Life Hacks, Productivity

To Get More Done, Automate the Stuff You Hate

Inbox Art

Like you, I spend a lot of time doing the same things over and over again. In physical space this is easier to think about: when you have clutter in your home, if you attack each area systematically you’ll eventually get to a clean room. It’s impossible to ignore a stack of things in your way that cover every surface. In contrast, it’s really easy to ignore a stack of digital things when you’re not looking at your computer screen. So what should you do when you have a lot of unwanted emails that keep showing up in your inbox?

I’ve tried a lot of solutions to this problem, and read some great suggestions about getting your inbox down to reasonable level. Getting your inbox down to true zero might be overkill, and there are some great easy tips to make that task faster and more manageable. But the thing that helps me the most is SaneBox – it’s a simple subscription service that makes my life easier. Sanebox connects to my email accounts and automatically files the emails I might not need to read immediately into SaneBulk and SaneNews folders. It also catches my important emails – those from people I talk to frequently – and puts those emails into the SaneTop folder. Sanebox makes the daily email scan easier because I’m reading (or deleting) emails of the same type.

My favorite Sanebox feature is SaneBlackhole, because it magically makes unwanted email disappear. I subscribe to a lot of newsletters and blogs, and sometimes my name makes it onto an email list and I’m not sure how it got there. Instead of having to figure out how to unsubscribe, I just drag the email into SaneBlackhole and Sanebox makes sure I don’t see more emails from that sender. The best thing about Sanebox is that it doesn’t care what email program I use – it just works. So if your inbox is making you crazy, I’d recommend checking out Sanebox (yes, I’m a subscriber).

Product Strategy, Startup

Why every app needs a “mark all as read” function

Every app and every web site has notifications. Whether they are push notifications, email notifications, phone call notifications, voice mail notifications, in-app notifications, or smoke signals, you are competing for a valuable and scarce commodity: the customer’s undivided attention. There are too many notifications to pay attention to, even if you just dip your toe in the information river now and then.

It must be a problem for a lot of people these days, judging from the number of retweets and favorites on a single Saturday afternoon tweet. Yes, you can turn off all notifications for an app or a service in the operating system of the phone, and this is a solution that may just leave the app unused. Surely there must be a middle ground.

markallasread

So how can you make your message the one that the customer reads?

B.J. Fogg, a Stanford Professor, suggests that “three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.” (read more about it here).

The results of motivation are obvious – if someone wants to respond to your notification, they will. You can see the positive result almost immediately. Teasing out the reasons for the negative or null result is a bit more challenging. Did the customer see your message and ignore it? Did the customer never see your message? Did the mean to respond and forget? There are many reasons why this outcome might occur, so the next “why didn’t it happen” focuses on ability.

Does the customer know what to do? An extreme view suggests that notifications as a method are an anti-pattern – that is, they are a mechanism that contributes directly to the customer being unable to focus. When the notification happens so often that it becomes background noise, it’s hard to know what’s an “important” notification and the easy thing to do is to just ignore all of them.

If the customer knows what to do, why don’t they do it? They might not have the ability. The notification might make sense to the designer or the programmer who knows the intended behavior of the feature and the customer might not have the same mindset. Or there might be a bug in the system. Either way, when the customer encounters the notification, if things don’t happen right the first time their motivation will suffer, they may question their ability to complete the task, or they may more likely just say “that’s broken.”

And every time there is a “that’s broken” moment the effectiveness of the trigger declines – the reason you wanted the customer to interact in the first place – and you have to have a “one in a row” moment before the customer trusts that the notification is worth responding to in the first place. A great way to save a “that’s broken” moment is to understand when it happens (ideally before the customer does) and reach out and let them know you’re working to fix it.

As for the problem of too many notifications and overall cognitive overload? There is no way to control what’s going on in someone’s phone or in someone’s head. Giving the customer a pressure relief valve like “mark all notifications read” is one way to alleviate the problem before there is a fine-grained solution. Designers might say that adding such a feature is a mark of failure, and readers on Twitter who clearly deal with this problem frequently in apps might just say, “thank you, app developer.”

 

Life Hacks, On Writing

Future You Will Thank You for Handling Email Better

We get a lot of email – especially the kind we don’t want. The worst is getting email from sites that you don’t even know (when they got your details from the people that you did want you to send email originally.) How does this affect an average person? You might be spending 28% of your time just answering email, as this graphic from McKinsey demonstrates. That could be two or three hours out of every day.

email_time

(source: http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/high_tech_telecoms_internet/the_social_economy)

I understand how this feels. I used to feel completely overwhelmed by email – and it was a constant game of “ping-pong” where when I received emails I would need to either delete, answer, or file them for later. Deleting wasn’t hard – it was easy to find the emails I didn’t really need to answer. Yet it was more challenging to store the emails I kind of wanted to read and didn’t need to act on.

My solutions for this organizational problem were to put everything in a folder. I then tried the “pomodoro” method of only answering email a few times a day for a set period of time. And I also tried answering all of the emails. None of these items really worked. I still ended up with a lot of email that I didn’t really want to read. And it seemed like it got harder and harder to unsubscribe over time. It still felt like I was wasting my time instead of either enjoying the email or just ignoring it.

Three actions solved my problem with email. The first was to turn on Gmail keyboard shortcuts. The second was to adopt Keith Rarick’s method of dealing with email using just a few shortcuts. And the third was to use Sanebox to automatically filter my email.

After starting to use Sanebox, I had two great benefits: first, all of my mail got filtered automatically into “News”, “Bulk”, and “Top” folders that I could also rename and train if I wanted (but frankly, I’ve just left it at the “set it and forget it” mode because it just works). And I also gained the “SaneBlackHole”, a folder into which I can drag any email that I never want to hear from again. There are lots more great features in Sanebox (works in any client, has lots of cool “snooze” and reminder features), but it’s worth it to me to subscribe just for the automatic filtering and the Black Hole feature.

Trust me, future you will thank you for trying it out. You can do that here.

Customer Service, Innovation, Productivity, Startup

Turn Off Your Lizard Brain

Seth Godin - "Quieting the Lizard Brain"
Seth Godin – “Quieting the Lizard Brain”

Seth Godin

“You don’t need to be more creative – you need a quieter lizard brain” –Seth Godin

Your brain is not your friend. At any moment now you might encounter something scary or unexpected or just plain wacky that will inspire your lower brain functions to conduct a simultaneous takeover of your higher functions (it’s for your own good, your brain tells you before quickly pulling out the rug.)

The hijack of your brain does happen to all of us. Emotional stimuli cause you to protect the most important things, not to think critically about the next step you need to take toward your goal. If you resist this effect or at least learn to recognize when it’s happening, you’ll spend more of your time (as Seth Godin suggests in the video above) getting ideas out the door in the form of product.

The first product that you build is probably not your best. And without this counterpoint to improve you won’t get to the best product waiting two, three, or twenty iterations down the road. So listen to Godin when he points out that getting a product out the door is what matters. Note that Godin doesn’t say “ship any product.” He sells you on shipping the best combination of product and utility available using the time and money that you have.

How can you make that choice today? Do a little bit every day. Make a commitment to deliver something with an impossible (or at least uncomfortable) timeline and then go deliver something good enough to meet that requirement. Because good enough is the first step on the highway to great. You won’t get there overnight, and you can’t get there if you don’t start walking.

Life Hacks

4pm is the toughest hour of the day

The hour in the late afternoon that vexes me the most is 4 o’clock. It’s the time when coffee wears off, when I would be better served taking a walk, and when I’m most vulnerable to candy bars.

So lately I’ve been trying a new strategy. At the end of each day I review the list of things I thought were important the previous day. These might be project related tasks, program notions, or just thoughts that I needed to capture in Evernote.

For 30 minutes at the end of the day, I tackle one or two or three items on that list. My goal is to make the least productive hour of my day more productive. I can usually make good progress on at least one item or get a better idea for what I need to think about later or tomorrow.

Keeping this list in Evernote allows me to see which items haven’t moved from day to day and which things stay above the line and remain important. Is this a foolproof system? Nope? But it does give me momentum at the end of the day and keeps me watching my short term and long term goals. What do you do to refocus at 4pm?

Learning, Life Hacks, On Writing

Where do you want to spend your time today?

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photo by http://m.flickr.com/#/photos/paukrus/

Yes, I agree, we don’t have enough time to do all of the things we want to do. Here’s a thought exercise that might unblock you from that way of thinking. You need a map to point you where you want to go today.

First, think of all of the things you need to do (if it helps to have a limit, list 20). Now ask yourself: which of these things would really hurt if they didn’t get done? Your definition could include work, home, or life priorities or could blend the three.

Next, pick the top 5 projects from this list and stack rank them to find your most important projects. If you have challenges with the top 5, pick the top 10.

When you stack rank your projects, you force yourself to make decisions about where to spend time. If certain ideas never make it into your list, make an effort to change the priority or remove them from your list.

This list of projects is not very useful without an overall goal. The BHAG – or Big Hairy Audacious Goal (thanks, Tom Peters for this vivid image) helps to see where you are going. A goal that’s so big it is scary also forces you to think in new terms to solve a new problem.

As you solve these new problems, you will need help. Consider building a personal board of directors made up of amazing people with different strengths. Like the baseball manager who can bring in the superstar reliever, you need to find the people in your network who can give you unique insights when you need them.

Stack ranking your list of projects is clearly not the only way to organize your time. But it forces you to state what you are doing, arrange that list into priorities, and orient the priorities so that they point toward a “North Star”: your big goal.

Learning, Media Mind

Read more books (please)

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Read a fiction book. Read a non fiction book. Read a cookbook or a comic book for all I care. Just spend more time reading.

I should say that I am very much in favor of a good blockbuster movie, an exciting football game, or a taut detective thriller. And I am also asking you to try turning off the show you didn’t mean to watch, the extra 20 minutes you didn’t realize you spent on Facebook, or that part of your life you lost to Candy Crush.

Because books are every bit as good at stimulating your brain, and more.

Great books take you away to another place for a while. Great books give you perspective. Great books make you laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. And great books make you wonder, are we alone in the universe?

When you get back from spending time alone in your head with a book, you are better suited to be with other people. You might have new insights to share with others. You may look at your life a little differently.

Whether you read the book out loud, info-snack using a Kindle, stay in bed with a flashlight under the covers until the book ends, or read in other ways and places, great books inspire. Great books stay with you and don’t let go. Great books remind you of good and bad times and those yet to be. Make sure you read some more this week and you’ll see what I mean.