If there’s nothing else you remember from this post, spend 15 minutes writing down your goals for your next project so that you explain them better to the people who matter. The simple act of writing down your goals is a powerful organizer for you, the people you are interacting with in your project, and the people you want to benefit.
Build the Big Picture
When you paint the picture of a problem, a high-level reason why that problem needs to be solved, and a proposed end state that is a great start. That statement doesn’t explain the How, or the resources and tactics you use to get from “project not done” to “project done” within a known amount of time and effort.
So spend a few minutes writing down the ideal state and how you want to get there. Your way will probably be different than mine, which follows a template of prompts. STOP and go do that, then come back.
It seems silly to focus on such a small goal, because knowing what you’re going to do for your project, feature, or idea is obvious.
Test that theory the next time you feel you have alignment on “what is my project” or “what is my feature” by asking someone else to tell you what they think your project is, what benefits it will deliver, and to state the goal you’re both working to achieve.
When the goal of the project, the definition for that project, and the benefits of that project are clear(er), it’s a lot easier to know where to start.
What does this look like in practice?
Consider this example: “Build a new web site Widget.”
If you know: “we have never introduced a thing like this before onto one of our pages,” you might want to test that results differently to make sure there is no required dependency in your environment.
If you know: “we use these things all of the time, and this is a new instance of a thing we do already,” your comfort level will be increased.
And if you know: “we have already described the ‘look and feel’ of this widget in the fonts, colors, and information architecture of our website, for example page xyz,” you will have made it much easier to know what the thing is that you are building.
Stating the benefits for your project helps you to understand the measurement you’ll need to quantify these benefits. Then, find the measurement as it stands today. Yes, it does seem elementary to find a baseline, and you need one to prove that something change. If there is no baseline, state your assumptions and move on.
Getting Started …
In the spirit of a brief solution, I’ll keep this post short too. When you’re ready to make your next project better, set a timer for 15 minutes and write the overall goal, 3 things you want to do toward that goal, a statement for how you will measure your progress, and any questions you have about the project. This simple exercise makes it easier to share what you’re doing, how you’re thinking about it, and how to make progress.
Admit it — it’s really great to get the message you want, when you want it, and in the time and place that you want it. And that vision is usually hard to match.
Most Messaging is not Like This
And it’s really horrible to get most unwanted messages. It should be simple (and of course it’s not) to find the right balance of messaging across various clients — be they email, iMessage/SMS, or social — so that you get more signal than noise. The reality is that everyone sends you all of their messages all of the time. Unless you filter communication aggressively, split your contact lists into “family”, “friends”, “acquaintances”, and “block that”, you’re going to have a hard time finding the zen of messaging.
The Unrestricted Inbox is No Fun
The irony of messaging as a category is that as it gets more popular it gets more awful (thanks Nir Eyal for this visual of Message Hell). Yet almost every app and remote communication method needs messaging, because messaging solves the problem of communicating 1:1 (or 1:many) when we are all not physically in the same place and need to respond to each other. We all want the (algorithmically-delivered or not) perfect signal of “need to know” and “just in time” messages while also wanting desperately to avoid the inverse: “crying wolf while seemingly urgent and important”, “informational but not urgent”, or just plain spam.
But Blocking Email is Not A Solution
What will we do to keep the best parts of messaging across clients and channels and remake the part we don’t like that causes inefficiency, anger, and frustration?
Clay Shirky, in the well-known talk above (watch it if you’ve never seen it before), talks of “filter failure” and poses that as an antidote to information overload. However, that talk was several years ago. Things have gottne a lot worse with the volume and speed of information since then.
A Modest Proposal
Here’s the problem as I see it — we have information overload and filter failure. Some of this is bacn — “email you want but not right now”, and we have spam (we all know what that looks like). We have communication from different groups: home, family, work, social, and commercial communications. And we have the very real problem of multiple identity disorder, because there is no universal namespace for messaging someone that would create a “phone number” for all communications.
Most people would say, “I’m not sure I like this but this is sort of fine, because the idea of a universal mailing address sounds even worse.” The whole purpose of messaging, they might say, is “to have varying degrees of anonymity and intimacy based on the level of familiarity and trust you have with the individual who’s contacting you.”
The Typical Answer: Don’t Cross The Streams
This “trust” issue is the crux of the problem we face when we want more signal and less noise in our messaging and in our communication in general. We all have internal business rules we use to govern how we respond to different types of messages.
Whether we have enumerated these “rules” or not, they might look like:
“Answer the phone call on the second or third ring when my spouse or partner calls”
“Text my friend in an hour if I’m busy, or immediately if we are in the process of meeting for coffee or a meal”
“Ignore that spammy message from someone or some business I don’t know.”
“Never look at LinkedIn connection requests (ok, I kid — but this might be a special category for a segment of the population).”
Get More Quiet, Based on Our Actions
Our messaging apps and messaging platforms in general do a poor job of interpreting our own behavior and in translating that behavior (and future, intended behavior) into human-readable business rules that govern apps and give us more signal than noise.
We don’t live in a utopian (or dystopian, depending on your worldview) future when we have universal messaging or aggregate delivery of messages to a single client or brain box and a system to rules to respond automatically or manually to those messages. But given the overall desire to reduce noise and increase signal in the messaging conversations we do have, I propose the following suggestions:
Turn off notifications on your phone or tablet. This seems like a no-brainer but the struggle to fight “notification creep” is real. It only takes a few app-created nudges to generate a storm of messages you don’t need or want, generated by app developers and not by your own actions.
Unsubscribe from information you don’t need or want. Try Unroll and Sanebox to clean up your email — future you will thank you.
Aggressively filter the information you get. Your mileage may vary depending upon your style, so this might mean uninstalling apps, unfriending certain people, using email filtering rules, or just not looking at your devices so often.
Use text messages and iMessages to maintain ongoing, single-threaded conversations to the people who matter to you. What’s better than email? Having only one conversation to respond to, stacked in chronological order. If that person is on your list (let’s say … in your top 25 people), they should either leave that list by falling below a threshold or you will have a clear signal that you need to reach out to them because they’re not at the top of your list.
Think about simple rules and habits that make your life better. When you encounter product managers and other people who work on products and services, be sure to tell them what’s working and what’s not working in the products you use. (Hint: they would like to know what regular people feel.)
What could product managers and developers do to help with the message problem? A great start would be more levers and dials to adjust how we receive messaging. Don’t worry — I’m not suggesting that we create Advanced Settings Panels everywhere — but rather that the products themselves observe and respond to a series of behaviors derived from passive activity and active activity. Passive in this case might mean the messages I don’t respond to, and active could mean the messages I do respond to or arrange into folders or lists. The goal should be to develop a personalized set of rules that will automatically deliver message Air Traffic Control to the average user, not the power user.
What about Ads?
Building a personalized set of messaging rules will make easier to present promoted content in a clear and consistent manner, penalize spam, and highlight the important messages I’d like form the people that matter most. It could be an elusive goal, but I believe that improving messaging incrementally has amazing potential to increase happiness and productivity.The popularity of messaging need not cause its antithesis by creating messages we hate. We should be building new and clearer ways to ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time, on the right communication channel.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?