Many digital professionals like my friend Jason Velasco use Merlin Mann’s 2006 Inbox Zero approach to manage the daily 100+ emails digital professionals receive. Most ‘filer’ methods require the user to delete or folder all messages at least once a day to minimize the time lost constantly checking unread email and chat. I distinctly recall arguing ‘filer vs. finder’ approaches with my #Symantec boss Nick Mehta when Inbox Zero launched. The system mostly worked for me until I was managing multiple M365 accounts, went on vacation or let my #ToDo list/folder grow beyond the Magic 7+2 threshold. Even Carl Pullein’s InBox Zero 2.0 expanded method could not cope when my incoming messages and outstanding tasks outgrew my ability to folder effectively. I finally found a sustainable approach for managing the flood and driving my working day.
Step One: Tag & Task Triage
Prioritizing your time requires orienting yourself to your active goals (projects), duties (tasks/chores) and organizational classifications (tags). My Inbox Read approach starts with having a decluttered digital/physical working space. I long ago determined that I could not stay in flow with a cluttered desk. To that end, I start my day with a saved search for all Unread email and chat across my various business, client and personal accounts. What? Microsoft will not let you do that? Apply for the KnowNow beta here or get used to browser hopping. I make a fast triage pass to tag for recall and create todo tasks. I resist the urge to make even quick replies. Instead, I apply an additional Reply tag. The key is applying one or more tags aligned with my active and long-term projects. Then mark all items Read to clear your digital desk for action.
Step Two: Planning Your Day
As a digital professional, my daily task list is compiled from meetings (events), tasks (deliverables) and maintenance (replies, chores, lunch, breaks, etc.). You can use the MyDay function from Microsoft ToDo/Planner or even a simple doc as long as you can see your day’s events and selected tasks in one place. I start by reviewing my active projects and deciding which need progress. That priority enables me to select one major task and 2-3 potential minor tasks. This is a variation on the 1-3-5 task rule.
I subtract meeting and maintenance (~2 hours) time from my day to determine how many task hours I can allocate. Major tasks should take no more than 2-3 hours so that they can be completed in one session. Longer tasks should be broken into steps. Minor tasks should take 30-60 minutes at most to complete. Most maintenance items and replies should take less than 15 minutes or be promoted to the task list. Based on project priorities, I select my major and 2-4 minor tasks for the day and determine whether the major task gets the morning or afternoon slot.
Step Three: Driving Your Day
I leave my daily task list open to keep me on track and try to kick off every free hour with a task. If I complete the task before the end of allotted time, I use that time to tackle maintenance/reply items based on oldest first. Being lucky enough to work from home, I use short house/yard chores to break from my desk every 2-3 hours. My productivity falls off after 2-3 straight hours on a task. I mark tasks complete and convert Reply to Replied tags to track progress. Incomplete tasks get prioritized for the next day when I shut down and clean up. If your job requires you to monitor emails or social media more than once a day, then make that a post lunch habit and CLOSE them again. Constantly checking alerts breaks your flow and can destroy your productivity.
- Read messages have been tagged for recall, promoted to tasks or are not actionable/important. This is how you kill that nagging fear of missing a key message or obligation.
- Every day should be balanced between achieving goals (projects), preventing loss (maintenance), connecting with people (replies) and making team decisions (meetings). Some days will be filled with meetings and others a chance to hammer out two major tasks.
- Clear your digital workspace and head before planning and driving your day. Kill notifications and open messaging windows to reduce distraction and temptation. Give family, team and other key people an emergency contact option like text or calling. Non-emergency messages can wait until end of day or the next morning.
- Orient yourself to your key goals/projects BEFORE selecting tasks. Quantifying the value of goals and the potential risk for maintenance obligations enables you to measure progress.
- Consolidate multiple messaging, task and project systems into a single daily task/calendar list to drive your day.
- Use a task or project system(s) to manage, track and report your progress (tasks) toward goals and overall time utilization. Share appropriate progress reports with your team, clients and superiors. Invisible work effectively did not happen.
My InBoxer 3.0 or InBox Read workflow can be adapted to many different systems. You can adapt the principles to your unique professional/personal digital lifestyle. Clear your space, prioritize your key objectives for the day and stay in flow while creating as a knowledge artisan.
As Chief Innovation Officer, Greg Buckles pilots transformation at KnowNow and Factor10x.