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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 March 31, 2020

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

Why We Procrastinate After All?

We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

Is Procrastination Bad?

Yes it is.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

How Bad Procrastination Can Be

Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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Procrastination, a Technical Failure

Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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