by Stuart Ridgway, Original Music for Film and Television

Recently I’ve adopted several methods for making my work life much more efficient.  A “perfect storm” of techniques have come together and in combination they’re effective and easy enough to really make a difference.  This is Part I of a four-part series that focuses on identifying and killing several time-sucks.  Part II covers technologies that really speed things up.  Part III is all about working hard without killing yourself.  And part IV addresses the part of lizard brain that says, “Don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of time to get that done…” and helps us procrastinate endlessly.  I have several ideas that work but I’d especially love your input on that one.

I began addressing some of the major time-sucks in my life after beginning The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss.  One of his major tenets is to reduce email read-time to once a week.  I’m not there yet but I did realize that working out of my inbox wastes a huge amount of my own time.  Tim also advocates letting the folks you work with survive without your non-stop input.  In other words, dis-invite yourself from needless fire drills.  A life tied to email is a thing of the past.

Think Outside the Inbox

I used to work out of my inbox.  On any given day there were 20+ emails eagerly awaiting my return.  Like a slobbering bulldog I’d nose through my collection of emails to see what needed my attention.  I could easily get sucked into focusing on five different emails at once and maybe follow through on one of them if I was lucky.  An hour later, I’d do it all again.

Tame your emailBoy was I a busy beagle, to further the dog analogy.  Constantly rereading email to see if something needed my attention and haphazardly addressing a couple of them sucked up at least an hour a day.

I realized even though I felt busy I was not getting much done for all the effort.  So I made a plan for getting out of my inbox.  My goal was to schedule three email reviews a day:  first thing in the morning, once after lunch, and once at the end of the day.  In between these scheduled email reviews I work.  Two major steps made this possible.

Step 1: Make the effort to set up spam filters

One of the quotes from Tim’s book that I love is to work “just in time” as opposed to “just in case.”  I used to read all those company-wide-everybody-receives-it emails just in case I needed to know about the topics.  Fifteen minutes later I’d have forgotten the details and 99% of the time the information was never relevant. Now, all of those emails go straight into my delete box.  If the topic comes up (Them: “Hey, didn’t you see that email?…” Me: “No, I haven’t gotten to it yet…”) I do a quick search and read it just in time.

The corollary to this is to unsubscribe from all of those “newsletters” from external companies – no matter how much they deny it, they are spamming you.  The more you unsubscribe, the less your email address gets shared too.

So all that just got rid of about ¼ of my inbox.

Step 2: Prioritize emails

Emails that are not spam fall into two general categories: (1) emails that need to be addressed now and (2) emails that need to be addressed at a later date.  I put emails that need to be addressed later into my Task / To Do list.  This sounds redundant, which is why I never did it before.  But the technology makes it so easy these days that it’s worth the little effort it takes for the benefit in efficiency down the road.  I either flag the email, which adds it to my Task list, or I add/update a task.  I then delete or file the email but I don’t prioritize or categorize the task until later unless absolutely necessary (more in Part 2 of this article).  By the way, if I turn on “conversations” in my email program then all I have to do is look at the latest email to see everyone’s input.

There goes the other ¾ of my inbox.

I do address emails that have real priority as soon as possible.  This includes emails from people to whom I owe a quick response: my clients, people who correctly assert that I’m the bottleneck, or folks who have gotten back to me about something important to me.  Even so, unless your client or boss demands an immediate response, consider sending a quick acknowledgment then waiting until your next scheduled email review to answer.  This gives you the opportunity to snuff the dreaded email conversations or worse, the perceived (but not real) fire drills.

Cancel the Fire Drills, Please

Email conversations, especially among several people, are deadly time-suckers.  Imagine sitting at a conference table where people have to wait 10 minutes after the last person spoke before speaking again.  Shoot me now.  When I receive an email that’s about to devolve into an email conversation I take one of two paths:  (1) I put forth my best answer then wait until my next scheduled email review to get updated.  Or, (2) I politely ask  the person who’s really asking the question if we can have a phone conversation or even a conference call if necessary.  You are not obligated to submit to the email conversation just because everyone else does!

This has the added benefit of reducing your participation in any “fire drills.”  When everyone in the email conversation starts adding their two-cents, a perception emerges that this is super-duper important and must be addressed now.  That may be the case, but 99% of the time I find that it’s not.  If I wait until my next scheduled email review, I often find that the group has figured itself out – or worn itself as the case may be.  They also subconsciously learn that I don’t give my two cents every two seconds and, in turn, don’t expect me to do so.

Following these two steps frees you to actually get stuff done.  You’ve just saved yourself an hour of time by avoiding email swirl and now have at least 3 hours, twice a day, every day to do what you really need to do.  Sweet!  In Part 2 of this article, I talk about some of the technologies I’ve found that really help me reclaim more of my time so I can knock stuff out like Bach writing cantatas.

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