Converting Email into Scheduled Items

Ever since I learned that I could take an email and immediately transform it to an item in my schedule with its own start and end time, I have engaged in the habit almost daily.

In Outlook 2007 it’s a simple matter of dragging the item to the day in the calendar.  Outlook automatically opens up a new appointment on the given day, and from there it’s a simple matter of entering the appropriate times.

In other applications, the task is a much more difficult one to undertake.

In Gmail, doing this simple task is no mean feat — in fact, I’m not sure how to do it at all.  Google calendar is a different but related program that opens into a different window altogether (I’d love a reader to answer the question of to convert a Gmail item into an appointment for me.)

In like manner, stand-alone calendars might by useful but their lack of connection to daily email is a big no-no.

Good software should mimic the way a user processes items that enter their time management systems, but they seem to be thinking about each function in isolation, which leads to good software for calendars (e.g. Leader Task) and good software for email(e.g. Gmail) and only Outlook that even attempts to link the two… in a clumsy way that seems to have been added as an afterthought.

The new internet PDA’s such as the iPhone and Blackberry seem to be great at email, but weak at the full suite of 11 practices that make up a time management system,and especially “Scheduling.”  (I can’t admit to knowing a lot about either PDA, and am willing to be educated by reader who can let me know if I’m wrong.)

Hopefully the day will come when someone builds an integrated system starting with the 11 Fundamentals.  I think it could be quite powerful.


A Zero Inbox in Outlook or Gmail?

magnifying_glass.pngI just read a great post over at the Web Worker Daily Blog.

It essentially has to do with Capturing in one’s inbox, and how using Outlook has lead to very different ways of maintaining a Zero Inbox than using Gmail.

The post makes a distinction between Filers and Finders, and how people use each of these email tools.  Filers (predominantly Outlook users) put email in folders, while Finders (Gmail users) use tags to change the way email is displayed to them through different filters.

Ultimately, I think both get the job done (although Gmail’s method is more efficient, but less intuitive.)

The bottom line is that both methods can be used to maintain a zero inbox, which is (in my mind) a sign of superior efficiency.  In the case of Outlook, the folder is “empty”while in Gmail the tag or filter is “void.”

In the experience of the user (if not in the case of bits and bytes) the effect is the very same.

The full article can be found here:  Email — Are you a Filer or a Finder?


Downloading Email — Caution!

email-icon.jpgA critical strategy in achieving the goal of a Zero-Inbox is to gain control over the flow of email into one’s Inbox.  This is accomplished by turning off the auto download feature, and scheduling times in the day to review email.

That makes sense.

But when should a user decide to download his/her email?  Should it happen when the Inbox is empty?  Or should it happen before?

From my experience, what I have noticed is that making the request to download email is a significant act to take.  That insignificant-looking click leads to a number of things happening very quickly, that leads me to think that it should only be taken when the time management system is stable, if at all possible.

When the Send/Receive button is clicked, here is what happens.

Time demands from all over one’s life come tumbling into one’s consciousness.  Right alongside the junk mail is a message from the friend who is undergoing chemo, the request for early payment on the invoice, a bill from your credit card company, an interesting newsletter, a request for information you think you already sent and your itinerary for your next business trip that contains two errors that need to be fixed before you fly out tomorrow.

Downloading email is like going to a meeting and passing around a blank sheet of paper, asking people to write down stuff for you to do once the meeting is over. It is an action that is essentially a request for new time demands.

One thing we learned from grade school is that it’s  a good idea to finish what you are doing before starting anything new.  In other words, while it may be impossible to complete all time demands residing on your lists and on your calendar before downloading email, it is possible to delay the download until your time management system is in a “steady state.”

What does a “steady state” mean?

This is that very temporary state in which all your time demands have been processed and placed exactly where you want them.  Some are on lists.  Others are in schedules. A few have been tossed.  Several have been stored.

The point here is that none of them is sitting around in place it shouldn’t be — namely, in one of your capture points, waiting to be emptied.

It’s a mistake to put more items in your capture points while it still has items to be processed. While new email is convenient to download, and only a click away, it has the potential to disrupt a user’s peace of mind with each click when their time management system simply isn’t ready to receive the email.

The next thing that happens depends on us.  Before requesting the download, do we set enough time aside to process each of the time demands?  (This isn’t the same as completing them.)

Peace of mind comes when time is set aside after the act of downloading to process each item, in the practice of what is called “Emptying” in 2Time.

When a user decides to download email, for example, just before leaving the office, they possibly deal their peace of mind a  blow.  The act of pulling down new time demands throws their time management system off-kilter by placing new items in their Inbox,  and their decision to leave it with items sitting and waiting to be emptied could get them in trouble.

The result is that their mind is likely to be thinking about the email they received later that evening, when they either cannot or should not be doing anything about it.

It’s important in the goal of maintaining a Zero-Inbox to see the act of downloading as inseparable from the next step of processing each and every item, and returning the Inbox to zero. The user starts with it empty, and after the sequence is complete, they return it to the null state.

If this sounds like “batch-processing” then it should, because that is exactly what it is.

Our minds, we learn from the experts, are quite weak at switching from one task to another if both require deep thought.  The flow state that is needed takes some 15-20 minutes to enter after a disruption or switch.

The habit of jumping from one task to another in order to check email, answer the cell phone and reply to an instant message destroys peace of mind and wreaks havoc with our productivity.  In other words, it’s far better for us to set aside time that is dedicated to not just reading email, but processing each time demand until the Inbox is empty.

The fact is, the process of emptying an Inbox is one that requires devoted, concentration effort.  The act of “Emptying” is a practice that many users execute poorly, leading to Inboxes that are overflowing and increasingly burdensome.

A user must appreciate that their peace of mind and productivity is deeply affected by the state of their time management system, and that their habits are the key to making sure it’s being run well.


Something Outlook Needs

outlook-reminders.jpgIn prior posts on the topic of Microsoft Outlook, I complained that the program was not really written for users, and instead suffers from the creativity of programmers who have added in feature after feature without really understanding how users work.

The result is a bloated program with too many small, irrelevant things, and not enough of the right things.

One of the things it needs, for example is a log of the events that happen in a calendar of what actually happens in real time.  The one log I truly would benefit from, for example, is  one that captures the activities of the Reminder Window in the calendar.

If I had this, I would be able  track my time more easily, by knowing how and when I disposed of  items in my calendar.  As a consultant, I track my time closely using an online program, and often when I look back at my calendar it simply doesn’t tell me what I was working on at what point in time — all it shows me is what I actually intended to do according to my plan.

My little programming knowledge leads me to think that this would not be a big deal, but I could be quite wrong about this.

I think this is just one of the ways in which Outlook could be redesigned around the way users actually get information and process it into time demands of different kinds.

I’m still looking out for a way to give Microsoft feedback on Outlook’s design, or someplace where they are discussing the way in which Outlook impedes good time management.  Please… give me a hint someone!


Using Your Inbox as a List of To-Do’s

I came across the following quote which is taken from an article in the New York Times from June 26th entitled “E-Mail Etiquette for Public Figures.”

I once read a popular book called “Getting Things Done” (you can read about its philosophy on Wikipedia), ( in which author David Allen maintains that you should empty your Inbox at least once a week. An Inbox with zero messages, he implies, is important for maintaining your sanity. Reply to everything you can deal with in under two minutes, he says, and file the rest into mail folders (or delete them if you can).

You know what? It sounded so great, so satisfying, that I gave it a try. And I couldn’t do it. I just could not get my Inbox empty. I’m in the habit of treating my Inbox as a “to do” file; whenever I get time, I work through some more of the items there. It occurred to me that all you’re doing in Mr. Allen’s system, really, is hiding your unprocessed Inbox items by shuffling them around. What’s the difference between using my Inbox as a “to do” folder and just putting its contents into a “To Do” folder?

This gave me pause for thought.

If you are reader of my blog you might be familiar with the idea I have that:

— while a user should design a time management system that works for them, users with more advanced skills do more scheduling than users who don’t, and are therefore able to carry less information in their heads, be more productive and enjoy greater peace of mind  than they would otherwise experience (whew… long sentence…)  Click here for the post entitled More on Scheduling.

I think the author of this piece, David Pogue, has made a point that reinforces my observation.

His current system works fine for him as long as the number of emails remains manageable.  In the future, I expect that the number of emails he receives will increase, following the trend that we all have experienced since email was popularized in the early 1990’s.

His current process is as follows, I imagine:

1.  Read email

2.  Make a decision to keep it in order to act on it later

3.  Mentally assign it to a time-frame (e.g. by 2pm today, by Friday net week, etc.)

4.   Move on to another task

Time elapses…

5.  Re-open email (hopefully within the mentally assigned time-frame)

6.   Revisit initial decision after perhaps re-reading it

7.  Act on it, or  go back to step 2.

Nothing wrong with this process, as long as the number of new emails each day is relatively small, and the user has a good memory.

For all of us, however, there is a limit to what we can remember, and over time our memory is likely to get worse, even as the number of email increases.

Then, the user would experience the creeping feeling of being overwhelmed as the following take place, in no particular order:

  • get mental calendar confused in some way, perhaps under stress
  • revisit email when the mentally assigned time-frame has past  (too late!)
  • scramble to fix the problem, if possible
  • mentally commit to “doing a better job of remembering stuff”
  • get mental calendar further confused because of recent “scrambles”
  • complain of overwhelm, having too much to do and getting too many emails to anyone who will listen

The source of this problem, of course, lies in the user’s habits.  The alternative at this point is not to try to remember better, but it might have something to do with using an electronic schedule effectively.

In 2Time, one of the underlying ideas is that users must be careful to notice when their habits start to fail — they might indicate that their habits are simply inadequate for a new, greater number of time demands.  Some practices and habits just do not “scale up” — in other words, they start to become a part of the problem, rather than the solution and trying to intensify them only makes things worse.


(The rest of the New York Times article is interesting, but not related to this particular topic.  It’s a good read!)

Cutting the Volume of Email

I picked up the following quote from a post in Tim Ferris’ blog:

Jim — May 29, ’08 – 10:17 PM

“Another effect of reading and replying to e-mail frequently is that you don’t allow others responses to build up. Which means you may cover the same ground they do (costing you time you didn’t need to spend), or jumping into a thread early may prolong it (and sometimes lead to flamewars), again costing you time that either/both waiting to reply or waiting to read at all can reduce.

(Of course, replying sooner when you have the actual info can save time for everyone. It’s the jumping in with opinion rather than fact that is more likely to expand the time requirements, I think.)”

This is such an interesting email. He’s not saying something as simple as “the more email you reply to, the more you get.”  That doesn’t seem altogether true.

However, the more  trivial the email, and the more pure opinions are shared, and the less hard facts are used… now that creates a lot of email volleying back and forth, especially from people who just can’t resist the temptation to tell others their point of view.

I also like the idea of waiting until the dust settles.   I understand that Ronald Reagan did this — allowing opinions to be shared back and forth before weighing in.  This has a lot to do with timing a response for when it can have the greatest impact.

Or in other words, for a moment when it creates the least unnecessary new time demands.

This seems to be a worthy goal — to act in a way that creates the least number of new and unnecessary time demands.  I wonder what the impact of having mobile email has on expanding the amount of superfluous email that is sent around?