Over the years, I’ve subscribed to a number of different productivity philosophies. Being in the IT industry has meant adopting and then tweaking certain aspects to meet my needs. There has to be a balance between productivity pirates (emails, sms messages, Skype, phone calls and other notifications) and providing a response service to customers or even peers. Jumping from coding in one project to helping debug something else, or provide phone support and then straight back to what I was doing has never been an issue. One thing that I am almost OCD about is having my inbox(es) at zero unread messages.
Before you go clicking away from this post thinking I’m a raving lunatic, or that I only have one account to consider, let me explain. At the time of writing, I have five email accounts, all with some form of activity each day. I can read/reply to any of those accounts on any of my devices, iMac, Dev PC, Phone, Watch, iPad Pro, iPad Mini, Tablet. I do believe it is an important point, having all devices in sync. Next, I’ll share some of the ways I manage my days and inboxes and other tools I use to achieve my goals.
Notifications are not a distraction. I find desktop notifications quite useful, as an email is received, I can glance and determine in milliseconds if I need to deal with it, I don’t need to break away from the focused application to go looking in the inbox straight away. I then have specific times in a day where I will go back to my inbox and deal with *all* the unread items. I do not use folders, categories, flags or other tools inside my mail programs… why? Because I have found in the past, different applications do their own thing and create more problems. Now I’m starting to open Pandora’s box, different applications? Even on the same machine I have found I switch between different versions of email clients depending on a) my mood, b) the quality of the version c) the operating system. The mail accounts I deal with are Gmail, Office 365 and hosted Exchange. Depending on the machine I’m on, I will switch between Mail (OS X), Outlook for OS X, Outlook (Windows), Browser, Mail (iOS) and Outlook (iOS). As a developer I will often run beta versions of operating systems and other tools (like MS Office).
Back to dealing with the unread mail. Years ago I was taught a principle of handling every piece of paper that came across my desk, I’ve applied this same technique to email for as long as I can remember. It’s a simple yet effective method: D.D.D.D.
Do It : just get it done, write the reply, or do the required action now.
Dump It : the delete button in your email client is the most used button by far. Don’t be afraid to send it to the trash, if you think you may want it later on, then date activate it, but don’t procrastinate.
Delegate It : if someone else can deal with this, forward it on, delegation is a good thing. It sometimes pays to date activate it also in case you need to follow up, but don’t leave it as ‘unread’ for that reason.
Date Activate It : this is probably the most important ‘D’ for me, it allows me to move the issue into my task management system where it can be triaged and I don’t have to spend any unnecessary time thinking about it. You may think that at this point all I’ve done is move the ‘unread’ somewhere else, which technically is true, but now I’ll explain how I manage my day to day tasks.
The problem with looking for a personal task management system is the time you have to invest to determine if it is the right one for you. To be fair, you should run the tool for at least a month to put it through it’s paces. That is a huge investment in time and sometimes money, then you have to move all the data (often rekeying from scratch), all of which is costing you precious time, the very thing you are trying to save. I think, especially on a corporate scale, quite often, a product is found and people are told to use it without due diligence being performed. There are a lot of products out there from good to great, personally I found many overkill especially when I wanted a tool for me, not the company. I’m not going to turn this into a product review, simply to say I use and prefer Todoist. It is a powerful, yet simple product that provides everything (with exception of Kanban) that I want. I particularly like the ‘karma’ feature to help drive me forward.
Let me tie this back into the zero inbox principle. If I have an email that requires attention or work, I forward it to my Todoist email address. Imagine the process, 100 unread emails in my box
- read mail
- apply dddd
- needs action
- forward & forget
Move to next mail item
It is that simple, and I can do that on any device. Once inside Todoist, I have a daily task (recurring tasks are amazing), “triage inbox”, that simply means date activating and assigning the task to a project. Then on the day, I deal with the email/task. Nothing gets forgotten, my email client isn’t showing unread mail that I know I’ve read but keep flagged because I don’t want to forget.
At the end of each day, I ensure all tasks for the day are dealt with, anything I have not finished (or cannot finish) I put to a day I know I can, ensuring my outstanding list is zero.