Category Archives: Editorial

Unpausing

Who is this for? Anyone interested in the recent changes in my world, the impact they’ve had on my personal projects and the approach I’m considering getting those personal projects back on track.

Pausing a project is easy. There’s often a significant amount of thought that goes into deciding what you will and will not continue to do, but the actual final act itself couldn’t be simpler: decide to stop doing something and then stop doing it. If you use software for project management, hit pause or put the project on hold and—like magic—watch it drop off your list and off your mind.

Over the past few months, I’ve had to hit pause on more than a few projects. I even killed some. Since January, I’ve been working on projects for my job that took significant mental bandwidth. For months, I aided in the due diligence process as we sold our family business. Immediately after we closed, I transitioned myself out of the company in order to go work for our new parent company. I closed the book on a 13 year career and watched what has always been our family business no longer be our family business.

This is all good news. I’d been seriously thinking of making a professional change for some time, and I happen to really like the company that did the acquiring. But these are big, emotional changes, and when I added them to a significant increase in actual workload, something had to give.

For months, things I care about have gone by the wayside. This site hasn’t received the attention I would have liked. Relationships that mean the world to me have been malnourished. I haven’t worked on the second draft of my book. This might sound bad, or at least unproductive, but the decision to pause these things is paying off.

For the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m finding professional flow. The decision to focus on my career is helping me to make the most of my new opportunity. I’m challenged by the work. I like the team. And I’m interested to see where things go.

I’ve also benefited from the space I gave myself to emotionally settle the sale. This “exit” is something to celebrate, but I’d be lying—to you and to myself—if I didn’t need some time to accept the reality that what my grandfather created and my father built is not something I will ever be able to pass along to my children. I’m happy with how things turned out, but I’m also glad I’m not ignoring the significance of that truth.

Professionally and emotionally, I feel like things are on track. On the other hand, my personal projects are kind of a mess. When things were getting hectic I gave myself permission to take a step back, to ease off and give major life changes the attention they deserve. Now that the dust is starting to settle, I have to decide what to do about them. I have to figure out what to unpause and I have to decide if there’s any more that I have to kill.

I’ve tried to unpause it all as if no time had passed, the results have been poor and rife with procrastination. The reality is that I have to redevelop habits and muscles that have atrophied over the past few months. I don’t write as much as I used to. I don’t find my mind wandering to these personal projects as often as it used to. I could chalk that up to my being ready to move on, but that’s not really it. I’m just out of practice and these projects have been out of sight.

I really need to start revisiting these projects and will need to rebuild my habits. I need to prioritize the unpausing. I need to build back up some of my muscles. And once I’ve gained some momentum, I need to reassess what continues and what ends.

I’d love to make that decision now. I’d love to know exactly what I plan to unpause and accomplish over the next few months, but I’m just not there, yet. I have a good sense about what I’m doing professionally. Now I just need to dedicate some of the newfound time and emotional bandwidth towards figuring out what it is that I really want to do with my spare time. And then I need to dedicate myself to doing it.

In the meantime, things will continue to come a little slower than I’d like, here and on other personal projects. I need to get back on track, but I also need to be okay with the fact that it’s going to take some time to get back into a creative routine and to figure this all out. Pausing might be easy, but unpausing … it’s proving to be a lot harder than I imagined. That said, it’s time to start getting back to work. Acknowledging the hard time I’m having with that seemed as good a first step as any.

One Inbox Zero

Who is this for? Those who are deciding between merging all of their inboxes or keeping their various email accounts separate.

On a recent episode of Mikes on Mics, my co-host, Mike Vardy, and I discussed our respective approaches to managing our email inboxes. Both of us maintain multiple accounts spanning our personal and professional worlds, but Vardy keeps his various email inboxes separate while I prefer to combine everything into a single inbox.

Tomorrow I will touch on the exact tools and tactics I use, but to start I want to explain why this approach works for me. I also want to give some background which may help you decide if this approach is for you.

I receive a fair amount of email. I average over 100 messages a day. I have multiple addresses that center around my job, a few for various web projects, a purely personal account and what’s known as a bacon account.

There’s nothing wrong with using multiple inboxes. In fact, Vardy makes a valid case for keeping things separate, but here is why I opt for a one inbox approach.

Processing More Less

Getting into a regular Inbox Zero practice helped me stay on top of email but was a challenge with multiple email accounts. Early on I always felt as if I was constantly neglecting one inbox or another. I also felt like too much time was spent jumping between accounts (and remembering which accounts had and had not been checked). I went down to three accounts that consolidated emails from work, my personal life and my various web projects, but even this felt like too much. So eventually I rolled everything into a single account. Even though I potentially see more emails in a single sitting, I only have one place to check and feel better about checking it less often. I also never worry if I am neglecting any one particular email account.

One Person One Voice

Despite the fact that there will often be a clear difference in the way that I talk to a friend, a stranger or colleague, I don’t like to over think the tone I take when responding to emails as I process my inbox. By having personal and professional emails sitting side by side, I don’t give myself enough space to worry about which part of my persona should respond. I just focus on the best possible response. Some people prefer to have one voice for personal emails and another for professional correspondence. There’s nothing wrong with this. I’ve just found it to be more efficient to blur the line.

One Search To Rule Them All

As my personal and professional lives continue to merge and as my memory grows ever worse, I’ve come to count on search more than I would care to admit. When I had multiple accounts, I often found myself jumping from one to another seeking a message from a friend who sent a message to my work email or a colleague who accidentally sent a work email to my personal account. One inbox means one repository. When I search, all of the correspondence with that person comes up. It gives me a more comprehensive archive of messages and saves me from ever having to wonder where a specific message lives.

Making One Inbox Manageable

While I plan to talk about the exact tools I’m using and how you can go about setting things up in an upcoming post, there are a few general best practices for applying a one inbox approach to your work.

The first is to ensure that whatever desktop or mobile applications you use properly handle what are known as domain aliases. These allow you to control the reply-to address with little to no thought. You can set these up so that messages automatically respond from the same address they were sent from, you can group multiple accounts so that they respond to a single address or you can have everything respond from the same email account.

Consider setting up filters that group related accounts. I use a Gmail label to wrap up all of the work-related emails. This way, if I really need to focus or have a heavy load on a particular day, I can just filter out unread messages using my Work label and not see a single unnecessary message.

Mercilessly unsubscribe from nonsense. A one inbox approach will increase the amount of emails you see when you check email. Mitigate this by unsubscribing from any and all unnecessary notifications, superfluous email newsletters or spam that finds its way into your inbox. This takes effort in the short term, but in the long run it leads to far less nonsense that to process.

Getting To One Inbox

This approach takes a bit of setup, but once it’s up and running, you can send, receive and store emails from all of your accounts in one place with ease. If you’re at all curious about how to setup a single email inbox, check back for the next post or subscribe for free to the feed for a walkthrough of the tools I use to effectively manage all of my email in a single inbox.

Where Should You Start When You’re Struggling To Improve?

Who is this for? Those who want to improve, yet have no idea where to start.

My friends over at Asian Efficiency recently shared their 7 Truths About Productivity. They make several sound points, but I can’t help but feel as if they underemphasized what I believe to be an essential truth and a potential starting point for those looking to improve.

They examine self management, perfect systems, the importance of sex, time constraints, diet, technology and psychology. Throughout the piece they allude to what I believe to be the single most important truth: this isn’t about better understanding aspects of productivity, it’s about better understanding yourself.

When I first got serious about getting my act together, I put a fair amount of energy into discovering the tactics that might help, the tools I might try, the life changes I might make. I went to sites exactly like the one you’re reading now in hopes of discovering the secrets that would make all of the difference. These early experiments helped, some even made an impact, but they didn’t really make a difference.

The Problem With Premature Progress

As we look to improve, we crave progress. This usually implies forward motion. Our desire to forge ahead leads us to overlook our present struggles and motivations and causes us to overlook many of our current strengths.

My advice, forgo some of your productivity progress in favor of enhancing your understanding of current strengths, weaknesses, patterns and desires. Get to know yourself as well as you get to know the options that are available to you.

Don’t crack open Getting Things Done. Don’t download yet another app. Don’t try a new hack. Take out some paper or start a new text file and have at yourself. Really consider and clarify the way that you work. List out what’s working and force yourself to face what isn’t. Question your choices. Do you even want to get better at the thing you’re doing? Take the time to seriously examine who you are, what you’re doing how you’re currently doing things and what might be causing you to feel as if you need to improve. If it’s as simple as difficulty managing your volume of email, you’ll find no shortage of solutions. But it usually isn’t.

I’m not suggesting you start reading every self-help book out there, I’m not really even suggesting you stop considering your options. I’m just suggesting that you spend as much of your energy improving your self-awareness as your workflow. Much like that better workflow you’re looking to create, self-awareness takes time to cultivate. If you start by making self-awareness a priority, it will become a force multiplier.

The time I’ve spent enhancing this understanding certainly slowed my initial efforts, but it exponentially enhanced my long-term progress. A better understanding keeps me from trying things that would most likely be a bad fit. It lets me tweak what works for others to work for me. It has helped me to separate a critical issue that needs addressing from an interest that will soak up my attention, but do little to improve my creative output. It allows me to better observe my patterns and to catch myself when I’m falling back into old and unhelpful habits.

The Problem With Sites Like This

So many sites, including this one, encourage you to experiment, improve and evolve your personal productivity system. We suggest tools, tactics and life changes that can help you overcome whatever ails you. These are great resources as you progress, but their daily offerings are often a poor starting point.

As my friends over at Asian Efficiency later point out:

Technology is not the primary solution to your productivity issues.

You are.

[…]

Technology is a catalyst, not a fix.

Your knowledge, skills and insights are far more important than any app.

I think this speaks to far more than just technology and apps. It’s equally true of the tactics we attempt to adopt and tweaks to our psychology or physiology. We are always at the center of our challenges, and until we better understand them, we’re likely building around a core that is unstable.

My guess is that this isn’t your first visit to a site like this, and my guess is that whatever the other site suggested didn’t really fix the real problem. If it did, you wouldn’t bother reading a post about where to get started. So here’s what I suggest you try if everything you’ve been reading and everything you’ve attempted hasn’t worked: stop looking out and start looking in.

Don’t rush, don’t think of this as a box to check off. Consider attempting a larger mission. Make self-awareness an integral part of your attempts to do better. You aren’t just looking to improve your productivity, you’re looking to improve as a person.

The Benefits and Pains Of Creating In Public

Who is this for? Anyone considering launching a project and iterating it publicly before it is ready. This also may apply to those whose fear of making mistakes keeps them from ever making their ideas a reality.

When Mike Vardy and I first had the idea for Workflowing, we intended to form a plan. That plan would be thought through again and again and again until we felt it was sound enough and we were prepared enough to implement it. Once we started implementing, we would have had a clear vision of what we wanted to create and have every next action carefully plotted. From there, it would have been up to us to do everything in our power to execute on our plan and turn the idea into a reality.

Just as we started to plan, we were inspired by Patrick Rhone to take our early vision and allow ourselves to iterate the concept publicly. Rather than creating the shape the work would take, we wanted to let the work help create the shape. We had a strong sense of what we wanted to do, but we were unclear on the details and far from ready to implement them. We jumped in anyway.

And How Did That Work Out?

The honest answer: good and bad.

The Good

The site exists. The value of this cannot be understated. It’s not something we might do. It’s not something we want to do. It’s something we are doing.

We’ve created a few original posts that we’re proud of. We’ve been able to get the link posts up, running and sharing properly on social networks. We’re experimenting with the running list concept to see how we can make better long term use of short-term link posts. We have a design that, while imperfect, is a sound starting point. We’re learning more about what the site is with every single day and every single action. We’re creating work that we’re proud of that we believe meets the spirit of our initial idea.

The Bad

It doesn’t exist as it would had we waited. The value of this cannot be understated as well. You only ever get one chance to make a first impression.

The accelerated timing made it difficult to dedicate as much time to Workflowing as we should have. The concept of creating in public allowed us the freedom to make mistakes, but it also gave us enough room to neglect our new baby when things got busy. As mentioned in the previous post, it also happened to align with a particularly busy and challenging time for both myself and my partner in crime, Mike Vardy who has now moved on from the project (so the we I keep mentioning is more of an I). The newsletter, something we believed would be a core feature for the site, has proven difficult to properly express to potential contributors and would require far more time and attention than we ever could have anticipated.

Would I Do It Again?

As I’ve been talking with Vardy and other trusted souls to figure out how to proceed moving forward, I’ve found myself questioning if creating Workflowing in public was the right decision.

In theory, had we kept this quiet I wouldn’t be shuttering a newsletter I never launched and we probably would have figured out that this project wasn’t ideal for collaboration long before anyone even knew that a collaboration even existed.

In reality, I don’t regret it one bit. I sacrificed a first impression, but I care more about the lasting one. I’m changing things, but that was the plan. I did things this way so I could work my way towards a clear picture of the project. I started something that I really wanted to do and I’m looking forward to continuing to improve it. I’m building something that I’m proud of, I’m testing my desire against my reality and am forcing myself to clarify the kind of work I want to continue to do moving forward. This is worth any early loss or minor embarrassments.

The truth of the matter is this, had I been patient the initial impression may have been better and the initial vision may have been clearer to others. Still, that same patience could have led to procrastination, which could have led to abandonment and this project may never have seen the light of day. I may have gotten started, but there would be no guarantee that I’d ever actually get it out there. It very well could have been yet another thing that I really wanted to do, but didn’t.

I also cannot understate the value of all of the amazing feedback I’ve received. When I shared the early idea with friends, I was met with encouragement and enthusiasm. When I launched Workflowing, I was met with ideas as to how to make it better and had an actual place to test them. When it really comes down to it, this is why I will never regret the approach I’ve taken and will likely create in public again the next time I’m serious considering a new idea.

If you’re struggling to get your idea to a place where you feel it’s ready for the world, consider getting it out there. It may be uncomfortable at times, it may be imperfect, but whatever it is, it will exist. And once something exists in the world, its far more likely to get better.

Do You Feel Stuck In Your GTD System?

Who is this for? Those who are considering reworking or rebooting their personal productivity system.

From Erik Hess on Generational podcast:

If you’re stuck in a system, you have to get used to working within the limitations of that system.

This was a great conversation on considering and reconsidering your GTD system. The only addition I’d make to Erik’s point is that you also have to get used to the limitations of whatever system you create for yourself.

A perfect system is an unlikely goal. If you’re seriously reassessing or refactoring the way you work, focus on making things better. Some aspects of the way you work will continue to be imperfect. Embrace that reality, determine how to work through the rough spots and get back to work.

And if what you end up creating sounds “wrong” to others… well, then just heed the wise words of Gabe Weatherhead from the same episode:

Whatever’s working for you, keep doing that thing.

Be sure to give the full episode a listen.

Information vs. User Disarray

Who is this for? Those struggling to determine the ideal number of tools to use in their workflow.

From Devir Kahan at BitQuill:

Over the last few weeks a problem that has only gotten worse with time started to bug me more than ever before. I call it “information disarray” and it is the issue of all of the important organizational bits of your digital life being scattered throughout a variety of different apps and services. Your todos are in one app, articles ideas in another, things you want to buy in another, movies you want to watch in another, appointments in another, and lists in still another. Everything is everywhere and you have no idea where to look to find something.   There was a time when there was a single application you could go to and see everything you needed to worry about or take care of that day/week. Now things are spread out all over the place with highly specialized apps each claiming little bits of information for themselves. I can never find a specific item that I want, and I have, more than once, missed important information because I was not in the right app at the right time.

We’re now offered an array of tools to help us manage our day-to-day, many of which overlap. It’s far too easy to take on too many of them and find yourself lost in the very tools you hoped would save you. That said, I also think trying to structure one tool to do it all (or aggressively minimizing tools for minimizing’s sake) to be an equally inefficient solution. Let’s face it, the lack of ever having a single application where you could go to see everything you needed is what led us to branch off and find more focused alternatives in the first place. 

While I agree that there is a very real concern about having too many tools doing too many things, I’m not sure I agree that this is a technology issue. To me, it’s strictly a user issue. I avoid highly specialized apps as they tend to lead to the kind of confusion Devir warns against. Rather than using a grocery app, I stick to a general list app (Listary is my current choice, but Silo is coming along nicely). This means that anything that would belong on a list, from hardware store needs to books I’d like to read, all live in one place. I may not get the advantages of more focused apps (such as Recall for book, TV and movie suggestions), but I never wonder where anything belongs.

Rather than obsessing on a single app or even the app count, I always find it’s better to think of these tools as part of a single workflow that’s meant to provide the clarity needed to get through the day, week, month and year. The solution, at least for me, digitally is the same as in my home: a place for everything and everything in its place.

I’m intentional about the tools I use, but I’m even more intentional about the way I use them. All written text goes into nvALT, reference materials go into Evernote, tasks are in OmniFocus, lists are in Listary, reminders are in Due, appointments are in Fantastical/Google Calendar. By the way, these tools are not mutually exclusive. If I need to get a piece of writing done by a certain date, there’s a task for it in OmniFocus with a link directly back into that piece. If I have a meeting, the reference material gets the same treatment in OmniFocus with a link back to my notes for the meeting.

In Devir’s case, he is trying to use Things to handle more of his workload. This may very well work for him, but if I tried to keep my daily tasks, my writing wants, my shopping lists and more in once place my system would implode in on itself. The clarity my system provides me would diminish and ultimately it would help me get less done. Between managing my home life, my work life and my personal projects, my task list is overloaded enough.

This may seem insane to some, it may even create some friction, but I never wonder where anything goes or where I need to go when I need something, I know. Is there still disarray in my day? Absolutely, but very little of it tends to come from my technology and if used right, I don’t think much of it will for you as well. It just requires taking the time the time to decide what to use, discovering the best way to use it and then having the discipline to actually use it that way. It isn’t always easy, but I’ve found it to be an effective tool for eliminating a fair amount of my daily disarray.