Tag Archives: inbox

Three places clutter kills concentration

I’m pretty sure that people universally despise clutter yet almost all of us let it invade most parts of our life. (My brother-in-law is one exception as he keeps the cleanest house you have ever seen which is quite a feat with two children.) There is always something more urgent to do than cleaning. But it must be done eventually and why put off until tomorrow that which can be done today?

These are three things that get always get cluttered for me and have a perceivable effect on my concentration and productivity.

Your desktop

I don’t mean your computer desktop though your file organization there could likely use work and reflects your overall state of organization.

I’m talking about your actual desk. This advice might not apply those that work in cafes all day but most of us work at desks. And unless there is a company policy about it those desks are likely covered in papers and post-its. Not everybody is wired the same way but for me a creative mind does not thrive in the clutter.

This one had the easiest fix. Really it is more of a hack. If your desk has drawers then open one and sweep everything inside of it. If not then get a manilla folder (I don’t know of anywhere that sells a single one so you can steal one from somebody else or your spouse when you meet up with then for lunch) and put everything in there. You will immediately feel better.

Now block out a half hour on your calendar at some time in the next week to organize everything in your drawer or folder.

Your browser

How many tabs do you have open right now?

Each tab represents a half-finished project. Yes, even your Gmail tab is a project. You’ll be much more productive if you only check it at set, scheduled, times of the day.

(Nobody’s job is to answer email. Nobody has that job title. Rather, responding to email is a means to an end. It is a tool, and only a tool, that you use for communications with people integral to what your real job is.)

If you’re like me then it isn’t that uncommon to have tabs open for two months or more. I have one particular tab that has been open for more than four. I am not proud of that.

What I should be doing is at the end of each day creating an Asana task for each open tab. (That would be a nice Chrome plugin. And as I finished up writing this Google Inbox prompts me to install a plugin that is the exact opposite which saves links to your Inbox. I find that to be a terrible idea.)

Your inbox

Just like you spend much of your day physically at your desk, you spend much of your day digitally inside of your inbox. Each email sitting there represents something you need to do. There are a couple ways to tackle this. The first is to handle it like you did your desk and create an email folder titled “Pending” and move all your emails into it.

The second is to start tackling it right here and now. My post on Inbox Zero provides some tips on that but you can start now by identifying any email that will take you less than five minutes and then responding to it. Create filters for any mailing lists you receive so that those are automatically moved to a sub folder. And finally create tasks for any emails that will take you longer than five minutes to respond to. (For software such as Asana, Trello, or Evernote you can forward the email. For Outlook you can drag the email to the Task button and a task will be created.)

Remember that you should always use the best tool for the job. Email is a communication tool–not a to do list.

All of this clutter compounds on each other and occupies just a bit of your brain as you are trying to work on the projects that move your business forward–the projects that deserve your complete creative brain.

Reduce busy work. Increase luck surface area.

There is a concept known as luck surface area that suggests that the more you do, and the more you tell people about it, the greater your chance for success. Spend your time creating and communicating with your peers and you will be recognized for it.

The idea that being busy lowers your chances for success seems counterintuitive to that. After all if you are busy then you are by default having more interactions than someone who is not.

Busy work such as emails, Twitter, phone calls, etc. only increase your luck surface area if they are a part of a concentrated effort to network and move your efforts forward.

Being busy does not create the body of work that others will take notice of. Serendipity will not occur from paper pushing but, rather, will occur by setting goals and continually working to achieve them.

But first you must free yourself from the chains of bureaucracy and inefficiency that plague most organizations.

Paper pile - April 2011 - 2 by Sebastien Wiertz used under CC License

Combatting Busy Work

The best way to combat busy work is to implement systems that decrease the amount of time the work takes and, just as importantly, the amount of brain power devoted to it. For most people the place to start is in the inbox.

To start with do not spend all day inside your inbox. Check your email no more than a handful of times a day. You might be under the impression that your customers and coworkers would think the world is ending if you do not quickly respond to their emails but you would be wrong. If people needed immediate responses they would not use asynchronous communication and would instead pick up the phone to call you.

(I am aware that some people inexplicably expect email responses to be no more delayed than the speed of light allows. They often do funny things such as using words such as urgent or ASAP in the body of the email instead of using the high importance flags (and often on things that are not urgent at all). Those people need to be coached and it is up to you to do it or else you will never be able to fully focus on the things that really make a business successful.)

The second step is to turn off email notifications. Disable the new email pop-ups in Outlook and turn off the beeping on your phone. Those take you out of your train of thought and, as a knowledge worker, nothing is more important.

Now you are ready to tackle your emails at your own schedule rather than somebody else’s. Getting Things Done presents a very effective system that can be applied to your inbox. The system is:

“Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It.”

The premise is that if an email only takes a couple of minutes to act on or respond to then do it right then. If it can be delegated then forward it on. If neither of those can happen (it needs more than two minutes of your attention) then you defer it by putting it on your to do list or your calendar and then filing the email away out of your inbox.

(A pro-tip on your to do lists: You can drag an email to your tasks in Outlook or you can forward emails to services such as Asana, Evernote, or Trello to automatically add them. Just like with your emails address your to do list in your own time frame.)

By applying that system to each item in your inbox a few times a day you will arrive at the fantasy state know as Inbox Zero. It is much easier to achieve focus when diving into a project with no emails to address.

To lessen the number of emails you have to address each day setup filters so that certain emails are automatically filed away or added to your to do list.

Once you have tamed your inbox and created a single proper to do list (rather than writing tasks on whatever scraps of paper you have on your desk at the time) you are ready to tackle the busy work.

Start by documenting step-by-step each thing you do for one day. The next day spend some time going over that list (might help to include the boss on this) and identify anything that no longer needs to be done due to changes in the business. You would be surprised at the number of things that people do because they have always been done and nobody has bothered to stop and question it. Stop doing the things that do not need to be done.

Continue looking at the list and figure out where steps can be automated with a little technology. Investing a little bit of time and money automating processes will pay off in spades later.

Now you should have some systems in place to serve as defenses against busy work so that you can work on building the kingdom.

Startup Stock Photos

Capitalizing on Real Work

Begin by taking the time to identify things that are truly urgent which are the activities that are central to your business’ success or survival. That is where you want to concentrate your efforts.

Prioritize the activities and then set goals with actionable steps and timelines for each activity that you are going to create a project out of.

Those projects vary from business to business but could be a product launch, developing a new feature, a marketing campaign, or hiring. The bottom line is that you are trading busy work for the work that pushes your business forward.

That is the type of work that will increase your luck surface area and make others take notice of you both inside and outside of the company.

Productivity Books: Getting Things Done

(This is one of a series of posts about productivity books and the lessons I took from them. The series is: Getting Things Done, A Sense of Urgency, and The ONE Thing.)

Getting Things DoneBeing productive doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice. A to do list doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous.

It is possible to be effectively doing while you are delightfully being, in your ordinary workaday world.

Getting Things Done lays out an effective system for managing your work and all of the tasks and emails that entails.

The Problem

Mental to do lists occupy brain space that could be used in more creative or productive fashions.

The clutter of mental to do lists creates stress. There is even stress in trying not to forget something. And often your mind only reminds you about something the next time you come across it at which point you likely put it off again.

It is a waste of time and energy to keep thinking about something that you make no progress on.

The System

Stop storing task lists in your mind.

Find a place to write down each and every thing you need to do (from high level stuff at work down to needing new batteries for the flashlight) in one place. That place could be a notepad, a spreadsheet, or task management software such as Asana. Commit to that one place.

Once you have a collection of tasks then you need to go through them and organize them. For each task:

  1. Ask yourself if it is actionable.
  2. If it is not actionable then either trash it or file it away for later reference.
  3. If it is actionable then do it if it takes less than two minutes.
  4. Otherwise either delegate it or defer it by creating an entry on your calendar for it.

Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It.

Never return an item back into your inbox.

(For Asana I consider the “New Tasks” section the collection place and anything that is deferred is marked for Today, Upcoming, or Later with a date set for tasks needing to be completed on a certain date rather than by a certain date.)


Breakdown larger projects into small steps as a project isn’t actionable in and of itself. The individual steps are actionable. Keep all of the supporting reference material for the project somewhere other than the to do list. Ideally keep it out of sight so it will be out of mind except when you’re working on the actionable steps.

When planning projects first ask yourself what the purpose of the project is. Doing so will define what the criteria for success is, allow you to focus resources, and provides motivation.

Next brainstorm all of the steps needed to complete the project. Organize the steps. Begin work on the actionable steps or assign resources to them.


The Getting Things Done system works great for email and is probably the quickest way to get to inbox zero short of dragging all of your email into the trash. The book recommends creating a folder specifically for emails you have deferred as well as a second folder for emails you’ve delegated to others and are awaiting confirmation of the outcome on.

My inbox has actually been the largest benefactor of this system as I, like most of the working world, receive most of my business communication via email. Turning those emails into tasks or calendar items gets them out of my inbox and eliminates the feeling of being overwhelmed I used to have every morning when I would open Outlook.

I would, and have, recommend this book to pretty much anybody as freeing the mind from remembering tasks allows one focus on the larger projects that move businesses forward. It also allows one to enjoy their free time more knowing that there is nothing for them to forget as they’ve already written it down.

Zero-Item Inbox Bliss

I finally did it.


After years of dreaming about a zero-item inbox I actually decided that I was going to achieve it by the end of the day.

That didn’t happen.

I was able to achieve zero-inbox bliss within a week of making that decision. And the closer I got the better I felt. I can see this being addictive.

The first step I took, and I actually took this long ago, is turning off the Outlook notifications that pop up whenever I received an email. This won’t work for anybody whose company promises a 15 minute turnaround on emails but I think it should for most people. Not having the notifications pop-up allows you to stay more focused on the larger projects you should be working on–the ones that will advance your business.

The second step was to unsubscribe from most mailing lists and to create rules (right click/create rule) to filter the rest to a sub-folder. Nothing you receive via a mailing list requires immediate attention. (Note that I’m not referring to alerts about your server here.)

With those two steps done I could finally tackle the emails that were filling my inbox. Not all emails fit in the same pretty little (in)box so there was a variety of actions I took.

Any emails that could be responded to, or action taken on, within five minutes got a response.

outlook-drag-toAny emails that required a follow-up at a specific point in time in the future were dragged to the Tasks button in the bottom-left of Outlook and a task created with a due-date and reminder set. (You can also drag emails to the Calendar button to create a calendar item with the email in the body or to the Contacts button to create a contact with the email in the Notes.)

Most of the emails that were left over were of the task variety such as “To Do”, “To Read”, “Confirm”, etc. All of those were forwarded to Asana (select an email, click forward, enter x@mail.asana.com, send) where I then organized them into projects and sorted them by priority.

The emails that were going to take more than five minutes to write out a response (typically because some level of research was required) were split between Outlook Tasks and Asana. That also highlights the one problem with this setup–there are now tasks in both Outlook and Asana. I’ve been using Asana mostly but Outlook seems to be better for recurring tasks.

In a twist I actually set it up so that Asana emails me. Every morning I receive one email from Asana with the tasks due within the next week as well as my email from StartOpz that shows what needs my attention operationally. Between the two of those I’ve got a good start at how to plan my day.

In some of my previous attempts I got close but never actually got to no emails in my inbox. One hectic day or a vacation would undo everything and I’d have to start over. I hoping actually seeing an empty inbox, coupled with my new email system, will make me feel less anxious or overwhelmed which will allow me to focus better on the larger picture.