Why I still use RSS

Feedly Logo

A colleague of mine just got turned on to the power of Feedly and it got me thinking about RSS and it’s evolving role in my information diet.

I have always been a reader and voracious consumer of information. I subscribe to numerous magazines and newspapers via Apple’s Newstand on my iPad.  I love to read a good book via Kindle on either my iPad or my Kindle Paperwhite. I also listen to books on Audible on my commute and podcasts when I’m working out at the gym.

But, it has become increasingly difficult to stay on top of all the relevant breaking news in today’s fast-paced world. Surfing the web to try to keep up is not a viable option as it just takes too much time and it is easy to get trapped in a rabbit hole of non-productivity. I have found using RSS feeds is the best way to keep on top of all the news and developments in order to be successful in today’s business and technical world.

Many people have given up on RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds and it is definitely on the decline since Google dropped Reader. However, I still use RSS because I can subscribe to a wide variety of sources and quickly scan what is going on in the world. I consider this a critical part of my overall continual learning experience. I treat my incoming RSS Feeds just like my email inbox and try to process all my feeds to zero every day.

I have tried many RSS readers and since the demise of Google Reader, and now I use Feedly on all of my devices to consume RSS content. I do not use any of the “pretty” feed aggregators that try to make a custom magazine because it is just too inefficient for the volume of feeds I process every day. With Feedly I can quickly scan the headlines to determine which ones I want to click on to get more information. Once I click on a particular item I get a short synopsis of the article or post and then if I want to actually read it I click on the link and it takes me to the web site where I can read the original article.  If I want to keep the article to read later or for some kind of follow up, I just select the “Send to Evernote” option to process later.  If the article is something I want to share with others I use the “Send to Buffer” option to tweet it and post it to LinkedIn. I usually process my feeds the first thing in the morning when I am at the gym on the Precor elliptical trainer.

I currently subscribe to 60 feeds which result in over 500 posts per day and I am able to process them in approximately 20 minutes.  This allows me to keep up on all the news and events from sources I consider relevant to my career and life.  I treat my feeds very Darwinian way in that if a particular feed is not providing relevant information I delete it.  This results in a very fluid OPML file (OPML files are the list of RSS feeds a reader program uses) that is constantly changing.  Frequently I subscribe to a feed to try it out only to decide it does not make the cut and is delete in a week or so.  I also remove feeds that have dedicated iOS apps like Techcrunch, CNet News, The Verge, Boy Genius Report, Engadget, etc. because I prefer to view that content in the native app due to its optimized formatting.

I pride myself on knowing information before others and daily processing of RSS feeds is the key to making this a reality. It gives me a competitive advantage in work and life. I am extremely impressed when someone on my staff tells me something relevant that I do not already know about.  If it happens once in a while then it is just luck or timing but if they consistently know relevant information before me it shows me they have an effective system for processing information and I try to learn how they do it.

How do you process information in today’s fast-paced world?

Processing RSS Feeds

I have always been a reader.  I subscribe to numerous magazines and newspapers.  I love to read a good book.  But, it has become increasingly difficult to stay on top of all the relevant breaking news.  Surfing the web to try to keep up is not a viable option as it just takes too much time and it is very easy to get trapped in a rabbit hole of non-productiviity.  I have found using RSS feeds is the best way to keep on top of all the news and developments in order to be successful in today’s business and technical world.

By using RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds I can subscribe to a wide variety of sources and quickly scan what is going on in the world.  I consider this a critical part of my overall continual learning experience.  I treat my incoming RSS Feeds just like my email inbox and try to process all my feeds to zero every day. I have tried many RSS readers and have settled on the combination of Google Reader and Feedler Pro on my iPhone and iPad.  I do not use any of the “pretty” feed aggregators that try to make a custom magazine because it is just too inefficient for the volume of feeds I process every day.

With Feedler Pro I can quickly scan the headlines to determine which ones I want to click on to get more information.  Once I click on a particular item I get a short synopsis of the article or post and then if I want to actually read it I click on the link and it takes me to the web site where I can read the original article.  If I want to keep the article to read later or for some kind of follow up, I just select the “Send to Evernote” option to process later.  If the article is something I want to share with others I use the “Send to Twitter” option to tweet it.  I usually process my feeds first thing in the morning when I am at the gym on the Precor elliptical trainer.

I currently subscribe to 80 feeds which result in over 1,000 posts per day and I am able to process them in approximately 30 minutes.  This allows me to keep up on all the news and events from sources I consider relevant to my career and life.  I treat my feeds very darwinian in that if a particular feed is not providing revenant information I delete it.  This results in a very fluid OPML file (OPML files are the list of RSS feeds a reader program uses) that is constantly changing.  Frequently I subscribe to a feed to try it out only to decide it does not make the cut and is delete in a week or so.  I also remove feeds that have dedicated iOS apps like CNet News, Boy Genius Report, Engadget, etc. because I prefer to view that content in the native app due to its optimized formatting.

I pride myself on knowing information before others and daily processing of RSS feeds is the key to this.  It gives me a competitive advantage in work and life.  I am extremely impressed when someone on my staff tells me something relevant that I do not already know about.  If it happens once in a while then it is just luck or timing but if they consistently know relevant information before me it shows me they have an effective system for processing information.

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

Cup of coffee and notepadNow that 2019 is upon us, it’s time to 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 resolving to change is one thing and making those changes stick is another.

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. For me, 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 to have a real chance of making a long-term change. This has to become 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 2018:

  • What were your wins for the year?
  • What were the risks you took?
  • What unfinished business from this year do you still have that will carry forward to 2019?
  • What are you most happy about completing in 2018?
  • 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 2019:

  • 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 and Areas of Focus to see if there is anything there that I want to commit to accomplishing in the new year. As you review your higher-level horizons like your Areas of Focus, see if they still reflect your ongoing 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 on your calendar. 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 and still get the priority items done. 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 everyone this is email but if you are honest with yourself you have multiple incoming queues of stuff and it is better to process them in concentrated chunks of time.

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 2019 off on the track to success!

Don’t make New Year’s Resolutions!

2016

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!

 

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 lynda.com, 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.

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!

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!

Additional tools to keep up with information overload

In my last post, I discussed that as a CIO in today’s fast-paced world it has become increasingly difficult to stay on top of all the relevant news and information I need to be successful in my job. I explained how I use Feedly to process hundreds to headlines per day with ease.

Unfortunately, not all content I need to stay on top of my game comes as a RSS feed or the sources do come as RSS feeds but they are to “spamy” to consume that way. So, I use additional digital tools like Apple’s Newsstand & Podcast apps, and Amazon’s Kindle & Audible apps to augment Feedly.

Newsstand

IMG_0011Every morning I read the daily newspapers like Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post on my iPad before I go thru my Feedly feeds. Why? Because the WSJ is the source for business, the NYT is the national paper of record, and the WP is the source for political and world events. With the digital versions I can scan the entire paper in less than 3 minutes and drill down on any stories that interest me. Now, I have all the relevant information from the analog paper world that matters in less than 10 minutes. No way you could do that with the dead trees versions!

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.

Podcasts

IMG_1267Some content is only available on podcasts so that is how I consume it. Generally, I listed to podcasts in one of two situations. either I am at the gym doing resistance training and stretching, or I am in the car on my daily commute.

There are some wonderful tech podcasts like A16Z, The Cloudcast, Cloud Computing Weekly, Gigaom Structure Show, and McKinsey on High Tech podcasts.

There are also some great business and management podcasts like Manager Tools, Career Tools, On Leadership from the Washington Post and HBR Ideacast.

I like to listen to Freakonomics Radio just to get the weird and humorous side of things.

And finally, I listen to productivity casts like GTD Connect, GTD Virtual Study Group, The Productive Life, Beyond the To-Do List and This is Your Life with Michael Hyatt.

 

Audible

AudibleAudible audiobooks 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.

Audible has a great business model where you buy credits and exchange them for books. The net effect of this is you get books that you want to “read” in such a way as to encourage you to get a new book every month. This encourages you to keep listening to new content at a fairly rapid clip in order to use your credits.

Like you would expect from Amazon, Audible does a great job of data analysis from your wish lists and previous purchases from both your Kindle and Audible accounts to recommend titles on sale that you really want.

Kindle

IMG_0012Some books are not available on Audible and are only available on the Kindle. For these types of books and for pleasure reading, I tend to get the Kindle version.

I like the ability to read them on my Kindle Paperwhite reader when I am lying in bed because it is so light or outside in the sunshine when the glare on my iPad makes it difficult to read.

Amazon bought a web site called GoodReads which is a social network for people who love to read. Amazon has done a good job of integrating Audible, Kindle and GoodReads so GoodReads knows about your purchases and can automatically import 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. This is one are where the wisdom of the crowd really helps.

The one common thread between Feedly, Newsstand, Podcasts Audible and Kindle 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.

Use Feedly to keep up with information overload

Feedly LogoAs a CIO in today’s fast-paced world it has become increasingly difficult to stay on top of all the relevant news and information I need to be successful in my job.

The days of reading a local newspaper, subscribing to a few trade journals, magazines  and watching the news to keep up are long gone. Similarly, surfing the web to try to keep up with everything is not a viable option as it just takes too much time and it is too easy to get trapped in a rabbit hole of non-productivity.

So, what is the modern way to keep up?

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.

With Feedly I can quickly scan RSS (Really Simple Syndication) headlines to determine which ones I want to click on to get more information. Once I click on a particular item of interest, I get a short synopsis of the article and any accompanying pictures. 9 out of 10 times, this snippet/picture combination is enough to convey the relevant information so I do not have to click on the link to actually read the original article. This is the key to the massive time savings I get by using Feedly to process incoming information.

Feedly is free and it is very powerful. A paid version, Feedly Pro has the features you really need to fully experience the full productivity boost. A subscription to Pro costs $5/month or $45/year and it is worth every penny. It is available on the web, Android, Blackberry, Chrome, iOS, Kindle, OS-X, Windows 8 and Windows Phone. That pretty much covers it from a devices perspective.

Choosing feeds is easy. Just search Feedly for your profession/career, your favorite people, your interests, your hobbbies, your passions, your favorite brands, magazines and newspapers, etc. and it will list the feeds available on the subject. When choosing be sure to notice the number of subscribers and the number of posts per week. The more subscribers the better. More posts is not always a good thing. Some feeds are “spamy” and post too many articles relative to the overall value.

My feeds or sources are handled in a very Darwinian way. If a particular feed is not providing relevant information I delete it. If a feed produces too many posts per day that are not relevant, I delete it. Frequently I subscribe to a feed to try it out only to decide it does not make the cut and is delete in a week or so. This results in a very fluid list of sources that is constantly changing.

I currently subscribe to 81 feeds, which result in over 600 posts per day and I am able to process them in less than a half hour.  This allows me to keep up on all the news and events from sources I consider relevant to my career and life.

Here is an example of the list view in Feedly:

Feedly List View
If I want to keep the article for reference or for some kind of follow up, then I just select the “ Evernote” button and it send it directly to Evernote to process later. This is one of the most important aspects of my overall GTD system. feedly-evernote-awardProcessing in Feedly and sending to Evernote is a huge time saver.

As I process, if  the article is something I want to share with others I use the “Buffer” button which will tweet it on Twitter and post it to LinkedIn on a specified schedule. Sometimes, I want to email someone directly and all I have to do is select the email button. Simple. Efficient. Friction-free.

Here is an example of an item that was clicked on to reveal more detail showing the Evernote, Email and Buffer icons:

Feedly Detail

The key to long-term success with Feedly is incorporating it into your daily habits. I usually process my feeds the first thing in the morning when I am at the gym on the elliptical trainer. It works out great because it has a reading stand for the iPad so I can easily use my hands to process my incoming queue of headlines while listening to an up-beat playlist of music. I also use Feedly on my iPhone and Nexus phones regularly.

I consider this a critical part of my overall continual learning experience, so I take it very seriously. So, I treat my incoming RSS Feeds just like my email inbox and try to process all my feeds to zero every day. “Feedly Zero”

I pride myself on knowing information before others and daily processing of RSS feeds is the key to making this a reality. It gives me a competitive advantage in work and life. I am extremely impressed when a colleague tells me something relevant that I do not already know about.  If it happens once in a while then it is just luck or timing but if they consistently know relevant information before I do, then it shows me they have an effective system for processing information and I try to learn how they do it.

With Feedly, I can subscribe to a wide variety of sources and quickly scan what is going on in the world. How do you process information in today’s fast-paced world?