A guaranteed way to leave work and feel a sense of accomplishment every day

Finish LineUsing a 10-minute Daily Review is a sure-fire way to leave work every day and feel a sense of accomplishment. Additionally, you will enjoy the corresponding decrease in stress that comes with knowing you completed everything you wanted to get done for the day.

If you follow GTD and keep your trusted system up to date with specific Next Actions for your Projects, then it is easy to do this by performing a 10-minute Daily Review every morning. A Daily Review consists of two things – 1) review your calendar for available time that day 2) scan your Next Action lists and decide what you want to complete before going home from work. It’s that simple and usually doesn’t even take 10 minutes.

For me, it is as simple as carving out 10 minutes first thing every morning to look at my calendar to get a sense of what my day looks like. Then, once I know how much available time I have and what the blocks of time look like (large contiguous chunks or small fragmented ones) I have the appropriate context to decide what I want to tackle for the day. I simply scan my Next Actions and mark those items with a “Today” tag.

Finally, I filter those items with the Today tag so I only have the items I have decided I want to accomplish that day. Since Evernote works on my Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad and Galaxy Edge, I have my Today list on each of the devices I use. I leave this Today list up on all my devices and during the course of the day as I accomplish items on the list I delete them.

As soon as I have an empty Today list, I know I have completed all the agreements I have with myself for the day.

By doing a Daily Review each morning and deciding exactly what I intend to accomplish that day, I effectively create a “finishing line” at the end of each workday. Once I cross that imaginary line, I can start to put the workday behind me and start shifting my attitude, heart, and mind towards the next part of my day — whether that’s social, exercise, recreation, or family time.

I can’t tell you what a great feeling it is to look at that empty Today list and know that I have accomplished everything I set out to do for the day. This knowledge allows me to drive home and decompress by tuning out by watching TV, reading a book, talking to my wife and kids or whatever. I’m in the mood to relax and refresh knowing I had a productive day.

Performing a Daily Review allows you to clarify your thoughts, collect yourself, refresh and renew, by setting yourself up for having a feeling of accomplishment. Equally important, is the ability to forget all the things I didn’t do because I consciously choose not to do them but are still on my plate is essential to relieving stress.

Successful task management is really agreement management. At the end of the day, how good you feel about what you did and didn’t do correlates to how well you think you kept agreements with yourself. Did you actually do what you told yourself you would do?

I believe in outcomes and results, not time worked or effort exerted. Once I have completed all the items on my Today list I can go home feeling good about myself no matter what time that is – sometimes it’s late at night and sometimes it’s early in the evening. In those situations, I can feel good about going home earlier than normal. It is a wonderful feeling knowing I accomplished all the agreements I made with myself.

Since I have started this practice, I am far less distracted when I arrive home. I feel more in control, and have a feeling of clarity about what I have accomplished towards completing my priorities. Most importantly, it enables me to “switch off” from work when I’m at home and engage fully with the people I love most.

Crossing your finish line each day is something that not only leaves you feeling satisfied and fulfilled, but motivates you to finish well and decreases your stress.

Taming email communications – part 3

email_iconA few years ago, Merlin Mann conceived the notion of Inbox Zero. In a speech at Google he eloquently described what it is we all want: to finally gain control of our overflowing inboxes, and ultimately, our lives. The concept was simple; we need to aim for zero mail in our inbox.

Easier said than done, right? How many people’s email inboxes are really empty at anytime during the day? Not many.

But the fact of the matter is that there are people who are in control of their email. They do achieve Inbox Zero on a consistent basis and receive all the benefits Merlin promised. They view email as a part of their productivity habit – not as the bane of their existence.

Surely there must be common behaviors that everyone can utilize to get control of their inboxes, right? Below are some “email behavior patterns and practices” that will help you successfully manage your inbox.

Turn off all alerts and notifications

AlertsAs I said in my first post Taming email communications – part 1, there is a huge negative productivity cost of continuously checking email and anything that interrupts what you are doing sap your productivity.

You must embrace the mindset that you are the master of email, not the other way around. To get started on that path of taking back your time and attention, turn off all alerts, pings, buzzes, badge icons, toast and sounds when you get or send email. This also applies to all your social media and other incoming potential distractions.

All those notifications have done is to train us, to constantly be ready to break from our real work and rush over to see the latest piece of spam. Don’t stop at your Outlook desktop email client; make sure to turn off all the alerts on your mobile devices as well.

Schedule time to do email

CalendarSo, now that you have turned off all those notifications and are no longer responding to email as it comes in you are ready to deal with email proactively. The first thing you need to do is to schedule time to do email on your calendar and have the discipline to resist checking email until you have a designated time to do it.

Far too many of us “do email all the time” constantly checking email on all of our devices. We’re constantly in a state of fear regarding the obligations we have sitting in our inboxes, and regularly worry about how many unread mails we have. This is classic fear of missing out (FOMO) and it drives this need to check email. So, we squeeze mail management into every moment we have of the day.

Because we do mail “all the time,” we’re never really completely focused on it.  We’re trying to get through the small stuff, the administrative and unimportant ones… but when we get one that requires a thoughtful reply, seems long or important, or has a deliverable, we leave it in the inbox because we don’t have the time right now to deal with it.

If that sounds like you, please consider scheduling time for email.  When you focus on email, you don’t miss emails and you communicate better.  You actually get both faster and better at email, in part because of the deadline and in part because of the focus your putting on it.

Choose several windows of time each day to tackle your inbox. Depending on your job, you will have different needs for time and frequency for this activity. Some professionals take five minutes at the top of each hour and others set aside time each morning and afternoon.  Personally, I allocate three half hour blocks of time to process my email – once early in the morning, once late in the morning, and then once late in the day.

Stop Using Your Inbox as a To-Do List

TodoDo you leave emails in your inbox so that you will remember to read or tackle them later? If so, you’re using your email to manage your tasks – and those are actually two very different things. Instead, use a separate task manager – I recommend Evernote – so you can spend less time sifting through your inbox, and more time getting your most important work done.

Why do you need to separate these activities out? If you’re conflating email and task management, then the job of simply communicating – reading and replying to your messages – gets bogged down by all the emails you leave sitting in your inbox simply so you won’t forget to address them.

Also, when you check your inbox for an update on a key project or task its easy to get derailed by a stream of unrelated work or personal messages and forget what you were trying to do in the first place. It’s like surfing the web used to be a few years ago.

The reason so many of us fall into the trap of conflating email and task management is that email is inextricable from much of what we do in work and in life. Many of our tasks arrive in the form of email messages, and many other tasks require reading or sending emails as part of getting that work done.

Read once and make a decision so you never touch an email twice

decisionYour goal when reading emails is not to complete everything, but rather read it once and make a decision.  People who have perfected achieving Inbox Zero rely on a pre-defined list of options when reading email.

By simply knowing the possible outcome of each email, it’s much easier to clear your email.  Most people process email thinking: delete, archive or reply.  But that’s the problem! The emails that get stuck in our inboxes do not fall under those categories.

These emails need to be turned into tasks or relate to tasks that we are already working on. In addition to containing tasks, many times these emails could be the starting point of a project or actually be related to projects we are already working on.

You need to have a system & method in place to quickly turn those emails into their associated tasks and projects.  There should be no thinking (procrastinating) as to how to process those emails.  Focus on reading the email content, and deciding what it is. By reading once and making a decision about the email, you save yourself from looking at that same email over and over until you finally deal with it.

Don’t organize in email folders because it makes you less productive

foldersI know this is going to be counterintuitive to many people. For years I arranged my inbox with a series of elaborate nested folders. Now I only have 5 folders.

Search has become so good in recent years that it is no longer worth the productivity hit to organize email in folders.

If you are spending time reading emails, creating email folders, and moving emails around to various folders, searching for emails in folders, please reconsider.  Rather than cleaning your inbox, you are creating several more inboxes, just with different names.  All those emails most likely will have to re-read for reasons mentioned above.

All you need are 5 folders: inbox, trash, draft, sent and archive (All Mail for Gmail users).  As noted above, if emails are tasks or projects or related to any of them, you’ll make the decision when reading the email. Once you’ve done that, the email should be moved to your archive folder. If you need the email in the future you can easily search for it.

Choose your words carefully and remember “less is more”

BrevityBe concise and specific when writing an email, every word matters. Be crisp in your delivery. If you are describing a problem, define it clearly. Doing this well requires more time, not less.

Practice Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) communications where you summarize the exact purpose of the email and any actions required first. This allows the reader to know exactly what the email is and what actions they need to take in the least amount of time. Then they can decide if they want or need to continue reading.

learn the “gift of brevity”

Most email is now read on smartphones instead of large screens so an email that doesn’t require the reader to scroll down the screen on a smartphone is more easily read. So, keep it short and specify exactly what you need in return (actions steps like, “Please RSVP by COB today”).

Too many of today’s professionals feel like they need to include a lot of background and supporting information in their emails. Not so. Less is more! Practice BLUF and put critical information in the first sentence (or two) instead of burying it in the bottom of the email. You’re not writing a mystery novel where the whodunit is discovered at the end of the message.

This is even more important if your email is addressed to senior people in the company. Remember “less is more.”

Use clear, easy-to-understand subject lines

SubjectThink of the subject line as the ultimate BLUF. An easy to understand subject line will help the reader to quickly figure out the purpose of your message, what they need to do, and whether or not they can quickly respond. Craft your subject line to be specific about what actions you expect once it has been read.

Also, if the conversation in an email changes, give it a new subject line. It is extremely easy for information to get overlooked in an email when the content of the message no longer matches the subject line.

Use a phone call or video chat instead of email

callIf an issue truly is urgent, then employees should not be sending emails to one another. Opt instead for the phone. Some people are too “busy” to be bothered with quick phone conversations. They would rather send 10 messages than talk to you for two minutes in person.

There are times when it’s quicker and more efficient to contact someone by calling instead of emailing (such as when you need an immediate answer to a question). A brief phone call can eliminate the back and forth that sometimes occurs with email. And, at the end of the call, you can send a follow-up email summarizing next steps and who will do what.

Another benefit of a call is that you can’t always grasp the true tone of an online conversation. A phone call, video chat, or short in-person meeting can allow you to avoid inadvertently giving the wrong impression and can help you avoid misunderstandings.

Sure, you can use emoticons, but that comes across as unprofessional (or doesn’t convey true emotion), so it’s probably best to pick up the phone instead.

Respond in a timely manner

timelyThere are people who can be relied upon to respond promptly to emails, and those who can’t. Strive to be one of the former. Make it a goal to respond within one business day to all messages that come in.

Most of the best and busiest people act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone. Being responsive sets up a positive communications feedback loop whereby your team and colleagues will be more likely to include you in important discussions and decisions.

Don’t respond to every email

replyYou don’t need to respond to most email. Yes, you read that correctly. Not every email needs a response. If the email is just informational and doesn’t require a response, don’t send one.

Unsubscribe – Remove yourself from unnecessary subscriptions and advertising

unsubscribeUnsubscribe from all those subscriptions, daily newsletters, blog updates, stock feeds and alerts on social media accounts. Instead, utilize a RSS feed reader like Feedly to keep track of your information sources. Get them out of email!

While you need to be diligent to malicious phishing attempts, most subscriptions and advertising make it relatively easy to unsubscribe. This is an unfortunate but necessary part of today’s email reality.

Limit the number of people when addressing email

addressEmails that are sent to many recipients tend to get out of control pretty fast.  These emails, especially if not written properly, can get everyone commenting back and forth and pulling the tone email in their own direction. One outgoing email can easily jam your Inbox with twenty follow-up email replies. So if you must send email to many recipients be crystal clear about the message and expected outcome for the recipients, if any.

Only use BCC to remove someone from an email thread

BCCCopy people openly or don’t copy them at all. The only time I recommend using the BCC feature is when you are removing someone from an email thread. Otherwise don’t use it.

When you reply all to a lengthy series of emails, move the people who are no longer relevant to the thread to the bcc field, and state in the text of the note that you are doing this. They will be relieved to have one less irrelevant note cluttering up their inbox and hopefully they will do the same for you.

Leverage modern software to decrease email volumes and ease email processing

slack-200x200Tools like Slack can have a positive impact on email volumes. The persistent nature of the conversations in Slack makes it ideal for some collaboration that would have otherwise occurred via email. The amount of reduction depends on how much your team culture supports this way of working and how strong adoption is among your fellow collaborators.

Because the center of gravity has shifted from the PC to mobile, most of the innovation in email clients is happening on iOS and Android. This is where Silicon Valley is investing the most resources and therefore there is a lot of competition and innovation in this space.

I like Microsoft’s Outlook for Android and iOS and it has become my favorite way to process email. I can quickly and easily triage my email using Outlook on a smartphone. It divides the inbox into “Focused” and “Other” views and it does an excellent job of putting the most important and relevant email in the “Focused” queue. Then you can efficiently swipe to delete or archive the email with a flick of the thumb.

Even better it has the same interface on both iOS and Android. Goodbye Mail.app and Gmail clients!

Conclusion

That’s my guidance on how to master email in today’s environment. I realize full Inbox Zero may be too big of a change for many people but if you use these patterns and practices, I guarantee your email experience will be much better. I hope it helps!

Taming email communications – part 2

slack-200x200In my last post I described the three challenges that email presents in today’s modern life. Now, I want to tell you about what is driving the desire to “kill email” and what some companies are doing about it.

The desire to “kill email”

More and more we hear of people declaring “email bankruptcy” by marking them all as read, and starting from scratch. Clearly there is a growing frustration with email. Recently, I’ve noticed the chorus of articles like this one from Fortune Magazine asking “Why can’t we kill email?” or this one from the Verge claiming “Slack is killing email.” Slack is the current darling and articles like this from the New York Times: “Slack the office messaging app that may finally sink email” are driving the “kill email” sentiment.

All this hype is generally way overblown. They claim that many new startup companies like Slack, Convo, HipChat have sprung up in recent years to openly wage war on email. With interfaces inspired by today’s social networks, their software aims to replace email, which was designed to be asynchronous, with persistent chat and real-time communication tools that can be as broad or focused as needed.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think Slack is a fantastic tool and it does reduce email in many situations. I use Slack and it has replaced email in certain scenarios but when I see headlines like this on Business Insider, “Amazing messaging tool Slack can kill 80 to 100% of work emails” I just shake my head wondering if the authors actually believe what they write. I think they are actually doing Slack a disservice by over promising in a way that the startup can only under deliver on those expectations in the real world. Sure, a 20-person greenfield startup with no legacy can probably live without substantial email but that is just not the real world.

Silicon Valley is in love with Slack

In order to try to monetize the growing dislike of email, Silicon Valley is funding companies who are all trying to “kill email” as this article in CiteWorld “Why Silicon Valley is suddenly in love with Slack” documents. CNBC claims Slack wins the “Race to $2 billion: The fastest-growing start-up” and the Verge says, “Slack is now the fastest-growing workplace software ever.”

No wonder Silicon Valley is in love with Slack!

What makes Slack different?

Slack is really a chat room for offices that allows coworkers to communicate by sending individual and group messages. The rooms are persistent so the content is always available for all to see and not locked in individuals email inboxes. This allows people to consume the content on their timeframe – not when the sender clicks send like in email. This is a huge difference!

There is an additional advantage that new colleagues can see all of the historical content that has been posted over time. This is a huge advantage over email where all that information and collaboration is locked inside people’s inboxes. So, while companies like Slack can reduce email in todays workplace they are not the total solution to people’s frustrations with email.

Why nothing will completely replace email

Reading about all these companies promising to “kill email” I just shake my head in disbelief because let’s be honest — email will never die. There are several reasons for this. Some are outlined in this article “How to kill email: Why startups will fail to displace email” but I think the biggest reason is because email is an open standard.

Email is an open standard that works on every device and is universally accessible to anyone in the world. It’s the only system in the world where a user can send a message regardless of infrastructure. Additionally, the web is addicted to email as a unique identifier for usernames. Every service on the web has some dependency on email whether it involves an account sign-up form, customer service, or some form of customer engagement.

These new tools are definitely part of the overall solution to reduce the amount of email we receive but they will never eliminate email entirely. The whole notion is just silly. The reality is that the collaboration tools of the future will need to seamlessly integrate IM, workflow, discussion, collaboration, content, phone, video, presence awareness and email too.

So, if email isn’t going away how do we tame the email beast? In my next post I’ll tell you exactly how to do it.

Taming email communications – part 1

For years, email has been scourge of business communications and many of us blame email for our woes. We love blaming “technology” because but it’s harder for us to look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves. If we do, then we’ll realize that the problem isn’t email; it’s how we use it.

The days of blaming email are over. To say that you are buried in email is really saying that you are unorganized. To tell someone that you “missed it” or “didn’t get your email” is to say you were not paying attention. Spam folders and lost attachments are the receivers’ responsibility to manage and maintain – not a viable excuse.

Email is such a huge part of communication; it is time to pay attention to it, to study up on it and to actually get trained on best practices.

Left unmanaged, email presents three main problems:

  1. The time we spend doing email
  2. The negative productivity cost of continuously checking email
  3. Email lets other people prioritize your day for you

The time we spend doing email

If you feel like you’re playing whack-a-mole with your inbox, you’re not alone. The Radicati Group estimates that the average knowledge worker receives around 100 emails every day, a number that is rising at around 15% per year.

In July 2012, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report titled “The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies,” which found that typical employees now spend fully 28% of their work time managing email. And it is only getting worse! Think about it. If you work 50 hours per week, then 14 of them are spent reading and writing emails.

The negative productivity cost of continuously checking email

What is less obvious to us, however, is the cognitive price we pay each time we drop everything and check our email. Shifting our attention from one task to another, as we do when we’re monitoring email while trying to read a report or craft a presentation, disrupts our concentration and saps our focus. Each time we return to our initial task, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves. And all those transitional costs add up.

Research shows that when we are deeply engrossed in an activity, even minor distractions can have a profound effect. According to a University of California-Irvine study, regaining our initial momentum following an interruption can take, on average, upwards of 20 minutes.

Studies show that being cut off from email significantly reduces stress and allows employees to focus far better, according to the study by UC Irvine and U.S. Army researchers. Heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.

“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark.

Multitasking, as many studies have shown, is a myth. A more accurate account of what happens when we tell ourselves we’re multitasking is that we’re rapidly switching between activities, degrading our clarity and depleting our mental energy. And the consequences can be surprisingly serious.

An experiment shows that email makes you dumber than pot was conducted at the University of London found that we lose as many as 10 IQ points when we allow our work to be interrupted by seemingly benign distractions like emails and text messages.

Remember: it’s up to you to protect your cognitive resources. The more you do to minimize task-switching over the course of the day, the more mental bandwidth you’ll have for activities that actually matter.

Email lets other people prioritize your day for you

Speaking of activities that actually matter, email is the ultimate tool for letting other people prioritize your day for you. Reacting to emails as they come in effectively surrenders your ability to focus on your priorities. Instead, you spend your time dealing with all the incoming “stuff.” David Allen calls this “reacting to the latest and loudest” and it is a surefire way to let other people set your priorities.

The net effect of this is you feel like you’re getting a lot of work done but the problem is that you are not getting the important stuff done. Cumulatively, this saps away your ability to complete the things that really make a difference to your boss and your company.

Finally, we all feel constantly busy in our work lives today. Email is a huge part of this. The speed of business is certainly increasing and technologies like email are certainly part of this. Competition is moving faster and therefore, there is increasing pressure to do more in less time. With all this pressure to do more in less time, it is even more critical that you do the important stuff first and not allow other people to prioritize your activities for you.

So, those are the three main problems with modern email. In my next post I’ll tell you why everyone wants to kill email and what to do about it.

Why GTD is so important to successful Work-Life integration

134086167In today’s world “Work-Life Balance” is an impossible fairy tale. If we are honest with ourselves, all we can strive for is successful “Work-Life Integration.” I say this because work-life balance implies that what you do professionally and what you do personally are somehow at odds – a zero-sum game that requires us to strike a 50-50 balance.

Work-life integration, by contrast, suggests that at the very best, what you do at work and what you do outside of it with family, friends, and community are driven by the same fundamental values and priorities. Ideally, you can bring your talents, strengths and personality to both arenas, making one’s work life and home life parts of a seamless whole. Then you find ways to fulfill and enjoy both your work and life demands at the same time.

The Harvard Business Review has a great article on the subject called “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life” that states, “Work/life balance is at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth, today’s senior executives will tell you. But by making deliberate choices about which opportunities they’ll pursue and which they’ll decline, rather than simply reacting to emergencies, leaders can and do engage meaningfully with work, family, and community.” 

Forbes Insights has a detailed research called “The @Work State of Mind Project” where they state “The barriers between personal and work time have crumbled. Executives have to be prepared to make decisions anywhere and at any time. Just 3% of the survey respondents said that they didn’t send or receive emails while on vacation. Only 2% said that they never worked weekends or nights. More than half the respondents (52%) said they receive information related to business decisions round-the-clock, including weekends.”

Work-life integration isn’t just about finding time at home to do work tasks and handling home tasks at work, even though that’s a popular perception. Instead of thinking “what work can I easily integrate into my home life”, focus on how you can integrate all areas of your life the best way you can. The ultimate goal is to optimize how you use your time so you can fulfill all of your daily needs, both in your work and in your personal life.

This is where GTD is so critical and I see many people make the mistake of setting up separate systems. Don’t attempt to separate your trusted systems into work and personal systems. You just have your life and all the associated commitments and stuff in your life, so you need a single trusted system. However, you should separate your contexts – what you can only do at the office and what you can only do at home when defining your next actions. That way, you only scan your next actions that are appropriate to the context of where you physical are at any given time.

If your trusted system up to date it is easy to leave work every day and feel like you accomplished exactly what you needed to do for that day. This allows you to drive home and decompress by tuning out and watching TV, reading a book, or whatever activity you like to do to relax and refresh. The ability to forget all the things you didn’t do that are still on your plate is essential to relieving stress and feeling like you are doing the appropriate things given your available time and context.

I recommend you do a “Daily Review” at the beginning of each day at the office. First, look at your calendar to see what hard commitments you have and how much discretionary time you have. Then, look at your Office Next Action list and decide what you realistically want to accomplish before you go home.

I stress the realistic part of this. Assign a “Today” tag to the next actions you want to accomplish today. Then filter your next actions on TODAY so you only see those items you decided you want to accomplish today. Once you can check off or delete all those things that you set out to accomplish in the morning at the office, go home. That way, you can feel good about accomplishing what you set out to accomplish at work and go home to be with your loved ones and focus on the priorities in your non-work life.

 

Why I use Evernote for my Trusted System

Evernote LogoMany people (either consciously or unconsciously) try to keep track of everything they need to do in their mind, which is a big mistake. Our brains are optimized for fast decision-making, not storage.  Trying to juggle too many things in your head at the same time is a major reason we get stressed out when there’s a lot of stuff going on.

The best way to stop mentally stressing and start being productive is to get all your “stuff” into your trusted system. David Allan defines “stuff” as: “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.” (page 17 of Getting Things Done) So, when we have stuff in our heads, it causes untold stress and anxiety. Once the information is out of your head, it’s far easier to figure out what to do with it.

I recently ran across an old friend who uses OmniFocus as the basis of his trusted system and he wanted to know why I used Evernote instead of OmniFocus. Choosing a tool for your trusted system is a personal decision and analog, digital and hybrid systems can work. Many people who are Mac-centric use OmniFocus and are extremely pleased with how it works for them and since it is designed with GTD in mind it makes it easy to follow GTD methodology.

So, what exactly is a trusted system?

We all use trusted systems today and probably don’t know it. Your calendar is a trusted system. Once you put a meeting or appointment into your calendar your brain “lets go of it” and no longer keeps it in your subconscious. Why does your brain “forget” that meeting or birthday?  The reason is your brain “trusts” your “system” (calendar) to remember it for you. Same thing goes for todays Contacts Apps for your names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, etc.

Calendar and Contact apps are specialized trusted systems for specific uses. In GTD you also need a general-purpose trusted system for all the other “stuff” in your life. My trusted system must be 1) easy to use 2) with me at all times 3) on all my devices. It must be able to provide friction-free capture of the incoming stuff that comes to me. It must be able to retrieve the relevant information I need at a moments notice. It must be able to handle digital and analog inputs depending on contexts. And most important, when building a trusted system, simplicity is the key – less is more – and that is why I use Evernote.

Evernote serves as the foundation for my trusted system because of its friction-free input and output of data. It is always available and I can easily access it from whatever device I am using. It syncs across all my devices so it doesn’t matter if I am on my laptop, my home computer, my smartphone or my tablet because I can easily get information in and out of Evernote.

Evernote’s ecosystem of applications allows me to fine-tune how I use it for capture. I use a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner to scan all physical paper directly into Evernote. I use Fast Ever to capture text-based stuff in a friction-free manner. I also use the Evernote Web Clipper to clip web pages into Evernote with one-click ease.

This is how my trusted system is set up.

Notebooks

I have 16 “Notebooks” which are the collections of individual notes. I also have two “Stacks” (Next Actions and Reference) that are collections of Notebooks.

  1. Agendas
  2. Areas of Focus
  3. Assistant
  4. Next Actions:  Anywhere, Errands, Home, Office
  5. Projects
  6. Reference: Education, GTD, Information Technology, Receipts, Reference
  7. Waiting For
  8. Someday/Maybe
  9. Stop Doing
  10. Unprocessed
Tags

Some GTD Evernote practitioners use tags extensively to organize their system. I only use tags sparingly and really only use two tags – “Today” for the next actions I am planning on doing today and “Weekend” for next actions I plan on accomplishing over the weekend. Tags are attributes that you can apply to any individual note. You can then view all notes with a specific tag, regardless of which notebook it resides in. This provides for the ultimate in filing flexibility and many people prefer to use tags as the basis for their system instead of notebooks. I do not use tags because of the extra steps (clicks or touches) it takes to tag the item introduces friction into the capture and processing processes.

Do not distinguish between work and personal

I don’t distinguish between work stuff and personal stuff for the same reason I do not use tags – I do not want additional clicks or touches when capturing or processing my stuff. Don’t confuse a context like @home where the next physical action can only be done at home with “personal” as in separating work stuff with personal stuff. In GTD, there is no distinction between business and personal – it is all “stuff” you need to do and it needs to get into your trusted system.

Use Evernote’s email address to easily get email stuff into your trusted system

In today’s world a significant amount tasks, action items, projects and other stuff are going to come to you via email. Fortunately, Evernote has a friction-free way to handle this. Each Evernote account is assigned a unique email address. You can find this in the desktop version of Evernote under Evernote – Account Info. Your email address will look something like this “username.c12345@m.evernote.com” and you should add this address to your contacts. I created a new contact called, “Inbox” and assigned this email address to it. Now when I want to send a message to Evernote, I simply forward it to my Inbox contact.

Set your default Notebook

Set your default notebook in Evernote so when you email something to Evernote, it is automatically filed in your default notebook. Mine goes to a notebook named “Unprocessed.”

Capturing all your stuff

The beauty of Evernote is it’s friction-free ability to get “stuff” into Evernote so you can process it later and ensure you never forget anything that is actionable.  This is critical to having a Trusted System and the stress-free productivity that goes with it.

Capturing email

When I am processing email and I come across an action that is more than two minutes, I forward it to Evernote and drag the email to my Archived folder in case I ever need to original email.

Capturing web sites

If I am on the web or I click thru to a web site and see something actionable or a reference item I want to save for future use, I use the Evernote Web Clipper to clip the article to Evernote.

Capturing RSS Feeds

If I see an actionable item when reading RSS feeds in Feedly, I just click on the send to Evernote icon.

Capturing physical paper

If I have a physical piece of paper that needs to get into my trusted system I use my ScanSnap to scan it to Evernote. One button is all it takes!

Capturing ideas or actionable items on the go

If I come up with an idea or someone tells me something actionable, I use Fast Ever to input it via text.

All of these way to capture stuff end up with new actionable items waiting for me in my Unprocessed folder ready to process into the appropriate action and context for that item.  I can’t think of a better way to have a friction-free way to getting stuff into my trusted system than using Evernote.  And for this reason, Evernote has become the most important application I have on all my devices.

That’s it. My Trusted System that runs my entire life is in this simple yet powerful tool called Evernote.

Start 2015 off with a Yearly Review

2015This is the time of year we all do self-reflection and resolve to improve ourselves in the new year.  As most everyone knows making resolutions like “I’m going to lose weight” rarely are successful.  The main reason for this is these goals are not put in a context that will allow for long-term success.  Once the initial “eat better and get to the gym” wears off and we are stuck in the daily grind of our lives we revert to our old habits.

If you really want to resolve to accomplish something and truly make a commitment with yourself, then you need to create an environment for long-term success.  This means adopting GTD and incorporating your desired outcomes into your trusted system.

I recommend you do a “Yearly Review” to reflect on last year and project into next year.  Then if something comes out of that self-reflection that you really are willing to commit to, you need to incorporate it into your system and work your system every week via the Weekly Review.  By using this approach (as opposed to a new year’s resolution) you will have a much better chance of long-term success.

The year-end review is similar to a weekly review but at a much higher level.  Here are the questions I ask myself:

Looking back on 2014:

  • What were your wins for the year?
  • What were the risks you took?
  • What is your unfinished business from this year that will carry forward to 2014?
  • What are you most happy about completing?
  • Who were the people who had the greatest impact on your life this year?
  • What was your biggest surprise?
  • What did you give back to your community?

Looking forward to 2015:

  • What would you like to be your biggest win to be this year?
  • What are you planning to do to improve yourself?
  • What would you be most happy about completing in the coming year?
  • What would you most like to change about yourself?
  • What are you looking forward to learning?
  • What do you think your biggest risk will be?
  • What about your work, are you most committed to changing and improving?

Then, I do a thorough review of my Someday/Maybes to see if there is anything on there that I want to commit to accomplishing in the new year. Perform a review of your higher-level horizons like your Areas of Focus to see if they still reflect your commitments and responsibilities accurately.

Next, it is critical to assess how you have allocated your time over the course of the last year. This is critical because time is your most valuable asset. There are only 24 hours in a day and therefore you need to make the most of each one of those hours.  To complete my Year-End Review I schedule my calendar for the new year. I schedule all of my recurring meetings to stop recurring at the end of the year so I will have a blank calendar in the new year. This way I get to reassess the value of those meetings.

Open your calendar and look back at your recurring meetings. Were they worth the time you invested in them? I’ll bet they started out with the best of intentions and actually provided value but over time, they decayed into less value. Take a critical look at your recurring meetings and ask yourself if they continue to be worth the time investment.  Ideally, you will delete these from your calendar. If you’re not comfortable with removing them, then maybe you can reduce their recurrence from daily to weekly or weekly to every other week or monthly.

The next thing you need to do is to schedule your priorities. This is absolutely critical! If you don’t schedule your priorities, your calendar will get filled up with other stuff and you wont be spending your time on the highest value items. Schedule the things that really matter first. For me, this is my family time, my weekly review, priority projects, 1:1s with my direct reports and any major commitments I may have.

Schedule these items in the morning and don’t make them more than 90 minutes. Why? Because if you schedule them in the morning and you get “overtaken by events” and have to do something else you can bump a lower priority item off later in the day. Also, there is ample evidence showing that people’s energy, concentration and effectiveness is greater in the morning than the afternoon. There is also lots of evidence that after an hour and a half people’s effectiveness drops off significantly so if you have a large project you are much better scheduling multiple 90 appointments than to try to slog thru a multiple hour task.

Schedule multiple 30 minute appointments to process you “inboxes.” For most people this is email but if your honest with yourself you have multiple incoming queues of stuff. If you follow GTD then you have your “unprocessed” queue of stuff. You may have an “inbox” on your desk, you may have incoming calls, you may have RSS feeds, you may have the incoming stream of social media or other incoming queues of “stuff” that needs to be processed. Schedule time to process your stuff to zero.

Once you have added these items to your calendar, then whatever free blocks of time are left can be filled with meetings and other lower priority items.

Do a Year-end Review and I guarantee you will feel better and start 2015 off on the track to success!

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