How to Make Doing a Weekly Review a Habit

Time for ReviewAt this time of the year many people want to get back on the GTD bandwagon because they are in a reflective mode of self improvement. If you read my last post Don’t make New Year’s Resolutions (do a Year-End Review instead) then you are in a great place to start 2016. Now, all you need to do is figure out how you are going to do your weekly reviews consistently on an ongoing basis.

Inherently, you know doing weekly reviews is the critical component of a successful GTD practice and the stress reduction it can provide.  When practiced diligently they can provide what David Allen calls “Mind Like Water” and when you are in this state you can feel great about where you are, what you are doing and what you are not doing. For anyone who has experienced this feeling it is amazing and they want to get back there.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way many people lose steam and stop doing their weekly reviews. Once this happens they no longer trust their systems are accurate and complete inventories of all of their commitments and the system fails.

Fortunately, there is one way to succeed with GTD over the long term and that is to do a weekly review every week.  This is the single most important thing to success or failure over the long term.  If you really want to succeed you need to commit to spending an hour to and hour and a half a week doing a weekly review – without fail, no exceptions.

So, how do you do that? Make it a habit. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that habits are a result of three things – a cue, a routine and a reward. Once you set up these three things you will create a new habit and once you make your weekly review a habit, you are on the way to ongoing stress-free productivity.

I was able to make doing a weekly review a habit by scheduling time with my wife to do our weekly review together on Saturday afternoons over a nice bottle of wine. We alternate weeks choosing a nice bottle of wine to share when we are doing our review. This provides the critical “reward” – delicious wine – that is part of Charles’ three parts of successful habit formation. So, the “Cue” is Saturday afternoon, the “Routine” is the Weekly Review, and the “Reward” is wine and mind like water.

I suggest you get your partner and figure out what a desirable common reward would be and then schedule time to enjoy that reward while doing your weekly review. Not only will you enjoy the reward but you will have synced with your partner on all the upcoming stuff that affects both of you. Once performing weekly reviews with your partner becomes a habit you will be on GTD auto-pilot.

Don’t make New Year’s Resolutions!


A new year is upon us, which means it’s time to break out the champagne and decide what we want to change about ourselves in the new year. It’s only natural to think in terms of fresh starts and new opportunities when the calendar changes, but as many of us know, resolving to change is one thing. Making those changes stick is another.

Don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. Do a Year-End Review instead.

This 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.

Research suggests that one-third of all new year’s resolutions are abandoned within the first month, and fewer than half survive to the six-month mark. How can we keep our resolutions going all year long? 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.

The first thing I recommend is to 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. This has to be come a habit for long-term success. 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 2015:

  • 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 2016?
  • 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 do to give back to your community?

Looking forward to 2016:

  • 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 and decide if they are still necessary.

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 your “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 for physical papers, 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 you will start 2016 off on the track to success!


The 5 phases of GTD – Phase 1 “Capture”

ThinkstockPhotos-497130100The capture phase is fairly self explanatory. Whenever you have a thought or action comes to mind that you need or want to do something with (David Allen calls it “stuff) then you need to capture it in a place that your mind will trust that it won’t get lost. This place is called your “trusted system” and it is the key building block of the GTD system.

If your stuff is not being directly managed in an external trusted system, then it’s resident somewhere in your psyche (David calls these open loops) and that is a bad thing. The point is you need to make sure that everything you need is collected somewhere other than in your head.

If you are new to GTD or have lost steam in you GTD practice, you need to do what David Allen calls “the mind-sweep.” The idea behind the mind-sweep is to identify and gather a complete inventory of everything that is making claims on your attention or is likely to affect the larger areas of responsibility in your life.

Capturing “stuff” with a Mind-Sweep

The mind-sweep is really simple. I break it down into two parts.

First, I take my phone and literally walk around my house and office and take pictures of things that I want/need/may want to do something about. It is important not to judge the items or think about them in any way, just get them captured. Many items will be in the someday/maybe category that I may not actually get to doing for a long time. That’s okay. The critical part is to capture everything.

Literally, start in your front yard and take pictures of everything that you might want to do something about. Maybe it’s trimming the trees or weeding the planter or painting the house. Just start capturing everything. Then go to the side of the house, the backyard, the garage, and every room in your house. Don’t skip closets or junk drawers as they can easily be a source of subconscious stress.

Once you have completed this physical inventory of all your stuff, move on the second phase of the mind-sweep. Start with a single sheet of printer paper and a pencil, set a timer for 10 minutes, and just begin to inventory every conceivable “open loop” from the corners of your brain.

Begin with the hopelessly-behind project that’s making you crazy right now, then proceed methodically through every flash of thought that makes you pause because these are the little runaway background processes that are responsible for subconscious stress and you need them out of your head.

Think about it like brainstorming. Don’t judge the items or think about them in any way, just get them on paper. Remember, this is your opportunity to eliminate subconscious stress by capturing items that can later be made actionable (or deferred or delegated or killed). But you can’t do anything about it until it’s been captured and then evaluated later in your trusted system.

Once you complete your mind-sweep you need to be able to capture stuff as it happens in your life on an ongoing basis.

Capturing “stuff” on an ongoing basis

It is critical that you equip yourself with tools that allow you to capture stuff whether you are; at home, the office, the gym, the car, on a walk or just on-the-go somewhere. This is a critical point. You need to be able to capture stuff wherever you are so it is important to make it easy to capture your stuff at the moment it comes to you. This can be your smartphone or a pad of paper, index cards or just about anything as long as you have it with you at all times and it is super easy to use.

Some people choose analog capture because they like the feel of paper or are just more comfortable with analog solutions. That’s fine, but I choose a digital solution. Either way can work. Paper aficionados swear by the simplicity of pen and paper. It is hard to argue with that logic and it has worked for centuries. There are many note-taker solutions designed to be kept with you at all times on the market that work well.

I use Evernote to for this purpose because it is the perfect place to both capture and process my stuff because it is available on all the devices I use (Nexus, Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, Mac and PC) and it automatically syncs to all my devices. Another reason I prefer this method is notes captured on my phone are “born digital” and therefore I do not have to type them into my system from paper which eliminates double entry.

Since we all carry our mobile phones with us at all times, if your going to go the digital route then your phone is the logical capture device when you pair it with Evernote. Whenever you have an idea, think of something or make a commitment, it’s easy to capture it in Evernote on your phone. If you reduce the friction you experience when capturing ideas, actions items and commitments, you’ll naturally capture more of them.

Regardless of whether you use an analog or digital system, there are two critical components to an effective capture system. First, you must always have it with you so you can immediately capture your stuff whenever and wherever you are. Second, you have to have a friction-free system for capturing your stuff. If there is any friction in your capture system you will tend to not capture that idea/task/deliverable/commitment right there in the moment.

So, that is the first phase of GTD – Capture. Next time I will discuss phase 2 – Clarify where you go through the stuff that you collected in step one and give it meaning.

Use GTD to facilitate Work-Life Integration

Mind Like WaterMost people today have so many demands on their time that there is literally not enough time in a day to get it all done. We all strive for some kind of work-life balance but the reality of todays always-on world is there is no true separation between work and the rest of your life. Everything is integrated together such that what we really strive for is successful work-life integration.

I have found an extremely effective way to balance all of the commitments in my life and it is called Getting Things Done or GTD for short. What’s the essence of Getting Things Done? GTD provides the most systematic and effective way to manage all the commitments you have to yourself and others. GTD’s key benefit is freedom – freedom from the sources of distraction and stress in your life.

David Allen’s first book “Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress Free Productivity” is the basis for my work-life management system that has evolved over the years. I do not literally practice David Allan’s version of GTD but rather use the basic concepts and modify or adapt them to the reality of my life.

What is GTD Exactly?

There are 5 steps to GTD that I’ll go into more detail with upcoming posts, but here’s a quick overview:

1) Capture – When a thought or action comes to mind that you need or want to do something with – “stuff” – then you need to capture it in a place that your mind will trust that it won’t get lost.
2) Clarify – Go through the “stuff” that you collected in step one and give it meaning.
3) Organize – Defined your “stuff” and get it into lists optimized for later use.
4) Reflect – Look over your lists to do any clean up and decide what comes next.
5) Engage – Now that you have everything in place, do something about it.

Reducing Stress – “Mind Like Water”

The main goal behind GTD is to free up your mind. As David Allen likes to say, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” If you get things out of your head and into your trusted system, you can focus your mind on the task at hand or the person in front of you as opposed to remembering what you need to do next. It’s a way of bringing yourself back to the present because you’re not worrying about all the things you have to do and this relieves subconscious stress.

If you throw a rock into a calm pond, you see a splash and then some ripples start to form. The water reacts to forces around it in that moment and then slowly returns to its original state. GTD is a way to give your mind that ability. Getting things out of your mind and into a trusted system allows you to react to the new things coming at you and then return to your original state.

In coming posts I will detail what the 5 phases of GTD are and how you can get started on your journey to achieve “mind like water” to reduce stress and be more productive in everything that you do.

Leverage digital tools to become a digital leader

Lifelong LearningAs a CIO in today’s fast-paced world it has become increasingly difficult to stay on top of all the relevant information, knowledge and ideas that I need to provide the level of digital leadership I aspire to. And, because there are only 24 hours in a day, I need to become more efficient in consuming information. Digital tools can make learning more efficient.

Digital leaders are life-long learners with a thirst for knowledge, insight, and wisdom.

With the accelerating pace of change and the abundance of information in today’s workplace, it is critical to leverage digital tools to keep up. It also requires curiosity and a willingness to venture outside of your own echo chamber of ideas and beliefs to include a wider range of inputs to your information diet. You need to be open to opposing points of view and have a willingness to challenge your beliefs.

EinsteinDigital leaders build a culture of ongoing learning in the organization. Leaders not only learn themselves but also advocate a culture of learning and provide many different ways for employees to gain knowledge and insight. There is no one-size-fits-all tool that will work for everyone. Each employee is different and learns in different ways so digital leaders will provide a vast array of learning opportunities. Here are some that I recommend:

Online learning sites like, Coursera or Kahn Academy allow people to learn at their own pace in their own time. You can learn interactively at your own pace and in the comfort of your own home. It’s hard to imagine how much easier it can possibly be. Often these courses can lead to certifications of accomplishment that demonstrate mastery of the subject matter.

Podcasts are a great way to learn while you are in the car or at the gym. The recent popularity of podcasts has created a plethora of excellent content. I highly recommend anyone in management listen to Manager Tools and individual contributors should listen to Career Tools. I regularly listen to the following podcasts: A16Z, Beyond the To-Do List, Cloud Cast, Getting Things Done, Re:code decode,Tech.pinions, Tailgating Security, Tim Ferris Show, What to Think: Innovation Engines.

RSS Feeds and readers like Feedly allow you to cover more news and information in less time. I have found using Feedly is the best way to keep on top of all the news and developments I need to be successful in today’s business and technical world. With Feedly I can scan hundreds or thousands of articles from dozens of different sources quickly and efficiently. Feedly dramatically reduces the friction in information consumption. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Every morning I read the daily newspapers like Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post on my iPad on the Elliptical machine at the gym. Why? Because the WSJ is the definitive source for business news, the NYT because it is the national paper of record, and the WP because it is the source for political and world events. With the digital versions of these newspapers I can scan the entire newspaper in less than 3 minutes and then drill down on any stories that interest me. Now, I have all of the relevant information that matters in less than 10 minutes.

Once a week, I scan the weekly magazines like The Economist, BusinessWeek,Time, Newsweek, The Week, GolfWeek and Sports Illustrated to glean the deeper perspective of the stories and issues of the week. Once again, the digital versions of these magazines lend themselves to quickly scanning the headlines and only drilling down on the relevant articles in a way that would be impossible with the analog versions.

On a monthly basis, I scan the Harvard Business Review, Hollywood Reporter, Inc., Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Wired, PC Magazine, PC World, MacLife, Money, Sound & Vision, Golf Digest, Golf, ESPN, Men’s Fitness, Mens Health. Consumer Reports, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Sunset, I3 and Productive magazines to complete my insights on what is going on in the world.

There is nothing like a good book. Books have always been one of the best ways to gain knowledge and digital tools like Kindle and Audible make consuming them more efficient. I use Kindle on my iPad and Kindle Paperwhite. I like the ability to read them on my Kindle Paperwhite reader when I am lying in bed because it is so light and easy to hold or when I am outside in the sunshine when the glare on my iPad makes it difficult to read.

In addition to Kindle, Amazon owns Audible and Goodreads. Audible is another way to keep up with “reading” books by listening to them. I usually listen to audiobooks in the car and really enjoy it. I can fly thru a book relative to reading it because I have more built-in “listening time” than I do free “reading time” built into my week. Just commuting to work gives me 5 hours a week to listen.

GoodReads is a social network for people who love to read. Over time, Amazon has done a good job of integrating Audible, Kindle and GoodReads such that GoodReads knows about your purchases and can automatically sync them. When I hear about a new book to read I add it to my “To Read” shelf and then when I am ready to read/listen to a new book I just go to GoodReads to see what my next purchase should be. Because it is social, you tend to follow other readers and get recommendations and reviews that enhance the experience.

If you were going to recommend three books to your colleagues as a “must read or listen to” what would they be? I asked this to my direct reports and here they are in alphabetical order:

  • Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Taleb
  • Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull
  • First Break All The Rules, By Curt Coffman and Marcus Buckingham
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity by David Allen
  • House by Tracy Kidder
  • It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd
  • Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
  • Management by Peter Drucker
  • Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi
  • Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
  • The Essential Wooden by John Wooden
  • The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt
  • The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz
  • The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman
  • The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
  • The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell
  • Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday
  • What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School by Mark McCormack

The one common thread between Online Learning Sites, Feedly, Newsstand, Podcasts, Audible, Kindle and Goodreads is once the content makes the shift from the analog world to the digital world, it becomes much easier to consume content faster and more efficiently. This is critical for keeping up with today’s fast paced world and leveraging digital tools will help make you a better digital leader.

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 and Gmail clients!


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!