Journal

Switch Off Email Notifications, Except For VIP Contacts

Jocelyn Glei from Unsubscribe divides her email contacts into five lists: VIPs, key collaborators, friends, potentials and random.

  • VIPs include your most important 3-5 relationships, like your partner, your boss, and your biggest client. You would like to be really responsive to these people, within hours, or at least within the same day, so that they feel taken care of.
  • Key Collaborators include people you work with, and depend on, on a regular basis, include close colleagues, friends, family and advisers. You would like to respond to them in a timely manner within 1-3 days to move projects and relationships forward.
  • Fun People include friends and colleagues you engage with for laughter and relaxation. You can respond to them within a week or two when you have time.
  • Potentials include people who could be important in the future, including prospective clients, employees, collaborators and friends, who need to be sorted into one of the other categories. You would like to respond to them within 1-3 days to keep the momentum going.
  • Randoms include people who have written to you uninvited and unverified. You have no obligation to respond to them, unless you really want to accept an opportunity they are offering.

Jocelyn recommends creating a short list of VIPs, key collaborators and fun people, and using this hierarchy to decide which emails are really urgent and important, which emails to pay attention to, and which emails to ignore.

I have a more extreme approach to email myself. With my own 80-person team, I try to use face-to-face meetings to build alignment, along with Basecamp to record next actions, instead of email. Since I have stopped sending email, my team has also learnt not to email me, and my inbox volume has reduced dramatically.

As a result, I am able to keep email notifications off on all my devices. I process my email inbox three times a day for about 15 minutes: an hour into work, an hour after lunch and the last thing before I leave work. I use David Allen’s 2 minute rule to answer and all emails I can handle within 2 minutes, defer action on some emails by moving them into my @action and @waiting folders, and create corresponding actions for them in OmniFocus. When I need to draft a long response, I do it in Ulysses, instead of AirMail, by blocking time for all such emails.

The only exceptions to my email workflow are emails from my VIP contacts: my boss and my girlfriend. AirMail has a nifty feature that lets you turn on notifications only for your VIP contacts. This lets me filter my email inbox to focus on the most important people in my life, and always respond to them immediately, even as I remove the distraction of constant email notifications from my life.

I would encourage you to turn off all notifications on all your devices for a week, to see firsthand the difference between a life full of distraction and a life without them. You might still be tempted to check your email and social media apps every 15 minutes, so removing notifications will only be the first step towards a life of intentional focus. And, if you can’t imagining ignoring emails from your family members, key colleagues or important clients even for a few hours, use an email client like AirMail to classify them into VIPs and selectively receive notifications from them.

If you already use a variation of this tip, and have had success with it, I would love to learn about your experience. And, if you have been inspired to turn off your notifications or create a VIP contact list after reading this post, I would love to know what impact it has had. Do share your experience in the comments below or on Twitter @gauravonomics.

Create a Note-taking System to Boost Your Learning and Growth

Todd Henry from Accidental Creative shares his note-taking workflow in his book ’The Accidental Creative’.

Todd creates a new index card for every book he reads and every meeting he attends. Every morning, he reviews his notes from the previous day to identify questions, ideas and action items. When he picks up a book again, or goes to a meeting, he reviews his previous notes from the book, or his notes from previous meetings, to refresh his memory.

I follow a similar system, but instead of index cards, I use Ulysses app. When I am reading a book on Kindle, or reading a web article on Instapaper, I save my highlights on Ulysses. Similarly, when I am writing my morning journal, or taking meeting notes on MyScript Nebo, I convert my handwritten notes to text and save them on Ulysses.

Then, every evening, before I go to sleep, I process my notes from the day. I edit some notes to makes sure that I have captured the essence of what I needed to record. I add my own thoughts to many notes, including whether I agree or disagree with it. If the note triggers a question, idea, or action item, I add them to the note. Then, I add tags to the note, including the author, the source, and 3-5 free-flow topic tags. Finally, I add tags for whether the note has questions, ideas or action items attached to it. Finally, if the note needs to go into my work, personal or writing to-do queue, I duplicate it and put it there.

Given that I journal everyday, participate in back-to-back meetings at work, read 100+ books a year, and subscribe to 100+ blogs, I take a lot of notes. It takes me at least an hour every night to process my notes from the day. If I miss a day or two because I am eating out or attending an event, I put aside an hour or two on Saturday morning to process my notes, and clear my Ulysses inbox. Then, I set up filters for questions, ideas and action items from my notes, and review them every week.

Collecting, clarifying, organising and reviewing my notes is a significant time commitment, but I feel that it’s as important as collecting, clarifying, organising, and reviewing my to-do lists. In fact, managing my Ulysses notes inbox is at least as important as managing my AirMail email inbox in my Getting Things Done (GTD) setup.

If you don’t yet have a habit of reading books and blogs, listening to audiobooks and podcasts, or watching conference talks or video courses, I would highly encourage you to create a learning plan for yourself. If you already read, listen to or watch content that helps you learn and grow, I would urge you to create a note-taking system that works for you.

Use a Moleskine notebook, or a stack of index cards, if you like paper. Or, use a note-taking app like Evernote, Ulysses or Bear. Or, use a hybrid digital-analog system, by taking handwritten notes on MyScript Nebo and converting them to text.

Process your notes every day or every week, and organise them into a structure that works for you. Divide your notebook or index card stack into sections, if you are using a paper-based system. Organise your notes by folders and tags, and automate the workflow between your email, notes and to-do apps, if you are using a digital system. Then, review your note-taking system every month, to get the most out of it.

If you already use a variation of this tip, and have had success with it, I would love to learn about your experience. And, if you have been inspired to create a note-taking system after reading this post, I would love to know what impact it has had. Do share your experience in the comments below or on Twitter @gauravonomics.

Celebrate Your Progress With a Daily Small Wins Journal

Jocelyn Glei from Unsubscribe highlights the reason we spend far too much time in our email inbox: the ”progress paradox”.

By dint of technology, it’s easy to see our progress when we’re doing relatively meaningless short-term tasks, while it’s quite difficult to see our progress when we’re engaged in the long-term, creative projects that will ultimately have the most impact on our lives.

Jocelyn recommends inventing “progress hacks” to make your meaningful work as addictive as email. Progress hacks might include: breaking up big long-term projects into a series of small short-term projects, creating a daily “small wins” journal, tracking your “habit streak” on a calendar, or creating physical artefacts for your digital projects to make your progress more visible.

I use all four of these progress hacks, and I’ll write about each one of them in separate posts. The interesting things about these progress hacks is that you can use them both as an individual creator, and as a team leader.

For instance, you can maintain a daily small wins journal to track your own progress on long-term projects. You can also create a culture in which every member of your team shares their daily small wins, and celebrates other team members’ small wins.

At work, my 80-member digital team uses Basecamp for team collaboration and project management. Basecamp has the usual collaboration software features like group chat, message board, to-do lists and shared documents, and we use them as part of our regular workflow.

My favourite Basecamp feature is automatic check-ins, which lets us set up an automatic daily, weekly or monthly question for the entire team, or a smaller team within it. At the pre-set time, Basecamp sends out a notification or an email to the relevant people, and reminds them to share their update.

One of the ways we use the automatic check-in feature on Basecamp is to share our top three achievements every day and every week. I share my own achievements with the entire team. I also read through and applaud every single update from each one of my team members. Most team leaders, and many team members, also read and applaud each others’ updates. In essence, we have created a team-wide small wins journal to make our progress more tangible to ourselves and to each other, and celebrate it.

(By the way, we also use Basecamp’s check-ins to share the top three things we would like to achieve in the coming week. This helps us clarify and focus on our biggest priorities using the rule of three.)

If you are finding it difficult to keep yourself motivated about your long-term projects, I would encourage you to start a daily small wins journal to track and celebrate your progress. You can use a Moleskine notebook, a journaling app like Day One, or a notes app like Evernote, Ulysses or Bear. At the end of the day, note down your top three achievements for the day. The next day, write down your top three achievements for the day below your achievements for the previous day. Then, review your daily achievements every week and every month to find patterns, celebrate success, and refocus priorities.

If you already use a variation of this tip, and have had success with it, I would love to learn about your experience. And, if you have been inspired to start a daily small wins journal after reading this post, I would love to know what impact it has had. Do share your experience in the comments below or on Twitter @gauravonomics.

Create an Ideation Hour in Your Weekly Calendar

Todd Henry from Accidental Creative recommends creating an ideation hour in your weekly calendar.

Todd likes to schedule his ideation hour early in the week and early in the morning, when he is the only person in the office, and before his energy has been drained by the demands of the work week. This also helps him share his new ideas with the team first thing on Monday morning, and get them started on it, instead of waiting over the weekend to share his ideas.

Todd likes to use his ideation hour to work on a specific challenge, ideally a challenge related to this he top three projects he needs to make progress on. He likes to frame the challenge as a “how might we…?” question to focus on the possibilities.

Todd follows a specific structure for his ideation hour, and starts by writing down the words that come to him when he thinks of the challenge through the lenses of future, past, conceptual and concrete.

  • Future: What are the specific characteristics of the future state in which we have solved this problem?
  • Past: What are the assumptions we have made about the problem that might be false?
  • Conceptual: What lessons might we apply from other problems and solutions to solve this problem?
  • Concrete: What are the specific characteristics of this he problem that we need to solve?

He spends the first 15 minutes listing down around ten words under each lens through free-association. Then, he spends the next 30 minutes combining these words to spark new ideas. Finally, he spends the last 15 minutes capturing all his ideas, so that he might develop them later, or share them with his team.

I have started coming into office an hour early on Monday morning, so that I can schedule an ideation hour first thing in the morning, before I get into a day of weekly review meetings. I start with a “how might we…” question related to one of my three goals for the week. Then, I use MindNode on my iPad Pro to create a mindmap. I go back and forth between coming with ideas, and arranging them on the mindmap, until I feel like I have captured all the objectives, assumptions, solutions and dependencies. Then, I save the mindmap to share with my team, or to develop it further.

If you feel that you have reached a gridlock on a project, or that you are writing your wheels at work without making progress on all your projects, consider scheduling an ideation hour first thing on Monday morning. Sit down in your cabin or a conference room with a pen and a notebook and ideation for an hour. Start by recapturing the objectives of the project and ask yourself what you are trying to achieve and why. Then, list down all the assumptions you have made about the constraints you need to work within and question them. Then, list down all your ideas for possible solutions, and recombine them to create new solutions. Finally, list down all the dependencies between your solutions and identify ideas to remove them. Finally, capture, clarify and organise your ideas, so that you might share them with your team, or return to them later.

If you already use a variation of this tip, and have had success with it, I would love to learn about your experience. And, if you have been inspired to schedule an ideation hour on your calendar after reading this post, I would love to know what impact it has had. Do share your experience in the comments below or on Twitter @gauravonomics.

Clarify Projects by Always Asking: What is the Next Action?

David Allen from ‘Getting Things Done’ recommends always asking “what is the next action?”

Learn to ask “what is the next action?” when you are setting your goals, reviewing your project and task lists, writing emails, or wrapping up meetings. This will help you clarify what needs to happen to move the project forward, and decide if you and your team can really commit yourself to the next action.

Sometimes, you need to ask “what is the next action?” more than once, to get to the real next action.

For instance, if you want to create a daily writing practice, the next action is not to create a daily writing practice. The next action is to design a plan to create a daily writing practice. This might involve deciding the topic you will write about, doing enough research on the topic enough to get you started, breaking down your topic into smaller sub-topics that you can finish in one sitting, creating a content calendar for three to thirty days, blocking time in your calendar to write, and creating rituals and prompts that help you write.

Similarly, if you work in a media company and want to diversify your revenue streams beyond advertising, the next action is not to create new consumer revenue streams. The next action is to design a plan to create new consumer revenue streams. This might involve understanding your consumers’ needs from behavioural data/ focus groups/ surveys, researching what consumer revenue streams other media companies are creating, scanning what new technology startups have emerged in your market, listing and scoring all possible opportunities on their desirability and viability, shortlisting the most attractive opportunities, and designing pilot programs to test them.

The key here is to ask “what is the next action?” with a bias towards action, not as a proxy for procrastination. If you already know what you broadly wish to write about, the next action might simply be to sit down and write the first 300 words. If you already know what the broad market opportunities are, the next action might simply be to pick one and design a prototype.

I am intuitively a top-down, long-term, INTP thinker type, so I always over-index on working with a bias towards action. Even before I read GTD, I always ended every meeting by recapping what we have decided. Now, I go one step further and ask: “what is the next action?” Then, like David Allen suggests, I ask that question over and over again, until I get to the smallest, most immediate, most concrete next action: every night, take a topic from your ‘Ideas’ folder in Ulysses and write down the topic of the blog post you will write next morning in a new note in your ’Today’ folder.”

As your next action, pick up a project you haven’t been making progress on, because you are procrastinating on it, because it seems like an intimidating time sink, or because you simply don’t know how to start, and ask yourself the question: “what is the next action?” Then, do it.

If you already use a variation of this tip, and have had success with it, I would love to learn about your experience. And, if you have been inspired to start asking “what is the next action?” after reading this post, I would love to know what impact it has had. Do share your experience in the comments below or on Twitter @gauravonomics.

Focus on Your Biggest Priorities With the Rule of Three

J D Meier from ‘Getting Results the Agile Way’ recommends using the rule of 3 to focus on your three biggest priorities, in any timeframe.

You can use the rule of three at multiple horizons, by setting your top three goals for the day, week, month, quarter, year, and even your life. This helps you focus on and work towards what’s most important to you, instead of spending all your time on doing tasks that don’t add up to much.

Setting your top three goals at multiple time horizons also helps you telescope in and out of each time horizon and see how these goals are connected to each other. And, if your short term goals and long term goals are not aligned, it gives you the ability to course correct.

You can set these goals from both the bottom-up and top-down directions.

David Allen from Getting Things Done recommends starting with a bottom-up approach to personal productivity, in which you start with the projects and tasks that have your attention now, and organise them into longer-term projects and areas of responsibilities. This will enable you to master your current game and build the confidence to play a bigger game.

The other approach is to start with a top-down approach, and start with your top three life goals. Then, you outline what you might achieve this year, in whatever context you are, to set you up to achieve your life goals. Then, you define three goals for the quarter that will help you achieve your year’s goals, and so on. Of course, you will have to do short-term projects that don’t add up to your longer term goals, but at least you have a structure for deciding what is important, and what isn’t.

I am a top-down thinker. I am intuitively drawn to the bigger picture, to the long-term, to the 20,000 feet helicopter view. For most of my life, I have set my goals top down, starting with a vision of who I want to become in the future, then aligning my actions in the present to that future.

However, I have learnt (the hard way) that top-down visioning is only useful when its supported by bottom-up execution. This time, I am following a bottom-up approach to goal setting, and starting with getting my current tasks, projects and areas of responsibilities under control. In GTD language, I am focusing on becoming better at closing my current open loops, before I create even more open loops.

So, I am focusing on what I might do to write and publish a blog post every morning, instead of thinking about how every word I write will add up to a book. I am focusing on what I might do to empty my mind every morning, so that I might engage with the day most effectively, instead of worrying about how my days are leading to my life goals. Of course, since long-term planning comes naturally to me, my long-term goals are always at the back of my mind, quietly guiding my day-to-day actions.

Getting back to the rule of three, start by thinking about whether you are a top-down thinker, or a bottom-up doer. If top-down is your natural mode, you might benefit most by focusing more on your short-term goals, and putting them together like pieces of a puzzle so that they add up to your longer term goals. If bottom-up is your natural mode, you might benefit most from taking a weekend off for yourself, and thinking about what your long-term goals are and how your short-term projects might add up to them. In either case, the rule of three can help you stay focused on what you need to achieve, both in the short-term and in the long-term.

If you already use a variation of this tip, and have had success with it, I would love to learn about your experience. And, if you have been inspired to start using the rule of three after reading this post, I would love to know what impact it has had. Do share your experience in the comments below or on Twitter @gauravonomics.

Handwrite a Stream of Consciousness Morning Journal Every Day

Julia Cameron from ’Artist’s Way’ recommends a daily practice she calls morning pages.

Every morning, first thing in the morning, you handwrite three free-flow stream-of-consciousness pages in your journal.

You write them free-flow because they are meant to take whatever has your attention from your mind and put them on paper. You handwrite them so that you might resist the urge to go back and edit your writing. You write them first thing in the morning to empty your mind, so that you might get on with the work of thinking and creating, with focus and clarity.

You might find that your morning pages are a messy mishmash of disconnected thoughts; so are the thoughts in your monkey mind. You might find that your morning pages are filled with fear, doubt and negativity; good, those thoughts are out of your mind now. You might find yourself repeating yourself in your morning pages, day after day, week after week; let yourself empty your mind of your thought patterns over and over again.

When you start writing your morning pages, for the first 30 days, you just need to write them, and put them away. You don’t need to reread them, and you don’t need to show them to anyone, even your closest friends and family members. Every month, you put aside a weekend to go over them, find patterns in your thought, distill actionable ideas, and build upon them.

Even on my worst days and weeks, when I fall off the wagon of my other rituals, I write my morning pages. I used to write them in a Moleskine notebook with a Neo smart pen, but the handwriting recognition was terrible. Now, I write them on my 10.5 inch iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil. I use the MyScript Nebo app, which recognises my handwriting and converts it into text. Then, I save these journal entries in the Day One journal.

If you think of yourself as a writer, you’ll have to resist the urge to ‘write’ in your morning pages, instead of merely recording your stream of consciousness thoughts. If you don’t think of yourself as a writer, you’ll have to resist the thought that your morning pages don’t look like ‘real writing’. The most important thing about the morning pages is not how well you write them, but that you write them every morning.

If you already use a variation of this tip, and have had success with it, I would love to learn about your experience. And, if you have been inspired to start writing a morning journal after reading this post, I would love to know what impact it has had. Do share your experience in the comments below or on Twitter @gauravonomics.