Software

How I Do Email (Sanely)

At the risk of throwing my hat into an already incredibly crowded ring, I want to write about email. Email seems to be a frustrating aspect of many people's work. I've always followed the discussion around email with interest but never felt like I had much to add because, frankly, email is very rarely something that frustrates me. Since I seem to have an approach that allows me to stay sane I thought it might be helpful for me to share my strategies for dealing with email and maybe you'll be able to glean some insights as to how you can improve your own system. 

To set the stage, I should describe the nature of my work and the type of email I get. I am a Ph.D student taking a full load of classes that I attend in-person. My advisor and many of my collaborators are collocated with me. While the option to meet in person is almost always available, everybody is extremely busy and I'd say 75% of all my collaborative work is done via email. My coaching andconsulting businesses are conducted almost exclusively via email because almost none of my clients are located in Southern California. I probably get about 50-60 actionable emails in a day. For some of you, that's obviously a paltry amount. I'm lucky that the nature of my work means that I can get out of my inbox fairly quickly and get back to focusing on the project at hand. This may not be the case for you. It's doubtful my entire system will work for you but that doesn't mean you can't take bits and pieces to try.

The Basics

I use the Gmail web interface (usually in Safari) when I'm on my laptop. On my iPhone and iPad I use the Gmail app. I have all notifications turned off on all of my devices and I think this is step 0 of almost any sane email system. It's nearly impossible to do great work and really dig into the task at hand when you're either being notified, or at the risk of being notified, of every incoming email. A long time ago I read or heard something Merlin Mann said about email and it really stuck with me. He essentially made the point that anybody in the world can email you at any time and if you allow yourself to be distracted every time you get a new one you're essentially ceding the fact that what you're working on is less important than what anybody in the world has to say to you at that moment. I think leaving your email notifications on represents a complete lack of respect for the work you're doing at the moment (except if the nature of your job requires you to leave it open, such as customer support).

Conceptualizing Email

The second important point consists of how you conceptualize email. For some people it is an ever evolving (i.e. expanding) to-do list. For others it functions as a kind of instant messaging program. I like to conceptualize it as a traditional mailbox. A couple times a day it brings in new information that allows me to better complete the work I've already delineated for myself or it provides opportunities for new projects. Each email is simply a vehicle for new information. It's not a place to store reminders of my work or important information I'll have to reference later. My job is to extract the information, put that information in the correct location so I can use it later, and then immediately archive the email. 

The Options

Every email has a finite set of choices around it. Over time I have gotten excellent at quickly discerning the "type" of email it is and taking the correct next action quickly. Here are the only options I consider when looking at a new email: 1) there is information in it I need for an ongoing project which means I need to extract the relevant information into Evernote (my holding pen for all reference material), 2) there is a new project within the email that I need to start which means I need to start a new project in Things (where all my tasks live) and give myself a next action, 3) the email has no useful or actionable information so I archive it, 4) someone needs my response and I can do so very quickly therefore I respond and then archive the email, 5) someone needs my response but it will take longer than 2 minutes therefore I add a next action in the corresponding project in Things (such as, "Respond to Syd re: budget questions" and archive the email (or if I'm super busy I'll star the email and come back to it later -- see below), 6) a meeting or appointment is being scheduled which means I need to extract the relevant information to add to my calendar and then archive the email.

Every email either has actionable information or inactionable information. Very simply, I think of my email as a hub that corrals incoming information and holds it until I decide what to do with it. My job is to come into the hub, make quick decisions about what's in there, and then get back to the task at hand. The key to treating email this way is to be able to quickly identify the type of email I'm dealing with and knowing where that kind of information "lives" in my system. It takes practice and refinement but eventually it becomes automatic. What becomes very clear once you've gotten proficient at using a system where emails are simply vehicles of actionable or inactionable information is that keeping them in your inbox is the worst choice. 

The Nitty Gritty

I've shared my overall philosophy on email and some of the basic logistics for how I deal with it, so let's get into some very actionable behaviors about how I deal with my email:

  • Notifications off and only check a handful of times each day: I try to only check my email a few times each day. If things are going well, that means I'll check it for the first time around 7 or 8 AM after I've gotten an hour or two of good work completed. I'll check it again around lunch time and again near the end of the work day. I wish I could say that is the last time I check it but I'll be honest and say it usually gets a quick look later in the evening before I go to bed as well. 
  • Filter mailing lists out of your inbox: I have many, many filters set up that grab mailing list emails and direct them around my inbox to a label called "Mailing Lists." I only check this label once a day and can usually deal with everything in it in a matter of seconds. You may be surprised how much of the email you deal with on a daily basis is simply a mailing list you could quickly browse and move on with your life. Moving all of them to a single label and keeping them out of my inbox allows me to focus on the email that actually needs my attention. I know if something lands in my inbox it probably has relevance to my work. To set this up, start making filters every time you get an email in your inbox that is from a mailing list. In Gmail you can select an email and say "filter messages like this" and it will catch every future email from that mailing list and apply the filter. In the beginning you'll have to do this a lot but as you catch the main offenders you'll be doing this less and less. Nowadays I have to make a filter maybe once every couple weeks.
  • Unsubscribe: Try searching for "unsubscribe" in your email client and see what comes up. Chances are you can unsubscribe from the majority of those email lists and never miss them. Get rid of all the crap emails you get on a regular basis and your overall email system will become lighter and easier to handle. I do this once a quarter nowadays.
  • Learn keyboard shortcuts: One of the main reasons I use Gmail is because I love the keyboard shortcuts that allow me to fly through processing my email. I can read, reply, archive, and move on to the next email without ever lifting my fingers off the keyboard to use a mouse. This makes going through my email so much more efficient. Treat it like a game -- see how quickly you can go into your Inbox and process all your email or challenge yourself to never use a mouse when your dealing with email.
  • I "star" emails to come back to later -- but clear them out regularly: Sometimes when I'm on the go I'll receive an email that requires more thought than I can give it in the moment. This is when I'll use the "star" functionality to essentially bookmark the email. One of my last tasks each day is to go through my starred emails and extract the relevant information. While it's best to make action decisions immediately upon reading an email sometimes I can't do that. I just have to be careful that starring emails doesn't result in just giving me essentially two inboxes of varying importance. As long as I work through my backlog every evening (or at most, every couple days) I can be sure nothing is falling through the cracks and I'm moving all my projects forward.
  • Filing emails is almost never necessary: Other than the filter I use to get mailing lists out of my inbox I don't use any other filters or folders. Every email is archived once I've extracted the needed information. If I need it again later for some reason I can almost always find it by searching. I can't think of a time where I was ever not able to find an email I had archived without filing it away in a complex system of folders. I'm not saying that you definitely don't need a filing system either, but I would encourage you to think about what you're gaining from the time you spend filing emails.

Conclusion

This system has been working very well for me for many years. It allows me to process a ton of email very quickly and not feel like I'm working from a to-do list inundated with redundant or superfluous information (if you think about it, a typical email has a lot of information obfuscating the actual important information within it which makes it a pretty terrible to-do list). However, I also didn't institute this system over night. It's the result of a slow evolution of how I handle my work overall. To get started improving your system I recommend picking one suggestion from above and installing it into your typical email routine. As you gain proficiency you can start adding additional changes and figuring out what works best for you. Undoubtedly you will stumble across some things that work for you but don't work for me and in the grand scheme of things that's all that matters. The key takeaway point is that very rarely does truly influential and important work come out of responding to emails so anything you can do to make the process less stressful and less time intensive is worth the initial effort. 

When it comes to email I think we need to get in, grab the information we need to do incredible work, get out, and get back to what matters.

Photo by giuseppesavo

How I Use "Things"

Sometimes I feel like one of the kids looking from the outside as all the cool kids play with their fancy new toy. In my nerdy internet circle it seems like OmniFocus is the weapon of choice for task management. People love to write about it, share their approaches to using it, and generally high five each other in cool OmniFocus-ish ways. But I don't use OmniFocus. I use Things -- and it's time it got some more love. 

This isn't going to be a blow-by-blow comparison between Things and OmniFocus as I've never really used OmniFocus. Instead, I want to share how I use Things every day and how it has become the backbone of the way I work. If you haven't jumped into using a specific piece of software for task management, maybe Things will become a little bit more alluring. 

The structure of this article is going to be something like this:  an overview of what Things actually does, a description of the basic structure of the software, how it fits my specific workflow, and a few tips and tricks.

Let's get to it.

Overview

Very simply, Things is a piece of software that helps me track my projects and to-do list items in an organized and logical way. It borrows heavily from David Allen's "Getting Things Done" personal productivity system but doesn't necessarily have to be an extension of that specific approach. It keeps track of Projects, Next Actions, Areas of Responsibility, and presents them to me in a way that allows me to manage all my work.

Basic Structure

The basic building block of Things is called a Next Action. Essentially, it's a to-do list item that can be placed within a specific Project, in an Area of Responsibility, or stand alone by itself. The starting point for a Next Action is the Inbox. With a simple keyboard shortcut you can bring up a window that lets you quickly add a Next Action and it gets placed in the top-most "container" of the program -- the Inbox. You can also add Next Actions directly to a Project or Area of Responsibility, but I'd say 80% of my Next Actions start in the Inbox.

After the Inbox the next most relevant list is Projects. Each Project holds Next Actions within it (kind of like a folder). I can have a project called "Write Paper for Class" and within it I can have as many discrete Next Actions as I want (such as, "Research Social Identity Theory," and "Look up APA formatting"). Projects are anything I've undertaken that's going to require more than one Next Action to complete it.

One level of abstraction above Projects is Areas of Responsibility. This can be thought of as the various domains of my life in which I have projects I'm responsible for. For example, some of my Areas of Responsibility are "Student," "Relationships," "SamSpurlin.com," etc. Each Area acts as a folder that contains Projects that are relevant to that area.

These three components (Inbox/Next Actions, Projects, Areas of Responsibility) represent the vast majority of the functionality of the program. There's also an area to place Projects or Next Actions that you aren't actively working on but might want to re-visit in the future (called the Someday list). With this basic structure the program allows me to very quickly get a snapshot of my overall work picture, figure out what to work on in the moment, and make sure I'm not letting anything fall through the cracks.

Things and My Workflow

At least 15 or 20 times a day I hit CTRL+OPT+SPACE to bring up the Quick Entry window that lets me enter whatever text I want that then gets saved to the Inbox. I use it to capture any ideas unrelated to what I'm currently working on as well as anything I remember I need to do at any time. If it makes it into the Inbox, I know I will see it and make a decision about what to do with the piece of information. At a very basic level, this is quite possibly the most important habit I've developed that makes Things useful. Once something makes it into the program via the Inbox I know I'll have to interact with it again and make some sort of decision about what to do next. This allows me to trust my system and focus my cognitive power on what matters -- actually doing the work.

Sometimes an item in my Inbox represents a new Project. If it's going to require more than one step to complete I'll go ahead and create a new Project. A lot of the time an item in my Inbox is a Next Action for a Project I've already created. In that case, I simply drag and drop it onto the proper Project. In some cases, the Next Action doesn't belong to an active Project, isn't a Project itself, but is still going to take longer than a couple minutes to finish. In that case I'll just drop it into the Area of Responsibility to which it corresponds. For example, my "Do Weekly Review" Next Action isn't a Project in itself, doesn't belong to an active Project already, but I need to make sure I see it at the proper time so I drop it into my Personal Administration Area of Responsibility.

Another cool feature of Things is that it allows you to tag Next Actions. I use it to denote the context in which the Next Action has to be completed. This allows me to sort my Next Actions by my current context. For example, sometimes I want to see anything I can do at my computer but don't have to be on the internet to complete. In that case, I'll search for all tasks I've tagged with "@computer" (as opposed to "@online"). Another way I use the tagging feature is to tag extremely easy tasks that I can do when my brain is fried as "@easy." That way I can very quickly get a list of tasks to do when I'm not feeling my best.

Things also helps me actually do my work and not just create and organize reminders of the work I have to do. Every morning I'll look at my active Projects and Next Actions to figure out what I should work on today. I can drag these items (or use a keyboard shortcut) into a Today view that only shows those tasks and projects I've selected for the day. Anything I've tagged with a specific due date will also show up in the Today list when it comes time to actually complete it. This helps me filter through the insane amount of information that's actually being tracked within the program to focus on what actually needs to get done (while I can also trust that everything else I need to complete in the future will still be there for review later on).

Things is the central hub that my Weekly Review revolves around. Once a week (usually Sunday morning) I go through all my Projects and make sure they have at least one Next Action. I make sure all my Areas of Responsibility have at least one active Project. I make sure my Inbox is cleared out and all Next Actions are in the proper Project or Area of Responsibility. This lets me go into each week knowing that everything I've committed to doing is safely in Things and is just waiting for me to sit down and do the work.

Finally, there is an iOS version of Things that syncs with what I have on my computer. This allows me to quickly capture Next Actions when I'm away from the computer. After a day away from my computer I'll usually have a handful of items sitting in my Inbox waiting for me because I used my phone to capture ideas during the day.

Tips and Tricks

One of my favorite features of Things is using the Scheduled feature to hide a project or task until a specific day. During my Weekly Review I'll often determine that certain projects aren't going to get worked on in the upcoming week. Instead of having them sit in my active list making me feel bad all week, I'll schedule them to re-appear next Sunday (during my next Weekly Review) at which time I can make a decision about whether I'll work on them in the coming week. I also like using this feature for activities or events that I might want to do but aren't sure about at the moment. For example, if there's a concert a couple months away that I want to reconsider going to once it gets closer, I'll have a Next Action that says "Look into going to XYZ concert," pop up a few weeks in advance. That way I don't have to think about it until I can actually do something about it.

One of the best uses of a task management system is to schedule infrequent recurring tasks. I don't put things I do every day, like brush my teeth, into Things but I do put things I do every month, every 3 months, every 6 months, and even every year into it. I have a reminder to conduct a Monthly Review on the first Sunday of every month, I have a reminder to revisit my goals and vision every year between Christmas and New Year's Eve. I have a reminder to "start thinking about Christmas shopping" in the middle of October. I can use the power of the program to help me make sure I'm moving my attention to where it needs to be at different times throughout the year.

If you use the Quick Entry with Selection keyboard shortcut within Gmail, Things will create a new Next Action with a link back to that specific email in the Notes field. Since I try to keep my email inbox as empty as possible, I'll frequently create a Next Action that is connected to a specific email. By using Quick Entry with Selection I can then have a Next Action that allows me to click back to the specific email I'm replying to. A huge time saver that also lets me keep my email inbox under control

Other Software

Part of what makes Things so useful to me is making sure I'm not asking it to do too much. Things is *only* a task manager for me. It keeps track of Projects and Next Actions. That's it. It's not a calendar (although I do attach due dates to Projects and Next Actions when it makes sense). For my calendar needs, I use Fantastical. It doesn't really matter what you use as long as you're crystal clear about the information that does and does not go into it.

Likewise, Things is not for holding any kind of reference material. For that, I use Evernote. Evernote is my "digital file cabinet" and very often I'll have a note attached to something in Things that says, "Relevant notes are in Evernote." By making sure I don't put calendar items or reference items where they don't belong I can make sure Things stays optimally useful to me.

Things is an incredibly important part of the way I work and my successful use of it allows me to be more productive and less-stressed than I otherwise would be. I'm not an evangelist for this piece of software or this company -- but I am an evangelist for people having *some* kind of way to keep track of their ongoing projects and tasks. Having a clear view of everything you've committed to not only makes you a better team member, coworker, employee, or family member but it allows you to keep implicit contracts with yourself. You'll know that you can trust yourself to do what you say you're going to do. You'll stop letting things (ha) slide through the cracks and the coolest result of it all is that really cool opportunities will start to find you. I firmly believe that without knowing the precise state of your working life most of us subconsciously keep opportunities from appearing. We know we're too busy to tackle anything else so why would you have your feelers out for something new and exciting. Using a program like Things has allowed me to have a crystal clear vision of what I've committed to which means I know what else I can safely take on and what I have to let pass me by. In the past, I wouldn't be scanning the horizon for cool opportunities because I was barely keeping track of what I already had going on. This is huge -- and not something I expected when I first started using this program.

I'm probably missing vast swaths of information that would be helpful to you. What questions can I answer for you about Things and task management more generally?