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Back to Basics: Processing

Back to Basics: Processing

Your Inbox

    In my first installment of “Back to Basics”, I discussed the importance of your inbox – a single place for collecting all of your inputs for processing. In this installment, we’ll discuss the processing itself – how to turn inputs into action.

    In principle, processing is simple. All it means is making a decision about what to do with every piece of information that enters your life. In practice, it’s actually very hard, mostly because with a few exceptions, we aren’t usually ready to make those decisions – or to make the commitment to act that decision-making implies.

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    There are really only a handful of decisions you can make about an input:

    • you can delete it. It’s unimportant – junk mail, information you already have, reminders of tasks already completed, etc.
    • You can redirect it. If there is another person the task or information would be better suited for, forward it to them.
    • You can archive it. Anything you don’t need now but will likely need in the future – a business card or address, a vendor’s brochure, an article from a magazine – can be filed away for future reference.
    • You can record it. Information you might need again but don’t need in it’s original form can be extracted and entered into a note-taking program, your contact manager, a notebook, etc. and the original deleted/thrown away.
    • You can do it. Some inputs require immediate action and can be done at once.
    • You can schedule it. Some inputs require action but not immediately – block out a suitable length of time in your calendar to do them.
    • You can defer it. When an input requires action but you are unable to take that action, you have to defer it to later.

    Given the limited number of possible choices, it should be a relatively easy thing to power through your inbox, extract the information you need, file things away, add a few items to your todo list or your calendar, drop a few things into your outbox, and get on with things.

    But it’s not. We get hung up on things, mostly because of those pesky “defer” inputs – things we know we should do something about but can’t, for several reasons:

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    • Lack of information: You don’t know enough to figure out what to do with something.
    • Lack of resources: You know what you should do, but you don’t have everything you need to do it – money, time, equipment, manpower, etc.
    • Lack of urgency: You know what to do and could do it, but it’s not important to do it right now so you put it off.
    • Lack of authority: You are ready, willing, and able to make a decision, but don’t feel empowered to act on that decision.

    The typical pattern where any of these barriers apply is to pick something up out of your inbox, look at it, recognize that you lack something important – information, resources, urgency, or authority – to act on it, and then: you drop it back into our inbox!

    Don’t do that.

    If you’re ever going to keep on top of everything and keep your inputs from overwhelming you, it’s important to break that habit. Which means you need to change the way you think about processing and about the decisions and actions processing entails.

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    When an item hits your inbox that you’re not able to deal with immediately, it becomes a project – an outcome that will take several steps to accomplish. And the first step in that project is to solve the problem, to fill the lack that’s preventing you from completing the task.

    In order to avoid putting things back into your inbox, you need a place to keep pending projects. This could be an accordion file on your desk, or a filing cabinet drawer for live files. You also need a way to keep track of things – a project list with pointers to the pending file.

    And you need to add whatever action you need to take to make it possible to act to your todo list. “Get list of potential team members from HR for Build Team”; “Look up how to find a reliable drywall installer for Fix Hole in Kitchen Wall”; “Set appointment with VP of Marketing to discuss possible action on partnership offer for Movie Tie-In Offer”; “Read Lifehack’s Back to Basics series for Figure Out How to Process my Inbox”.

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    This isn’t all that hard – I label a file with the project name, and I tag actions in my todo list with “for [Project Name]”. And I keep a list of active projects in my notebook. Give yourself permission to reuse the heck out of your folders – you don’t need any excuse to think of something as “too small” to be considered a project. If it’s not something you could sit down and do right now, it’s a project.

    Processing isn’t hard, but it takes some discipline and some clear-thinking time. Discipline because it’s easy to get distracted and easy to put off making a decision for things that you can’t do right now. Clear-thinking time because you ultimately do need to make a decision, and you can’t do that with a thousand other things on your mind.

    So I recommend scheduling a few 15-minute (or longer) blocks of time for processing your inbox throughout the day. Close the door (if you have a door) and get into the “processing zone”. Have your file folders, label-maker (if you use one – it seems silly, but it’s quite a help in getting into the right mindset), your todo list, and a pen handy. Do the same thing at home – set aside a few minutes every day or so to process everything.

    How many times you do this a day depends on your particular situation – keep an eye on your inbox for a few days and see how often it fills up and how urgent the items that come into your inbox are likely to be. For most people, once in the morning and once about an hour before you leave work is enough, and possibly once around lunchtime. If your inbox gets full particularly fast, you may need more than 15 minutes. The trick is to find a frequency and amount of time that leaves you as free as possible to do your actual work the rest of the time.

    And do keep yourself free the rest of the time. Don’t respond to each item as it hits your inbox.  You may as well not have an inbox at all if you’re going to give the world permission to interrupt whatever you’re doing at any time and place whatever they think is important in front of your face. That way madness doth lie!

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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