Your email inbox is not a filing cabinet

“I know the email is in here, just hold on.”

I was recently asked to forward an email I had received to someone else. I couldn’t remember the exact title of the message that I wanted, so I spent a few minutes searching and scrolling. Fortunately, I only had a couple dozen messages in my inbox. I’ve seen people scroll through thousands of messages in a desperate hunt for that one phone number, street address or appointment confirmation. It’s agonizing. Why do we do that to ourselves?

An interesting thing about email is that, for many, it’s both a delivery system and a storage facility. When we “check email,” we often open our email software, browse the many messages contained therein, and then quit the application without removing any of the messages.

Consider the paper mail that reaches your mailbox: you don’t open the box, sort through the envelopes and then close it back up again, leaving everything inside. Nor do you return from the grocery store and leave brimming bags on the kitchen counter. Yet, email is often ignored in this way, to our detriment.

I recommend using a simple four-step process to get your electronic mailbox as close to empty as you can, every day. The steps are:

  1. Decide what each message is.
  2. Decide what must be done.
  3. Do what must be done.
  4. Delete the message (or archive it in a separate folder, if that is what your employer directs).

It’s an adaptation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done method for processing email, which is a highly formalized system of productivity improvement. You can read David’s book (and I recommend that you do), but you needn’t follow his instructions in full to reap huge benefits. Here’s a simplified adaptation that I use for managing email.

Defining Work Time

Before we begin exploring the how, let’s define the when. The good news about email access is also the bad news: it’s nearly ubiquitous. You can send and receive email at various points of the day. For those of us with connected smartphones, email is almost available during every waking moment of our day.

As such, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to check it whenever the opportunity arises. Instead, tame that tendency by defining email time. I like to check email at 8:00 AM, 12:00 noon and 5:00 PM. This has several benefits. First, it familiarizes others with my communication schedule. It also helps me stay focused when I do sit down to work through email. Finally, it alleviates the guilt of not checking during off hours. Define a time to sit down with your computer, smart phone, or tablet and work with your email. All set? Now, let’s begin.

What is it?

When a new email message arrives, you must ask yourself, “What is this?” It sounds silly but it’s crucial. There are three possible answers:

  1. It’s garbage
  2. It’s something I need to do
  3. It’s something I might refer to later

That’s it. Every message you ever receive will fall into these three categories. Now that you’ve identified what each message is, proceed to step two.

Decide what must be done

The first one is simple: garbage. As soon as you see it, delete it. Spam, advertising you aren’t interested in, messages from old mailing lists you’ve lost interest in, etc. It’s all trash, so trash it. Immediately.

The next category is the action category. These messages require someone — typically you — to do something. For instance, “Call Jane about the committee meeting,” “Forward the presentation to Frank,” or “Ask Faith about the campout next week.” Once you’ve identified what the required action is, make note of it in the appropriate place (on your to-do list or calendar) and then delete the message. Yes, delete it. (Unless, again, your company requires you to retain your email for legal reasons. In this case, move it to an archive folder.)

The final category is reference material. These messages do not require action, but they do hold information that could be useful someday. Identify what that information is, store it in the appropriate place and then delete the email. Yes, delete it. On to step three.

Do what must be done (the appropriate place)

This step is a biggie. Just as you don’t pull a hot turkey out of the oven without first knowing where you’re going to set it down, you should’t delete that email message until you’ve identified a trusted place to put its important information. This is what David Allen calls a “trusted system.” Essentially, it’s an obvious, reliable stake in the ground that holds your information.

It can be anything you want. You might choose a paper notebook — I carry one around for jotting a daily task list. There’s lots of software available, from simple to involved, which you can use for this purpose. My choice is Evernote, because it’s simple to use, powerful, cross-platform (Mac, Windows, web browsers and an increasing number of mobile devices are supported) and above all, reliable. Evernote works by creating virtual Notebooks, each of which can contain several notes. Notes and notebooks can be sorted, categorized and organized to your heart’s content, and online sync keeps them up-to-date across all you devices. So, if you create a note on your computer, it will show up on your phone or iPad without you having to do a thing.

Evernote is fantastic for storing reference material, or what I call “cold storage.” Receipts from online purchases, how-to’s, restaurant menus, theatre schedules, the kids’ sporting information, contracts and more. Once you have the pertinent information in a reliable system you trust, you can delete the email message.

As for action items, how you handle these is up to you. Evernote will create an action list, if you decide to use it. You can also create a list in a notebook or task-oriented software like Remember The Milk, Teux Deux or even Omnifocus if you want to go hard-core.

The important thing is trust. You must have faith in the system you choose, whatever it is. That way your brain will stop pestering you and, more importantly, you’ll be able to delete those messages. So, to recap. When an email message arrives, follow these steps:

  1. Decide what it is.
  2. Decide what must be done (trash, define a task or place in cold storage).
  3. Do what must be done.
  4. Delete the message.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2009

  • Picture hanging strips
    In my continuing search for apartment-friendly organizing solutions, I’ve found a sturdy product from 3M that can help renters from having to put nails into the wall.
  • Ask Unclutterer: Reader mail round-up
    Today we’re going to break with tradition a bit and respond to a number of questions all in one post.

2008

Unitasker Wednesday: Salt and pepper shaker holder

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Salt and pepper shakers — irrespective of shape or style — are high utility multitasking objects. They store the spices and they also dispense the spices. In most climates, you can leave them out on the table full time and not have to worry about them unless they run low on spices. Then, you fill them back up, and back onto the table the salt and pepper shakers go, ready to meet all your salt and pepper needs.

So, you can imagine my confusion by this week’s unitasker selection. It’s a device that holds your salt and pepper shakers, but doesn’t hold salt or pepper or dispense salt or pepper — it’s for the shakers only. The Salt and Pepper Shaker Holder:

This particular salt and pepper shaker holder is in the shape of a bass, but your choices are not limited to aquatic animals. You could get a moose or a boot spur or a mallard or a gun slinging armadillo or a deer wearing a hunting vest if you so desired. (Okay, I’m going to say it, there is something really unsettling about a deer in a hunting vest and camouflage.)

Unless you live on a houseboat and your home is constantly rocking from side-to-side, I cannot think of a need for a salt and pepper shaker holder. And, these holders can’t be screwed into a wall or table top, so they wouldn’t even be that helpful on a rocking houseboat. I also see utility in larger condiment caddies that make for easy transport for outdoor dining or even storing an array of condiments between meals in the refrigerator. But a holder just for salt and pepper shakers? I don’t get it.

Keep your home organized even though your partner is not

Long weekends are great for catching up on things you’ve been meaning to do or simply doing nothing at all. Over the three-day-weekend, you probably spent more time with your spouse, partner, roommate, or kids. During that time, you may have also become intensely aware that he/she/they don’t exactly do things the way you do. You may have even started plotting ways to get them to change, to become a bit more orderly.

It has entered my mind on a few (okay, many) occasions that, as the more organized person in my relationship, I should help my husband to be the same. There are many good reasons for this. Here are the three I always reference:

  1. There will be less work to do. If we’re putting in the same effort in keeping our home clean and organized, that means neither of us are burdened by the majority of work to be done.
  2. We’ll find things quickly and easily. I get giddy thinking of all the time we’ll save looking for things because we’ll put things back when we’re finished using them. We would eliminate the dreaded scavenger hunt for important items and documents.
  3. We’ll be happier. People are usually happier when there’s less work to do. We’ll be ecstatic when we realize all the time we’ve saved can be used to do fun and relaxing things. We will actually do those fun, relaxing things.

I know that if I talk with my husband about these three reasons, he will agree with me. He might even try harder to do things my way.

And, he will probably revert to what he’s comfortable doing. I know you can’t make someone be an unclutterer if he doesn’t want to be an unclutterer. He will let me handle the organization of our home. But, that’s okay. I don’t want him to be me AND we can still have a (mostly) organized home even if he doesn’t 100 percent change his ways.

Because, as the unclutterer, I’ll continue to:

  • Respect our differences. His way isn’t wrong, it’s simply not my way. Life would be ridiculously boring if the two of us were exactly the same. It’s good to remember that he possess other qualities I don’t, and we complement each other in different ways.
  • Take the lead on keeping our home organized. Being organized is more important to me, so it makes sense for these responsibilities to lie predominantly in my camp. It’s not that he doesn’t care, he just doesn’t see things the way I do.
  • Ask for help. This means no nagging is allowed on my part, and my husband knows he’ll be called upon to handle his share of the non-organizing household chores.
  • Be specific about the type of help I need. Asking, “Can you clean up the living room?” won’t give me the results I really want. Instead, I’ll say, “Please vacuum the living room carpet and put the pillows back on the sofa.”
  • Agree on simple house rules that match our skills.
    1. I will primarily be responsible for keeping our home organized, in particular the common areas (e.g., living room, kitchen, and dining room).
    2. He’ll be in charge of cleaning the bathrooms. This is not my favorite thing to do, but it doesn’t bother him at all (thank goodness). I’ll take care of making sure the towels are clean and the soap dispenser is filled.
    3. He’ll be in charge of cooking and I’ll clean up. I can hold my own in the kitchen, but he’s a great cook and I love whatever he whips up. Since I’m the queen of clean, this trade off works well for both of us.
    4. I’ll take care of simple household repairs when possible. If it’s not something I can take care of easily, I will hand it off to my husband or call a professional tradesperson.

We won’t be able to avoid getting frustrated with each other at times, but this plan is easy to follow. Would I like him to do more? I think we all dream of having a butler and maid, but my husband is not either (and neither am I). Can our home be comfortable and organized with the the current division of labor? Yes. We’ve reached our happy medium. It might not work for everyone, but if you’re in a similar situation, talk with the other people who live in your home and come up with ground rules that work for you.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

2009

2008

Workspace of the Week: DJ wonderland

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Geekah’s marvelous music bureau:

I know very little about the world of being a DJ or a recording engineer or pretty much anything to do with digitally altering sounds, but Geekah does and she has an office full of equipment to make it all happen. I really like how her speaker stands match the top of the desk and appear to be part of the structural piece. The iPad stand is streamlined stunning and the earphones even have a place to live when not in use. Even the wall art reflects what happens in this space. I love the cable management, the primarily black and white color palette, and the ability to have a lot of equipment in a small space without looking cluttered or clausterphobic. Thank you, Geekah, for sharing your workspace with us. It’s an inspiring room.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Ten reasons to slow down

One of my goals for the rest of this year is to slow down. I’ve discovered that my mind and feet move a bit more quickly since I’ve become a parent. I seem to be grabbing at every bit of time available to get things done. Sometimes, I give up watching my favorite commercials just so I can check e-mail. Do you do that, too? Do you find that you get fidgety when there’s (potentially) nothing to do?

So, I’m going to grab control of the reins and stop being what Canadian journalist, Carl Honoré, calls a “speedaholic.” Honoré  is the author of In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed and Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting. I’d like to take a page out of his books (yes, pun intended). I know I can’t change my behavior overnight, but I can make a greater effort to focus less on how much I can get done and more on the quality of what I get done.

Because when you slow down, you tend to do the following:

  1. Think things through. This doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but can be very helpful. By slowing down long enough to assess what’s happening around you, you’re more equipped to better understand many a situation, rather than just seeing what’s on the surface.
  2. Make fewer mistakes. When you take your time, you’re less likely to trip yourself up. That’s because you’ve thought about most (if not all) of the important details.
  3. Make better decisions. When you spend more time thinking about the pros and cons of which direction to go, you’re likely to come to more well-rounded and fleshed out conclusions. You may also see your intended path more clearly.
  4. Become a better listener. Taking the time to really listen to what someone tells you means that you’ll have better conversations. Instead of immediately crafting a rebuttal to what someone says before they finish speaking, you’ll really hear them and get a better idea of what they’re trying to communicate.
  5. Become calmer. I find that when I’m not rushing around, I tend to be less agitated and less prone to getting frustrated. I also think more rationally.
  6. Be more productive. One of the benefits of thinking more rationally is that you are more successful at prioritizing and working on the things that need your attention first (you know, instead of playing Angry Birds).
  7. Be more efficient. This might seem counterintuitive, but by slowing down, you can actually get more done. It’s because you’ll spend less energy trying to cram everything into your day and you’ll work more effectively at getting the important things completed.
  8. Be happier. Who’s not happy when they cross stuff off their to do list?
  9. Be more focused. Have you ever realized that when your mind is racing, you’re sometimes paralyzed and unable to actually make a decision or take action? When you take a few minutes to gather your thoughts, you’re better able to focus on the task at hand.
  10. Be more open to doing nothing. Or, doing something fun. Any something other than working. This means I can get back to sitting still, and enjoying it.

Unitasker Wednesday: Ben and Jerry’s Euphori-Lock

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Back in 2010, when I wrote about the Doughnut To-Go, I was convinced it was the most ridiculous food-protection device ever produced and that nothing could ever top it. I’m now admitting I was wrong. There is something even more ridiculous. Behold, the Ben and Jerry’s Euphori-Lock:

This alpha-numeric lock wraps around the lid of your Ben and Jerry’s pint of ice cream. It does not work on other brands of ice cream, unless they happen to be identical in shape to the Ben and Jerry’s container. Also, IT’S A LOCK FOR YOUR ICE CREAM! It’s a dessert made of milk and sugar, it is NOT nuclear missile codes or uncut diamonds!

I’m starting to believe that I live in a completely different world than product inventors. In their reality, gnomes are probably living creatures and plastic must grow on trees.

Thanks to reader Hennings for sharing this unitasker with us.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2011

2010

  • Ask Unclutterer: Storing spices
    I was wondering what you thought of spice racks? I was thinking of purchasing one, but I see a lot of of options and some seem bulky, expensive and unappealing.

2009

2008

  • G&S Design Compactables
    G&S Design has a nice selection of common kitchen tools that compact down into a more convienent size that makes storing them a little easier.

Improve your decision-making skills and reduce the clutter in your home and office

Clutter can collect in homes and offices for multiple reasons, and avoidance is a common cause for clutter collection. Avoidance is not laziness (laziness can be a cause for clutter, but it’s very rare). Rather, avoidance is what happens when you choose not to make a decision and it is one of the top reasons for clutter accumulation, if not the top reason. Instead of deciding how to deal with a mess, you decide instead to avoid making a decision and (try your best) to ignore the mess.

I do this every few months with my inbox on my desk. I’ll be great for weeks at processing and making decisions about the paperwork that comes onto my desk. Then, a piece of paper I don’t want to deal with appears, and the paper hangs out in my inbox for days while I avoid making a decision. Other papers eventually pile up on top of the paper I’m avoiding (in theory: out of sight, out of mind) and eventually my inbox is a stack of papers cluttering up my desk. The pile causes me anxiety, and no matter how much I’m trying to avoid making a decision about that piece of paper at the bottom of the pile, I know it’s still there. It hangs over me like a cloud of darkness. I’ll waste so much time and energy thinking about that piece of paper, which is ridiculous because almost always it only takes a few minutes to process it when I finally stop avoiding it.

Does this scenario resonate with you? My guess is that it does.

Being a good decision-maker doesn’t mean that you always make the right decision. It’s impossible to always make the “right” decision (and since “right” is subjective, what you believe to be right may not be considered right by others, anyway). Rather, good decision makers are people who can make well-informed decisions efficiently and then respond appropriately to the outcome. For example, if the decision turns out to have a negative outcome, good decision makers quickly respond and rectify the situation. They also learn from all decisions they make.

Decision-making is a skill, same as tying one’s shoes or typing on a keyboard. It’s something that can be taught and improved over time. Just because you’re not-so-great at making decisions today doesn’t mean you’re doomed to spend the rest of your life surrounded by clutter. Thankfully, there is typically a cumulative effect, so the more decisions you make the better you usually get at making decisions.

Theories abound on how to help people become better decision-makers, and the following is what I’ve cobbled together over the years as the best method for making decisions about clutter. These tips may work for you in other areas, but my intention is to focus on helping you make better decisions about processing your stuff:

  1. Acknowledge you need to make a decision. This seems ridiculously obvious, but you would be surprised how easy it is to ignore this step. If you have ever thought, “I don’t want to deal with this right now,” as you set down whatever it was you were holding, you have skipped this step in the decision-making process. Instead of thinking, “I don’t want to deal with this right now,” practice thinking, “I need to make a decision about this right now.” Then, move on to the second step in the decision-making process. If you don’t have the proper time to make a good decision right then, identify exactly when you will have the time and schedule it immediately on your calendar. As David Allen advises, you don’t want any “open loops” — something that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.
  2. Identify actions you can take. When processing clutter, your possible actions might be as simple as: keep or purge? Your list might be longer or it might be full of all good options (or, conversely, all bad options) or you may not even be aware of what your options are. Be creative here and work to give yourself at least two actions you can take.
  3. Decide the value of the decision. Is making this decision something that could impact your life in a significant way? Or, is it a minor decision that will have very little impact on the way you live? Minor decisions need to take the least amount of time to decide which action you wish to take. Major decisions should take longer, but not any longer than it would take to rectify the situation if the choice has a negative outcome. For instance, if you spend four days making a decision about something that would take you just 10 minutes to fix, you have spent way too long making the decision. By knowing the value of the decision, you can determine how much time to spend researching and weighing actions and possible outcomes.
  4. Research and weigh realistic possible outcomes. People who struggle with decision-making usually get held up on this step. They cycle through fears and unrealistic emotions (“… but what if …” or “I could miss it”) instead of concrete possibilities. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the what-if cycle, and instead list out actual outcomes and how you will handle each of those outcomes. If it’s a major decision, you may wish to use a piece of paper and write out each outcome. If it’s a minor decision, all you’ll need to do is quickly list the outcomes in your mind. When you list real possibilities, it helps reduce your fears and confront how you will respond. If you decide to get rid of a shirt that no longer fits, you know you’ll be able to get a new shirt if the time comes.
  5. Make a decision. After going through the previous steps, you’re prepared to make a decision. Remind yourself that no one makes the right decision every time, and you’re doing the best with the information you’ve collected. Remind yourself of possible outcomes and how you will be able to handle the outcome. Finally, remind yourself that with each decision you make, you’re becoming a better decision-maker and the process will become easier.

Do you need to work on becoming a better decision-maker? Will doing so help you process your clutter and keep you surrounded by only the things you need and that you truly value? What decision can you make today that will help you alleviate some clutter from your life? What have you been avoiding that has created more clutter?

Three simple steps for staying focused and getting things done

There are many things I want to do and I’ve been known to multitask (as recently as last week!). When time seems elusive, it can be easy to get caught in the trap of doing too many things at once.

Fortunately, I have a simple, three step process that helps me focus on one thing at a time and to be more realistic about how much I can actually accomplish.

Here it is:

  1. Write a short, specific list
  2. Create a realistic and reasonable plan
  3. Select a reward

One of the reasons this process works for me is because I enjoy writing to-do lists, and I usually get more done when I hand write them. I like apps like Toodledo (especially since I can set reminders), but I love crossing tasks off on a paper list. Like Erin, sometimes I put things I’ve already done on my list just so I can put a line through them.

Now that I have spring cleaning on my mind, I’ve created a list for my latest project: organizing the outside of my home. As a new mom, I put more effort in (trying to) keep the inside of my home organized, and there are times that I forget about the outdoor chores. But, now that this is back on my radar, I took a look inside our shed. It has been a bit neglected because we were so focused on the impending arrival of a certain little person. Needless to say, it needs some attention. As I looked around the yard, I also noticed a few other things that were crying out for a some tender loving care.

So, my first step was to make a list of some (not all) of the things I wanted work on. There are several helpful spring cleaning checklists that I could use, however, in this case, I decided to make a short list based on:

  • Things I think are important (i.e., need fixing and will make me happy).
  • The amont of time it will take for me to complete them.

The short list

Whenever I make a list, I include the top three things needed to complete each task. When I complete a step, I cross it off and move on to the next one until all tasks have been taken care of. I have also used “One Thing” notepads by PrettyBitter.com.

  1. Re-organize the shed
    • Remove obvious trash and recyclables
    • Re-organize shelves (keep like items together)
    • Sweep and annihilate cobwebs
  2. Add plants to pots at entry way
    • Buy potting soil
    • Buy perennials with color (perennials take less time to maintain)
    • Plant flowers and water them

The reasonable plan

  • I intend to finish all tasks by the end of June. I find that when I have a deadline, the likelihood of finishing my project is high. Without one, I can turn into a waffler.
  • I will work in 15-30 minute time blocks three days every week. I would like to work my plan every day, but I doubt I’d be successful at that. Short organizing sessions will give me enough time to get some chores done and still let me do other (unrelated) things.
  • I will pick one thing to focus on each day. By focusing on one item, I can keep feelings of overwhelm at bay.
  • I will ask for help. When there’s a second person, 15-30 minutes will double, I’d probably get more done, and finish my chores sooner.
  • I will think of a nice reward when my project is complete.

The amazing reward

I get little bursts of joy each time I cross something off my list, and I get the personal satisfaction of actually finishing what I set out to do. But, when I choose a fabulous way to pat myself on the back, that helps me get through my list because I have something amazing to look forward to.  I think a manicure and a massage are in my near future.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2011

2010

  • Focus and self control at the heart of uncluttering and productivity
    If you can’t identify where you are going (the reasons you want to unclutter and improve your productivity) and stay focused on that goal, you will struggle greatly with your uncluttering efforts. Thankfully, Ellen Galinsky, author of the book Mind in the Making reports that these skills can be learned and improved.
  • The never-ending search for the perfect home
    A bigger home won’t solve your clutter problems, and the “perfect” house won’t curb your desire to buy more, more, more or transform your life. The real solution is to fix your relationship with your possessions and get things under control in your current living situation.
  • Assorted links for May 18, 2010
    Things from the uncluttering, productivity, and simple living worlds that are worth sharing.

2009

2008