Somehow, without trying at all, I have achieved Inbox Zero for both my work and personal email. I’ve had my personal email under control for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve ever managed at any job to have clear work email. I know why–at my previous jobs I’ve always been a student as well, so it’s been used for personal items as well. But wait, it gets better! My apartment has also been ending each day being tidy (or at least tidy enough for my personal standards). This parallel existence of neatness on several planes has a marvelously calming effect, though it doesn’t seem to have any effect on my motivation other than a general sense of “You Can Do It!”
Here’s how I did it: I stopped trusting myself. When I first started my job, I didn’t trust myself, and set up as many folders as I thought I would need ahead of time. That made it easy to keep filing messages. I even put “Process email” as a once weekly recurring event in my to-do list. But then, in a moment of self-trust, I deleted that. “Oh, I’ll remember to do it.” No, I won’t. The reminder to process my email now occurs every work-day in my to-do list.
Same thing happened with my apartment. For a long time, I had set myself the task of making sure a room was de-cluttered once a week. I trusted myself to keep things reasonably picked up throughout the rest of the week. As time went by, I moved the tasks closer and closer together, until I was supposed to be de-cluttering every three days. So the other day I stopped trusting myself, and I started reminding myself to tidy the apartment for 10-20 minutes every single day. It usually only takes 10 minutes, and has forced me to not let things pile up.
If it’s been a long time since you’ve seen “No new mail! Want to read updates from your favorite sites? Try Google Reader” in your email, you might want to give this a try as well.
Here’s the interesting thing about to-do lists– once you’ve finished everything on the list due for that day, it can be hard to keep going and working on other tasks. If you don’t really use to-do lists, this may be a foreign concept. Either you have no idea what you have to do, or you work on things as they appear until they are done (or some combination of those). But perhaps you understand what I mean. Some days you can do so much, and no more.
I’ve carefully tagged and categorized my to-do lists for all the projects I’m working on (and daily life) using Remember the Milk, and have gotten in the habit of going over a “due: tomorrow” list the night before. I set my priorities and make sure the workload is manageable. This has several possible outcomes. I don’t get everything done and feel terrible about it. I don’t get everything done and feel just fine about it. I get everything done in the exact amount of time I’d planned. Or, somewhat unusually, I get everything done early. The point of tagging your to-do list is that when you have some extra time, you can do more tasks in the time and space you have at your disposal.
Except… well, some days you have some spare time, but no spare ambition. Maybe this is something to do with warm weather, or vitamin deficiencies, or the culture of distraction. But maybe it’s just time to be spontaneous. For instance, I couldn’t bear to look at my to-do list after a certain point today. I had done everything I could do on the list at home (more to do at work), and while I had access to all manner of communications equipment and a solid hour, I did not search my list to find tasks that met those criteria. I went for a bike ride and read a book, neither of which were on my list.
And in some ways, isn’t this the point of productivity tools? Sometimes it’s just better to finish early, forget the tools, and enjoy life.
I lie though, since “Write a blog post” was on my to-do list.
I got distracted while reading this caused I tried to read it while working, but this is a glorious piece of pop-neurology: In Defense of Distraction, by Sam Anderson.
“People who frequently check their e-mail have tested as less intelligent than people who are actually high on marijuana”
“The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction.”
The best part was that there was no mention of the Stroop Effect. If I see or hear about that one more time in a pop-neurology article or book or in a library science article or book, I may scream.