Photo by Marloes

Most people are unexceptional at following up: it sounds obvious, but it shouldn’t be this way, because followup (I spell it as a single word) is key to combining smaller achievements into bigger ones. Actively following up on conversation is also a trait of people who’re successful, focused, and relentless about living their dreams. Lofty yet elegant — and if you excel at followup, you can be sure to incite delight wherever you go, too.

“Correspondences are like smallclothes before the invention of suspenders; it is impossible to keep them up.” -Sydney Smith

Here’s how I do it. You’ll need to find ongoing processes that work for you, but the main ideas are easy to get into!

Don’t be the first to reply (or at least, give it a little while)

This sounds counterintuitive. Say you get a work email Cc:ed to you and several other colleagues. Should you reply right away? Unless you’ve already thought of a sure answer and/or it’s time-sensitive, likely no. Let it “stew” and even wait for someone else to reply first — you can star it in Gmail and check the thread a day or so later.

Why? First, you’ll be less rushed. That much is clear. Second, by letting it simmer, your mind will have more space to digest the contents. You’ll be able to sleep on it, and if it’s really a memorable email you need to give input on, your feedback will be richer and more worthwhile than something concocted in haste. Third, you can also thank the person(s) who did reply first for chiming, and consider their ideas — if they said what you had in mind, you save time, too.

A day isn’t too long anyway, and plenty of time to still be responsive. Try it!

(Granted, this won’t work if all your coworkers read this… you may want to keep it a secret! ;) )

Be a batch-processing, pirate-ninja hybrid

Some people say ninjas are the awesomest. Others will argue it’s pirates. I like to consider what would happen if you combined both their traits: the sleek stealth of a ninja paired with the skilled sailing of a pirate.

Photo by hober

What do you get? Well, it doesn’t sound as exciting as life on the high seas assassinating renegade ronin, but here’s what I mean:

When you get cool links shared with you, be they viral videos or articles of interest, they can be time-suckers and distractions from making progress on what you’re doing now. Sure you wanna check those links out, but not yet. Instead of jumping on them right away, I use Firefox 3′s star icon on the location bar (aka “awesomebar”) to bookmark each page with a single click to an Unsorted Bookmarks folder. You can access it later by going to Bookmarks menu > Organize Bookmarks, as this lovely video tutorial will show you:

This is exactly what I’ve been doing for several weeks, and I find myself a nice berth on the weekends to chillax and peruse through one link after another. I get deeper into the content. Some are blog posts which merit a comment from me (a type of followup). Others are clips I want to pass around. And the rest which aren’t worth my time? They get deleted and forgotten. Which is fine.

Related suggestion: save up video clips to watch on TV. I do this with my wife: we unsubscribed from cable and line up YouTube & friends’ madness to watch at dinner (and other times). With a DVI to video cable, we connected a MacBook Pro to our TV. Not only did it save us money, it makes us less passive selectors of what we consume, and raises the quality of our entertainment. And sparks discussion and sharing — followup!

By creating an intense, focused space for all this material, it places your experiences directly in-context of being receptive to both absorbing and feeding back information.

Clip it… to remind yourself!

There’s no end of to-do reminder programs out there. My means are simple: I use Google Desktop’s To Do gadget (included with default install) which always sits on the left-hand sidebar of one of my dual monitors.

I quickly jot down short phrases when I’m in a rush, then have the leisure of expanding on it later — you and even drag-and-drop to recorder, and affix manual [TAGS] for visual ease. By now, you’re noticing this and the previous 2 sections are about you controlling time.

In addition to bookmarks, I use Firefox’s Scrapbook add-on for saving parts of webpages to read offline and refer to later (it has a handy annotation feature which can highlight passages but I don’t use that), and EverNote (the offline app, not the version 3 beta). My point being: you don’t need the most feature-filled tools, just ones you habituate to using regularly.

For time-specific, recurring stuff, you’ll want to set up alarms and appointments. I use Google Calendar to remind me when to pay the bill and when I might expect mail-in-rebates to arrive (so I can call if they don’t) — and oh yeah, it’s very nice that Google Desktop also has a Calendar gadget which shows me the day’s events. It’s unintrusive, clean, and saves me daily refreshes of the Gcal webpage, which is what most people do. Don’t be most people.

I’m also searching for a simple, cheap, spontaneous voice recorder. Got suggestions? This may be overkill for some folks, but if you’re like me and have ideas sprouting out at odd hours of the day, you’ll want to capture those sprouts because your creativity is worthwhile.

Respond to the best

What the heck does that mean? Simply, pay attention to remarkable, amazing comments. And thankfully I’ve seen a lot of them on Lifehack, like Shanel Yang’s. ;) Not all comments are equal and most aren’t worth followup, as a casual glance of YouTube vs. Flickr can show.

But when there are:

  • Eclectic questions you’ve never heard before (consider making a FAQ out of the ones you do get often)
  • Knowledge that adds to the value of your or someone else’s post and makes it that much more useful, and
  • Observations which have a inimitable brand of humor…

That’s what you’re going to remember. Those words, connected to those people, is what’s worth continuing a discussion for.

The simple reason is: those people are more likely to followup with you, teaching you applicable knowledge and making you smile. The best followup, as all healthy relationships are, is reciprocal. Give and take. If you’re drained without inspiration, you won’t have the attitude and enthusiasm to followup.

Don’t force yourself to be social, it serves no earnest purpose and will eventually be forgotten anyway in the sea of the Internet. Time, once spent, is always depleted. If you get a lot of thank-you’s for something you posted, don’t be pressured to type a different thank-you to each and everyone. You could, if you’re imaginative and feeling lively. But don’t force it out — flow.

You’ll learn from experience, as I have over 10,000s of forum posts and blog comments (and having earned distinguished status like being a Lifehacker star), what followup you get in kind.

Use subscribe/keyword reminders whenever possible

Obvious but underused, in my anecdotal experiences asking people if they utilize ‘em.

Don’t be passive: seek out integrated reminder systems! Many different web services have various implementations. You may be a forum poster accustomed to vBulletin’s subscription system, or you may use email/RSS alerts (different ways of getting the same info) on a money-saving site like dealnews.com — which is a lucid way of following up on an item you’ve wanted to buy for awhile, but think it should be cheaper. Give it time and you’ll be pinged when the price drops — Price!pinx is another tool that can help you.

I also have a bookmark folder in Firefox called “Waiting for Answers“. It’s a very special one, and I drop links to questions I’ve asked on forums, blogs, etc. I detest when the trail goes cold to my curiosity, and I check this folder every few days. If longer than a couple weeks goes by without a reply, I’ll post a reminder to “bump” things up. Stuff resolved to my satisfaction of course gets a thank-you, and the bookmark is placed in a subfolder titled “ANSWERED”.

Also useful for customer support tickets!

Don’t say “Let’s do lunch sometime” if you don’t mean it

This is mainly about your offline life: “false followup” is worthless.

Don’t tell a new acquaintance you want to have coffee at some indefinite point in the future if in your heart, you won’t.

Some will argue “this is being polite”. I’ll clarify that politeness means not lying to someone if you have no intention of keeping a commitment. There are many other things you can say, and the easiest of all is saying nothing at all and smiling.

Economy of words frees your energy for acting on things that matter more.

Indulge in necessary terseness

It’s better to be pithy than, well, something rude which almost rhymes.

Followup is largely about (conversation) flow, and tl;dr work against being an effective communicator. Be colorful, be engaging, but don’t be boring. Like music, have a sense of dynamics, don’t engage in loudness wars.

Instead of monolithic, gargantuan writings, divide ideas into sections or multiple installments, as we’ve seen from some of my fellow Lifehack contributors. That has the benefit of attracting ongoing readers and allowing them to digest your opinion. Again, it’s about controlling your time.

“Chop the slop!” -Torley

If the above wasn’t what you expected yet you’ve come away with some fresh recipes for followup, awesome indeed!

Unleash your experiences in the comments and let me know what you’re thinking… and are going to followup on.

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