I picked up Boing Boing editor and our pal Mark Frauenfelder's new book Rule the Web while browsing at my neighborhood Barnes & Noble a few days ago.
Now, I'm a pretty savvy web user (though a luddite when it comes to fancy gadgets) but I'm still pleasantly surprised at the breadth of useful information in the book. The cover of the book promises to tell you "how to do anything and everything on the Internet - better, faster, easier" and it delivers (funny if you think about it: it's a book about the Web, with actual paper pages!).
How useful is the book? Here's an example: Rule the Web has a chapter on how to obtain the elusive zero inbox - you know, to actually clear off your email inbox. Even a last-resort "email bankruptcy" option.
Having a zero inbox is a productivity-must. This I can speak from personal experience: it took me a long time to learn to tame the chaos that is my Outlook inbox. If only the book came out while I worked out a system through trial and error ...
I'll share with you my system, which is remarkably similar to Mark's (you'll have to buy the book to find out about Mark's unique color-coded sorting process) and other methods out there on the Web (for example, 43 Folders has a nice series of articles):
- Slot a dedicated email answering time
This is the time to take care of your emails - answer them, delete them, file them, whatever. Depending on your needs, this may be as little as once a day or a couple of times a day.
The rest of the day? Work, eat, sleep, whatever. Just don't obsess with checking your email.
- Open then Answer/Delete/File
Don't re-read, leave it, then re-read your emails. Handle it once: answer it or delete it (or if you must, file it for reference). When in doubt, delete it. Yes, delete it.
- It's Okay to Answer with a One-Liner
This is the biggest stumbling block in attaining zero inbox zen: in the beginning, I felt that it's impolite to answer a long missive from friends and family with just "Thanks, that's interesting" one-liner. However, the euphoria of having a zero inbox quickly obliterated all feeling of guilt and shame.
Actually, I often reply with a short one-liner, and then stick a note to write an email, or better yet, call the person in my to-do list.
- Have a Simple Filing System
Don't overthink this: a complex folder with subfolder system is not what you need to remain organized. Obviously, your particular needs will dictate how many folders you have ... but in my experience, you rarely, if ever, need subfolders.
- Have a Follow Up Folder
There will be times that I need to research an answer to a particular email or do something before I can reply. I let these emails sit in my inbox for a maximum of 1 day (gasp!), then they get put into a Follow Up Folder if I haven't gotten around to them - and then I add an entry in my to-do list.
- Set Up a Keyword Filter
Actually the four things above take care of 90% of my legitimate emails - the rest are usually emails from cranks or spam that I get tired of deleting over and over again.
To make life easier, I set up three filters in my Outlook (all email softwares have this capability): one for the sender, another for the subject line and another for the body of the email, with instructions to delete the email if particular phrase are present.
If for some reason my spam filter doesn't catch the same type of spam email - and this happens with regularity, I simply add a unique phrase from either the sender, subject line, or body of text into the rules above and poof - spam disappear automatically from the inbox.
Note: Something I haven't been able to do is set up a filter for those annoying PDF spam - if anyone know how to do this, please let me know!
So, pick up a copy of Rule the Web, start off by taming your email inbox, and move on to all the things you could do better on the Internet!