Posted by: draknor | June 27, 2012

Getting Organized – Email Separation & Bankruptcy

I haven’t written an update in almost two weeks — diet & exercise are still going well.  Still lifting, still figuring out dietary ideas & techniques to help continue the fat loss.  Weighed in at 189 this morning, working my way down on my weekly cycle that hits lows on Fri/Sat then spikes over the weekend with my “relaxed eating” approach.

But today’s post is not about diet — it’s about “organization”.  That seemingly-unattainable light shining at the end of the tunnel of productivity.  I think I finally have figured out what my main problem is, after all these years — it’s my process (or workflow, if you prefer).  Or really, my lack thereof.

It goes like this — I read about some new productivity hack or system, and it sounds awesome & I get super excited about it, so I try to “get organized” according to the rules of this new system.  I spend time researching how other people do it, what tools to use (software, planners, etc), and how to make it work.  And within a week, it’s already failed me.  Or, more correctly, I’ve failed the system — because I didn’t change my core “process” / “workflow”.  What does that mean? It means I keep doing things the way I’ve always done them, and no new whiz-bang system of organization & prioritization fits my current behaviors.

Let’s take an example — let’s say my favorite tool is a hammer. And I’ve been using this hammer for so long, that my arm just does that hammer-swinging motion without thinking.  Now a smooth salesman comes along and says “You know, you could build houses a lot faster with this whiz-bang circular saw!”.  Well, that sounds pretty awesome to me!  So I buy this awesome new circular saw after reading about how its changed people lives, and they are now SO productive, and it’s a miracle, rah rah rah.  And I take this circular saw, and I swing it against the wood over & over again — but it’s really not cutting any faster than my hammer did. Ok so it’s not a perfect analogy — but you get the point.  The new tool + old behaviors = FAIL.

And here’s my awesome realization — focus on changing the behaviors, and just about any old system will work!  Or, more importantly — I’ll figure out what’s inefficient in my system, and then seek a tool or technique to optimize THAT — something I recognize that I need.

So what does this mean, practically?

First (like I wrote about before), it starts with adding some structure to my week — carving out time for my high-level responsibilities (sleep, exercise, meals, work, personal time, etc).  I plotted out my ideal week template, and I’ve been recording what I actually do every week, so I can compare the template vs reality and ask myself “How am I doing?  Is my time in line with my goals, or am I really out of whack?”  It’s an on-going process, not a once-&-done thing.  I’m on my third week already and I’m still mostly in just the Observation/Recording phase.

Second, I’m now starting to identify the “routines” I want to develop, and documenting the specific tasks in each of them.  For example, I started a Monday morning weekly-planning routine. It looks like this (currently):

  • Empty home office trash bin
  • Empty home office recycle bin
  • Record previous week’s actual vs template time
  • Print new Weekly Template
  • Fill out template with this week’s appts & meetings
  • Identify & write out my “Most Important Things” for this week
  • Update my workout log with previous week’s data
  • Write out workout plan for the week

And that’s it, so far.  I will continue to evolve this list as I determine more things that are time/energy appropriate for this routine, but this routine prepares me for the week ahead. It’s clearly documented with specific steps, and its easy for me to update/revise.

Now I’m working on identifying additional routines that I want to develop, such as a monthly “admin” process (mundane tasks like backups, clearing old emails, etc).  As I create & work through these, if I find opportunities to automate them I will. Or if I find tools to help me manage the tasks, I’ll use them.  But the key is identifying the tasks in the routine, and setting aside the time to execute that routine.

I just spent two hours updating my expense & mileage records for my business, because I didn’t (until today) have a process for doing that regularly.  Now, my goal is to do a weekly Wednesday routine (after my BNI meeting) to catch these things up, and I’ve started documenting those specific tasks.  If I execute this routine regularly, it’ll take me about 15 minutes + I will know that I am current. Instead of the 2 hours it took today, and not having confidence that I’ve actually captured everything.

I know that I have additional processes/routines I need to add — next is probably email-related. I’ve slowly started to realize that checking new emails on my phone is pretty counter-productive, because in most cases, I read the email but am not able to respond on the phone — either I need some additional information not readily available, or there’s too much to type that wouldn’t be practical, or similar. Or I don’t have time to give an appropriate response, at that given moment.  So I’m practicing not checking email on the phone when I only have a few minutes.

The next step in that process is when I DO check emails, not just reading them & leaving them in Inbox.  Basically, I’m working on coming up with my own “collection” process ala David Allen’s Getting Thing Done.  I haven’t gotten this far yet, but where I need to get to is having a process for what I do when I read an email — do I respond right away? Or do I need to take a quick action (<2 min)? Or do I need some longer-term action, and thus need to flag the email so I can follow-up appropriately?

To set the stage for developing this, I’ve been working on a couple of things over the last few days:

  • Separating email accounts for personal & business (so my photography business emails are now no longer collected in my personal inbox)
  • Declaring “email bankruptcy”

“Email bankruptcy” is essentially clearing out your inbox to zero (or near-zero).  I had hundreds of emails sitting in my inbox, going back almost a year.  There was NO WAY I was going to look at any email that scrolled off the visible screen, much less the first page or tenth page!  So I used a couple of labels in Gmail to identify emails I wasn’t ready to let go off my radar: _ToReply, _WaitingFor, _WorkingOn.  I flagged a FEW emails with these labels, as I archived nearly EVERYTHING in my inbox.

Now my inbox has <20 messages, I have some labels that I can follow-up on (and I need to create a routine/process to do so regularly — still to come), and most importantly, I feel psychologically lighter, not having hundreds of emails sitting there reminding me they MAY need something.  It’s a great feeling!

And now it’s time to go lift heavy weights — here’s hoping I still feel as good when I’m done!