Friday, 20 February 2009

Piles can be very painful

Last week I was talking to a colleague about his pending file. It consists of a large table that occupies most of the space in his room. On it are spread sheets of paper, each of which is some task that he is currently doing: a printed out email, a handout, whatever. Why? you wonder; why?

The answer is very clear, and represents a great truth: if you stack those sheets of paper, as most of us do, they turn into a pile. And the trouble with a pile is, pretty soon you don't know what's in it. If you put the sheets into a filing cabinet, or into a drawer, same result. A pile turns into a black hole, with nameless, and possibly scary, or urgent, or past-the-deadline contents, and the result is what Microsoft used to call FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt. They were in favour of it. Or rather, of causing it, in their commercial rivals, by unscrupulous use of an appalling monopoly). And the FUD nags at your mind, taking up brain space, causing inefficiency and wasting mental processing power. Especially if you happen to miss a deadline because some reminder document is in a black hole somewhere.

This is a surprisingly profound truth. It is most of the basis for Getting Things Done, GTD, the time management system that has swept the Web and carried all before it. (More about GTD here.) Many of my useful uses of computers are based on GTD, hence this introduction.

So, what's the answer to the pile problem? Not, I suggest, laying it all out on a table. Sometimes, for one thing, no table is big enough; and, in any case, as my colleague ruefully admitted, when the students come in, hungry for learning, you have to make a pile anyway, and then unpile it when they go away again. Perhaps I should say at this point that this particular colleague is highly productive and efficient: this system certainly seems to work for him. But it would drive me crazy.

The GTD answer to the problem is simple: make a list. Before I started doing GTD I would occasionally, when things got out of hand, by force of necessity, make a list. 'Today I must do this, and this, and this'. And I well remember the sense of clarity and relief that then arose (on occasion to such an extent that I didn't actually do very much on the list, because the FUD that caused me to make the list in the first place had gone away. Yes, I was a sad case.)

When you get all of your piles sorted and put away such that you can easily find all the bits of paper, and make lists so that you know what needs to be done with each and when to do it--and I'm talking about all of them, here, every single last nagging item in your life--then you experience a GTD epiphany: a sense of calm and release that is almost physical. And is so nice that you are prepared to do what it takes to maintain that feeling, through thick and thin. (Thin is easy, mind you: but thick can be bloody difficult.)

So, for instance, take the email inbox. How many emails are there in your inbox at the moment? How many unread emails are there in the inbox? For most people, a lot. The inbox is a black hole. How many emails of any kind should there be in there? Answer: none. Not one. Inbox zero, is the buzzword. And how do you achieve inbox zero? By practicing email triage. Like this:

1. Get all your emails automatically forwarded to your googlemail address. You do this by asking the IT people to set it up for you. It's very simple.

2. As a result, you will be pleasantly surprised to find you no longer get much spam. That takes care of some of the junk in the inbox right away.

3. In gmail, go through the inbox and, for every single email, either store it or star it. Anything that requires further action gets a star (set the default colour of star to gold. I don't know about you, but when I was five years old a gold star was a valuable commodity. It is on such illusory self-bribes that quite a lot of GTD functions: and, oddly, it really works.) Then archive it. If you want to find it again, click on the star in the left hand column: there, with wonderful reliability, they all are.

4. As for the others, all the others, do this: if they are spam then select them and click on the 'report spam' button at the top of the inbox. Away they go, and you won't be bothered by them again because gmail's brilliantly efficient spam detector will remember and exclude. And all the rest, simply archive them. No filing? No putting into little classifying boxes so that you can find them again? No. Because the search engine in gmail is designed by Google. And one thing that Google is good at, uncannily, astonishingly good at, is search.

5. Keep doing that, and sooner or later your inbox will be empty. At which point, you will experience a small but worth-having epiphany. The inbox zero epiphany. Enough to motivate you to keep doing it, several times a day, so that your inbox stays clear.

6. Then go and look at your starred items. Go through them and operate the two minute rule. This states that if an item can be despatched in two minutes or less, do it. If not, put it into a trusted list system. More about list systems at some later point. For now, a list on a piece of paper or a Word document will do fine. The to do item should have in it enough information so that you can easily find the email again. Then you can archive the email. Keep doing that until the starred items list is empty too. Ah: clarity and calm. You are now in total control of your email.

7. You need to check your starred items several times a day, and do whatever in there really needs doing that day / is easy to do right away / you feel like doing. It's crucial that there shouldn't be too many items in the starred list; if there is, it's a pile; and a pile very soon turns into a black hole. You should set aside part of one day every week, pretty much without fail, to clear your starred items. All of them.

And there you are. Inbox zero. One pile -- maybe, the main one -- less to worry about. It really works. I recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. A very long post - but sometimes that can be okay, especially if you are also a convinced GTD/inbox zero hero like me.

    Three things to add to this excellent post:

    1. You can quite easily set up your own gmail without going to techy guys:
    - Go to settings (blue link at top)
    - Go to 'accounts and import'
    - Click on the big 'add pop3 email account' button and follow instructions from there
    - After that you can also click on 'send mail from another address' and you will be able to use gmail for work and play

    2. Use google tasks within gmail inbox, it fits just so snug with GTD

    3. Never underestimate the power of an attention-grabbing post title!