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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 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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