Effective inbox management

Inboxes of all kinds can easily grow out of control without much effort. Recently, I admitted to myself I had entirely too many, and processing each one had become a time-consuming hassle. I’d forget to look in one or the other and miss something important. Now, I’ve pared them down to a few essential inboxes. Here’s what I’m using for inboxes, as well as a few tips on effective inbox management and decisions to consider when setting up inboxes of your own.

What’s an “inbox?”

An inbox is a productivity middle man that sit between your receipt of stuff — email, phone calls, crumpled papers at the bottom of a school backpack — and your neatly organized to-do list. It’s anything you might use to capture all your stuff that needs to be processed.

I define stuff per David Allen’s definition: stuff is anything that isn’t where it should be. Tickets for the play you intend to see over the weekend, the water bill, a permission slip from your child’s school. All of this stuff must be processed (figure out what it is and what must be done, if anything).

Inboxes I use

  1. Notebook and pen. I’ve got a notebook and a pen with me at all times. It’s my favorite way to capture ideas that pop into my head (“I must remember to schedule an oil change for the van”) as well as things that come up in conversations. I love my notebook for several reasons. First, it never goes down or has a dead battery. It never crashes or loses data. My notebook never needs an update and every pen I own is compatible with it. Water won’t kill it (I fished one out of the Delaware river that I’m still using). Plus, they’re cheap and easy to recycle.

    I use a Fisher Space Pen because it’s light, durable, small and can write in any position, for those times you have to prop your paper up against a wall to get a flat surface. Ordinary pens would succumb to gravity and stop working in this situation. Not the Fisher.

    As for notebooks, anything small enough to fit in your pocket will do. I’m partial to Field Notes Brand because they’re durable and fairly inexpensive.

  2. Email inboxes. I’ve written about email before, so I won’t go into great detail in this post. But, I will say this: don’t go silly with rules, folders, colors, tagging and so on. I have two folders (Review and VIP) and a few rules — most of which kill spam. The goal is efficiency. Create just what you need to process your email stuff effectively, and nothing else.
  3. Physical inbox. Visit any office supply store in your town and pick up a tray or two. I have a cheap-o faux leather box from Staples. I use it most often with index cards.

    I keep a stack of plain, 3×5 index cards on my desk. When some stuff shows up, I write it down on an index card, throw it into the inbox and resume what I was doing. The interruption is minimal and my brain trusts that I’ll give the info on that card the attention it deserves later in the day, so I can continue to focus on the task at hand.

Pro Tips

Here are a few ideas for even more effective inbox management.

  1. Don’t share an inbox with your spouse … or your housemate, roommate, or whomever you live with if you live with someone. My wife and I made this change a few years ago and it’s benefited our productivity and our marriage. We have our own conflicting ways of dealing with stuff, and the differences led to tension. Plus, my stuff no longer gets lost among hers and vice-versa.
  2. Designate a time to process your inboxes. I like to do this at the end of the day. I know that my energy level will be low, and the act of flipping through index cards, email messages and notebook scribblings isn’t very taxing. I’m not completing tasks at this point, just reviewing the day’s crop of stuff and deciding what must be done about it.
  3. Buy tools you enjoy using. If you have a new toy, you’re likely to play with it. Honestly, I use Field Notes Brand notebooks because I like the look of them. They’re cute and harken back to the old-time agricultural notebooks that farmers used to keep tabs on their crops, livestock, etc. I like that about them, and therefore, I want to use them. Find an inbox tray you like. Identify a favorite pen. Heck, I even occasionally splurge on fancy-pants index cards when I’m feeling flush.
  4. Ditch the guilt! No one gets clean and clear every day. It’s perfectly okay to go to bed before you’ve placed every little item into a project or list, just try not to make it an every day habit.

A Few Decisions To Make

There are a few things to consider when creating inboxes. First, will you separate professional vs. personal stuff? I’m more than happy to let a note from my kid’s school mingle with to-do’s for work. If that bothers you, consider a way to keep them separate.

It’s also important to consider if you should go electronic. Apps, computers, and mobile devices are appealing and fun, but not always the best solution if you don’t consistently use them. Often a low-tech solution like pen and paper is just the ticket. Also, getting stuff off an electronic inbox can sometimes be a hassle.

I hope this helps. Remember to use as few inboxes as you can, but as many as you need. You’ll process more quickly and miss less.

Don’t swat a fly with a Buick

Several years ago, I purchased David Allen’s landmark productivity book Getting Things Done. Allen describes an elaborate and effective method of, well, getting things done. One ingredient is the “ubiquitous capture tool,” which you can think of as a mobile inbox. It’s something that’s always with you, ready to capture anything you need to remember (David uses “capture” as a fancy way of saying, “write it down.”).

When I finished reading the book for the first time, I was inspired and eager to start. I bought some equipment, like a plastic in-tray for my desk, some 3×5 index cards, a label maker and a pricey Palm Treo (I realize I just dated myself). The Treo would be my ubiquitous capture tool. It was sleek, powerful and portable. I imagined myself using it to complete important and productive tasks. I’d whip it out at meetings with an air of gainful nonchalance. “This thing? Oh it’s just my electronic capture tool. Watch as I use it to get many things accomplished.”

Two months later, I recognized what was really happening: I was making lists. I was using a two-hundred dollar PDA to write lists. In other words, I was swatting a fly with a Buick. I sold it on eBay, put a stack of index cards in my pocket, and haven’t looked back.

Today, I use a pocket-sized notebook and a Fisher Space Pen (they write in any condition or orientation). That experience prompted me to examine other areas of my life in which I was prone to overkill. Computers are one of those areas. As a nerd, I’m often tempted by the latest and greatest piece of technology. Yet, I keep an 8-year-old iMac around because it’s great for writing. (The keyboard attached to it is 20 years old.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having fun toys, especially when it comes to productivity. If you like the tools you have, you’ll be more likely to use them. So use what you like. At the same time, be aware of any instances of overkill.

So, are you swatting any flies with Buicks?

Ask Unclutterer: Implementing GTD paperlessly

Reader Rachel submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I know you are huge fan of David Allen and after years of “almost” using his GTD system I finally bought the book [Getting Things Done] and am working my way through it. As I prepare for my two day “gather, process and route,” I find myself with some clutter related questions. First some background points:

1. My husband is in the army, so i like to keep everything as modular and portable as possible, 2. I am currently prepping for a move, so I am currently in down-size mode, and 3. I love using my computer.

Okay, now for my questions: David talks a lot about the proper supplies and having a general reference file. I’m kind of resistant to the idea of investing in paper file folders and filing cabinets when there is so much technology and digital recording available that doesn’t take up near the amount of space. What have you found to be the best capture system for your files? Digital or old school?

I would like to start by saying that you’re right in pointing out that I have enormous respect for David Allen. He is able to communicate his ideas about information organizing and productivity better than anyone else writing on these subjects today. This art of communication is a true talent and it is rare. Most importantly it is extremely helpful for those of us looking for guidance and sanity as we work and live. If anyone reading this hasn’t read his books, I strongly recommend them.

That being said (i.e. I’ll stop being an exhuberent fangirl for a moment), I don’t use the GTD system exactly as he prescribes. It’s not that I think his system is flawed or bad or wrong; it just doesn’t completely work for me and my preferences. And, at least in my personal experience, I’ve found that this is the case for most GTD enthusiasts. We gobble up all we can from his advice and then put our spin on it so it will be something we benefit from and use over the longterm.

If you’re like me, a good amount of the information you collect likely comes to you already in digital form or can easily be scanned and/or digitized (images, emails, PDFs, calendar appointments, etc.). To take these out of a digital form during the processing and organizing phases would be a waste of time and resources, and Allen doesn’t advocate you print these out, either. The most important thing to do is to capture this information in a way so you can reliably process, review, and do all the things you need to do to get things done.

I use a couple plugins for my Mac-based email program Mail that are created by the company InDev: Act-On (which let lets you apply rules to incoming messages) and MailTags (which color codes emails with tags). These are nice for adapting GTD processing and organizing actions, as well as helping to creation action items. Even if you didn’t use the GTD system, these are great plug-ins for email management. I incorporate these plugins to work with my personal email filing system, which I’ve outlined in detail in Unclutter Your Life in One Week. In short, I use Archive, Project Folders, and Read Me folders. The Archive folder is where all messages go after I schedule the work on my calendar or in my project management system. The Project Folders are where I stash project-related information until I can move the email to the Archive folder (e.g. where I put Ask Unclutterer emails until I review them and decide which one I will select for the week’s column). And the Read Me folder is for long emails or emails containing links to articles, typically sent from friends or family, that don’t require immediate attention and that I can read in full the next time I’m standing in a line or waiting on hold. Once I read the Read Me emails, they are moved to the Archive folder.

People who use Outlook as their email client might benefit from a GTD-themed add-in from NetCentrics. And, if you’re a Gmail user, I’ve heard good things about using the ActiveInbox plug-in. (A good ActiveInbox tutorial can be found in the article “ActiveInbox Turns Your Gmail Labels Into an Effective GTD System” on Lifehacker.)

As far as my personal to-do list (action items) and calendar, I do keep these in paper form. I like the physical actions of writing and greatly enjoy crossing things off lists. For the past six months, I’ve been using an Arc customizable notebook from Staples for the list and calendar. I’ve tried to do it all digitally, but I always seem to come back to the paper items for these two things. Comfort is a powerful creature. For work, I keep everything in Basecamp so everyone on staff and our clients can see important dates, to-do items, as well as communicate with each other. It’s ridiculously simple to use, which oddly is why some people don’t like to use it. There are hundreds of digital to-do list and calendar programs on the market and a few are probably already installed on your computer — just find one you love and will use and review.

In regards to other digital paperwork (the general reference stuff), I have set up my Evernote account to mirror the GTD workflow. Everything digital is dumped into it and it syncs with all my handheld devices and can be accessed anywhere in the world there is an internet connection. I also back it up to my desktop and back my laptop up to an external hard drive and again to Backblaze (I’m a wee bit maniacal about backing up my data). I save all my documents locally in a document management program (DevonThink), which I’ve discussed recently in “What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles.” If Evernote and DevonThink aren’t your style, check out OmniFocus for Mac and I know many of our readers use OneNote who have the MicroSoft Office Suite (be sure to check out the free, downloadable templates from MicroSoft to save yourself time).

Thank you, Rachel, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you in your pursuit to get things done and adopting Allen’s GTD system for your digital needs. Also be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers. I know we have numerous GTD enthusiasts who read the site and are active in our comments section.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Breaking projects down into simple, achievable steps

Years ago I worked as a special needs teacher, creating and implementing educational goals for students with autism and other developmental delays. It was an amazing experience and, in many ways, has affected the way I manage projects and tasks today. A few tricks I learned back then now help to keep me productive and confident, even when my project list is overwhelming.

Break It Down

My students, being individuals, performed best under teaching conditions tailored to their abilities. We’d identify their strengths and areas of need and go from there. I also found that certain methods benefited a large number of students, including the practice of breaking complex tasks down into small, sequential steps. Once the first step was learned, the second step was introduced. After that, the third, fourth, and so on. Eventually, many of our students could perform all of the small steps in succession, thereby completing a larger task. Today, I use this technique when devising the steps that must be completed before I can mark a project as “done.” Here are two examples:

Learning to tie one’s shoe is challenging for most kids. However, the individual steps that lead to a properly tied shoe are simple:

  1. Hold one lace in each hand.
  2. Cross the laces to form an “X.”
  3. Grasp the center of the “X” with the thumb and index finger of the right hand.
  4. Push the left lace through the opening at the bottom of the “X.”

You get the idea. While “tie your shoes” is tricky, “hold one lace in each hand” is not. The same goes for the projects we must complete in our personal and professional lives. “Get ready for the conference” is complex and possibly overwhelming. If you’re like me, you’ll avoid something so daunting. To make it more manageable, identify some of the steps that must be completed before this project can be marked as “done.”

  1. Add date and time of conference to calendar.
  2. Make appointment to have car serviced prior to travel.
  3. Pre-load travel route on GPS map.
  4. Brainstorm presentation ideas.
  5. Devise outline from brainstorm session.
  6. Review outline, expand upon it.
  7. Write first draft of presentation.
  8. Etc.

There are two things to notice here. First, each small task is easily accomplished and leads to the next one. Also notice that every task on the list starts with an action verb.

Action Steps

The key to burning through your to-do list is clearly defining what must be done. “The presentation” is not a good action step. “Write first draft of presentation” is. The difference is that the first word is a verb. In fact, all of the steps listed above start with a verb. Try it when writing your own to-do lists. It’s great to know exactly what must be done.

What is a Project?

David Allen defines a project as “anything that requires more than one action step to be completed” (is my fascination with David Allen obvious yet?). This means that things we might not consider projects actually are projects. In my example above, get ready for the conference, definitely is. But so is getting an oil change for the car or volunteering for a 3rd grade field trip to the beach. Going back to my days as a teacher, I’d break down the oil change project like this:

  1. Review calendar to identify free days.
  2. Call favorite mechanic’s shop to make appointment.
  3. Travel to garage on given day and time.

The beach trip would look like this:

  1. Confirm availability on target day.
  2. RSVP to teacher request.
  3. Buy sunscreen.
  4. Clean out cooler in basement.
  5. Gas up the car.

Breaking projects into small, easily achieved tasks is beneficial in many ways. First, it makes a big project seems less daunting. It also allows you to clearly define exactly what must be done, and provides a real sense of being on top of things.

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.

2011 Unclutterer Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Organizing products

Giving organizing products as gifts can be tricky. If not done in a polite manner, you can end up hurting someone’s feelings. However, if a person on your list has expressed interest in receiving a gift with an organizing theme, it can be a welcomed present.

Even if no one on your list has expressed an interest in receiving an organizing product for a gift this year, you might find something to add to your wish list.

  1. The Getting Things Done Workflow Map Set with a coaching DVD by David Allen ($50). These posters are a great way to keep organized with work.
  2. Decorative file folders that entice their owner to use them. Numerous styles to choose from (prices vary), and great for visual processors who can associate what a file looks like with its contents.
  3. Shoe storage boxes that stack and allow the user to easily see what is inside.
  4. Dymo Label Maker for the person who prefers to label file tabs for easy reading and anything else that needs to be labeled.
  5. My book, Unclutter Your Life in One Week, or another one out there that you believe would speak to your gift recipient.
  6. A key holder so house keys always have a place to live. No more hunting for keys!
  7. A year’s subscription to BackBlaze or another similar online computer backup service. If someone in your life isn’t backing up his or her computer regularly, a subscription to a service like this can give peace of mind.
  8. The Arc customizable notebook from Staples. I have one that is 6.75″ x 8.75″ and carry it with me everywhere. It’s my most reliable friend. I use it for notes, my daily calendar, receipt organizer, pen holder, and general information collector.

Any suggestions for other highly useful organizing products to be given as gifts or added to your wish list? Share your suggestions in the comments.

View the complete 2011 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.

Twelve strategies for achieving your goals from the book Willpower

One of the topics covered extensively in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength is goal setting and achievement. The book’s authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney identify 12 proven strategies for successfully reaching your goals:

  1. Having a positive attitude about the future. A general sense of optimism about the future helps people to believe they will ultimately achieve their goals.
  2. Formulating affirmative, long-term objectives. Lofty, big-picture objectives like “finding an interesting career” and “having a good family life” keep your momentum going even when there might be small setbacks along the way. “To stoke motivation and ambition, focus … on the road ahead.”
  3. Goals and objectives cannot conflict with each other or with your world view. The more congruent your goals and objectives are, the more likely you are to achieve them.
  4. When setting specific goals, make them on a monthly plan. The idea is that “life rarely goes exactly according to plan, and so the daily plans can be demoralizing as soon as you fall off schedule. With a monthly plan, you can make adjustments. If a delay arises one day, your plan is still intact.”
  5. Focus on just one large goal at a time. If you try to stop smoking and lose weight at the same time, you’ll probably end up failing at both. Stop smoking first, then move onto the weight loss (or whatever large goals apply to you).
  6. Precommit to success and don’t give yourself alternatives. When speaking, say that you are un unclutterer, not that you are becoming one. If you are trying to follow a healthful diet, make rules like “I don’t eat doughnuts” and “I eat green vegetables every night for dinner.” When you precommit to how you will behave, you won’t snack on a doughnut in the break room at work because you are not a person who eats doughnuts.
  7. Use David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. The authors are big fans of Allen’s system for creating precise next actions and using the tickler file. Knowing exactly what you need to do next and when items need to be completed frees up your energy to focus on the work and not trying to remember to do the work.
  8. Work on your goal every day. High school valedictorians are rarely students who cram for exams. Rather, they review material and consistently study every day. The daily habit of working toward a goal produces dependable, positive, long-term results.
  9. Set your goals publicly. “People care more about what other people know about them than about what they know about themselves. A failure, a slipup, a lapse in self-control can be swept under the carpet pretty easily if you’re the only one who knows about it … But if other people know about it, it’s harder to dismiss. After all, the other person might not buy the excuses that you make, even though you find them quite satisfying.”
  10. Help others. Navy SEAL commandos going through Hell Week are more likely to survive the week and become SEALs when they have “the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the ‘fist’ of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others.”
  11. Monitor your actions daily. Keep track of your progress using a smart phone app or computer program, write a sentence or two in a journal, or update your progress on Twitter. Then, be sure to review your entries so you can see how well you have progressed toward your goal.
  12. Give yourself relevant rewards for achieved milestones. Obviously, achieving your goal will be extremely rewarding, but the road to success might be a long one. Set up milestones throughout the process and award yourself when you meet these milestones.

Book review: Willpower

Choosing to become an unclutterer doesn’t take much effort. You decide you want to get rid of the distractions that get in the way of the life you desire. That aspect of the process is simple — but what comes next isn’t necessarily a walk in the park.

Actually becoming an unclutterer requires a good amount of energy and willpower to purge the distractions, set up working organizing systems, consistently maintaining the order you’ve established, and pursuing the life you desire. It’s not hard, but after a full day at the office and tending to other responsibilities, your energy levels may be spent. It can be more tempting to plop down in front of the television and turn off your brain or to escape into a good book than it is to sort mail, put away folded laundry, file important documents, take a load of your child’s out-grown clothes to charity, and spend quality time with your kids, favorite hobby, or whatever you have deemed truly important to you.

In the recently published book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney explore the science behind willpower and self-control. They analyzed findings from hundreds of experiments to see why some people are able to keep their focus and determination for extensive periods of time and others aren’t. Their book also looks at how David Blaine can complete incredible acts of endurance, how to predict which graduate students will become tenured professors, why some anti-smoking and anti-drinking programs are more successful than others, why David Allen’s Getting Things Done method works for so many people, and other case studies that personalize the research. Best of all, they report on proven methods for strengthening these skills, so readers can increase their willpower and self-control.

There is so much valuable information in this book that today will not be the only time I write about it. However, I do want to mention a few of the strategies they provide for increasing your willpower:

  • Physically remove the temptation and/or distraction. For example, if you want to stop watching television during the week, remove the power cord from your television and stick it in a drawer. If you’re tempted to jump on Facebook instead of working on a report, install a program on your computer that bans you from looking at Facebook for a set amount of time or reports to your boss if you’re looking at Facebook. One of the reasons Baumeister and Tierney say AA is effective at getting people to stop drinking is because the attendees are at an AA meeting and not in a bar.
  • Take on a seemingly unrelated improvement in behavior. Working on your posture or using complete sentences every time you speak (“Yes, I would like a drink of milk” instead of “Yep”) will help to increase willpower and self-control in other areas of your life, as well as in the area of your attention.
  • Set routines and stick to them. The book’s authors report that people who floss their teeth every day tend to have more willpower and self-control than those who don’t. Initially “… use your self-control to form a daily habit, and you’ll produce more with less effort in the long run.” Stated another way, start by using your willpower to create positive daily habits and routines. In three to six months, you’ll simply do these regular tasks without much effort and you can use your extra energy on larger tasks that require more self-control. Tasks on auto-pilot don’t use the same stockpile of energy as one’s you have to consciously complete.
  • Surround yourself with people who can help you build your willpower and self-control. This might include getting an accountability partner to help keep you on track when you’re uncluttering or hiring a professional organizer to guide you as you tackle the mess on your desk. If you want to start exercising, it will benefit you to work with a personal trainer or to join an online forum to talk about your progress with other people using the same exercise system. It’s easier to not smoke when you’re surrounded by people who aren’t smoking and it’s easier to be organized when surrounded by people who are organized.

As mentioned previously, this book is stocked with scientific research that provides a wealth of tips and strategies for improving your willpower and self-control. While reading the text, I was constantly amazed by how much of it was directly linked to uncluttered living and creating what the authors call “orderly cues.” To learn this information for yourself, check out Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Also, continue to check back to our posts as I plan to refer to the text a few more times over the next couple weeks. The section of the book on teaching self-control strategies to children was incredibly helpful and I definitely want to share the information relevant to uncluttering with you all. I highly recommend this book to all of our readers, regardless of where you are on your uncluttering and organizing journey.

Review: Five Books

Over drinks the other night, my friend looked over both of her shoulders, giggled nervously, and then very quietly confessed to me that she doesn’t read fiction. I patted my friend on the shoulder, told her it would be okay, and then shared with her one of my favorite new sites for discovering non-fiction works.

Five Books is the site, and its premise is:

Every day an eminent writer, thinker, commentator, politician, academic chooses five books on their specialist subject. From Einstein to Keynes, Iraq to the Andes, Communism to Empire.

If you’re interested in learning all about Norwegian crime writing or the Euro or Confucius or gender politics or bats, experts on these topics provide lists of the quintessential books you should read to learn a good amount on the topic. It’s convenient to have a reading list built for you by someone who is intimately familiar with the topic. Whenever I’m interested in learning something new, I pull up the site’s archives, find a topic, and start reading. I’m currently working my way through Paul Barrett’s list of dinosaur books because of my son’s infatuation with these creatures.

I haven’t been asked by Five Books to create a list of organizing or uncluttering titles, but I have thought about it a little. Obviously, I’d put my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week on the list. Also on the list would have to be David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook and Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff would likely make the list, too. I’m torn about what my fifth book would be, though. Would I choose a corporate management book like The Toyota Way or a classic home-organizing book like Peter Walsh’s It’s All Too Much or would I go on more of a philosophical bent with a book like The Plain Reader?

Thankfully, I don’t have to make a decision about what books I would put on my list, but I’m glad the experts on Five Books are able to narrow down theirs. The site is an incredibly convenient way to become knowledgeable on a subject without cluttering up your time.

Qualities of a good to-do method

We all have our methods for remembering to-do items — Mark Forster’s lined to-do list system, David Allen’s Getting Things Done, notifications on Google calendar, etc. — and these methods work as long as you use them consistently. Every six to eight months, I try out a new method to see if it works better for me than the last. And, after a couple days of using the new method, I usually make a few additions and subtractions and switch out components from other methods that I like better.

After years of auditioning the most popular to-do management methods (and a few obscure methods, as well), I’ve found that it’s incredibly obvious which methods are likely to be helpful and which ones are duds. For a method to be good at actually getting me to do my work, it has to have the following components:

  • Simple way to capture data. New items have to be able to be quickly and smoothly added to the system. The easier it is to add items, the better. If you have to rewrite a list or find a specific type of paper or use a code of some kind, the method creates too many barriers for entries and I’ll stop using it in a matter of days.
  • Helpful reminders. The reminders to do something can be a simple visual or audible cue, but they need to be there. Actions written at a specific time on a calendar are even fine, there just needs to be something to help remember deadlines.
  • Way to delay or postpone items. If there is no way to reschedule an item, the missed to-do task will be forgotten, guaranteed.
  • Separation between do-this-or-suffer-negative-consequences tasks and all other items. A system doesn’t need a detailed prioritization scheme, but there has to be a way to differentiation between “I will get fired if I don’t do this” and “maybe someday” stuff.
  • Ability to overview entire system. If you can’t see all of the to-do items at once (or at least a month’s worth or a project’s worth), you can lose sight of the big picture.
  • Ability to ignore parts of the system. In addition to seeing the big picture, you also need to be able to keep from being overwhelmed and focus on a limited number of items.
  • Portability. Paper or digital doesn’t matter as long as the method easily transports with you wherever you go.

When you are creating or adopting your perfect method for completing to-do items, keep these best practices in mind. Also, know what features are important to you and your work. If you must have a to-do list that can be shared with others, then add “sharing” to your list of best practices. Whatever method you use, be sure it’s the right method for you and that you keep using it.

Unclutter Your Life in One Week: Your questions answered

The following are the most common questions I have received about Unclutter Your Life in One Week since I signed the contract to write it almost a year ago. If I don’t answer your questions in this post, feel welcome to leave them in the comments. I’ll try to check in over the course of today and tomorrow and respond to the questions that have been asked there.

  1. Is the book a reprinting of posts from the website?
    No. Obviously, it is the same message and tone as the website, but the vast majority of content is new for the new medium. “The Weekend” chapter of the book does include a portion of the text from the post “Saying farewell to a hobby,” and that is because a.) it’s my favorite post of all time, and b.) it fit in perfectly with the chapter.
  2. Will there be an electronic version of the book?
    Yes, and it should be available for pre-order this week. I’m also under the impression that it is going to be available in the three most prominent electronic formatting types. I have no idea what the price will be through the different retailers. Prices are set by the publisher and retailers — unfortunately, authors have no say in how the prices are set.
  3. Will there be an audio version of the book?
    Simon and Schuster doesn’t decide what books will be released as audio books until after the first wave of hardcover sales. I don’t know what formula they use to make this decision, so I won’t even try to predict the answer to this question.
  4. Can I see some of the text from the book before I buy it?
    Yes. Currently, Amazon.com has a chunk of the chapter “Foundations” up on its website. Go to the book’s page, and click on the link “See all Editorial Reviews.” An excerpt of this chapter should appear after the advance reviews.
  5. Is the David Allen who wrote the Foreword to your book THE David Allen?
    Yes. I am truly honored that he wrote the Foreword. His book Getting Things Done is a life-changing text.
  6. Can you print the Table of Contents?
    Here is an abbreviated version —

    • Foreword
    • Erin’s Story
    • Foundations
    • Monday: Your Wardrobe, Your Office, Your Reception Station
    • Tuesday: Your Bathroom, Fixing Your Files, Household Chores
    • Fall Cleaning Guide
    • Wednesday: Your Bedroom and Commute, Communication Processes, Kitchen and Dining Room
    • Thursday: Living Spaces, Productivity, Your Home Office
    • Spring Cleaning Guide
    • Friday: Scheduling Strategies, Work Routines, Living with Clutterers
    • The Weekend
    • Celebrating and Maintaining Your Success
    • Notes
    • Resources
    • Acknowledgments
  7. Did you write this book?
    Yes.
  8. Is it available outside the U.S.?
    Yes. It should be available November 3 in Canada, Australia, Britain, and most other English-speaking countries. Foreign rights are still being negotiated, but I know a publisher picked it up in France and others are in the works.
  9. Will you do a book tour?
    This questions receives a big “sort of” as an answer. I didn’t want a book tour in the traditional sense because sitting in a bookstore talking about my book for 45 minutes is not really my style. Instead, I’m going to have casual meet-n-greets in bars. A small bookseller will have books available, people can talk to me one-on-one, and readers can also get to know each other. Once these dates are set, I’ll post them on the site. As of right now, these happy hours are being planned for New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, and Los Angeles. More cities may be added.

Do it now

Fans of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system (and the updated Making It All Work system) are familiar with his advice to immediately act on a task that requires less than two minutes to complete. It seems obvious, especially in a work setting, to follow this two-minute rule, but just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean that it happens.

It is so easy to think, “I’ll get to that later,” and let whatever the action is fall through the cracks. It doesn’t get written down on your list of next actions, it isn’t delegated to anyone else, and it slips right out of your mind. (At least that is how it works with me when I procrastinate.) You forget about it until someone comes seeking your response again, wasting your and the other person’s time.

I try to hold true to the two-minute “Do it now” policy at work, and an extended five-minute “Do it now” policy at home. Home-related tasks, in my opinion, seem to take a bit longer than office tasks. Unloading the dishwasher is a simple five-minute task that can be delayed if I don’t remind myself to “Do it now.” Clearing diner dishes, putting away items after getting ready in the morning, and dumping a load of laundry into the washer all seem to take about five minutes.

Do you use the two-minute “Do it now” policy at work? Have you tried a five-minute “Do it now” system at home? If you haven’t, I recommend giving it a try and watching your productivity improve.