Tuesday, 15 April 2014

My Thoughts: How to achieve Email Inbox Zero

Back in April last year I gave a presentation about freelancing and how to transition from full-time employee to freelancer. On one page of that slide show I referred to how "Inbox Zero" helps me manage my work, stay productive and keep on top of all the tasks I have to complete.

I was quite surprised at the furrowed brows and "Huh?" looks I spotted across the room and I found myself having to explain to a few people afterwards what Inbox Zero is and why I think it's the best thing in the world.

Apart from long lazy holidays in the sun or eating sushi, of course.

Read on to find out why Inbox Zero is so dreamy, though please note that I will be talking about this primarily from a Gmail perspective. However, I do believe that Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook and Apple Mail have the majority of the same features. (The photos have nothing to do with email; they're from my local Amsterdam park, Sarphatipark, which is now full of blossom and greenery again.)

What is Inbox Zero?

Inbox Zero is an email management goal whereby you attempt to keep the number of emails in your inbox at 0 by processing, archiving and deleting wherever necessary. The overall aim of Inbox Zero is to use your email in the most productive way possible, while also not letting you feel overwhelmed by email. For me, the over-arching purpose that Inbox Zero serves is to ensure you are as efficient as possible with email so you spend less time in your inbox and more time doing the work that pays the bills or better, doing things that you love.

At least that's the most important part of Inbox Zero for me. I'm a writer, a blogger, a girlfriend, a sister, an aunty, a friend, a city cyclist, a wannabe Dutchie, a reluctant runner and a wannabe mermaid. One thing I am not nor do I ever want to be is an "email answerer". Email should facilitate our lives, not dominate it.

The myth of my Inbox Zero

First of all let me state that on an average day I do not have Inbox Zero.

It is much more likely that at any given time there are around 4 or 5 emails lurking in my inbox, waiting for some attention or action. Multiply that by 3 (because I have separate inboxes for my blog, my freelance writing work (and books), and for my freelance research work) so you're looking at between 12 - 15 emails still in existence on an average day. Some days there are more and other days there are less. It feels fantastic when I achieve 0 in one inbox and it feels heavenly when I make the hat-trick. Or rather, it has felt heavenly the very few times that that has happened.

However, the goal of constantly wanting to reduce the email in my inbox and has very actively helped me turn my email from something that used to stress me out into a very effective task management system.

How I achieve and (try to) maintain Inbox Zero

I think the following rules are what I stick to to keep on top of my inbox.

1. The golden rule of my Inbox Zero strategy is that if it's in my inbox it needs action

If it's in my inbox I consider it to be part of my To Do List and it will stay there until whatever needs to be done is done. Sometimes this is simply a short response. Often it is a longer response, if I'm replying to a reader with travel or writing advice, for example. Other times, the email relates to a batch of work or an on-going project and I'll keep it there for a number of days or even weeks until that task is done or the email is no longer relevant.

In many ways, my inbox is my To Do List; I even send myself emails to remind me to do things or when new tasks come up. 

2. It follows that if an email doesn't need action then it doesn't stay in my inbox

Even before I open up my email, I've become quite strict with what lands in my inbox. I only subscribe to newsletters and notifications I want and do read and if I find myself no longer opening up a newsletter or subscription feed, I'll unsubscribe. The two minutes it takes to unsubscribe will eventually save you hours of constantly clicking delete not to mention that "new email" sign making you think that there is something important you have to deal with.

Emails leave my inbox by either getting deleted or archived. What sways my decision between the two is whether I ever think I'll want or need to read this email again. There's no harm in swaying on the side of caution and always archiving but be realistic; will you want that "low cost flights alert" email in two years time?

Another good thing to remember about Inbox Zero is if you archive you are not deleting. You can still access that email (and search for it) any time you want, you just won't have it staring at you everyday distracting you from the emails that actually need attention in your inbox.

I'm lucky that I was already practising this when I began with two out of the three inboxes I manage so I never really got a back up of emails in these email accounts. However, if you have an overflowing inbox and no idea where to start, I have some tips for your below.

3. I only deal with email two or three times a day and I'd really like to make this less often.

This means I don't keep my email open while I work and I will only check in with each inbox for 20-30 minutes each time.

I have spent too long in too many jobs with my email open and my notifications on and not only did it install a sense of false urgency in my work and my approach to email, it was a very disruptive way to get anything else done. Sadly, I only realised this when I started working on my book last year, but hey, better late than never! Now when I'm writing stories about the Amalfi Coast or London or anywhere else in the world, I can focus on that and nothing else.

If I have a long email reply to draft, then I often copy and paste the questiosn I need to reply to and write a draft reply in Evernote or in Notepad to avoid keeping my email open, and thus getting distracted. This may seem extreme but I am very easily distracted so I like to minimise this risk!

And no, I don't get email (or social media) alerts on my phone and most of the time I work with my phone in another room to me, but that's another blog post perhaps!?

4. If I can, I will reply to an email immediately and quickly. Or at least write a draft reply.

Within that 20-30 minute time of email checking I "process" as many of the emails as I can and this includes replying to the ones that can be replied to quickly. I'm a natural small talker so I've had to really change how I approach email and limit the small talk in order to keep emails (and email writing) as brief as possible. The good news is you can be polite and still get to the point!

The only downside of replying quickly to emails is that sometimes a new email comes back just as quickly or it can mean I give the illusion of always being on hand, which isn't always the healthiest impression to give. Perhaps this is me over-analysing, but I still stand by the effectiveness of replying ASAP simply to not let the number of emails that need action pile up. Then I archive.

5. I apply Labels to the emails in my inbox so I know at a glance why an email is there.

When I first started using Gmail I spent quite a lot of time creating new Labels to categorise and organise my emails once they were archived. This wasn't a waste of time, but I have found since that it was slightly redundant. The search function on Gmail (and other email) is so good now that you really don't need to worry too much about where an emails is once it's archived. For that reason, I just move the majority of my emails straight into the Archive.

I do use three different Labels with great effect as I apply them to the emails already in my inbox to show me what needs to be done. I have "To Do", "To Reply" and "To Read" labels. The latter being used when I get a newsletter or update that I've still want to read but don't have time to at that moment. One quick note here - I don't always remove the Label once I've done whatever needs doing to the email, so I now have a lot of emails that still  have these Labels so searching on these isn't very effective - hence why keeping things in your inbox works best.

How you can achieve Inbox Zero... starting now!

1. Start by getting rid of as many emails as you can. Archive the ones you want to keep but don't need action and delete the ones that you don't need at all. As I say, don't worry about Labels too much as this will slow you down. As new emails come in, deal with those with the above guidelines in mind.

2. Don't expect Inbox Zero today or tomorrow. If you are looking at 1000+ emails in your Inbox I would strongly suggest not getting to bogged down with sorting through all of these in one sitting. Try to reduce your inbox by 100 a day until you're down to single figures.

3. Unsubscribe from any email newsletter you don't read. We all have them. We all don't read them. What a waste of inbox space and although it takes just a few seconds to delete it that is still a waste of your very precious time. Also disable any social media notifications you get by email, unless it's something that needs action, e.g. I'm notified when someone writes on my Facebook page as sometimes this can be spamy.

4. Use Labels to help you reduce the emails in your inbox right now. If you get a lot of email (say 30+ new emails a day from different people) and the majority of these just need replies I would strongly recommend moving emails to a "_To Reply" archive (by using the "Move to" button and creating this Label - the _ helps display the Label at the top of the left hand list). Taking these out of your inbox will help reduce the number of emails in your inbox and will distinguish between those that need task related action and those that just need a reply. You can then open the "_To Reply" list of emails when you have time to start replying. Ideally I like to reply to people within 48 hours of their email but sometimes that is not possible and it really is okay to let people wait a little longer, especially if this gives you the time to come back with a quality rather than rushed reply. Once emails are replied, remove the Label and archive.

5. Know the difference between "Labels" and "Move to" buttons in Gmail. Sometimes I have applied a "Move to" button to an email instead of a Label and this has then moved the email out of my inbox, and I therefore assume it is something that has been dealt with. This has meant the occasional "missed email", so be careful of this.

And just for further reference and fun...

A beginner's guide to Gmail. (But also worth reading by those who have been using it for years as there was stuff in there I didn't know about!)

Here's some info on what those newish tabs are used for and how you can disable them, which I have done. I would love to have the functionality to rename these to my "To Do" "To Reply" or "To Read" categories but maybe that will happen one day!

A nice piece on email etiquette when trying to contact somebody who's very busy.

If you like keyboard shortcuts here are 52 of them for Gmail.

There are also some apps available to make your inbox more of an actual To Do List, like Todoist's plug in, which I recently tried out. Though I was curious and enjoyed many of the features, it encouraged me to keep my email open as I worked whereas a paper To Do List makes sure that I keep email closed. It also sends annoying daily email reminders of the tasks you need to do - in my opinion this is a waste of inbox space! - and when I was offline alot during recent travels, it stressed me out being reminded what was overdue.

Are you also a practioner of Inbox Zero? Do you have any other tips to add to this? I'd love to hear them!

A nod to Elise for opening my eyes to better ways to deal with email and a shout out to NewMan too because he is the King of Inbox Zero and regularly ends the day with the famous "No new mails!" message. Considering he can sometimes receive over 50 actionable emails every day, that's really saying something. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

MusicMonday: A Playlist I Love (for Drinking)

Now I'm back in Amsterdam and spending most of my days at my desk catching up on a lot of work and writing I've been trawling 8tracks for the best playlists and I stumbled upon this one by clareseverns. I put it on when we had some friends over for an impromptu night of drinks and foosball last Friday and it got our evening started perfectly.

And here are some small square photos from our week in Mayrhofen for Altitude Festival. What an amazing way to spend a week...
I hope you have a fantastic week!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

My Thoughts: Lessons from a comic festival...

I recently attended NEXTCOMIC festival in Linz. It's one of only a few German language festivals dedicated to celebrating - and creating! - comic art.

I know very little about art and even less about comic art. But I know what I like, and I'm starting to learn what makes something worth standing in front of and looking at a little closer.

I knew I would learn athing or two at NEXTCOMIC but I wasn't sure what that would be... until now.

At NEXTCOMIC I learned the following:

That the purpose of NEXTCOMIC, which began in 2009, is to make art more accessible. So explained Christian Wellman, a Linz-born DJ and writer who was responsible for curating the exhibitions and events on offer at this year's festival. Clearly a little stressed and very preoccupied by the ongoing schedule of the festival's family day "Suuuper Sonntag", Christian took time out to show me around and explain why the event is as much about introducing new people to comic art as it is celebrating successful comic strip artists and illustrators from Austria and beyond.

That comic art has to be one of the most obvious, understandable and simple forms of storytelling and yet it's also prone to being the most intelligent with subtle details, clever captions and of course an interweaving of different skills being needed to have the most impact.

And connected to this, it follows that cartoons and comic art are many children's first exposure to stories and books.

That there are many, many different types of comic art and their audience is just as varied. There are those who love the Japanese Manga comic books. There are those who celebrate and collect Marvel comics. There are those who admire the political and satirical comic strips that appear in newspapers and magazines - an art form that has been an essential part of modern media for over 100 years. And then there are those, like me, who think that they don't know much but then they see books like the Moomin series by Tove Janssen and some instantly recognisable drawings by Matt Groening and they find themselves going "Oooh!" as a sweet wave of recognition rushes in.

That the clue is in the name. Comic art is funny because it's supposed to be.

That I was strangely proud when I discovered one of the main "stars" of the show was a fellow Brit, Kyle Platts. And then I quickly learned that comic art is very, very cool. Platts' work has been featured in The Vice, New Yorker and on T-shirt designs commissioned by the Arctic Monkeys.

That many comic artists collaborate and this is something I'm very interested in. As a writer - arguably the loneliest creative profession - I'm very interested, if a little flumoxed by how artists and designers work together. In a typically non-artistic way I think I was approaching it the wrong way and trying to make it more complicated than it really is, imagining turbulent meetings in dark, smokey art studios. All it took was picking up a limited edition comic book called "Biografiktion: Abba" and I realised that it's as simple as pooling your talent. In this comic book three different strips tell (completely fictional) stories about Abba, each one different and each one complimenting the next.

That comic artists are unassuming, quiet and relatively ordinary. And they just want to draw. All the time.

That street art is possibly my favourite form of art, confirmed by this huge glass mural by Vienna street artist Nychos who is famous for his disembowelling of famous cartoon characters. I still loved it even though Ariel is my favourite of all the Disney "princesses".

That comic artists don't simply sign their work for you... they draw their signature. Of course! (Thank you Paul Paetzel for my very own Abba!)

That art takes many forms. Some of them are obvious, some of them are obnoxious, some of them are objective. And some are just an awesome storytelling combination of talent, humour and originality.

That I like comic art and will treasure this bookmark (by Ana Albero for Latvian comic anthology publishers kuš).

That most children are natural artists. Give them a piece of paper, some pens and a little time and they will create something, anything and they will do so with a full heart and an undiluted focus. Could I say the same about adults, including myself? Probably not. Watching several groups of children throw themselves 100% into group and individual works of art was one of the most inspiring sights at NEXTCOMIC.

Which I think means that NEXTCOMIC  is achieving exactly what it has set out to do.