Managing your electronic input (and your inbox)

By electronic input, I mean “information inbox”, or input into your electronic life. If we’re all to keep up with the flow of information spewing at us, we should have a strategy, right?? I’ll try to cover all of this in one sitting – at least how I approach this problem.

Dealing with e-mail:
If you are gainfully employed, chances are you are familiar with a steady stream of e-mails into your inbox. How do you manage this? Well, no two people seem to have the same approach. In the olden days, I would use my “inbox as my TODO list”. Well, then my inbox would end up having hundreds or eventually even thousands of items. At one point, it gets “too big to clean up”. Surely, there must be a better way?

Well, a few years ago, I ran across “Inbox Zero” by Merlin Mann and it changed my life. Seriously, just watch it! OK, it’s like an hour, but the second half is mostly question-and-answer.

Anyhow, I saw Daniel Moths’ blog post about managing the Inbox and thought I’d post my thoughts on this. I’ve adapted to something in-between these two and have had great success with it. I define “success” as: “I don’t stress about my inbox, and my e-mails are organized and findable”. So, for whatever it’s worth, this is what I do:

Folder Structure:
First, it starts with a good folder structure. When you think about it, ALL e-mails fall into 1 of 3 categories:

  1. I need to act on this (now or later)
  2. I need to hang onto this for later for reference, but there is nothing for me to do
  3. Delete this

So, I use my actual Inbox as the landing place for unprocessed e-mails. When I do a sweep, I simply organize/move e-mails into the specified folders, like this:

–Action Required
—-Build Notifications

Now, I used to have a TON of folders under “Reference”, but that became unmanageable and many times there was a conflict of WHERE to put an e-mail, because it fit more than one category. When I went to search for e-mails later, this made the folder structure useless. So basically, it was overhead while I processed e-mail, and it served no benefit later. So, I stopped doing that. Everything goes in “Reference” and I use the Search facility in Outlook to find old e-mails. Ask anyone, I can find any e-mail in usually under a minute (from back to 2006, when I started).

I do have a special folder for Build Notifications, and I have an Outlook rule that automatically moves build messages there. When I’m doing active development, this helps me not worry about this “noise”. There are 3-4 e-mails per build. If I let them come to the Inbox, then I’d have to process them every sweep. If I auto-moved them to Reference, then my brain would want to click to make sure that those really were only build e-mails. So this slight exception works for me. And that’s probably the point here, is to find what works for you.

E-mail as an interruption – and sweeping the Inbox:
The default for Microsoft Outlook is to change the cursor, play a sound, put a mail icon in the system tray, and show you a temporary popup window in the bottom right when you have new mail. This is a serious amount of “alerting”. You’d think that this e-mail your getting is the most important thing in the world!! In fact, that is how most people act, too. Most people drop what they are doing, context-switch, and go see what that new e-mail is about. Most people evolve into interruption-based workdays, where the work they perform is driven by the current interruption.

Of these Outlook settings, the popup window is the worst distraction because you actually see who it’s from and see a subject – and most times, that is enough to get you hooked! It’s too enticing to ignore!! However, over time you’ll find out that those 75 e-mails you got today, only 1 or maybe 2 were actually interrupt-worthy.

So, what I do – and again keeping the scheme above in mind, is I turn off that popup notification “Display a New Mail Desktop Alert” and the changing of the cursor “Briefly change the mouse cursor”:


and I “sweep the inbox” every hour or so, or whenever I am at a natural break in my work. If I already had to context-switch for a phone call or a bathroom break – I’ll just take :15 seconds and sweep the inbox before I dig back into work. This single thing made an enormous (positive) impact on my productivity. I mean seriously! Simply realizing that e-mails, although treated as urgent, just about always are not. In fact, 100% of the urgent things that have come up in the past 4 years – have come via IM or a phone call, for me. So e-mail is not an urgent medium, and shouldn’t be treated like one!

I find that leaving the mail icon in the system tray and leaving the sound is fine, because it let’s my brain know “there are things in the queue”, but I don’t worry or stress about them. Because I don’t know how many or who the e-mails are from, it’s not enough to pique my interest.

So I sweep the inbox periodically through the day, that is – put messages into “Action Required”, “Reference”, or I delete it. I also sometimes knock out some of the small requests (i.e. “process” things in “Action Required”). However, I do typically wait for the breaks in the day at lunch, and again at the end of the day to process Action Required (if I can act on them). Then, next morning, I do a sweep, try to process Action Required – and then start my day.

The process has worked very efficiently for me for a few years now. It’s quite easy, and easy to stay with the pattern. I don’t think I’ve ever really “fallen off the wagon” and let my inbox get out of control, since I started doing this. I mean, there have been crazy times where I don’t have time to sweep or process and things build up. However, in these cases, when things get less crazy, then I can catch up on the queue and I would still “catch up” using the same technique, sweep – then process.

Responding to Mail:
In Daniel Moth’s post, he has a point I very much agree with about responding to e-mail in a timely fashion:

“[if you don’t respond quickly then] Colleagues stop relying on you, drop you off conversations, don’t see you as a contributing resource or someone that cares, you are perceived as someone with no peripheral vision. Note this is perfect if all you are doing is cruising at your job, trying to fly under the radar, with no ambitions of having impact beyond your absolute minimum ‘day job’.”

I agree with this because this is what I think. If I send an e-mail specifically to someone and it takes them several days or a week just for an initial reply, I consider that they are A) unusually busy B) incompetent or C) don’t care. When that same person is like that all year round, benefit-of-the-doubt number ‘A)” is then ejected, leaving only B or C (for me). This is just my opinion and perception.

Now, I’m probably on the one extreme. For the most part during the day, you will hear back from me via e-mail within an hour or two, depending on my meetings. It’s very rare that if something is due from me, that you’d have to wait more than a day. On the other hand, there is a co-worker who will remain nameless who let’s his e-mails “age”, like a fine wine!! Let me say, I do actually believe in the idea of aging requests. I learned the hard way that many times urgent requests aren’t so urgent, and I’ve also learned that once people know you will act when they bring a problem to you, this can create a bad cycle. However, there is this downside to not being responsive to your coworkers.

So, maybe the answer is somewhere in between? I guess I choose my method because I don’t ever want people to be waiting on me. Kind of like a tennis match – my job is to keep the ball out of my court. If something is due from me, I want to get it done and get that ball back over into someone else’s court so that the team is waiting on someone else. Of course, that’s just my own personal preference.

Similarly, I follow several blogs on a regular basis. I have tried many different tools and techniques. What works best for me is to actually use the built-in feature of Internet Explorer (8 and greater, I believe) – and I started just following blogs at home. Even after “trying” to be diligent with using other tools and techniques, I found myself gravitated to this technique. So, I switched to this method and now following blogs is pretty effortless.

Anyhow, when you subscribe to an RSS feed, there is a box that says “Add to Favorites Bar”. This will add the blog feed to your browser favorites area (right above the tabs).


I have a “folder” called Blogs, and I drag it into there:


What’s cool is that IE will automatically check for updates. When there is an update, that entry will be bold and in the right-arrow menu, it will have the blog posts listed (bold items are new) which means I can middle-click to open the new blog posts in a new tab. With that said, I make a point to do a sweep of these blogs once or sometimes twice a day. I finally have narrowed it down to just a couple of dozen people/organizations that I follow nowadays, so this is pretty manageable for me.

Other Input Sources:
I work at home mostly, so I have my work computer setup with KVM switch (which supports high video resolutions, too) so that I have one keyboard/mouse/monitor and I can simply switch between systems. However, I still wanted to be able to follow twitter during day (it’s blocked from work), keep an eye on personal e-mail (out of curiosity), and I also may want to watch some webcasts. Webcasts are work-related, but is either typically blocked or the audio cuts out every :30 seconds and it re-prompts for credentials. So, I addressed all of this with some thoughtful screen layout, that is – physical screens, I mean. By investing a little money, and elbow grease, I can effortlessly keep up with these other input sources (twitter, personal e-mail, and webcasts) with very little effort. Here is a screenshot, if I just hit PrintScrn on my keyboard:


So I have my main monitor, which is connected to the KVM. So when I switch back and from home and work, this is the only screen that changes. The rest are hooked up to my home machine. I also have two MIMO 7” USB monitors. These are extra monitors that plug into your USB port and give you additional screen real estate. Since I already had a 42” wall-mounted TV above, and to the right of my desk – I also connect to that via an HDMI connection.

Put another way, when I connected to work, my Main Monitor, keyboard, and mouse drive my work machine. The other monitors above are hooked directly to my home machine.

The left MIMO (which is a touch-screen too), is my personal e-mail window. I have all of my personal e-mail accounts here. If I want to mark an e-mail as read or delete, I can do that with my finger without having to switch to my home PC. The right MIMO monitor runs MetroTwit and monitors the people I follow, and replies (where people have mentioned me) with the most current stuff staying at the top – so it’s always current. The big screen is where I’ll drag a browser window and full-screen a video. This way I can watch a webcast in the background (which is running on my home machine), while I am switched over to my work PC.

Putting it all together:
For me, I wanted to efficiently stay on top of work e-mail and keep it manageable. I do that with the technique above. I wanted to keep a loose eye on personal e-mail and twitter throughout the day, just in case. The two MIMO monitors take care of that. And I also have the need to occasionally watch webcasts during the day, and I can do that on the wall-mounted TV via my home PC too. I also wanted a better way to follow blogs, and the IE feature above, does that the best, for me.

So there you have it. In case you’re looking for ideas on how to manage the “electronic input” of your life, here is how I do it. This approach has been pretty sustainable to me where this “management” isn’t really too much of a burden, or overhead. I really tried to leverage technology where I could, here and it’s worked out well for me.

Posted in Organization will set you free, Uncategorized

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