How I Keep Email from Ruling My Life in 3 Easy Steps

Email used to rule my life. When somebody sent me an email, they would entice me to read it, and then (most likely) get derailed from whatever I was doing. It was awful. If somebody malicious wanted to take over my life, all they would have to do would send me well-timed emails throughout the day, and I would never get anything done.

In order for productivity to work, the way I interfaced with email had to change. Nobody teaches you how to use an email before you get one, and so a majority of people misuse their email. I started reading some articles around the web, trying things, and here are these are 3 easy steps that I settled on that keep email from controlling my life.

I Don’t Check It All the Time

Once upon a time, I prided myself in the frequency at which I checked my inbox. I had it all down too. My browser would be default open up my gmail, my hotmail, and my university email account, and I had different people and mailing lists emailing according to their category and importance. I would respond to any and all emails within an hour or two.

What a waste of time!

When I check my email nonstop, whether it is on my phone, my tablet, or my computer, I spend so much of my time shifting gears between taking care of the here and now, and other people trying to get a hold of me. I struggled to stay focused on tasks (especially the important ones which required focus), because of a nagging feeling in the back of my head that I had something to check.

The fix: disable notifications and close the mail client. Check email maximum 4 times per day

The world won’t die if you don’t check your email every hour. Yes, you might be able to coordinate something in a day if you do send 20 small emails back and forward, but you can do the same thing with one email, and then a follow up phone conversation. Besides, many things do not need to be coordinated in a day, and if you’re good at planning you should be working out important details weeks in advance.

By checking in the morning, in the evening, and once or twice during the day (mealtimes) you can set aside whole hours of time in the middle where you’re working distraction free.

I Achieve Inbox Zero

Too many people use their email inbox like a todo list. The inbox is a striped column that extends thousands of messages down back to the previous decade. Urgent messages are mixed with blog subscriptions or general information emails CCed to dozens of people.

Offices that look like this look sloppy, but we don’t recognize the sloppiness on a computer because it’s digital, and therefore feels different. But it still is just as difficult for the human brain to process.

All of my emails forward to one account. And whenever I check it, I make sure that my inbox is empty when I’m done. I first quickly assign all my emails into folders: read-later, do-later, respond-to-now, or the archive. (The do-later is actually me forwarding them into my Todoist inbox.

Once my inbox is empty, then I know that everything is in it’s proper place, and that nothing is slipping through the cracks. Urgent things are getting done first, and other things are put in a list where they can be prioritized later.

I Keep Emails Short and Informative

Nobody likes rants (unless they’re giving them, but usually they’re frustrated at something and not enjoying their life too much anyway). So I don’t include rants in emails. I say what I need to say, and then finish.

When there are multiple things that I need to talk about, I send multiple emails. In the past, if I needed to tell someone a bunch of things that were sort of related, I would write a giant email with the subject line “stuff” and then put paragraphs of information in the text. I would get a reply that would say, “this is a lot of information, come to my office sometime later on to sort through all of it.” It didn’t work too well.

Now, when there are multiple topics I need to talk about, I put them in multiple messages. Each is short, too the point, and I know that the responses I get back will be more intentionally related to each topic, and usually I don’t need to show up at someone’s office to sort everything out (even though I still do this frequently when there is more to talk about than a paragraph or two over email).

I have found that I can keep my emails shorter by including more in the subject and less in the body. Many emails are so small that I can put the entire email in one subject and finish it with an EOM. This bothers people the first couple times they get it, but after getting acclimated to the shift, it becomes a time saver on both ends.

Conclusion

I don’t claim to be an email guru, but I know that I tend to handle more emails than the average person (maybe not the top 10%, but top 50%) and that there are bad ways and good ways to handle email. These are the methods that I have used for the last year and have saved me hours of time, and I hope they work for you as well.

Staying Productive with Todo Lists

I love lists. Lists allow me to write everything down in one spot so that I don’t need to remember everything. I realize that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for lists, but let me explain why lists help me to sleep better every night and keep me motivated throughout the day.

I’ve played around with Google Tasks, Any.Do, Wunderlist, Remember the Milk, but the ToDo list manager that I’ve come to love the most is called Todoist. It has a lot of features for premium users, and for about $0.08 per day, I can have a computer keep track of everything that I have to do and remind me what needs to be done, when it has to be done.

The workflow is quite simple. To keep myself from getting overwhelmed, whenever I remember that there is something that I have to do, I put it in my Todoist inbox. Need to drop off a form at the Administration building? I add it to the inbox. Homework due on Tuesday? Add it to the inbox. Need to email a professor about a conference, add it to the inbox.

At the end of the day, as part of my evening ritual, I take a look at what tasks are in my Inbox. At this point, I sort through them and categorize them:

  • Assigned- these have been assigned to a specific date, and should be done by that day or before.
  • Waiting For – these tasks cannot be done until a date has happened, or other paperwork has been processed
  • Someday/Maybe – these tasks are non-urgent, and are usually personal projects like “check out a book on body language from James White Library”

Something that I am doing this year that I did not permit myself to do last year was to leave tasks in my inbox. Historically, I have been optimistic about what I am able to get done, and when I finish the day with 4 unfinished tasks, I feel unaccomplished and drained. To overcome this feeling, I only write down tomorrow’s MIT’s (Most Important Tasks). So long as these things are completed, then the day is a success. Everything that needs to be done soonish but has some flexibility remains on the Inbox stack until there is a day where I know that I have a 90%+ chance of finishing it. When something leaves the Inbox, it does not come back, and if it goes into the Assigned category, then it gets completed on the due date.

Finally, the last thing that I do in my planning for tomorrow ritual is prioritize each task for tomorrow. Some tasks were assigned tomorrow’s due date perhaps a week ago. Others I have just assigned to tomorrow in reviewing my inbox. So now I make an order/attack strategy in how I am going to finish everything on the list.

And that’s it. I’m done. That’s all the thinking that I have to do about tomorrow’s tasks. At this point, I can go to bed without worrying about all the things I need to get done tomorrow, or how I’m going to fit everything in, because I’ve gone to the drawing board, written them all down, and in what order I’m going to do them. When I wake up in the morning, my list is there, ready to be executed in the prescribed order.

There are three main advantages to this system:

  • No more procrastination: Because I’m doing things in order, I don’t allow myself to do the easy tasks when I’m feeling lazy, leaving the most daunting tasks for later in the week. I tackle the highest priory tasks first thing in the morning, and important things are always finished by the end of the day.
  • No more multitasking: No two items in my todo list have the same importance. They may be marked on the computer has having the same priority, but because one shows up higher than the other on the list, each one get’s done sequentially. There may be the rare case where I start a process that requires me to wait for a few minutes (i.e., I’m installing MATLAB at the moment) where I temporarily start another task, but I come back to the other task as soon as I can to avoid multitasking.
  • No more worrying:  It is very liberating to know that I have everything written down and organized, and that when I am sitting down to plan my day, I have the whole picture in front of me. Everything is accounted for, nothing is forgotten, and I don’t have to worry about the unexpected occuring.

That’s about it. I hope that you can glean a few tips out of this email, and perhaps make your own days more productive.

Why I Take a Cold Shower Everyday

I first ran into the idea of taking Cold Showers from Joel Runyon’s blog  “Impossible HQ.” On his post on Cold Shower Therapy he says the following:

If you can’t do something uncomfortable and difficult for 5 minutes in the shower, how the are you going to do something uncomfortable or difficult in real life?

He has a point. The most important thing you can do to get any task done is to just do it. The bulk of the reasons why I don’t get things done when I need to is because I kept procrastinating, or talked myself out of doing something because it was uncomfortable, or didn’t sound like much fun at the time.

Cold Showers are the cure for this.

When I  was working at summer camp this last summer, I started taking cold showers in the mornings half-way through teen camp. I noticed a distinct change. When I started out a day telling my whining, sleepy-eyed self to get over it, and turn on the cold jet of ice-water, for the rest of the day I found it much much easier to do things that needed to be done, but weren’t the most enjoyable.

But it didn’t stop there. I think every teenage boy (and most non-teenage boys as well) want to feel macho, boss, masculine, etc… As a cabin, we did all the manly things we could think of together, including pushup competitions whenever we could. When they found out that I took cold showers every morning, and I explained reasons why it makes me “more of a man” when it comes to getting stuff done (and not being a sissy and coming up with excuses) they all wanted to try it to.

Well, after summer camp came August, with it’s ice bucket challenges. I watched video after video of my friends (some of which are pretty massive guys) wimp out from having a gallon of ice water was poured over their heads. Mostly because they were intimidated by something that looked really uncomfortable.

Anything worthwhile that you want to achieve is going to require some discomfort. The people who get the most done are those who put their big-boy pants on, and start doing the things they need to do to achieve their results. One of the ways that I discipline myself to get the uncomfortable things done is to turn my shower on to cold every morning when I get up. It takes zero extra time out of my busy schedule (and in fact saves time and water most days) and helps me to start out every day energized, and ready to tackle difficult tasks.

For another perspective on this topic, you can check out Asian Efficiency’s post Eat that Frog

Why I won’t be playing video games on my phone/tablet/computer in 2015

This Christmas break, I found myself putting a lot of time into Minecraft and Clash of Clans. I had no school, and had finished some personal projects, so I had some time to burn and a nice iPad mini and MacBook Air.

From my experience time tracking in the past, I had an intuitive feel that gaming was taking up huge amounts of time, and that the hours per day that I was spending on games could be much better spent working on this blog for example.

I’ve made New Years resolutions before, and am well aware of the backsliding that is associated with the term. According to this site, only 8% of us keep our resolutions, and only 46% make it to 6 months. But I believe a big part of the reason we don’t make it is because we don’t understand the neurochemistry behind it.

Part of the goal of this blog, Making Gears Turn, is to better understand the mechanics that power the human experience. To keep a New Year’s Resolution, you need to understand the neurochemistry behind motivation, and video games have a fair bit to do with that.

A researcher at UConn discovered that dopamine, a chemical often associated with pleasure and our brain’s reward system, is not strictly about pleasure. He placed a pile of food near rat subjects, and another pile twice as large behind a small fence, and saw what happened to different rats. Rats with low dopamine lacked motivation to overcome their obstacle, and went for the small pile that was most accessible. Rats with more dopamine were able to make it over the fence and to the food. It turns out that dopamine has more to do with motivation, and increased motivation often gives us the willpower to achieve goals that give us pleasure.

Dopamine doesn’t cause pleasure in our brain, but it is the gatekeeper. Endorphins on the other hand are the chemicals released when we run, eat food, or play video games. So when someone particularly enjoys an activity, the brain (particularly the hippocampus and the amygdala) record the environmental cues associated with that activity, and the next time those cues are seen, then we get excited and motivated.

The problem with video games is that they are at a place where normally we are supposed to be productive. In the example of a mobile device or laptop, we are supposed to be writing a paper, or sending an important text, yet dopamine triggered by the sight of our devices and the tactile feel of the keyboard instinctively prompts us to log onto Facebook.com or open up our favorite game. This hijacks productivity.

So in order to stay on top of things like exercise, clearing todo lists, and fulfilling personal goals (like writing on this blog), the video games get to go this New Years. Completely off the phone. So when I feel compelled to log on, the game simply isn’t installed (and my hippocampus hasn’t yet associated the app store with endorphins yet :D). Less time gaming leaves more mental energy and more time for other things that really matter.

Oh, and for the record, playing a board game is something that matters. :)