compare how much time that would actually save me versus this document. (Also, don’t forget to password protect your password document!)
Second, I add the site to my bookmarks. The important thing here is to have your bookmarks organized well so that they are actually useful. If they aren’t organized well, they aren’t useful and you probably ignore them. See my previous post on how to organize your bookmarks for immediate access.
Third, this usually isn’t enough to remember to actually use the site. Often times the work itself contains natural reminders that will drive me to the site (as it is with Basecamp), and in those cases no further action is needed. But often times there needs to be some trigger reminding me to go check it.
For example, there is no natural trigger that sparks me to check our web stats every day. Some people are really good at just remembering the things they need (or want) to do every day. I’m not like that. When there are more than about 3 things I need to make sure and do every day or semi-frequently, I’m not going to remember to do them spontaneously. So I build them into my routine.
I have a daily routine that I go through every morning (with some exceptions) that contains the most basic things I want to make sure and do every day. One item in my routine is to process my email to zero. Another is to check our website reports (or, it used to be, until my role changed, although I should get back to doing that daily).
So if I’m going to need to review the site daily, I’ll put it in my daily routine. If less frequently, then I put it into my schedule for whatever frequency seems best (weekly, or whatever). And again, if other actions I take will naturally lead me to use the site (for example, paying bills each month naturally leads me to go to my credit card site), then it doesn’t need to go in the schedule, but having the site in your well-organized bookmarks is crucial.
The key principle here is: Don’t rely on your mind to remember to remember something, even your routines. Create a trigger. Sometimes the nature of your work will serve as the trigger, but when it doesn’t, put it in your schedule. Then use your mind for more important things than “remembering to remember,” like creativity and high-level planning and actual implementation.
No productivity approach or email approach can always be followed perfectly. A necessary element of any good approach is the ability to adapt even when things aren’t going smoothly and you have to break the rules.
As we’ve been discussing with email, I recommend totally clearing out the working folders (“answer,” “hold,” and “read”) at least once a day. The importance of this lies in the fact that if you don’t empty them regularly, they are just going to become another open loop that stays on your mind (and you’ll fall behind).
However, one of the values of these folders is that they enable you to easily adapt to the situation when you simply don’t have time to do much email for a series of days. This happens to all of us.
It happened to me just this week. I just moved last weekend, and then immediately had to head off to a conference on Tuesday. This has made time for email very scarce.
In times like this, it’s OK to go a few days without totally clearing out each of the folders. In fact, in these situations the folders become almost more valuable. They enable you to still keep you inbox at zero (since it doesn’t have to take too long to process your email into them), and then zero in on the ones that are most important. You can then deal with the most important ones so that they don’t fall through the cracks, and leave the rest for when you do have time.
The important thing is to not let this go on for too long and not to do it too often.
That is so important that I’m going to repeat it: It’s OK to let your working folders build up for a few days, but make sure to get them cleared out again as soon as possible. If you get in the habit of letting emails sit in those folders for extended periods of time, you lose a lot of the clarity and reduction in drag that this approach brings.
I’m sitting here at the airport getting my working folders cleared out right now. Unfortunately, I had a ridiculously early flight this morning and with everything else going on just said to myself “it’s not worth it.” But the next available flight was 4 hours later — more of a delay than I would have liked. But the good thing is that this just opened up a window of time to get those working folders cleared out so I can go into the weekend back to normal.
Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the workplace is not a place for good friendships. One’s work life and personal life are best kept separate.
But as Tom Rath shows in his excellent book Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without, research by the Gallup organization over the last several years has revealed that friendships at work are actually a critical component of employee engagement and a healthy work environment.
In other words, if you have a best friend at work, you are likely to be more effective in your work, and your organization is thus going to be better off as well. Workplace friendships are an important factor in overall organizational success.
This can actually be quantified. Rath points out that a mere 30% of employees report having a best friend at work. But “if you are fortunate enough to be in this group, you are seven times as likely to be engaged in your job” (p. 53).
Seven times more likely to be engaged in your job. That is huge!
In fact, Rath continues, “our results also suggest that people without a best friend at work all but eliminate their chances of being engaged during the work day.”
Note that the Gallup findings pertain to those with a best friend at work, and not just friends in general. This difference is critical. For their early research indicated that “having a ‘best friend’ at work — rather than just a ‘friend’ or even a ‘good friend’ — was a more powerful predictor of workplace outcomes. Apparently, the term ‘friend’ by itself had lost most of its exclusivity (p. 52)”
Here are some other findings from their research:
- People without a best friend at work have only a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged in their job.
- People with at least 3 close friends at work are 96% more likely to be extremely satisfied with their life.
- Closer friendships at work can increase satisfaction with your company by nearly 50%.
What conclusions should we draw from this?
Organizations that discourage close relationships in the workplace “could be making a costly mistake.” Friendships are a critical part of a healthy workplace, and organizations should take steps to encourage their cultivation. This is first of all good for employees, and second of all it will be better for the organization. Organizations need to recognize that creating an environment that encourages the development of friendships at work is a key part of solving the problem of employee disengagement.
Rath concludes in this way:
While most companies spend their time thinking about how to increase an employee’s loyalty to their organization, our results suggest they might want to try a different approach: fostering the kind of loyalty that is built between one employee and another.
Normally when I’m on a plane I read the whole time. But today I had to get up at 4:30 to catch an early flight out and decided to sleep.
This was not the best decision I could have made. The space is already pretty small, obviously. Then my seat wouldn’t go back for some reason, though of course the person in front of me was able to put their seat back.
I found it impossible to figure out a decent position to rest my head, and wavered in and out of sleep for pretty much the entire flight.
I think there were a couple of other times when I tried to sleep on a plane, never with much success. Has anyone ever been succesful at getting decent sleep on an airplane? Alternatively, how do you make the most of the time when you fly?
I recently picked up Tom Rath’s book Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without. It was an enjoyable, quick, and informative read. You don’t see many books on friendship, and I’ve never thought much about it before, so the topic really caught my interest.
My biggest take-away from the book was this: Different friends often play different roles in our lives, depending upon who they are and what their strengths are. Rath points out eight different “vital roles” that our friends play. Simply seeing these roles articulated was incredibly illuminating. They are:
“Builders are great motivators, always pushing you toward the finish line. They continually invest in your development and genuinely want you to succeed — even if it means they have to go out on a limb for you” (87).
“Champions stand up for you and what you believe in. They are the friends who sing your praises. Every day, this makes a difference in your life. Not only do they praise you in your presence, but a Champion also ‘has your back’ — and will stand up for you when you’re not around” (93).
“A collaborator is a friend with similar interests — the basis for many great friendships. … When you talk with a collaborator, you’re on familiar ground … you often find that you have similar ambitions in work and life” (99).
“A companion is always there for you, whatever the circumstance. You share a bond that is virtually unbreakable. When something big happens in your life, this is one of the first people you call” (105).
“A connector is a bridge builder. …. Connectors get to know you — and then introduce you to others” (111). Connectors are always inviting you to lunch and other gatherings where you can meet new people, and point you in the right direction when you need something.
“Energizers are your ‘fun friends’ who always give you a boost. You have more positive moments when you are with these friends. Energizers are quick to pick you up when you’re down — and can make a good day great” (117).
7. Mind Opener
‘Mind Openers are the friends who expand your horizons and encourage you to embrace new ideas, opportunities, cultures, and people. They challenge you to think in innovative ways and help you create positive change. Mind Openers know how to ask good questions, and this makes you more receptive to ideas” (123).
“Navigators are the friends who give you advice and keep you headed in the right direction. You go to them when you need guidance, and they talk through the pros and cons with you until you find an answer. In a difficult situation, you need a Navigator by your side. They help you see a positive future while keeping things grounded in reality” (129).
We need people in our lives that contribute all of these things. Many friends fulfill multiple roles, but to expect any one person to fulfill all of them is to commit the “rounding error” (which he talks about early in the book).
This even has implications for marriage, since friendship is a critical component of any marriage. In successful marriages, each spouse doesn’t expect the other to fulfill all of these roles perfectly. In unsuccessful marriages, you often have one spouse trying to “fix” the other to “do better” at everything and thus be more “rounded.” This doesn’t work. The key is to focus on what the other does bring to the relationship, not on what they don’t bring.
Vital Friends was filled with many other take-aways as well, including more detail on each of these roles and how to strengthen them. Tomorrow I’ll be posting on Rath’s findings regarding friendships in the workplace.
Several people have asked this over the last few days. The short answer is that I treat sent items the same way I treat deleted items — I don’t organize them, but just let them remain in their folder permanently in the event that I need to refer to one in the future. If I do need to access one down the road, I simply use the search. If my sent items gets too full, I archive it.
If there is an email that I send that will be of long-term use, whether because it defines a policy or it articulates some thoughts that I want to keep handy, then I save the email into my “Documents” folder and organize it along with the rest of my electronic files. If it seems easier, then sometimes instead of saving the email itself, I’ll paste the contents into a Word document and then save that.
There are about two principles guiding my thinking here:
- Conservation of time. I find that the frequency with which I look back at my sent items isn’t sufficient to warrant the time to organize them.
- Consolidation of content. When there is something I will need for significant ongoing future reference, it is simpler to have all of those files in one spot rather than two. So I keep all such files in “Documents,” rather than Word/Office files in “Documents” and emails in email folders.
Here are some further thoughts on that last point: The way in which something was created (whether by email or some other program) is not relevant to the way in which it should be organized. What’s important is the content.
Keeping all like content together is more important than keeping all emails together. So long-term emails get filed in “Documents” with other Word and Excel and etc. documents that pertain to that particular department or topic. (And again, I am very, very selective about which emails I file into “Documents.”)
When I think of suffering, I typically think first about major trials such as famines or significant personal hardship. As we probably should.
But there are many forms of suffering, some of which we are responsible for placing on others. In our organizations, bad meetings are one such instance that deserve more attention.
Bad meetings have an effect on people beyond the meeting itself. They have ripple effects that flow throughout the organization and, perhaps even worse, into the lives and homes of our employees.
Alternatively, running effective meetings — meetings where you get things done and people actually enjoy being there — creates positive ripple effects that impact the organization and, perhaps more importantly, the lives and homes of our employees.
Patrick Lencioni makes this point very well in his book Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business (p. 253):
Bad meetings exact a toll on the human beings who must endure them, and this goes far beyond mere momentary dissatisfaction. Bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organization, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism. And while this certainly has a profound impact on organizational life, it also impacts people’s self-esteem, their families, and their outlook on life.
And so, for those of us who lead organizations and the employees who work within them, improving meetings is not just an opportunity to enhance the performance of our companies. It is also a way to positively impact the lives of our people. And that includes us.
I don’t believe in being down on email and complaining about how much email we receive (although on a bad day it can be tempting). Keeping on top of your email is a way of serving people.
But, except in rare instances, email is not the primary task of your job. There are many other things you need to be doing, and email already takes up enough time. So it is smart to do what you can to reduce your email volume and thus make sure, as much as possible, that you aren’t spending unnecessary time on email.
The way to reduce email volume is simple: Send less email, send better emails, and use meetings effectively.
1. Send Less Email
As with most things in life, the first place to look is not to external factors, but to ourselves. Email tends to create more email. Send less and you will receive less.
The unfortunately titled but helpful book The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You (just ignore their advice they give on filing email) notes that this is supported by research:
Research shows that for every five emails you receive, three require a response. This means that for every five emails we send, people send back three. I call this the boomerang effect. So if you eliminate just one out of every five outgoing emails, you’ll begin to receive roughly 12% fewer emails (p. 17).
How do you send less email? Here are some things you can do.
Ask Yourself: “Is this Email Truly Necessary?”
This is the highest impact thing that you can do. I’ve been guilty of sending off emails that articulate an idea I’m half-way thinking about, only to put in motion a premature discussion that sucks up time unnecessarily. The discussion was unnecessary because the issue didn’t need to be discussed yet, and there weren’t enough details to come to an effective conclusion. The best approach in these instances is: wait.
There are lots of other types of unnecessary emails. The fundamental thing to do here is to put yourself in your recipient’s shoes. Think of all that they probably have on their plate for the day and all the other emails that they are getting. Then ask, “Is this email going to be worth their time in light of everything else that they have going on?” You might realize that the email is actually unnecessary, or that what you actually need to do is clarify and sharpen the email (that is, write a better email — on which, see below).
Limit Use of Reply All
When you are one of many recipients, your default should be to respond only to the sender, rather than to everyone. So often we do the opposite. Only hit “reply all” if you’ve consciously concluded that it is truly necessary.
Limit Use of CC:
Most “cc:’s” are impositions on people’s time. To cc: someone breaks the rule of being clear as to the purpose for which you are sending the email to the person. What is the person supposed to do with this? Just “keep it on their radar?” They have 1,000 other things going on. Often, a cc: ends up being an accidental way of “jumping the cue” (see next point).
I don’t want to say that it is never necessary to cc: someone. Just keep it to a minimum.
Don’t Jump the Cue, Except with Praise
When you are working with someone on an issue and they aren’t in line with you the way you want, don’t email their boss. Even with a simple “update.” Keep working with the person. If you do need to talk about things at a higher level, mutually agree on that.
The biggest way this mistake happens is through the cc: function. You’ve been dialoguing with person X on subject A, and after a while decide to add the person above them in the “cc:” field so they can “get up to speed” with the discussion. Don’t do this. It takes up unnecessary time on the part of the person copied, and the person you’ve been dialoguing with is not going to be too happy.
The one time that you should jump the cue is with praise. If person X has done a great job on something, then it is a great idea to email their boss and cc: them, or to email them with a cc: to their boss. This is something everyone will appreciate.
Limit Use of FYI
This is highly related to the principle of limiting the instances in which you cc: people. Many cc:’s are FYI’s, and just like most cc:’s are unnecessary, so are most FYI’s.
Now, not all FYI’s are unnecessary. You just need to do it right. Instead of forwarding someone a long discussion thread to “update them,” for example, send them a one sentence email you write yourself that gives them the essence of things.
People appreciate real updates like that — updates that truly update them in a quick sentence or two. But they don’t appreciate long discussion threads that they have to wade through in order to figure out what “update” you want them to have.
2. Send Better Emails
So the first principle of getting less emails is to send less emails. The second principle is also in your control: Send better emails.
Why We Often Don’t Send Better Emails
The biggest problem with email is that the cost to the sender is low, but the cost to the recipient is high. It takes almost no effort, for example, to type up a lengthy, 750 word email and ask the person “what do you think?” or some other action (or muddled set of multiple actions). So the sender has it easy, but the receiver might then stuck with a wall of text to read and ambiguous actions to clarify.
When the cost of something is low, you get more of it. When the cost is high, you get less of it. The problem here is that the low cost is on the receiver’s end. So the tendency is to create more emails, and the receiver then bears the cost of those. Since the cost is largely on the recipient’s end, the sender does not feel that and hence does not adjust his behavior accordingly.
How to Send Better Emails
The solution is to make a conscious attempt to think from the other’s perspective. Since you don’t bear the cost of the email, be intentional about considering the cost your email will impose on the other person.
As mentioned above, sometimes this will mean not sending the email. Many times it will mean sending a better email. I won’t go into that here since I posted on this earlier this week. So for an outline of what it means to send better emails, see “How to Write Better Emails.”
However, let me add here two things that I failed to mention in that article: The concepts of EOM and NRN.
The Concepts of EOM and NTN
First, if you can fit your whole message in your subject line, do it. Then, end the subject line with “EOM,” which means “end of message.” This indicates to your recipient that they don’t need to take the time to open the email. They’ve seen everything in the subject line. Delete and move on.
Second, start adding “NRN” at the end of your emails. “NRN” means “no reply needed.” This relieves the recipient of the burden of having to know if you expect a verification that they received your email.
For example, if you send someone a rough idea about this or that, it might be best to close with “NRN” so the person knows that you don’t expect them to take the time to build on or develop the idea. You’re just updating them on a direction of thought you are having, but there is no need to develop it yet.
Or if you send a report, there probably isn’t a need for the recipient to take the time to say “thanks, got it.” Save your recipient’s time by making crystal clear that they don’t need to do this. NRN.
3. Use Meetings Effectively
Last of all, another fundamental way to receive less emails (and send less emails!) is to use meetings effectively.
The connection between email volume and ineffective meetings does not seem to be realized very often. But one of the reasons our email volume is so high is because we are trying to take care of things by email that are better taken care of in person.
The irony is that when we are in meetings, we often feel that the meeting is “taking time away from our real work,” by which we (without knowing it) mean the time to send and receive all the emails we wouldn’t need to deal with if we were just using that meeting effectively.
Patrick Lencioni states this brilliantly in his excellent book Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business (pages 251-252):
Most executives I know spend hours sending e-mail, leaving voice mail, and roaming the halls to clarify issues that should have been made clear in a meeting in the first place. [Lencioni calls this "sneaker time."] But no one accounts for this the way they do when they add up time spent in meetings.
I have no doubt that sneaker time is the most subtle, dangerous, and underestimated black hole in corporate America. …
Remarkably, because sneaker time is mixed in with everything else during the day, we fail to see it as a single category of wasted time. It never ceases to amaze me when I see executives checking their watches at the end of a meeting and lobbying the CEO for it to end so they can ‘go do some real work.’
In so many cases, the ‘real work’ they’re referring to is going back to their offices to respond to e-mail and voice mail that they’ve received only because so many people are confused about what needs to be done.
So one of the reasons that we have so much email is because we fail to use meetings effectively. Ironically, we then want to get out of meetings so that we can do all the email that wouldn’t have been necessary if we had run the meeting correctly.
There is a lot to be said about meetings, and I will be doing a bunch of posts on meetings as this blog goes on. For now, realize that one of the fundamental ways of decreasing email volume is to run better meetings.
What Tips Do You Have?
I’ve suggested three ways to reduce email volume: Send less email, write better emails, and use meetings effectively.
What are some tips you have for reducing email volume? What do you do to send less email? How do you write better emails? What things do you do that I haven’t mentioned?
Another one of the most common questions I received on email this week was about how to coordinate my email system from “How to Get Your Email Inbox to Zero Every Day” with mobile devices like the iPhone.
Mobile devices provide really useful portability and convenience. But they also create two challenges:
- You can’t (easily, at least) process the longer-than-two-minute emails into the working folders (action, hold, read).
- Even if you could do this easily, the nature of the situation is usually that if you are checking email on your mobile device, you probably don’t have time to process everything anyway.
And of course there are other challenges as well, such as the fact that if an email requires more than a few sentences of response, you probably don’t want to type that up on the small keyboard or screen.
The solution comes from applying a few productivity principles.
The first principle is realism. It truly does not work well to process email on a portable device. So don’t try to do it. Recognize that mobile devices are not intended to serve as your primary tool for email. Instead, see your mobile device as a means for keeping up with important emails when you are on the go. It’s fine to go into your inbox on your mobile device, see what is most important or needs an immediate (quick) response or action, taking care of those, and leaving the rest. This is not ideal, but it is realistic.
After you do deal with an email on your mobile device, delete it right away (unless you need to file it permanently in Documents). Also delete right when you see them any emails that don’t need any attention, such as a newsletter you don’t plan to read.
The result is that you will have an inbox that now contains some half-read emails that you’ve opened, then decided to leave and move on from. This is productivity anarchy. But the key to any productivity system is for it to be flexible enough to handle the fact that things do sometimes get messy.
The important thing is simply not to leave things that way, which is the second principle. What you need to do is just continue to follow the principle of having at least one time each day — back at your computer — when you fully process your email and zero everything out. At this time you will clean up all those loose ends that you left open in your inbox on your mobile device.
You might even do this as soon as you get back to your computer. Or, you could do this first thing the following morning. The key is simply to have at least one time each day where you zero everything out. Which is exactly what I recommended in the article, whether you use a mobile device or not.
In other words, if you follow the system I outlined in the article, you don’t really need to do anything special to adapt to the mobile problem. Simply by processing all of your inbox at least once a day at your computer, you’ll clean up all the open loops left in your inbox from when you checked it on your mobile device.
This is really important, so let me restate this as clearly as I can: Don’t carry your mobile habits over to your computer when you get back. You get to “break the rules” on a mobile device because there is no other way. But once you are at your computer, you need to be right back on the wagon of processing all of your inbox each time that you process any of your inbox. You might wait to do this until the next morning, or you might do it right away when you are back at your computer, but when you go back into your inbox on your computer, process everything down to zero.
Finally, after I have my inbox back down to zero, here’s the last thing I do. I hate having that circle with a number in it show up on the Mail app on my iPhone (it just represents open loops that need to be closed). So I go into my Mail app and allow all of my inboxes on my iPhone to sync up so that my iPhone now reflects the zero inbox.
The Two Sentence Summary
Last week when a friend of mine emailed me this same question, and I sent him back a real quick paragraph summarizing the above. I just took another look at that, and I think I can boil everything down to two sentences.
Here they are: Use your iPhone to get emails that you need to keep up with because of their urgency when you’re away from your computer for the day or afternoon. But then when you’re back at your computer later that day or the next morning, clean everything up and get it to normal (that is, zero).
The most common question I received on email was actually a request to do a post on filing in general. Lots of people wrote in to say that learning about filing is one of their greatest productivity issues.
What categories should you use for your computer files? What are the best practices for filing in general? How should one manage paper-based files (which, although secondary to electronic files, still have a place)? Is there a consistent category structure (or at least set of principles) to implement across your whole computer (documents, pictures, videos, iTunes, iPhoto, etc.) and then also your paper-based files?
I’ll be talking about all these things in the near future. Filing is a huge issue. A lot of time (and therefore money!) goes into the documents we create, and so it only makes sense that they should also be organized in an orderly, easy-to-access way. Making our documents and other files maximally accessible and useful is just as important as creating them in the first place.
If you set up your computer files right, you will have a streamlined workflow and save yourself a ton of time. If you don’t, your workflow is obstructed and just becomes less enjoyable in general.
Fortunately, there are some really solid principles on how to organize your files. I’ve done a bunch of research on filing (it started when I was organizing the DG website — there is a lot of overlap between website structure and filing, because both have to do with information architecture), and several winters ago I spent about 50 hours (yes, to my shame!) going through a process of trial and error to get everything right and document my conclusions.
I hope that the time I spent figuring out filing will save others a lot of time and help show a more enjoyable way to work as well.
So, that’s coming soon.
In my post on getting your email inbox to zero every day, I asked for readers to send in their questions about email and I would post on some of them this week. I’ve received a lot of great questions — thank you to everyone who has emailed their questions or put them in the comments. Now, it’s time to start posting on the questions.
The first question is from a reader named Mark: “Could you go into the logistics of email accounts? I am trying to whittle down to two accounts, one for work and another for personal use.” Mark then goes into some of the problems he’s encountered. Another reader also echoed the same things
Most of us probably have several email accounts, so this question is very relevant.
Here are some the key principles I recommend and which we will be discussing:
- Have as many accounts as you need but as few as you can get by with.
- Bring everything into one interface, if possible.
- When you can’t bring everything into one interface, have a regular schedule for checking all of your accounts.
- Be as disciplined with your personal email accounts as you are with your work email.
After discussing these principles, we’re going to discuss solutions to three problems:
- When an account offers free POP and forwarding, but will not forward spam (hence, some legitimate email gets caught in the spam filter and is not forwarded).
- When an account provides POP only if you pay for it.
- How to cancel an email account while minimizing problems arising from the fact that people don’t always update their address book and that you may have a lot of website usernames to update.
Zach Nielson recently had a helpful post on using email well. Most of the points go to the issue of what I would call “email etiquette.” Some of the best tips are: “don’t confront people over email,” “work to have a balance between email and personal contact,” “learn people’s style,” and “hesitate before hitting reply all.”
Most important: When sending to a large group, use blind copy.
Jack Welch has a helpful column in the Nov 17 issue of Businessweek called “Three Reasons Obama Won.” (The link is to the podcast — the column itself does not appear to exist online. In case anyone is wondering, this does indeed mean that I still read some actual physical periodicals!)
Here are two of the most helpful points.
The Importance of Clear Vision
First, we see the importance of clear vision. “Start with the grandad of leadership principles: a clear, consistent vision. If you want to galvanize followers, you simply cannot recast your message. Nor can you confuse or scare people. McCain’s health-care policy, for example, had real merit. But his presentation of it was always confoundingly complex.”
The Importance of Solid Execution
Second, we see the importance of solid execution. “Execution isn’t the only thing a leader needs to get right, but without it little else matters.” “From the outset, [Obama's] advisers were best in class, and his players were always prepared, agile, and where they needed to be.”
The Twist: Solid Execution is Not About Simply Doing the Same Old “Milk Run” Better
Diving down further into the concept of execution, there is a very important lesson: Execution is not simply about doing the same old things better, but doing new things and reinventing the game:
So often companies think they’ve nailed execution by doing the same old ‘milk run’ better and better. But winning execution means doing the milk run perfectly — and finding new customers and opening new markets along the way. You can’t just beat your rivals by the old rules; to grow, you have to invent a new game and beat them at that, too.
We are accustomed to think of “doing our work” as involving simply one thing — the doing of the work.
In reality, there are five stages involved in getting our work done. Ironically, the actual “doing” of our work only constitutes one of the five stages. But if you don’t do the other four well, you won’t be able to actually do your work well, either.
These five stages are at the heart of the GTD process that David Allen outlines in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (see especially page 24). They are:
I won’t go into great detail at this time, but here is a quick summary of each of these stages.
First, you collect what has your attention. You take all open loops that are currently around you or on your mind and gather them into one spot (your inbox).
Second, you process what they mean by deciding what to do about them. This is what it means to go through your inbox (whether email or physical or an electronic inbox in a program like OmniFocus).
Third, you organize the results by putting any longer-than-two-minute actions on the appropriate list (or working file if you are handling email and the email itself will serve as the best action reminder).
Fourth, you review the options to decide what to do — that is, to decide “what’s best next.”
Fifth, you actually do. You work on the action item that you’ve decided.
It is important to keep think of these five stages as distinct. As Allen writes, “I have discovered that one of the major reasons many people haven’t had a lot of success in ‘getting organized’ is simply that they have tried to do all five phases at one time.”
Just had lunch at a Mongolian barbeque in town. I really like those places. However, one thing has always stood out to me: the bowls they give you are way to small for the purpose.
For those who aren’t familiar with Mongolian barbeque, here’s how it works: You go through a buffet to fill up a bowl with meat, vegetables, and sauce, and then give it to the cooks who barbeque it on a Mongolian griddle. It’s great.
But the bowl is smaller than your typical cereal bowl (sorry for the image quality–it was dark and I took this with my iPhone, and apparently wasn’t very steady):
So it always overflows when you’ve added what you want:
Solution: Conform to the way users actually behave and provide bigger bowls. I’m sure there are reasons behind the smaller bowls, but I’d advocate thinking first from the user’s perspective.
In the meantime, you can use two bowls if necessary: one for the vegatbles, and one for the meat. But that’s twice as much to carry through the buffet.
A major theme of this blog is that productivity is not simply about making ourselves more productive, but making others more productive as well. Writing better emails is a big way that we can make other people’s lives a little simpler and a little better. And it will save us time as well.
Writing good emails means writing them in a way that makes it possible to understand your point right away. It means writing your email to have high impact with minimal time investment on your reader’s part.
The most influential resource on my thinking on this area is a book with the unfortunate title, The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You. Here are 3 principles for writing better emails from this book and some other resources I’ve read.
1. Make the Subject Line Specific
Make the subject line descriptive so the person knows right away what the email is about. Don’t use a headline such as “Interesting,” “Good Article,” or even just “Proposal,” because they don’t provide anything specific about the content.
Instead, a good subject line would be something like: “Proposal for New Hires in 2009.”
2. State the Required Action, or Other Purpose, First
The very first thing should be a brief greeting, such as “Hi, Fred. Good job in the meeting today.”
But then move right to your point. State your point, as specifically as possible, in 1-3 sentences. If you have ideas that you want Fred to consider, for example, say that you have ideas for him to consider and state specifically (and briefly) what your main idea is.
Don’t just say “Fred, I have some ideas for you to consider,” and then spend 3 paragraphs getting to your main idea. Instead, state specifically what your idea is. For example, say: “I think we should consider hiring an additional widget manager next year because of the planned 23% increase in production. I am wondering what your thoughts are.”
3. Give the Background Second
After you’ve stated your main point, then provide the details.
This is key, so I’ll say it again: Give your main point, and then provide the background.
This is different from a detective story, or a novel, or any other type of writing where the discovery is part of the fun. With email, there isn’t time for this. And especially when doing work email, there is a business purpose to your email. You need to save the other person’s time by telling them your point right away, and then only after that providing the details in the event that they need to see things fleshed out more.
4. Keep Your Paragraphs Short
When providing the background, keep your paragraphs short. Wall of words are hard to read. Be short and to the point. And keep it relevant. Use bullet points when possible.
4. Close by Clarifying the Next Steps
If the background section gets longer than a few paragraphs, it is a good idea to close by summarizing the action step(s) again.
5. Don’t Forward Emails Without Summarizing the Point at the Top
Last of all, a word on forwarding: If you need someone’s opinion on something, don’t simply forward them a long email thread and say “what do you think?” Instead, summarize the main action you need from them right at the top, and then summarize the main point of the email thread.
Try to make it so that all the thread is needed for is to provide the details, if the reader feels that they are necessary.
The Wall Street Journal had a great editorial by Bret Swanson on Friday about how Obama Ran a Capitalist Campaign. Here are the two best points, in my opinion.
First, Obama ran a brilliant campaign. But there is an inconsistency between the policies that Obama is calling for and the way that he ran his campaign:
If Barack Obama ran for president by calling for a heavier hand of government, he also won by running one of the most entrepreneurial campaigns in history.
Will he now grasp the lesson his campaign offers as he crafts policies aimed at reigniting the national economy? Amid a recession, two wars, and a global financial crisis, will he come to see that unleashing the entrepreneur is the best way to raise the revenue he needs for his lofty priorities?
Second, if Obama is going to be effective as president, he should govern from the same principles that were behind the approach he took to his campaign:
The key question now is how will Mr. Obama govern? Will he stick with the policies he ran on or adopt the approach that he won with?
The only way a president can maximize economic growth is to unleash diffuse networks of entrepreneurs. As economist Bob Litan of the Kauffman Foundation says, “Government can’t compel growth.” But Mr. Obama’s plans — “card check” legislation to allow workers to unionize a workplace without a secret ballot election; curbing free trade; a government-led “green economy”; and higher tax rates on capital and entrepreneurs — do not reflect his campaign’s deep trust in individuals.
A thought experiment, Mr. President-elect: What if as your campaign raised more and more money it was taxed away and given to Mr. McCain to level the field? Or think of this: What if you were not allowed to opt out of the public financing scheme that left Mr. McCain with a paltry $84 million, about a quarter of your autumn total?
Well said. This brings to the fore the biggest thing that I don’t understand in the thinking of some highly intelligent people such as president-elect Obama. Here is my attempt to articulate it.
Our nation is built on the premise of decentralized freedom. Democracy is the political embodiment of the truth that human beings flourish most when they are left free. Individuals are better off, and society is better off, not when we try to coordinate people’s efforts through centrally planned programs and policies, but when we give people room to pursue their own interests, create, and invent.
The internet embodies this principle even further. It is a visual manifestation of the power of decentralized networks — which is really what democracy is, and what free-market capitalism is.
Yet, some of the people who best understand the power of decentralized networks — Obama’s remarkable internet-based campaign being a case in point — nonetheless fail to affirm this principle when it comes to economic growth. So instead of applying the same principle of freedom that is behind democracy and the internet to economic growth, their tendency is to opt for more centralized, planned, government-centered approaches to economic policy. And the same could be said about many related issues, such as health care.
That is what I do not get.
One of the most helpful books I’ve read on organizing is actually Organizing for Dummies. It was comprehensive — it covers just about all areas — while also being very clear.
I don’t agree with everything in it (I differ from the approach she takes to filing in some ways, especially the categories). But there was one huge take-away from the book that applies to just about everything you have to organize.
This huge take-away is the acronym she uses for her organizing process. The acronym is P-L-A-C-E:
- P urge
- L ike with like
- A access
- C ontain
- E valuate
This process is really, really useful. And it doesn’t just apply to organizing space, like your garage. I implement a variation of it even when organizing ideas, websites, files, and so forth.
First, purge. Get rid of what is unnecessary. You don’t want to organize things you don’t need.
Second, “like with like” means to group like things to together. This is the principle of good writing we learned in high school English, and it applies to all forms of organizing. This is the central organizing principle of anything.
Third, access means that you put things you use more frequently to be closer to access than things you use less. For example, if you are organizing your kitchen, you probably have lots of hard-to-access spots. You put the pans you hardly use in those places, not the pots you use every day. Or at your desk: things you use every day should be at your fingertips, like an effective cockpit.
Fourth, contain. Don’t leave things scattered about, even when they are grouped. Contain them into contains. Drawer dividers in a drawer, plastic tubs in your basement storage, and so forth. And again, this is a broadly applicable principle. Web pages, for example, apply this principle. The various elements of a page are grouped, and then visual characteristics “contain” the various elements to help guide your eye and make the page easy to process.
Fifth, evaluate. When you are done organizing, step back, consider what you’ve done, and see if everything feels right. Change what can be improved.
I posted the other day on how to organize your RSS feeds. The other part of the picture is organizing your internet favorites.
By having both of these organized well, you can save a lot of time and make your online workflow more enjoyable.
Is it Really Worth it to Organize Your Bookmarks?
As with my RSS feeds, I did an experiment about a year ago by not organizing them. I just left them in a long list (at that time in Internet Explorer), testing to see whether that would provide quicker and more direct access.
What I found was that I had to spend a lot of time hunting through that list for the bookmark I wanted.
So I’ve concluded that it is indeed more effective to organize your bookmarks. However, you need to do it right. This is a basic principle in regard to all filing: if you don’t create the categories right, you won’t want to use them.
But if you do create the categories right, you’ll not only find that things are easier, but will probably find that it creates additional insight and creativity. (Strange, but true: It makes you ask: what’s missing?)
Here are three other benefits of organizing your bookmarks:
1. It Makes it Easy to Access Dozens of Sites Very Quickly
For example, if I need to pay my credit card bill, I go to my “financial” category and click on my credit card site. Then I might want to check the latest news, so I just click into “news” and then one of my news sites (yes, even with RSS I still sometimes visit the actual sites). Then I can quickly go over to my “workflow” category and bring up the dashboard for my blog to write a post, then to my “travel” category to hit Expedia and book a trip I have to take, and so forth. It’s all very quick and easy.
2. It’s Fun
I actually find it kind of fun to have all of the bookmarks of my most-used sites right at my fingertips. It’s enjoyable to be able to have them all at immediate access and to quickly jump over from one category of site to another, as needed.
3. It Helps You Remember New Sites You Want to Stay on Top Of
I realize that subscribing to the RSS feed usually is the best way to do this. But there are still some sites that work best by actually visiting them. By having my bookmarks organized, it keeps it on my mind that there are various types of sites that I want to keep visiting, and it does this without cluttering my interface.
For example, I came across the site Innocentive last spring. It is an idea marketplace where “organizations with challenging problems” can connect with “smart people with creative solutions.” It provides a supplement to the traditional R&D approach by utilizing the extend “smart world” to help solve business problems.
Great idea. So I want to keep up with how the site and works and come to understand it a little better. I don’t just want to go look at it once and then forget about it. Having it in one of my bookmark categories ensures that once in a while I’ll remember to go back to the site and take a further look.
What Categories to Have
I mentioned above that a lot of the usefulness of this comes down to using the correct principles of classification in creating your categories. I’ll be doing future posts on setting up files well, so I won’t go into that here. For now, here are the categories that I group my bookmarks into:
- DG [where I work]
- NewCo [a side venture I'm not doing anymore]
- Social Networking
- Social Good
Here are a few notes on the categories:
“Workflow” is where I put the online tools that exist for accomplishing the primary tasks of work and life. For example, it contains my links to: Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Analytics, my blog, the admin panel for my blog, and a few other things.
“DG” is where I put online documents or websites (Basecamp projects, etc.) pertaining to my job. Now, one might ask why “Google Docs,” for example, is not in “DG,” since I mostly use that for work. The reason is that the stuff in “workflow” is mostly platforms that can be used for work or life. Stuff in my work folder (DG) is stuff that is specific to my work.
The “Projects” category is at the end is for temporary bookmarks that are relevant to a project I’m working on. It’s a good working place to put stuff that I need to access a lot for a project, but which I then can get rid of. Sometimes that stuff might just go well in my work folder; it really depends on how I want to use it and how much I need a certain project’s stuff kept all to itself for ease of use.
The rest of the categories are probably pretty self-explanatory. But there are principles behind these groupings, which will be discussed in future posts on filing in general.
To create the categories, in Firefox go to Bookmarks > Organize Bookmarks. Then create them by creating them as folders within the “Bookmarks Toolbar” folder. In Internet Explorer, go to Favorites > Organize Favorites and you can create the folders there. Once you’ve done this, move your bookmarks into the categories.
(I assume you will probably be creating some new categories as well, and not using some of the ones that I have. But hopefully the ones I’ve listed give you a good idea of how to do the categories.)
Where to Put the Categories
The key to making this work comes down to where you put the categories. You don’t want to have to open up that left sidebar to reveal your favorites.
Instead, you want these folders to be manifest in the bookmarks toolbar, which shows across the top of the page. I use Firefox, but you can do this in IE as well, and I think in Safari too (at least I hope you can if you are a Safari user). Here’s what I mean (I’m really sorry if the image is low quality; I think you can still get the idea):
The bookmarks toolbar is that line across the bottom with the labels “workflow,” “DG,” “family,” etc. When you click on one of those labels, the bookmarks in that folder reveal in a drop-down from there. It’s really handy.
To make the bookmarks toolbar display, in Firefox go to View > Toolbars and highlight “bookmark toolbar.” Now, all the category folders that you created will show up in the bookmarks toolbar across the top of the page.
In Internet Explorer, go to to View > Toolbars and select “links.” Then, make sure to also deselect the “lock toolbars option.” Now, you’ll see the word “links” show up somewhere up top in IE. Take that and drag it where you want it to go. When I look at my IE, it looks like it puts this on the same line as the menu toolbar. Make sure to drag it on to its own line and extend it across. Now make your favorites show on the left side (click the “star” that makes them show) and drag the folders up onto the links bar. Then you can close the favorites side bar and not have to use it.
Alternatively, if you’d rather just use the favorites sidebar in IE instead of the links toolbar, that might work out just as well. In Firefox I found this cumbersome because it treats the side bar a bit differently.
This Connects to Filing in General
So now we see a way to organize online book marks in good categories and how to make those categories quick and easy to access.
As I’ve mentioned above, this is part of the larger question of filing in general. I’ll be doing posts in the future on how to set up your files. (Yes, even in the age of good desktop search, there is still a critical place for good electronic filing, as well as effective filing of paper-based stuff. Good filing is fun and effective!)
In my post yesterday on how to get your email inbox to zero, I encouraged readers to email me their questions on email and effective practices that they use. I’ll then do some posts next week answering the best questions and highlighting some of the best ideas from people.
A helpful way to illustrate my system might be to summarize how I use it to handle these email questions I receive so that I have access to them next week when I write the posts, but still have them in an organized spot in the meantime.
Here’s principle number one for me in this: I’m not keeping those emails in my inbox.
Those who read the post yesterday could probably finish this post today for me. What I did is create a new folder in with the “working folders” that I encourage people to have. The constant folders in there are “answer,” “hold,” and “read.” But you can also create temporary folders in there for support material that you need to keep on hand for a bit, or which you need to collect for a task in the coming days.
So I created a folder called “WBN Questions” in in with my other working folders. Whenever I get a question, I send a quick thanks to the person and then move the email into that folder. Next week when I write the post, I’ll go into that folder, review the questions again, pick the best ones, and write my post.
When I’m all done, I’ll delete the emails (though I never permanently empty my deleted bin, so I’ll still have them on file), and then delete this temporary support folder.
It is possible to get your email in-box to zero every day, even if you get 100 emails a day.
And it’s not super complicated — though it does take effort and some discipline. But I don’t think that lack of effort has been the main problem. I think the main problem has been not knowing how to manage email effectively.
A lot of people have simply never been taught some of the basic best practices for keeping email under control. For example, most of us fall into the trap of using our email in-box as a small to-do list from time to time (really bad), and sometimes we even end up using our in-box as a holding tank for major project items (far worse).
The result is that we go through the day with the sense of having a thousand “open loops” continually before us.
The goal of this article is to outline some very simple practices that will enable you to manage your email in a way that is effective, simple, and maintains a sense of relaxed control. You should be able to take this article and use it to get your in box from whatever point it is — even if it’s at 15,000 emails — and get it down to zero.
And it shouldn’t take too long (although if you have 15,000 emails, maybe you should just delete everything more than three weeks old and start over!).
And you’ll be able to keep it there. Or, at least, if you don’t keep it there, it won’t be because you don’t know how.
In this article, we are going to cover five areas. By going through these five things, we will go through a process that will enable you to get your email inbox to zero and keep it there. The five areas we will cover are:
- Setting up your email workspace
- The rules of processing
- How to handle the four different types of emails
- Email filing (don’t do it)
- Staying at zero all day long: how often should you check email?
(I have also made a pdf of this article available for those who would prefer it in that format.)
I just posted above a detailed article I’ve written on how to get your email inbox to zero every day. The process works really well. I find it entirely doable to get my inbox to zero at least once a day, with the exception of days when I’m away from my computer or when I shut email down to focus on large projects, and in spite of receiving some pretty complicated emails.
(Although this doesn’t mean that there are never any days, or weeks even, when you need to let things go completely haywire, or just say “enough!,” which I think is just fine from time to time — more on that in future posts.)
Now, the article certainly doesn’t answer all questions that can arise. In addition, I’m really interested in hearing what approaches you have found effective in dealing with email.
So here’s what I think will be most interesting of all:
- Send me (or put in the comments) your questions on email. Send the toughest ones you can think of, especially anything that has been a consistent snag to you, or any unanswered questions from the article. I’ll then do a post next week giving my answers to the most puzzling and most helpful questions and we can also discuss them further in the comments if desired.
- Send me (or put in the comments) some of the email strategies and tactics that you’ve found most effective, and I’ll feature the most interesting or useful ones in some posts.