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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 July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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