Now, those of you who know me are probably laughing right now. Of course I have a Social Media problem… I mean, that Mike, he is always on Facebook… Turns out we we’re both wrong: Social Media isn’t my problem at all. In fact, it is not even close.
What’s funny about this is that a few months ago, I would have completely agreed with you. Clearly, I had a problem. I must have been wasting TONS of my time at work on sites like Facebook and Twitter. I decided to try and figure out exactly how much of my time Social Media was taking up. A quick Google search lead me to RescueTime, hands down the best and worst application that I’ve ever run on my computer. What exactly is RescueTime? Essentially, it is your very own spy. It hides out in the background of your computers and tracks your actions, both on and off of the web. While this is torture to look at (trust me, if you can avoid it, you REALLY don’t want to know how you spend your time), the information has been invaluable. As you can see from the chart below, it was clear that Social Media, was NOT my problem.
Once I knew that email was own personal demon, it was time to start dealing with the problem. At the time, I wasn’t doing anything to manage my inbox. In fact, it is pretty fair to say that my inbox was managing me. I had hundreds upon hundreds of emails just sitting there (admittedly, some had been sitting for FAR too long) and constantly felt like I was looking to my inbox to figure out what to do next. Once again, I went to my good friend Google and stumbled upon the single most influential web video of my professional life, Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero talk to the team at Google.
While I strongly suggest that you watch the video, the gist of Inbox Zero is to get you out of your inbox so you can focus on the work you really want and need to accomplish. No easy feat, especially when you are as compulsive about checking email as I tend to be. So for those who are too busy checking email to watch the video, here are some of the tips and tricks that have been helping me.
This all starts with turning off the notifications that have us responding to new messages like Pavlovian dogs. We tend to look at every new message that pops up as a potential grenade, our own little mini-fire that needs to be put out that instant. While this is a pattern that keeps us busy, it is one that often keeps us away from the work we really need to be doing. Removing these notifications goes a long way towards helping you stay focused on what’s important and away from your ever-calling inbox.
Once you get over the habit of checking your inbox every five minutes, the trick is to get into the mindset of batch-processing the messages in your inbox to zero a few times a day. This lets you keep your head in your work, but keeps you from missing anything critical. It isn’t a matter of answering all of your email while processing; let’s face it, that isn’t possible. It is a matter of taking one of four possible actions:
- Deleting the spam
- Delegating whatever you can
- Answering anything that takes under two minutes
- Converting any of the larger emails into tasks
I can’t explain how much lower my blood pressure now because of this system. It was cathartic to get rid of the thousands of messages clogging up my inbox, most of which were irrelevant to what I actually needed to be doing. This shift has gone a long way towards helping me focus (and anyone who knows me know just how difficult that can be) and slowly but surly is letting me be more productive.
Beyond the general philosophy of Inbox Zero, there are a few tools that have been invaluable towards making this all possible. My two favorites are Text Expander and Things.
Text Expander is an amazing little app that runs in the background of your Mac (there are similar programs for PCs). It lets you create short text snippets that can expand out into large chunks of text. For example, by typing “csrp,” I am able to write a customer service email with pop-up fields for customizing the message. This is a task that once took a few minutes, it now takes a few seconds. It sounds like no big deal, but if you find yourself writing the same emails over and over again, it will save you hours in your week. This concept of automating repetitive tasks keeps me out of my inbox and into my work.
Things is a simple Mac-based (again, there are tons of options for the PC) application for managing your to-do list. If an email is going to take me more than two minutes to respond, I create a task in Things with a link that takes me back to the original email. It is a fast and efficient way remind me to respond without having keeping the message in my inbox. Separating inbox from action box has proven to be an amazing productivity booster.
Changing the way you approach email is no easy task. If you are currently living in your inbox, you are already at its mercy. From what I’ve seen, there is only one way to get started: do the hard work of processing your inbox to zero for the first time. It may take a few days, you may have to delete several of those emails you been “meaning to respond to,” but it isn’t until you clear out your current workload that you can truly begin to benefit from the changes that come along with Inbox Zero. Slowly but surely, I’ve managed to keep myself out of the inbox and into the work I really want and need to be doing.
How about you? Have you identified the problem that is keeping you away from the work that is really important? If so, let me know what’s working for you in the comments section!