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Your Guide to Getting Productive with Gmail: Managing the Flow

Your Guide to Getting Productive with Gmail: Managing the Flow

Email Couch Potato: Get Productive with Gmail

    Last time we redirected all of our email accounts to the one place, our central email hub at Gmail. Once you have all your accounts trickling into Gmail, you’ve got to manage that flow of information so that a) it’s possible to get through all of your email in fifteen minutes or less and b) it’s easy to find next week, next month and next year.

    The Inbox is Sacred

    You must learn to see your inbox as an almost sacred place: the worst sin you can commit against it is leaving messages in there to rot. I’m not talking about days or weeks. You’ve got to deal with each message in your inbox during your email processing session. It cannot be in the inbox once you’ve finished.

    Since we’re using multiple email accounts, we have them filtering into a variety of labels. If we don’t, the boundaries between the roles and information associated with each account becomes blurred and quite often, just plain confusing. The inbox is a very useful tool for processing and this separation is an unfortunate necessity.

    In the last post we talked about using the All Mail feature to replace this, but the problem with this approach is that you can’t “process out” the incoming information this way. There are a couple of alternative solutions we’ll address in a moment, but the simplest way at this point is to deal with all mail as though it were in your inbox – it’s an attitude hack, rather than a technological one.

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    Dealing with Messages in Your Inbox

    The first step to processing your email is, obviously, to read it. Unfortunately, this is where many people stop (and it’s frustrating when you’re trying to get solid communication going).

    Read smart, not hard. Give the subject and first paragraph of the email a scan to determine its relevancy, because there will always be emails that are pointless and you don’t need to read them. If it’s totally useless to you, you can delete the message. “Never delete an email again” is not a mantra I totally believe in.

    If you’ve kept the message, you can read it properly. By the way, I should mention that if more than 15% of your inbox processing consists of deleting messages, you’re probably not creating enough pre-qualifiers and smart “obstacles” to people who want your email address. The + hack works well here, which we’ll get to soon.

    Once you’ve finished reading the message, you must process it. There are a few outcomes:

    • Reply and archive,
    • Reply and delete,
    • Reply, turn it into an action, archive
    • Turn it into an action, archive
    • Archive
    • Delete

    If you’re turning the email into an action you’ll almost always want to archive it, not delete it, for future reference. For messages that you need to deal with later, or that call for you to perform a task, turn that into an action in your task list or GTD software immediately and then clear the message out of your inbox.

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    Creating actions from emails before clearing them out of your way is the best thing you can do for your email productivity. Keeping emails in the inbox because there is a task pending creates “email apathy” and things become unorganized and cluttered.

    Alternative Solutions to Using All Mail

    Using All Mail should work perfectly if you process each unread message as soon as you open it and read it, but perhaps it’s just not working for you. There are a few other ways to deal with this.

    Starring All Email – the Star feature of Gmail is useful for marking items of interest that you want to come back to later (even though, under this system, we try to avoid that). If you don’t need or use this feature, you can make it work as a faux inbox. The star will indicate that a message needs to be processed.

    Go back to the Filter setup window under Settings, and set the To: field to an asterisk (*). The To: field tells Gmail to select emails based on who the email is sent to, but the * tells it to pick up all email. We’ll go into the asterisk and its usefulness to filters in a moment.

    Click Next Step and tick the “Star it” box. You now have a filter that stars all your incoming mail, and as you process each item, you can remove it from the list by clicking on the star, which is usually next to the “From” field in list view.

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    Not using automatic filters is another solution that I do not recommend. This takes all the power out of your system, but it will cause every email to flow straight into the inbox where you can process it into labels manually. I think this defeats the purpose and adds extra work that the computer can do for you, and in my experience it has been far from an optimal solution.

    Using Asterisks in Filters

    I mentioned the asterisk before when we talked about setting up a filter that stars your incoming mail. The asterisk, simple as it is, provides a very useful tool and provides more dynamic email filtering.

    Let’s take a look at how it works. Say I have a regular client who has given me three different email addresses (it really does happen). I don’t want to have three labels for each one of those email addresses, and I want to basically treat them all as one. Using the asterisk we can achieve this really easily.

    In the To: field of the filter setup, place an * before the rest of the domain name. So let’s say I have copywriter@unproductiveclient.com, editor@unproductiveclient.com and joel@unproductiveclient.com. To route all these email addresses into the one place, using one filter, all I have to do is set the To: field as *@unproductiveclient.com.

    This works with the other fields, too. For instance, if I receive email from a whole bunch of people at one company to my main address and want to separate it from all my other mail, I can set the From: field to *@thatonecompany.com.

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    The + Hack

    And finally, we have the + hack. This is great for pre-qualifying your email. Despite the fact that the sender may be a stranger you’ve never met or heard of before, you know what the email is about because it landed in the right label. Almost sounds like magic.

    With Gmail, you can add a + add the end of your username with a keyword attached. For instance, if your email address is lifehack.example@gmail.com you can still receive messages directed to lifehack.example+invoices@gmail.com. Better yet, you can apply filters to these email addresses. I use this on my own site, where username+postideas@gmail.com goes to a Post Ideas label, and so on.

    Better still, you can create semi-disposable email addresses without having to go create one with a disposable mail service. If a site is demanding your email address and you’re worried they’ll send you spam, just add a +sitename to your address and you can always filter that material to the Trash later on.

    Stay tuned for more advice on setting up a productive email system with Gmail.

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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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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