Inbox Zero – a week later

I love Inbox Zero.  Elation is the only work that I think I can use that comes close to describing the feeling of seeing my inbox totally empty.   Two weekends ago, I posted “my own personal failblog” from a fog of feeling overwhelmed and tired.  Last weekend, I took the bull by the horns and spend two days ruthlessly clearing my inbox.  I started Saturday morning around 7:30 and Sunday afternoon around 4:30, I hit inbox zero.   Disclaimer – I slept, ate, did laundry, and located a roll of masking tape my husband needed.

So, a week later, it’s Sunday again.  Guess what!  The inbox is still empty.  It has been empty each night for a week.  It can be done.   And, in case you are wondering, I received 396 emails this week.

So, how did I manage that?   Back to David Allen’s Getting Things Done and a few simple rules.

  1. Do it now.  Different people use different numbers for how long a “do it now” task is – usually 1-3 mintues.  I don’t really put a number on it, just “a few.”
  2. Stop procrastinating.  I had gotten particularly bad at putting off tasks for all manner of reasons.  I didn’t have enough time on had to do it right.  I was stuggling with how to handle that email response.   I needed to write but was having a low-creativity day.  I needed information I didn’t have.  I was waiting for someone to be back from vacation.   Now – do it, delegate it or schedule it.
  3. No “To Do’s” in the inbox.  If it is in the inbox, you have to think about it every time you open the inbox.  If it is a to do, either do it or get it into the tasks list and scheduled do be done.

So, I’ve managed a week with these rules helping me to keep an empty inbox.  Its a really nice feeling.  I’ve actually gotten to the end of my emails and my tasks a couple of times this week and found myself looking forward on my list to see if there’s anything I can do in advance.   I’m pretty sure that wasn’t possible two weeks ago.  Let’s see how long I can keep this thing going.



Goodbye, August. Hello, October.

I’m not sure where September went this year.  I just know it went quickly and the balance train ran me over.  But, in the last few days, I feel that things are returning to “normal.”  In other words, August is over and it is actually October now.  As you read in my last post, August is a hectic time for school folks. August doesn’t end with the calendar saying September 1.  August ends when the rush of back to school changes to the steady pace of the school year.

So, what have I learned from this year’s extended August?  Two new email techniques have been added to my arsenal: categories and deferring.

Outlook 2007 has categories that can be used for calendar items or emails. I’ve never really used them for anything other than contacts and then it was just for tagging people to whom I send holiday cards.  Next, I started using them to tag tasks.  A red square (Category WF for “waiting for…” ) beside a task means that I can’t move forward on this particular task until someone gets me something that I’ve asked for.  The waiting for list is another of the techniques from David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  Yes, I’m sure you’re spotting a theme in this blog.  It’s all about the GTD.  Anyway, there are several main topics of email that arrive on most days right now.  One is questions from staff members about the new databases we implemented this summer.  Another is items to be added to our new website or questions about its ongoing development.  A third is questions from parents or students about accessing the web or the database.  After those, there’s everything else.  As the amount of incoming email became more than I could clear in a day, I started using categories: “Parent/Student Question,” “Database” and “Web” joined the “WF” category.  By coding messages, I was able to deal with them in batches, ignoring the category that I wasn’t working with at the time and not re-touching the message over and over.  This has proven to be an incredibly helpful technique and has kept important questions and requests from slipping off my radar in the sea of incoming items.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had that little stack of messages at the bottom of my email inbox that I just wasn’t ready to answer yet.  Not because they were in the “WF” category, but because I needed to think about them or decide what my weekend plan was.  Each time I scanned through my inbox, these messages sat at the bottom, mocking me for my inability to clear that box.  Then I discovered the “Defer” button on the ClearContext toolbar.  Click the bottom, set a time, and the message disappears until that time.  Know that you can’t reply to that dinner invitation until after you see next week’s schedule?  Defer.  Not ready to decide whether you want to take advantage of the most recent offer from a vendor? Defer.  Simple. Elegant. Useful.

Now, Fall Break has arrived and I’m breathing a sigh of relief.  My inbox isn’t empty, but it only has a 10 items in it and I can relax for a few days.  Things have been crazy and busy, and at times a little overwhelming, but I have two new techniques to manage the flow of information.  This can only make it easier to find a little tech/life balance.  Happy Fall Break!

Inbox Zero

It has taken a few hours, but as of this moment, I am at Inbox Zero!

I am a strong advocate of keeping my Inbox small, but this week, in the insanity of the pre-back-to-school frenzy, things had gotten a little out of hand.  This morning, I have answered about 60 messages and added about 25 to-do items to my Tasks in Outlook.   Needless to say, I have a busy few days ahead of me, but at least now I have a consolidated list of what needs to happen.

If you are interested in some of how I make GTD work electronically, please read my previous post on that topic.

What does reaching Inbox Zero mean for me?  Basically, it means that I have mostly climbed out of a hole in which about 80 different things were crowding my mind.  I need to buy a birthday gift for my husband.  My boss needs a document prepped.  The agenda for the meeting needs to be online.  Can we do dinner on Thursday?  Each of these individual items is small, but the overall effect is a maelstrom of mental energy being sucked into an endless loop of gotta’s.  Gotta send that message.  Gotta return that call.  Gotta order that book.  This kind of thing can really knock your tech life balance out of whack (Note: This post is part of a previous blog entitled “Tech Life Balance.”).  Inbox Zero mean that I’ve started the approach back to centered.

The next week is full of excitement and constant motion.  We launch the new web page.  We train the faculty on the new system.  We discuss books, policies, and teaching ideas.  I’ll have a lot to do and even with GTD, a mind like water, and a great support network, I’ll feel like I need to bend the laws of physics to get it done.  I’ll be challenged to keep the tech life balance this week.  Soon I’ll dive in to tackling those to do’s.  But right now, I gotta stop for lunch.

Systems and Choices

This has been a long and tricky week.  The week included gathering and manipulating upload data from 3 sources for a web upload, three full days of software training, three 4:45 p.m. conference calls with our web project manager, the “soft launch” or our website, and all of the usual business of a technology department with a one-to-one tablet program when school starts in three weeks.  I’m glad to have arrived at Saturday morning and to be sitting with my laptop and coffee to write a post.

In three days of training on our new databases and beginning to see how our new website will work, I’m realizing that I will have to make many choices in the coming week.  As the “Director of Technology and Information Systems,” I will need to determine how data is stored, used, and shared within our new database, new website, and existing systems.  With three systems for calendaring and resource reservation, which is best to use?  With two ways to display homework assignments for students and parents, which is best to use? How is it best to tie class wikis to our web systems?

I generally like this kind of challenge.  I enjoy figuring out the logistic of a project and designing systems to manage processes and data.  But, I must confess that this many choices needing to be made in a single week is enough to make one feel overwhelmed.   What to do?  Where to start?  GTD.

If I am to accomplish these tasks, as well as prepare for the training I will teach in 10 days, registration of students in 15 days, and the classes I will begin teaching in 21 days, I must remember to stay calm and return to GTD.  Today, I will probably not make any progress that appears to be directly related to these projects.  As you remember, the title of this blog is “tech life balance” and today is a “life” day (Note: This post is from a previous blog entitled “Tech Life Balance.”).  Instead of spending the day with my computer, I will buy groceries, get a haircut, have lunch with my parents to plan their remodeling project, do laundry, watch a movie with my husband, and outline these projects.  Tomorrow, I dive in, but I’ll have a plan.

David Allen suggests a weekly review and I must confess that I haven’t done one for several weeks.  I have over due items on my to do list and several lists scribbled here and there.  Today, I will consolidate, give myself new due dates, figure out what others on my team can do, and add to my list those items that will help me end next week with a plan for how my school will most efficiently utilize the tools they now have.

I hope that next Saturday morning, I’ll have had another busy, but productive week and that I’ll be enjoying a cup of coffee while I plan the weekend and the week of faculty orientation.  Enjoy your Saturday – I’m off to get a haircut!

Back to School Preview

This year, my school is doing its first every “Tablet Jump Start Camp.”  I’m spending each morning this week with twelve new students going over the finer points of using different capabilities of their new Lenovo X200 tablets.  Additionally I get to answer their questions about our school.  So far it has been fun, and educational for me as well as my students.

One thing that I’ve learned about myself is that I’m very accustomed to the rhythms of the school year.  I am not used to teaching in July and while I’m enjoying teaching, I find that changing gears after the end of the half-day camp is slow and difficult.  During the school year, I can jump between classes, administrative duties, and home life moment to moment.  This week, it takes me almost an hour to get my bearings and get in gear for the afternoon of summer projects like our web site and database launches.

In my last post, “Don’t Panic,” I felt calm and ready to deal with the masses of upcoming projects and deadlines.  I’m still feeling pretty prepared, but I feel myself slipping into the trap of floating in that not-quite-caught-up area.  I spent a few years there, so it feels familiar, like a pair of jeans that don’t quite fit anymore, but that you remember fondly and try to wear anyway.

I don’t want to settle into the complacency and spend the next month preparing for school with slightly elevated blood pressure and four different to do lists floating in tote bags and under stacks on my desk.  So, tonight has been catch up night.  My inbox is down to 8 (it’s not zero, but I’ll take it).  My to do list is up to date and all in Outlook.  I still have a few things to do, but I’m in a better spot.

Now, if anyone can suggest a good site to explain electronic fair use to teenagers, send it on!