It’s Not The Tool, It’s How You Use It – The Evernote Instant Agenda (Part 1)

Another excellent guest post by David Freedman whom I consider a GTD Black Belt.

EvernoteDid the title get your attention? 🙂  We all know it’s not entirely true – the tool does matter and so too does your technique.  Evernote 5 is a crowd favorite here on GTDforCIOs.  In a multipart guest post series I will share some of my favorite Evernote tricks that bring to life some practical GTD magic.

I work in a dynamic corporate environment where we value PEOPLE above all.  From a GTD perspective, PEOPLE are my most important context.  In order to build strong relationships, I want to have meaningful conversations with them at every chance encounter.  I want to talk to them about how I enjoyed the restaurant they recommended, tell them that I haven’t forgotten about the email I owe them or ask them what they are doing for their kid’s birthday next week.  Here’s how I use Evernote 5 to make sure I’m good at internal relationships.

1)  When I PROCESS (recall the steps Capture > Process > Organize > Review > Do) my CAPTURED items from my Evernote inbox, I always tag with a person context unless the item pertains to me and nobody else.  If the item pertains to multiple people, I tag the item with multiple people.  If the item pertains to a project, I still tag the item with the most important people on that project…you’ll see why soon.  I thank the curator of this blog (Michael) for encouraging a shift from my previous nomenclature of “f.Michael” meaning “for Michael” to the more contemporary “@Michael.”

DAF12)  In Evernote 5 for Android, I configure my default view to Sort By Notebook as my Notebooks provide important timing, size and status context.


3)  In Evernote 5 for Android, I use the new “Shortcuts” feature to save people context searches for those I want to be most prepared for.


4)  Prior to scheduled meetings or when I see someone walking down the hall or at any other opportune moment, I click on the shortcut in Evernote 5 for Android pertaining to people I’m about to encounter and VOILA!…I have an instant agenda.  I quick visual scan of the items tagged to that individual along with the notebook they are stored in and I load in my mind something meaningful to talk to them about.

Note that in Step 1, I mentioned that even when project is the central focus of an item, I always tag by related people.  Being that the “Instant Agenda” is one of my most valuable use cases, the project tag does not help fulfill the goal.

How to achieve email Nirvana

email_nirvanaMany people complain how email is taking them a lot of time, but that’s what you get once you check it too often, and when you leave a lot of old and outdated items laying around in your inbox.

I assert that it’s actually less effort to maintain your email inbox at zero than to keep any amount of mail that has been read in your inbox. It will take effort to change your habits but once you get in an inbox zero habit you will realize it is dramatically superior to your old email processing routines and that will have ripple effects across your productivity, workflow and motivation.

The reason it’s actually less effort to maintain it at zero than to maintain it at 500 is that you don’t waste energy dealing with any particular email more than once. The decision about the next action is still unmade for much of what lies in your inbox. In GTD terms it is still “stuff” – something in your world for which the action is still unclear. Every time you consciously or unconsciously notice that email again and don’t deal with it, it wastes energy.

Every single item in your inbox needs to be processed only once. If you need more than two minutes to process a specific email, you process it to your task manager. In my case that is Evernote. When I am processing email and I run across an actionable email that takes more then two minutes to deal with, I just forward it to my default Evernote address.  That way it is waiting for me in my “Unprocessed” Notebook ready to be processed the next time I am processing.

This way I ensure that my inbox is always down to zero and have that inbox zero peace of mind. How do you maintain your inbox zero?

How to reduce the number of emails in your inbox

Like any other tool, email is what you make it. It’s an incredible tool of productivity, collaboration and knowledge-sharing that is ubiquitous across devices and operating systems. That’s not to say I haven’t struggled with it like everybody else does but I have learned to tame email.

I’m sure you yourself have experienced this. On average I receive over 100 emails every day. How many of these are really important? Generally, less than 10. It’s time to create some space in your inbox so you can really focus on the tasks that make a difference to your business or work.

Here are three simple suggestions for reducing the number of emails in your inbox:

  1. Unsubscribe. Be ruthless and unsubscribe from any unsolicited email lists that make it past your spam filter.  Don’t just delete it, take the time to unsubscribe and then you won’t receive any more form that sender. Be realistic and remove all unnecessary subscriptions that you may have actually signed up for too.
  2. Stop using your Inbox like a filing cabinetPractice Inbox Zero! It’s easy to let old emails pile up over time and disappear into a large, unorganized mass in your inbox. You might think to yourself that someday, perhaps, you’ll need old messages so you should store them forever. Stop thinking of your inbox as a filing cabinet and get rid of old emails completely.
  3. Send fewer emails – Every time you send an email, what’s going to happen? It’s going to trigger a response, and then you’re going to have to respond to that response, and then they’re going to add some people on the “cc” line, and then those people are going to respond.

What suggestions do you have to reduce the number of emails in your inbox?

Email Overload!

Everyone I know complains about email overload. Email has become a serious problem. When we don’t control our email habit, we are controlled by it.

Email pours in, with no break to its flow. It is unyielding.  And like addicts, we check it incessantly, drawing ourselves away from meetings, conversations, personal time, our priorities, important tasks or whatever is right in front of us.

People seem to think that since we receive email almost instantly that we should reply in kind. Doing that is like waiting for the postal worker for all hours, opening and closing the door to check the mail nonstop every day. That would be a waste of time and energy. Do you do the same thing with email? Of course not! Instead, you keep your email application open, waiting for that imminent notification alert to come so you can check and see what new thing just got delivered to your inbox.

As soon as an email arrives in our inbox, we feel a compelling urge to reply immediately. Generally, we are afraid that we might miss an important message or fail to respond in a timely fashion. Many corporate cultures mistakenly exasperate this pressure to reply immediately. What if someone needs an immediate response? Worrying about that is precisely the kind of misguided rationalization that reinforces our addiction. And, in the off chance that they need a response within minutes, then they will find another way to reach us like calling, instant messaging or texting.

It’s not just the abundance of email that’s our problem — it’s the inefficiency in how we deal with it. Instead of checking email continuously and from multiple devices, schedule specific email time during the day while you are at your computer. We are most efficient when we answer email in bulk at our computers. We move faster, can access files when we need them and easily access other programs like our calendars and trusted systems. Also, when we sit down for the express purpose of doing emails, we have our email heads on. We are more focused, more driven, wasting no time in processing our inbox to zero.

I bulk process my email three times a day in 30-minute increments, once in the morning, once mid-day, and once before leaving for the day. This allows me to go thru my email faster and with more attention than before. I don’t make those I’m-moving-too-fast mistakes like copying the wrong person or sending an email before finishing it. So I’m also more efficient.

Email is no longer an overwhelming burden to me. I’m spending an hour and a half a day on it, which for me is the right amount. You may need more or less time per day to process your email. Experiment and then schedule the appropriate time on your calendar to process it.

How do you process email?

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.

Your most valuable asset – Time

As a CIO  I have access to many resources and one of the main jobs I have is to allocate those resources in an optimal way.  There is one resource that is finite and there os no real way to manage it – Time.  There is only 24 hours in a day and all managers must strive to use each of those hours optimally.  My calendar is the trusted system I use to optimize the use of those hours.  As Peter Drucker said “Your calendar should represent your priorities.”

When I review my calendar in my Weekly Review I first take the “big picture” approach and scan the next couple of months in month view.  This gives me the high-level view of what is ahead in the next few months.  Typically events that are marked as “All Day” events pop out – things like anniversaries, birthdays, vacations, travel, conferences, and holidays.  This sets a context to what time is available to accomplish the stuff you need to do.

Then, I switch to the weekly view to take in the next several weeks in more detail.  As Peter Drucker said the week is the unit of time that connects us to our upcoming work.  At this view, I can see exactly what commitments I already have and how much discretionary time I have available.  This level of review also gives me a sense of if the upcoming week is a “normal” week with “normal” meetings and rhythms or not.

Once I have completed this review I sit down with my assistant and we review the calendar together.  We look at the non-negotionable mandatory items starting with my Weekly Review which is critical for me to be in control and totally effective.  Ideally, it would be the first thing I do Monday morning but if that can’t happen for whatever reason, that is okay but it should happen ASAP.  So, if she has to reschedule it because I have been overtaken by events (OBE) then that is fine but she must make it a priority for me to get this done as early in the week as possible.

The next mandatory item is my Daily Review and Sync.  This is the next most critical part of keeping in control.  Each day I need to scan my Next Actions to see what I want or need to accomplish that day.  For those items that I want to accomplish before I go home, I tag them as “Today.”  The Daily Review and Sync consists of scheduling 30 minutes where the first 15 minutes is reserved for reviewing my next actions and the second 15 minutes is reserved for my assistant and I to sync about upcoming calendar items and any associated time necessary for projects next actions.

The next mandatory calendar item is to scheduling Inbox Processing.  Processing my physical Inbox and my email Inbox is critical to my GTD system.  My assistant needs to ensure that I have three 30 minute blocks of time dedicated to processing both my physical inbox on my desk for things like POs, Invoices, Expense Reports, etc. and my email inbox. The timing of these half hour processing blocks is not critical other than they should be spaced out throughout the day so I can respond to important things in a timely manner.  Therefore, they are “moveable” calendar items but they must be rescheduled as my goal is to have both inboxes processed to zero before I leave every day.  When scheduling these processing times it is critical to be aware of the context of the day – do I have a dinner or some evening event that will cause me to leave work at a certain time?  If so, she must work backwards and make sure I have enough time to process to zero before I leave work.

The final mandatory scheduling item is 1:1’s with my direct reports. Weekly 1:1s with my direct reports is critical to keeping in touch with the people who are responsible for executing on my vision for IT.  Therefore, they need to happen every week.  It is important for for my assistant to be proactive with their assistants to reschedule their 1:1 if either they or I am going to be unable to make their 1:1 for whatever reason.

Now that I have all my mandatory items scheduled, I move on to my priorities.  My calendar should reflect my priorities.  We all have bosses or other VIPS who always get priority in meetings and calls.  Beyond those requests, and assuming I have completed my Weekly Review, I will have Next Actions for all my projects and my assistant will need to schedule time to work on these. At CAA we have a corporate culture that requires we return colleagues calls first so all internal calls must be returned first and I have to make time to do that ASAP.

Another priority is moving my projects forward.  I especially want to focus on “big projects” like IT Staff Meeting presentations, Company Staff Meeting presentations, Budget, Vision, etc. where there is a hard deadline.  Together with my asistant, we need to identify the deadline and understand all the work necessary to meet the deadline and schedule appropriately.  Working backwards, with appropriate slack for when OBE happens, we need to set aside appropriate time for me to do the work.

When people ask for my time they need to go thru my assistant and she has the authority to schedule these requests without asking me if they are consistent with my priorities .   If it is not clearly consistent with my priorities then she must gather the information necessary for both of us to determine if the request rises to the level of being added to my calendar.  The default answer will be no to requests and the requester will have to give my assistant the information about the request like the agenda or why they need me and not someone else like their direct supervisor.

Calendar management is critical for executives to be successful in today’s always on world.

Deal with something only once

As a follow up to my last post about processing email, I want to emphasize the importance of dealing with something only once.

Years ago I met a young agent who prided herself with only touching a piece of paper only once. She made a real impact on me because she had a completely clean desk and always seemed to be “on top of her game.” She constantly outperformed her fellow agents. This was in the early days of email and I vividly remember when she had an epiphany about applying her “only touch it once” philosophy to email.  She continues to be an inspiration to me.

Do most of us do this? No. We might read a bunch of emails, and say, “I’ll reply to those later or I’ll decide later” and just leave them in the inbox. This is true of other inputs in our life.  We might see a bill, invoice, expense report or other piece of mail, and put it aside for later.  This philosophy of only dealing with something once applies to other activities like paperwork, phone calls or requests from others.

Try dealing with it immediately. If you open an email, make a decision on it immediately. If the email requires you to take some kind of action the do it right then or apply the two minute rule and put it in your trusted system to deal with later.  Just don’t leave it in your inbox.

Deal with something once. Do it now. Then it’s off your mind and it’s not taking any of your “psychic RAM” and it allows you to fully focus on the next matter.  When we put off small decisions and tasks for later, and they pile up, weighing on us at the back of our minds, pulling on us until we collapse under the weight of “later.”