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My Struggles With Email Triage

My Struggles With Email Triage
My struggles with email triage

I enjoy information, probably more than I should. I’ve managed to find a career path where information really is money — if I can break a story or create a new angle on it, I can eat at the end of the day. I’m constantly on the look out for new information that I can use. I get emails about all sorts of things, follow almost 300 blogs and websites via RSS and generally try to know everything the moment it happens.

As much as I love information, though, I’m willing to admit that I have a problem. I’m starting to get a little overloaded, and my old information triage system just isn’t working for me. Up until now, reading an email or post and acting on it immediately or getting it on my future tasks list has been enough. I was able to take a moment whenever a new email popped up and just go for it. No longer, though. I’ve got enough information coming my way that my system needs to mature.

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I already had labels implemented, in both my email account and my RSS reader, but they have become the final word in handling things. For instance, email newsletters are all labeled as such and are only read when more important matters have been dealt with, and are all read together. Same goes for blogs and websites. There are some sites that I simply must read in order to do my work — those go at the top of my list. Everything else can wait until I need a new project.

On Monday, I started an attempt to cut down the time I spend on email and other information. Up until now, I’ve kept a browser window open with my email, my RSS reader and other information tools open at all times. I broke down and took the advice of just about every productivity expert: I closed the window. It made a difference, too. Even taking a minute to delete an email is apparently enough to break my train of thought. It took sheer force of will — I really am an information addict — but, on Monday, I only checked my email four times over the course of my work day. It was okay, too. I know that I got more done than I normally would have, and nothing important slipped through the cracks. I managed to keep my RSS reading and other browsing to the same time frame.

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Penelope Trunk said something yesterday, while explaining why she never gets to that first, most important thing on her to-do list immediately. It really resonated with me: “…I sit down to work at 8am and I answer email. Which is never the most important thing, but it is always the most fun, because a full in-box is like a bucket full of lottery tickets: You never know, but you always hope you’ll hit big.” (The rest of the post isn’t about email, for the record.) That’s exactly what happens to me! I sit down, start reading and bump my first few tasks in order to process a few emails that really don’t measure up in importance.

I didn’t touch my computer for almost 36 hours — Monday evening through Wednesday morning. But when I logged on Wednesday and found 97 email in my inbox, I felt great — so many people wanted to talk to little ol’ me! I pared it down to 60 emails that I actually had to do something about, from responding to making notes on my calendar. We’re not even going to think about how many updates were waiting on my RSS reader. I knew that I really ought to just do a bit of quick triage to make sure nothing was urgent, and then move on to dealing with my work for the day. I could have handled anything else later and avoided any worries about a time crunch at the end of the day. But no. I got caught up in my email enjoyment and spent almost two hours going through all those emails, crafting responses and making notes. I have a nice, empty inbox to show for it, as well as a set of undone tasks. Saying that I fell off the wagon would be putting it lightly. Even worse, as I attempted to focus on getting my work done, I had a very difficult time shifting to spending more that a minute or two on the same thoughts.

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Creating a new method of processing information is an ongoing attempt for me. It would be far easier if I didn’t enjoy just reading the news for the heck of it, but I do know that getting used to not having information always at my finger tips may be the only way for me to focus on the important things — the things that I get paid for. For me, it’s a matter of finding balance between reading the information that leads me to future work and completing my current projects. I’m starting to think that, at least for me, checking my email once in the morning and once in the evening would be a great goal. I’m not sure how long it will take to reach that goal, but I’m working on repeating Monday’s success.

Do you have any ways that you keep yourself on track? Tricks to keep yourself from getting lost in email and other information? Please share — I may need all the help I can get!

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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