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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 September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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