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.”

Processing your email inbox

In todays always on, always available, connected life processing your email inbox is most likely the most important input queue you have.

In 2006, Merlin Mann coined the term “Inbox Zero” where he applied David Allen’s GTD concepts to email.  He gave a speech at Google on Inbox Zero that is famous and it radically changed my approach to dealing with email.  I highly recommend you watch it.

Several of the GTD-based best practices for email are counter intuitive and will go against what you currently do or believe is the “right” way to do email.

Schedule time to process your email. Do not do email randomly throughout the day. It is imperative that you do not do email randomly throughout the day. Instead, you should schedule 15-30 minutes several times a day to process your email inbox.  As I stated in my previous post Processing to Zero, there is ample research to prove this is the optimal approach to dealing with email.

Turn off “Toast”.  If you use Outlook or any email system that has “toast” that notifies you of new email turn it off.  Turn off all audio alerts to new email.  You must resist the temptation to “just take a quick peek” at your inbox.  This is a productivity killer!

Do not use folders to file email.  Once again research shows the time it takes for you to think about where you should file the email outweighs the value of the folder structure in recalling the email when you need it.  This has not always been true but with the advent of powerful search built into all email clients it is more efficient to search for email when you need it.  You should only set up one “Archive” folder other than the folders that your email client requires.

Process your inbox to zero.  When you are processing your email inbox use the following 4 simple rules until you have completely cleaned out your inbox:

  1. Delete the email. If it is spam, FYI, or other non-actionable email delete it!
  2. If the action necessary to close the loop or complete the email is less than two minutes – just do it!
  3. If it is actionable and will take more than 2 minutes, forward the email to your Evernote email address to process later.  If you use Outlook on the PC, you can click on the Evernote icon in the Outlook “Home Ribbon” and it will give you the option to assign it to the appropriate Notebook. (Home, Next Action, Project, Someday/Maybe, Waiting For)
  4. Delete the original email or move it to Archive if you think you may want the original email to refer to or to forward/reply in the future.

Do this for every message in your inbox until it is empty. You will have a profound sense of accomplishment and a psychological relief knowing that all of your open loops are in your trusted system. Train yourself to never leave a read email in your inbox. Make a decision about every message you read the first time you read it – no excuses. Be ruthless about this new practice – never touch an email in your inbox more than once.

Processing to Zero

One of the most important concepts of GTD is processing and when you are processing it is critical you process to zero. What do I mean by processing to zero? It simply means you completely clean out the input queue. There are huge psychological benefits to getting to zero that are not realized if you leave even a few things in your input queue.

What are input queues? The most obvious examples are your email inbox and an inbox that sits on your desk. They are collection areas for inputs that you do not control. People email you and you have little control over how much email you get, how often people email you or what they email you about. I will have a future post dedicated to email and how to most effectively deal with this modern day time sync but for now it is just one of many input queues that you need to process to zero.

Some examples of other input queues are RSS feeds, Twitter Feeds, SMS texts, phone calls or possibly some kind of online system like Helpdesk Tickets or ERP approvals that you are responsible for dealing with or approving. It really does not matter what kind of input queue it is if you are responsible for it then you need to process it to zero.

There is a good body of science that shows multitasking is very inefficient. The reason for this is depending on what type of job you are doing once you context switch from one context to another it can take anywhere from a few minutes up to 15 minutes for the brain to fully context switch back to the original activity. This is one of the worst effects of the always on, always connected world we live in.

The worst offender of this time suck is the pop-up “toast” or audible chime alerting you to a new email. We can’t help ourselves and we feel compelled to check the email just to see if it is important – after all it will only take a second.

Immediately turn off “email toast” to stop sucking away your productivity!

The best practice for dealing with input queues is to schedule uninterrupted time several times a day to process your queues. I schedule four half hour blocks of time on my calendar to process the three main queues in my life – inbox on my desk, my email inbox and the phone calls I need to make. I put “process email/inbox/calls” on my calendar early in the morning, in the late morning before lunch, immediately after lunch, and then again in the late afternoon before I leave for the day.

I use RSS feeds in order to keep up on all the things I need to know and I use the combination of Google Reader and Feedler Pro on my iPad at the gym to process my RSS feeds to zero. When doing cardio, I listen to up tempo music on my iPhone to motivate me to keep my heart rate up in the fat burning zone and process all my feeds to zero. It is a wonderful way to keep up with all the changes in the world and workout at the same time.

This will be difficult thing for you to do if you are not accustomed to processing your input queues in uninterrupted batches of time. I have heard all the objections to this approach but trust me there is real science to this as the optimal way to be productive and you will have higher quality outputs in less time. Pretty hard to argue with if you’re really objective.

How does GTD differ from “To-Do Lists?”

To-do2The biggest difference between GTD and keeping a “To-Do List” is defining what being “done” looks like. Most of the tasks people keep on their to-do lists are “amorphous blobs of undoability” – commitments without any clear vision of what being “done” looks like. That’s a huge problem – your brain is naturally designed to help you figure out how to do things, but only if you know what the end point looks like.  Everything you’re working on should have a very clear stopping point – a point where you know you’re done and where you can check it off or delete it.  If you don’t know what that point looks like, you’ll find it very difficult to make any progress at all.  It is critical that you clarify what being done looks like.

Most people that have tried to-do lists combine several different types of items on those lists.  They include things that are specific – get hamburger from Ralphs, clean garage, email Fred about proposal, with things that are not specific – lose weight, Grandma’s situation, staff meeting presentation, get healthy, improve work/life balance, etc.  When tasks are grouped this way it is impossible to complete some of these things and therefore they are never crossed off or deleted.  This causes procrastination and ultimately a loss of interest in the to-do list.

GTD forces you to break down your “to-do list” into the appropriate next actions to complete the tasks and check them off or delete them.  It also defines the context of how, when, and where you will perform the next action.  For example, tasks on your “Home” list are next actions that physically must happen at home or calls are tasks that need to be performed when you have a few minutes available and access to your phone.

While there is no difference between “work stuff” and “home stuff” in GTD, some next actions can only be accomplished at your home.  These are things that physically must happen at home.  Some examples: Replace lights in backyard, install baby proof fixtures in living room, Dispose of hazardous waste in the garage at Sun Valley disposal center Saturdays 10-3, Paint kitchen with Dunn Edwards eggshell white paint.

Another example of GTD’s context is your calls list.  Do you have a few minutes and access to a phone or your cell phone?  If so, just check your calls list and you can start processing your calls and delete them once you successfully connect with the person you need to talk with.  This “pre-thinking” about  the  context of when and where you need to do your stuff allows you to easily complete your tasks when your in that context.

Processing your “Stuff”

Now that you have completed your initial capture you should have lots of unprocessed items in your “- Unprocessed” notebook and now it is time to figure out what to do with all your stuff.  When processing start at the top and decide what to do with each unprocessed item until you have completely processed your stuff to zero.  In GTD this is called processing and your goal is to always process your unprocessed queues to zero.  This could be your inbox on your desk, your email inbox, your unprocessed items in Evernote, your RSS feeds or any other queue of unprocessed incoming inputs.

The first thing you need to do is to decide if it is actionable or not.  If it is not actionable you do one of three things: delete it, file it as reference in your Reference notebook or “tickle” it for possible later action in your Someday/Maybe notebook.  “Reference” and “Someday/Maybe” notebooks are for stuff that has no immediate next action.  Sometimes you will process items that do not have any immediate next actions but you want to keep them around for future reference.  Reference files are great for storing information you don’t have to act on right now but are not ready to delete or archive.  They can be physical folders for paper or digital items that you want to refer to on an ongoing basis.

Someday/Maybe lists are great for deferring ideas that you’d like to work on someday, but you’re not committing to right now.  I have ideas about fun new things do to every day – way more than I have time or energy for.  Sometimes you think of tasks you’re just not ready to do yet.  Maybe learning a new language – while an eventual goal – just doesn’t fit into your life right now.  There are many things that fit into this “I intend to do this someday” category.  Some examples: Go to Griffith Observatory, Build CIO Dashboard, Learn Spanish, Build a deck in back yard.

If it is actionable, decide if you can complete the task in less than two minutes then you just do it. This is called the “2 Minute Rule” because there is no need to categorize or further thinking about the item if you can accomplish the task in less than two minutes, just do it!  Writing down every little thing you have to do takes more time than it’s worth – if you need to send a 30-second reminder e-mail to someone, there’s no sense in taking 20 seconds to write it down and put in one of your notebooks when you could just get it done.  Your goal is to get things done, not to flawlessly capture each and every little thing in your perfectly designed system.

Apply the 2-minute rule to all aspects of your life

If it is actionable and it will take more than two minutes to complete then it is most likely a Project.  As IT professionals, we generally struggle with the GTD concept of a project.  We are conditioned to think of projects in the classic PERT or GANT CHART sense of big projects.  In GTD, “Projects” are desired outcomes that require more than one action to complete or said another way, projects are “stuff” that require more than one action to complete.

Almost everything you need to do is a Project.  Projects are nothing more than a series of actions necessary to be “done.”  The best way to avoid completing items on your to-do list is to make them vague.  Put a task like “Clean out office” on your to-do list and that is the last thing you’re going to actually begin working on.  In fact, “Clean out office” isn’t a task at all – it’s a Project.  Projects are not tasks; they are a collection of tasks – an important distinction.

So go thru all of the stuff you captured in your initial capture and do it if it takes less than two minutes to complete or make the items you captured projects.  When you describe the project it is important to define what done looks like.   When describing your projects include the desired outcome as the first word in projects.   Use the following words:  finalize, implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create, design, install, repair, submit, handle, and resolve.  Do this for everything on your initial capture list in your – Unprocessed notebook.