May 14, 2020

Email Thoughts, Apps, & Workflow

I’m really not sure how to get started with this productivity series. There are 100 different directions I could go in. Before I dive into the details I thought I would expound on the different components of the productivity system that I listed out last time.

I’m going to start with the thing I am least excited about… email.

Whether we like it or not, email is a key tool in every company. It is everywhere, and it can feel like the emails are never-ending. My company uses the Microsoft 365 suite, so Outlook is my main email system. For my personal email I use Gmail. I’ve had an account since gmail came to be in the mid 2000’s. I rarely use personal email for communication. It is mostly mailing lists I’m subscribed to and lots of spam.

Overall I really like Outlook[1]. The Windows app is good. The iOS (& iPad OS) apps are excellent. I think the Mac app doesn’t look great, but it is workable. On all of my Apple devices I also use the Spark email app. I have both of my email accounts logged into both apps. I don’t have a good reason for using both. For the most part I use Outlook for work email and Spark for personal email.

My work email is mostly direct communication with coworkers. I keep that pretty clean. I usually end the day without any unread mail. Every now and then things might get backed up.In the past it wasn’t uncommon for me to have 300+ unread emails in my work inbox. There were a few examples of me missing something important, so now I don’t let that happen anymore.

The thing I struggle with most is keeping my inbox organized enough to quickly identify the emails that are associated with tasks and follow-ups. I don’t have a good system for that. I spend too much time searching for things that should be right at hand.

I’m torn on email. Communication is the most important thing in order to get effective work done. Yet, I definitely don’t feel like I am getting much done when I am wading through my inbox. I try not to send stupid emails. I try not to add to the noise. I try not to reply unless I can add something valuable.

My aspirational strategy right now is to go on 10 minute email blitzes and get through everything I can. I want to triage as quickly as possible. I will filter for unread mail and then quickly process that list for 10 minutes. I will delete the stuff I don’t need. I will archive the stuff that doesn’t require a response, but I might want to refer back to later. I will flag the emails that require me to respond, do something, or read something in more depth. I will then dedicate more focused time to that flagged list.

This workflow is good because I can easily do this from my computer, my phone, or my iPad. The phone or iPad can be particularly fast because of the swipe gestures. The way I have Spark set up it makes it easy to read a bunch of email and quickly take one of my three actions on it.

I say this is aspirational because I only achieve my objective about half of the time. My main goal with email is to get through it and act on the items I need to, while avoiding the time suck of living in your inbox. I don’t want to leave email open all day and screw around just waiting for that unread badge to show up.

For years I have turned off all email notifications. I am amazed by how many people have popups on their screen every time an email arrives. You are just asking for email to ruin your productivity if you allow it to interrupt you hundreds of times per day[2].

I do have alerts set up for certain people, namely my boss and several other important people that I work with. If they send me something I want to know about it. I used to use the VIP setting in the iOS email app to get an alert on my phone. I then set up a Microsoft Power Automate script to give me a push notification to my phone for a few senders. Ultimately the Power Automate is clunky, so I recently went back to the VIP method. It is literally the only thing I use Apple’s Mail app. It blows my mind that Outlook doesn’t have better built in functions for this. It is easy to set up with rules on the desktop app, but I want to get a push notification on my phone.

Email is really important. It is a key technology we use every day. It consumes a ton of my time. I am just not sure I have a lot to say about it. I don’t feel like I have a great system. I’m glad that I have enough discipline to stay out of my inbox at least until I have organized my own tasks first. Then I will open the floodgates and let everybody else have a say about what I should be doing.

Other than that simple philosophy, I am not great at email. I don’t have a good folder system. I am constantly losing emails. I let myself get sucked into threads. Sometimes I respond emotionally when I need to take a more measured approach.

I would like to develop a clearer workflow for how I deal with email. I would like to create a better system for keeping track of things I need to follow up on in the future. I’d like to explore those things further and look for some good articles and tips on how to handle them. I will plan to check back in with email later on.

  1. Outlook is a huge upgrade from Lotus Notes, which we were forced to use up until 3 years ago.  ↩

  2. Guess it depends on how much email you get every day. I easily get over 100 messages per day.  ↩

May 7, 2020

Productivity System Series Intro

For most of my working life I have been trying to figure out how to take effective notes. I’ve struggled to organize them in a way where they can be useful in the future. Over the last 15 years I have used several apps. I’ve had many false starts. I’ve been really frustrated.

I still struggle, but I am going to write about my productivity processes in hopes of clarifying them for myself. I’ve learned a lot over the last few years about what works for me. I want to bring it all together and hopefully sharing it with you will help make that happen.

There are so many productivity tools and apps out there. It can feel overwhelming. Most are very similar. Each one has its own strengths, weaknesses, and nuances. I have wasted a lot of time jumping from one to the next.

Ultimately the applications don’t really matter, but you need to have a general structure for how you want to keep your notes. Note-taking, and writing in general, is a major component of an overall productivity system.

I plan for this productivity series of blog posts to focus on note taking, but I do want to outline all of the different components of my productivity system.

  • An email system & workflow
  • Calendar System
  • Task Manager
  • Structured Note Taking System
  • Unstructured Note System
  • Journal

There are tons of productivity bloggers and YouTube-ers out there that do a great job. I will surely be linking to and referencing many of my favorites. I’m not going to pretend that I am adding anything new to all the great productivity content . However, I am sharing what has been most relevant to me. By taking the time to explain my process hopefully I can further clarify to myself what I am doing and why I am doing it.

I think it is helpful to observe how other people manage their own productivity. It is healthy to see how other people work effectively. You will almost never find the answer by merely copying what somebody else does. You need to make it work for you.

Our systems are only as good as the time we dedicate to them. Ideally we are trying to find a way to manage everything in as little time as possible. But you will have to dedicate time. Most people fail because they let the system sit for too long and it becomes irrelevant.

All of those tasks become a massive amount of work to go through, so we never do. Eventually we will get motivated and try starting with something new…. Rinse and repeat.

This is how I currently am with email. I still haven’t found something that Is helpful and easy to stick with.

I have felt better about my note taking systems, but there is still friction I want to work through. I am on the verge of trying some new apps[1], but before I do that I want to make sure I have clarity about what I need.

Whenever I step out of my cozy app system I get overwhelmed by how many tools are out there. With note-taking in particular, new apps are popping up all of the time. Notion & Roam Research look to be strong contenders that are new on the scene.

Join me as I try to make my productivity system seem coherent. Maybe you will be exposed to a new idea or app that will help you out.

  1. Or returning to my old friend Evernote!  ↩