Yesterday on the Twitterverse Stephanie asked a question about productivity, to which I jokingly replied.
Email and zero inbox. Lol.
— Jessica Cheung (@jessicacheung) October 5, 2017
This got me thinking, for work productivity, I do use a small set of tools, that most people need to use for work in tech. What I love about this versus something like Things or OmniFocus is never having to re-transcribe something somewhere else just for the sake of making a reminder to myself, at most I might write an email to myself to note the task.
The goal is to reduce cognitive load without losing track of things. As an aside, if I had to deal with syncing issues or upgrade issues that I’ve seen happen to people while using Things or OmniFocus I’d lose my mind. I avoid data loss of my digital brain by every means possible, so using heavily used highly supported general tools is in my best interest.
Keep in mind, this works for me and my job function but may not work for all.
My three main tools are:
- Email client
- Shared Wiki
- Bug tracking software
Pretty standard tools that are available at most places. Now let’s go deeper.
In general, I aspire to have zero inbox. Yes, that’s hard but that’s the goal and goals are meant to be worked on right?
But how does one ever get to zero inbox and still remember everything that is important to be able to
find later? Let’s start with how to filter to keep unwanted items away from the top of mind.
Server side filtering
All the build emails, commit logs, help groups etc. These are all curated manually by adding a specific rule into a server-side tool “if any recipient matches this group email, move to this specific folder”. There is a way to auto-generate for new groups/folders but I do not ever want to miss an important mail that is sent to a newly created group. Instead of filtering these emails to la basura server side, I keep them all as a reference. Developers of mine if you are reading this, I sometimes just check your commit logs instead of asking you to see if you’ve finished a feature, it saves me time from finding you, and saves you time from answering me it’s a win-win for us.
I do not join work email groups without server-side filtering. If email is going to be my tool of productivity, I dislike disrupting the context of work mail. I do not care if the Caffe had crappy toast today or there was an outcry that there was no lobster on the summer menu, or that someone farted on the commuter shuttle.
As good as server-side filtering is, it is only as good as how it’s written. I know engineers who have spent hours upon hours trying to tweak their filtering rules only to come by to my office and tell me that I didn’t include them on an email, to find a bug in their filter and realize that my important email has been filtered away. Ahem, you were not forgotten.
For manual processing, I go newest emails to oldest:
I never delete any emails with one exception: External emails. I have these auto-highlighted in yellow to alert me that there is a high likelihood this is garbage. Very few friends of mine have my work email or send me personal emails here because I don’t like context switching. This way I know that generally, everything coming in that is yellow can be deleted (sorry recruiters or people trying to sell services, it’s a no-go for you because I delete these things before they are ever read). I don’t want to delete these with a server-side rule just in the happenstance that an old friend or co-worker sends an email here since.
Certain people who I have weekly 1:1s with me get their own folder. If I get something that I know I need to ask them, I collect all the questions so I can review all my opens with them in one fell swoop. This heavily relies on a rule that 1:1s should never be canceled or moved around too much. Read Michael Lopp’s book Managing Humans, it has a great explanation on why this is.
Are there any actions for me on this email or thread? I cluster emails by thread but allow for them to be separated into individual replies for filing purposes. If there are no actions for me then I file them away. Here’s the bananas way I organized my email folders.
Admin – Anything from when the office cleaners are coming, when there are snacks etc.
Org Status – Other groups that we frequently work with that send status
Resources – Tips & Tricks, new hire emails, tools, promotions, etc.
– Project Status – Weekly status for my team
– Year – To keep track of what was done each year
— Project area – To maintain subject areas or separate project areas as to be able to jump immediately into the right context.
— Project area
— Project area
A bunch of server-side filtering folders – Not used very often only for filtering.
Each email is filtered into a topic folder for easier retrieval later on. General mail search with the plethora of emails that we get from automated methods makes it so that the mail search indexing can never be as fast as your brain or a targeted search in a folder. It’s good, but it’s not 100%. All folders are sorted in reverse chronological order to help with recency recall.
For those emails that can’t be filed away without action on my part or are waiting for an answer, there are the following set of actions.
Waiting for an answer
Unless I get confirmation that something is complete, it never leaves the inbox. I will wait and bump the thread, but I will not move it to a folder. Things in folders are generally closed items.
Document it on the Wiki
I love love love documentation in wikis. When you lead projects that have over 300+ people involved it behooves you to move these things to shared areas to save yourself from answering the same question a million times. Once you’ve trained people to go to a shared space they will always go there to look for an answer before asking you. I organize my wiki similar to how I organize my folder structure, by topic, with a table of contents. This year some questions came up for a project I ran last year and by golly I had all the functionality documented and why we made each decision. It was super helpful.
Keeping a shared space with meeting notes from the commencement of a project will help you as the team scales and will help make team members agents of information sharing. Oversharing project info with your team is a win. QA test content yay! A list of items out of scope, great! For my last project we started an ongoing shared multi-user editable agenda spreadsheet that was beloved, as everyone knew the unspoken rule was if someone added something to the shared agenda it would be discussed and answered in the cross-functional meeting, it couldn’t ever be closed from the Agenda unless the stakeholder agreed, and we’d keep revisiting every week till it was closed.
Move issues to a bug tracking tool
If there was an issue that someone reported, I either ask them to file a bug or I file one myself just to remove it from my inbox. After a bug is filed, it’s shared both by email and goes into the wiki in a relevant section so that it is shared. I’d use tags if I could to help bug querying but to be perfectly honest people don’t always have the best-aligned bug etiquette. For queries to work well you need to agree on keywords, what you call things, and for large cross-functional meetings, it’s hard to get consensus on this as you scale etc.
Ok, this was already tl;dr, but this post mostly talked about handling incoming emails. As for recalling outgoing emails that I’ve sent, I do a couple more additional things to help Search out, even though most of these items should be documented on your wiki.
- All Agenda email subject lines are prefixed by [Agenda] and include the date sent.
- All Meeting minutes subject lines are prefixed by [Notes] and include the date sent.
- Any other email I try to prefix with the project title it’s related to.
Ha, this was much longer than expected. Maybe I should have just done an infographic. Next time. Hope this helps. Can you tell I’m a little OCD?
Arg I forgot about iCal!
Ok, the last update, after I wrote this whole thing I forgot about calendar use. If an email is about setting up a meeting, then I set up the meeting with the appropriate folks, put my conference bridge number in and also summarize the email for bullet points of what we want to cover in the notes section of the invite. Then I file away the email.
I think that’s really it now…