Empty Inbox – Less Stress

With the high volumes of incoming email we all receive, it can be very tempting to let them pile up. In fact, most people use their inbox as a workflow management and archival system. This approach is highly inefficient and creates unnecessary stress. Thankfully, there is a simple way to resolve this problem: empty your inbox regularly.

For the past ten years I have enjoyed the clarity of an empty inbox. I was inspired to do this after reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. In the book he provides a simple approach to clearing out the inbox no matter the volume. At the core of his technique is the workflow diagram. In a way, the GTD approach is similar to a plumber who ensures that water remains flowing through pipes.

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Pexels.com

To clear any inbox, there are three important things to understand:

1 – An inbox is only for in: The best use of an inbox is to identify new messages. Once they have been read, they must leave the inbox. No skipping over items. Go through every message from newest to oldest until complete.

2 – Empty it regularly: To cope with the high volumes, it is important to clear the inbox every day. Not only does this prevent serious backlog that can impact your efficiency, it can eliminates the stress which comes when important messages are buried under junk.

3 – Create functional folders to store messages: An “action” folder will hold items you need to respond to as soon as possible. A “waiting for” folder will hold reminders of actions you are waiting for others to do. An “archive” folder will hold all non-actionable messages you need to retain. Finally, be sure to trash as much as you can early to reduce clutter.

If you want to enjoy a less stressful work life, be sure to clear out your inbox every day. I speak from a decade of experience on this point. An empty inbox is an awesome sight to behold.

We’re All Alone in this Together

Organizations that are able to form reliable teams tend to accomplish more goals and provide better internal and external customer service. However, there is an unspoken tension around teams. In order for them to work effectively, everyone has to know their assignment. The distribution of work needs to be clear otherwise important items fall through the cracks.

David Allen has explored the intersection of personal productivity and teamwork. In a recent blog post he notes the following:

Have you discovered yet that no matter how big the button is that says “TEAM” you’re wearing at the conference, nobody’s on yours?! That in order to get done what you have to get done, there aren’t a lot of people at your beck and call, making sure your specific actions and projects happen? Ever have the feeling that you’ve got to hold on for dear life to your own projects and outcomes, against the hurricane of events and other people trying to get their world defined and done?

Later in the post, David considers the reason why teams fail to clarify their work.

Problem is most of us never had training or experience in dealing with that syndrome efficiently and effectively. We grew up in a world where you just went to work, and the work to be done was visible and obvious.

What is the solution to this problem? It could be as simple as acknowledging our struggles.

The best teams and relationships, from my experience, are the ones in which the players all acknowledge they’re each alone in the endeavor together. That’s when we can really experience team, and function as one.

Read the entire post on the Getting Things Done web site.

Superhuman Email Management

Knowledge jobs of all types require quick communication. Despite the prevalence of chats, channels, and text, email remains the key way to share detailed information. This makes mastery of email an essential modern skill. The catch is that most people never received training on how to handle it effectively. Thankfully, there are easy to learn principles that make email processing effective and fun.

Tiago Forte first learned email management through GTD. From there he expanded on the practice to create a seamless system to completely process his inbox with ease and turn it into an enlightening high value experience. In a recent article on the Superhuman blog, Tiago spoke to Rahul Vohra at Superhuman for an article that highlights four steps to email mastery.

It starts with changing your perspective on email.

“The key to having a more positive outlook toward email is to nail the management,” says Tiago. “Anytime you don’t have a place for information to flow to, it will pile up, multiply, and become a problem.”

“The solution to having too many emails — and not knowing what to do with them — is not found in your inbox,” says Tiago. “You have to solve that problem elsewhere.”

Later on in the article, Tiago shares a key approach to reframing email, slowing down your reactivity.

“When someone sends you a message — especially a colleague, or someone senior to you — there’s a built-in feeling of urgency,” says Tiago. “But is that urgency real? What is the real expectation of this person?”

“Low reactivity is a spiritual discipline,” reveals Tiago. “Go slightly beyond your normal response time. If you normally respond within an hour, try to respond within a day.”

Discover the whole systematic approach to handling email at the Superhuman blog.

GTD Wisdom

David Allen’s insights into the nature of work and how we approach it can be career changing. That was certainly true for me. Below are a few classic David Allen quotes. I invite you to take time to ponder them. They may seem obvious at first, but on deeper reflection there is wisdom that may challenge the way your approach your daily tasks and long term goals. Enjoy!

“If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.”

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

“The big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future. That means that as soon as you tell yourself that you need to do something, and store it in your RAM, there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time.”

“Anything that causes you to overreact or under-react can control you, and often does.”

“You must use your mind to get things off your mind.”

“You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.” The list of projects is the compilation of finish lines we put before us, to keep our next actions moving on all tracks appropriately”

“Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because the doing of them has not been defined.”

“There are no problems, only projects.”

Are You Scared of Lists?

Do you like your lists?

Making lists is a standard time management tool designed to put everything that needs to be done front and center. However, many people have trouble using their lists effectively. Often the reason is that the items on the lists are too vague and thus difficult to act on. Other times lists may seem overwhelming because they are long and contain everything that needs to be done. Can we just trash lists and do something else instead to manage our affairs? Perhaps not.

David Allen is a huge proponent of using lists. He has a way to demystify them for maximum effectiveness. In a recent article on the Getting Things Done web site, David discusses why lists are often considered a dirty word.

You are either attracted or repelled by your lists and everything on them. There is no neutral territory. When you look at any one item you will either be thinking to yourself, “Hey, when can I mark THAT off?” or “Yuck! Back away!” My educated guess is that 98 per cent of people’s responses are some version of the latter.

Why? Because 1) they’re hard work and/or 2) they’re scary and/or 3) they’re disappointing.

After dissecting the reasons why lists frustrate people, he proceeds to provide ways to make better use of them. For example:

1) Make them complete, so your brain gets to graduate from the job of remembering; and organize your action reminders by context (phone, computer, errands, at home, etc.) so you only need to review what you actually can do at the time.

Read the other two ways to make lists more useful on the Getting Things Done web site.

Latest and Loudest

Do you ever fell like you are on a treadmill at work where things are coming in faster than they can be processed? It can be a frustrating experience to always feel like you stuck trying to catch up. This usually forces people into a situation where their focus falls to the latest and loudest item. Stuff might get done, but it feels unfulfilling.

In an email to GTD Connect members earlier this year, David Allen focused a whole column on what happens when people fall into this mode.

Driven by latest and loudest is a sub-optimal way to engage. You will likely be over- or under-reacting to the situation, subliminally knowing that there are many other things that should probably need to be considered in allocating your most precious resources (time and attention). You will complain about being the victim of unexpected interruptions created by an environment, situation, or people you can’t control.

When someone is caught in this situation the best way out is to find perspective. Taking time to step back to see the bigger picture is a great way to regain control. In GTD the primary way to do this is through the Weekly Review. Spending a couple of hours at the end of a work week to examine the current situation provides a breath of fresh air.

The basic principles of the review are to get clear, current, and creative. They are mapped out in a David Allen podcast, available for free on the GTD web site. It is a great way to learn how to do this simple yet powerful process. You can also download a free handout from GTD web site listing the steps.

Finally, while the latest and loudest may not always be the best thing to do, there are exceptions. As David wrote on his blog:

That said, whenever you did choose to handle whatever was latest and loudest, it may have been exactly the best thing to be doing, given the whole picture of your world. You may not have seen it that way.

An Interview With David Allen

Discovering Getting Things Done by David Allen ten years ago was a huge professional turning point for me. GTD provided a way to structure work that allowed me to achieve more than I had thought possible. In fact one of the best training tools I ever purchased was a ten CD recording of a GTD Live seminar which I listened to a dozen times. Over the years I have frequently returned to David Allen’s ideas and still find a clarity of thought this is always inspiring.

If it has been a while since you read Getting Things Done, or maybe have yet to open it, I highly recommend this interview with David Allen on Medium. He covers a lot of the basics of the GTD philosophy and how to apply it. For example:

These are the 2 elements of productivity:

  1. What am I trying to accomplish?
  2. How do I allocate resources, attention, and activity to make that happen?

They’re not automatic decisions. No email will tell you outcomes or actions. No thought you wake up with tells you that. You actually have to sit down and think and use your cognitive muscle. Put yourself through this thought process.

Later on in the interview he discusses priorities and clears up misconceptions around how they are set.

You’re making priority decisions every moment. Now you are talking to me, that is your priority. And that’s the best thing you can be doing right now. Otherwise, your head would be totally somewhere else.

If you’re always thinking about priorities … I’m not saying to not set priorities, but don’t try to oversimplify that and give yourself some formula that determines your purpose, your core values, your vision in where you’re going. The goals you need to accomplish, the things you need to manage and maintain to make sure you’re healthy.

Read the full interview to learn more.

Keeping the Calendar Clean

Almost everyone working in a professional job uses a calendar. Even people who are very loosely organized understand the usefulness of keeping track of upcoming appointments and commitments. However, many people try to use a calendar to remind them of next actions or keep track of things they are waiting for. They may also clutter a calendar with desired due dates for projects, but then have to sadly re-calibrate when life gets busy and the dates fly by.

David Allen has thought a lot about how to optimally use a calendar. In Getting Things Done he identifies three specific uses of the calendar as a productivity tool. They are the following:

Time Specific Commitments – Basically what most people use the calendar for: keeping track of appointments. i.e. Dentist 3 pm on Tuesday.

Day Specific Commitments – Things that have to be done on that day, but not linked to a specific time. For example, you must submit the monthly statistical report on Friday. Anytime that day is fine, but it has to be done before 5 pm.

Day Specific Information – Information about the day that you need to know. For example, your supervisor is on leave, which means you have to wait for her to get back to approve your project. Or there is server maintenance until 9 am, so email is not accessible.

What is not on the calendar are “to-do” items that are not specifically linked to the day. These items are best dealt with through action folders and project lists. David believes that operating this way keeps the calendar clean and by extension keeps your mind clear. So I invite you all to take a look at your calendar to see if it needs tidying up.

Finally, don’t forget to examine your calendar during the weekly review. It is a great way to keep track of where you have been and where you are going.

Making Successful Resolutions

With 2021 a reality, many people around the world made New Year’s Resolutions. Unfortunately, most of those resolutions fail to make an impact. According to U.S. News, 80% of people give up on them within six weeks. Does this mean resolutions are useless to make? Not necessarily.

In an article from Forbes Magazine, journalist Jennifer Cohen shares reasons why people fail to achieve their resolutions. In those reasons are embedded ways to make them successful. For example:

We Fail To Pick Realistic Goals

According to Statista, the most common New Year’s resolutions are to lose weight, exercise and eat more healthfully. These are achievable goals, yet so many of us can’t follow through. It’s because we don’t take an approach that’s rooted in reality.

Ask yourself the following question—which goal is more achievable? Losing 100 pounds or cutting refined sugars from your diet? The answer is obvious. If you cut sugar from your diet, you’re more likely to lose weight. 

You should also keep in mind that choosing realistic goals or resolutions and achieving them improves our mindset. Even a small victory is still a victory (like 30 days without sugar) and you end up preparing yourself for a much larger one.

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Not sure what resolution to make? Then you might benefit on a period of structured reflection. The good folks at Getting Things Done created a simple document to guide a review of the past year and to look ahead at the new one. The PDF handout can be found here.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!