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Organization: Useful Principles

Strategies and goals

A reader got in touch with me the other day asking about where to start with task management. While I’ve written a number of articles about different kinds of organization, I don’t believe that I’ve ever tackled the question from the basic question of where to get started with organization as a whole … so here that article is.

Five kinds of organization
At least five kinds of organization can demand our attention, and it’s helpful to separate them in our minds, because each one requires a slightly different approach. Those kinds are:

  • tasks (anything that needs to be dealt with, from a quick decision to a massive project)
  • paper (including mail, reference materials, the kids’ schoolwork, bills, receipts …)
  • e-mail
  • physical clutter
  • information (I won’t go into this in any detail in this article, but see “Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas“)

Useful principles of organization
Some approaches to organization are much more successful and rewarding than others. The following ideas can help move things along:

  • Have a clear system for decisions – It’s much easier to get through a pile or list of items if you have a strict and clear way to deal with them. A detailed working example: if you’re dealing with a stack of papers (or even boxes upon boxes of papers), take a look at the system outlined in “The 8 Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper.” Process one item, then go back to the top and repeat for the next one.
  • Don’t get bogged down when planning – One of the difficulties with, prioritizing a task list or clearing out an e-mail box, for instance, is that it’s easy to get bogged down trying to do one specific item instead of finishing the task of organizing all the items. Except for one situation I’m about to mention, it tends to work best to only organize when organizing–not getting sidetracked onto one specific item, no matter how appealing or pressing that item might be (short of an emergency).
  • Do very quick things right away – Whenever we’re organizing and we come across a form that can be filled out and readied for the mailbox in a few minutes, or a task that will take a very short time to complete, or an e-mail that can be put to rest with a two-sentence response, taking care of that task immediately shortens the to-do list or stack of papers or list of e-mails to handle, and it saves time having to organize and review the item. This is the exception to not doing tasks while planning, because these short tasks won’t bog things down.
  • Categorize & prioritize – It’s great to get down a list of everything that needs to be done, but if we don’t prioritize tasks then we’ll end up doing whatever seems most appealing, easiest, or most obvious instead of whatever will make the greatest positive impact. Categories make it easier to attend to one kind of thing at a time, and priorities are essential for repeatedly answering the question “What’s the best thing for me to be doing right now?”
  • Review regularly – When organizing tasks and e-mail,  regularly going over the lists is an important part of organization in order to remove things that have been completed, bump up the priority of items that have become more urgent, recategorize, and revisit pending items that have gotten stalled. Along with the obvious benefits of this practice, doing regular reviews also helps us have confidence in our own organizational systems. If we just sweep things into categories and never look at them again, then we’ll our system will start failing this, and knowing this, we’ll be reluctant to put important items into it. As soon as we start keeping things out of an organizational system, that system has failed: it then needs to be handled differently, re-energized, or revamped.
  • Organize items once – When an item comes into an organizational system, it’s important to make a decision where to put it then and there. If we set things aside to consider later, then later we’ll just be faced with the exact same choice. By making the choice with each item as it comes up, we can make clear forward progress.
  • All tasks should go to one place – It’s easy for tasks to start growing, like weeds, in many different places. Apart from very basic separations like “work tasks” and “home tasks,” though, that way lies confusion and failure. If I have a computerized task list, a handwritten list for some other tasks, a file on my computer for some other tasks, a few sticky notes, and some e-mails in my inbox that I want to use as reminders, then I have no way to look at all of my tasks together and prioritize them, which means that my system can’t tell me the one thing I need to do next–and a good organizational system can always answer the question “What should I do next?”

In a follow-up post, I’ll provide links to some of the most useful organizational articles on this site and talk about the one book I would recommend above all others for getting organized.

Photo by Rubbermaid Products

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Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List

Strategies and goals

Let’s say an important e-mail arrives in your inbox, a message you have to reply to at length or do something about. You don’t want to forget about it, but you can’t take care of it right away, so what do you do? Put a star or a flag on it? Re-mark it unread? Put a post-it note up? Just hope for the best?

E-mail inboxes are lousy to do lists. An item in an inbox might have to do with one major task, a bunch of tasks, a task that could be done very quickly (like a one-sentence reply), or no task at all. It’s very hard to prioritize and sort them. Trying to use e-mails as reminders is kind of like trying to use a cat as a rolling pin: you might be able to make it work, but the process is going to be painful and you might not be happy with the results.

Taming my inbox
Almost a year and a half ago, I finally figured out how to keep my e-mail inbox empty. I don’t know if e-mail affects you the same way it does me, but it used to be that I’d go into my e-mail and immediately feel exhausted by the massive list of subjects I’d left lying around in my inbox. I’d look at the newest things, maybe delete some unimportant notices or spam messages, read anything quick and appealing, and mentally designate other messages to follow up on later.

“Later” would sometimes take weeks. Sometimes it would never come at all.

So e-mails languished in my inbox, growing from tens to hundreds to thousands, a huge mishmash of messages from friends I really wanted to hear from, junk mail, reminders of things to do (or that I had already done, or had let slip past), information I needed, and a lot of other noise. Just looking at it was enough to destroy my motivation for doing anything about it. The job always seemed too big until I finally figured out how it could be done early last year: see “How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty.” My e-mail box was still empty 10 weeks later, and it’s empty today too, though it’s had periods where ten to twenty messages accumulated for a while when I wasn’t being completely vigilant.

(By the way, for a recommendation on free, Web-based e-mail that lends itself to keeping an empty inbox–GMail is no good for this, I’m afraid–see my post “Free Online E-mail to Help You Keep a Clean Inbox.”)

Neat is good, but functional is better
Even with this e-mail organizational systems, I’ve still had trouble sometimes keeping on top of tasks that show up in my inbox. Some have languished in my Reply/Act folder for much too long, while others have been attended to when they weren’t the highest priority at the moment just to get them out of the way. Since I keep a separate task system, having tasks in e-mail too meant that I had to go back and forth between the two systems and try to decide which one had the most important task at the moment. That’s distracting, demotivating, and a pain in the neck. The best way to get things done is to know the one thing you’re going to do next and focus your energies on it alone. Prioritizing tasks needs to be something you can do once and then be done with, not something you have to reevaluate every time you finish something up and are looking for the next priority.

(For how and why to get organized with a kind of task list that actually works, see “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips,” “My Top 1 Task,” “Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule,” “Why Task Lists Fail,” and “Useful Book: Getting Things Done.”)

Making tasks out of e-mails
So what’s the solution? It’s a pretty simple one, actually: when you have an e-mail that needs further action, and when you can’t do that action right away, make a task to remind you to take care of that e-mail (making a note of the e-mail you have on the subject, for reference), then prioritize that task in your task list. If you don’t have a task list, read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done  and start one. It will make your life happier and simpler, believe me.

This approach works regardless of whether you keep an empty inbox like I do.

I know that making tasks for e-mails may feel like extra work, but the amount of effort involved is hardly anything, and keeping everything in your task list means the end of a lot of distraction, annoyance, and potential anxiety from having to remember and review multiple places that each might have things needing to be done. If you prefer not to go to the trouble of keeping a clean inbox, this approach even frees you from having to worry about whether your inbox is empty or not because you no longer have to worry you’ll forget about the important e-mails buried in with all the other stuff.

Photo by Darcie


How Exceptions Cripple Organization

Strategies and goals

There’s a common, natural tendency many of us have to think of a thing as more important if our attention is focused on it. This can both help and hurt us. The helpful thing is that this can offer an easy way to get started on a task, because the more we think about something, the more likely we are to do actually do it.

Where this instinct hurts us, though, is in situations where we don’t organize a piece of information because we’re worried about losing track of it.

The problem is that to keep on top of a variety of incoming information, we need to handle all of it, pretty much without exception, using the same system. For instance, if we’re using a Getting Things Done approach to organization and an important letter comes in, Getting Things Done tells us to process it immediately or put it in our inbox. But we may hold back, thinking “No, I have to be sure to remember to do this! I’d better prop it up in front of my computer instead.”

Or if using a clean inbox approach, we might get a long e-mail from a friend who’s been out of touch for some time and think “Oh, I’d better not file that in my Reply/Act box, because I don’t want to forget to write back as soon as I can.”

Unfortunately, continuing to do this leads to pieces of paper lying around all over the place or e-mails stacking up in the inbox, each one of which distracts us from our organizational system and is hard to keep track of on its own. It’s too easy to not trust an organizational system and to try to make exceptions for whatever’s right in front of our eyes. When we do this, the organizational system rapidly collapses, because organizational systems that aren’t used to handle pretty much everything aren’t much use.

If a task or message can be handled right away, though, the situation is a bit different: responding to something immediately may bypass priorities (for instance, you might spend a lot of time on the reply to that friend when it’s more pressing to follow up on a medical issue), but something will get done. The most serious problems come when something that can’t be dealt with right away is held out for special handling.

The essence of an organizational system, or at least of the kind of organizational systems I can recommend as being truly effective, is using it for everything and faithfully reviewing everything in your system often enough that you never lose track of anything that goes in. It requires a leap of faith as well as a change of habit–and so it’s no wonder that it takes some effort to make the transition from organized to disorganized. But when that transition happens, our efforts are richly rewarded not just by improving our productivity, but also by transforming scattered, anxious feelings into a measure of confidence and serenity.

Photo by nickwheeleroz

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Free Online E-mail to Help You Keep a Clean Inbox


Back in February I posted the article “How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty” after applying many of the things I’ve learned in researching organization and self-motivation, particularly David Allen’s excellent book Getting Things Done. Since then I’ve had no trouble keeping my inbox empty, especially with tricks I learned since (see My Empty E-mail Inbox, 10 Weeks Later), except that, since I often read and answer e-mail on the go, I haven’t been able to use desktop e-mail applications I used to use like Outlook and Apple Mail. The problem with using these is that if I look at the same e-mail account with more than one system, I have repeat all my organization and inbox cleaning in every one of those–which means that it just won’t get done. Who wants to get home from a trip, for instance, and have to reorganize two hundred e-mails that were already organized on a laptop while away?

Failed (and not-so-failed) free e-mail options

I’d mentioned I was using a Web-based e-mail application provided by my ISP, but I’ve been disappointed to find that this application, although it has most of the features I want, is buggy and sometimes intolerably slow. So I’ve been searching for a replacement program I could use, something freely available on the Web that I could also recommend to my readers here.

[Added after the original post: If you’re interested in using GMail with this approach, please see the comments, where D. Moonfire offers a potential solution to the problem I’m about to describe.]

You’d think I’d go with GMail, since it’s robust and efficient and feature-packed, but GMail is fundamentally unsuited to the task of keeping an empty inbox, because it doesn’t use folders: instead, it uses tags and categories. Rather than moving something off into a folder, you tag it with the folder name. This seems handy, and can be, and it also allows a single message to be categorized in more than one way, but since nothing can ever be moved out of the inbox, that means that there is no way to reap the organizational and psychological benefits of a clean inbox with GMail at all. Instead of facilitating a clean inbox, it assumes you’ll never be able to keep your inbox organized and doesn’t even provide the means to manage it. If it were a human being, we’d call it an Enabler, which in this case is not a good thing.

There may be ways around this in GMail; I’ll present them if I come across them.

One that works: Hotmail
The system I found that does work and that is free to all comers is Hotmail, a.k.a. Microsoft Live Mail. If you despise all things Microsoft, of course, this won’t appeal to you, but otherwise it does the job fairly well. You can set up Hotmail to receive e-mail from other accounts and can organize all your incoming e-mail into folders.  They even recently added a feature that gives you a little congratulatory message if you empty out your inbox (though I have a feeling this isn’t a message very many people see.) Hotmail is easy to use, has drag-and-drop functionality, and is very responsive.

There are a couple of drawbacks. One is that Hotmail doesn’t allow subfolders, so I can’t make categories out of my folders and collapse them when I don’t need them. It also doesn’t allow very long folder names. This is inconvenient, but I’ve worked around it by naming folders things like Read_offers instead of having an “offers” folder within my “read” (as in “already read”) folder. I also had to place underscore symbols at the beginning of the names of my utility folders so that they would be listed together at the talk, as Hotmail always shows folders alphabetically.

The other drawback is that it often seems to take about 10 minutes (very roughly) for an e-mail to arrive from an external e-mail account. Normally this doesn’t matter much, but it’s a big obstacle if you’re having a semi-real-time e-mail conversation with someone, if someone sends you something while talking with you on the phone, or if the correspondence is time-sensitive. This delay doesn’t occur with the free account you get from Hotmail itself, though.

So while I can’t recommend Hotmail wholeheartedly, I can say that for the month-and-a-half or so I’ve used it, administrating my e-mail has been easier than it ever has been before because Hotmail supports the “empty inbox” approach very well.

Any readers who have recommendations of other free or very affordable Web-based e-mail systems they would recommend for this purpose are very much encouraged to mention them in comments.

My Empty E-mail Inbox, 10 Weeks Later


Ten weeks ago I posted the article “How I’m Keeping My Inbox Empty,” in which I described a new strategy I was taking to keep on top of all of my e-mail and keep my inbox completely clear. Some of the key points of my approach, which owed much to Dave Allen and his book Getting Things Done, were

  • Make a set of special-purpose folders for e-mails that need follow-up, things to read, general information to keep, etc.
  • Make tasks out of any e-mails that cause you to need to do tasks and put those tasks in a task management system
  • If you can answer or deal with an e-mail within about two minutes, handle it immediately
  • Look at everything that comes in as it comes in. Don’t put off any e-mails to consider later. If it’s going to take a while to respond, put the e-mails in your Reply/Act folder.
  • Visit your Reply/Act folder often and deal with e-mails there, oldest first.

Of course there’s more to it (see the original post), but those are some highlights.

Ten weeks after I started, do I still have an empty inbox? Actually, yes! And this pertains to both a personal e-mail setup I have and a work-related one: the system has been working in both places equally well.

And have my inboxes been empty the whole time, or have I had to redo the cleanup? Amazingly, the system has worked consistently for me so far: I’ve never had to duplicate my initial effort (which wasn’t even so difficult: I outline how to pretty rapidly establish a clean inbox in the original post) and have had a clean inbox the whole time.

Have there been any unexpected snags? Yes, one: I sometimes get in the habit of watching my inbox like a hawk but neglecting my reply/act folder, which really needs to be addressed often. In online gamer slang (from my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures), I’m “camping the spawn point,” looking for monsters where they appear instead of going after the ones that are already in place. But once I realized I was doing this, I began working harder at going back to that reply/act folder, and I’ve seen better results since. What’s wonderful is that even with that problem, I was being much, much more responsive to e-mails than I had ever been before.

Have you tried out this method of keeping a clean inbox? If so, I’d love to hear how it went for you in comments.

Photo by mek22

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How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty


I’ve aspired for years to keep my inbox empty and up-to-date, but it wasn’t until very recently that I figured out how to actually achieve it. Before, my idea was “Well, I’ll kind of reply to things in order of importance and just try to really keep on top of it.” This is another way of saying “I’ll just try harder,” and just trying harder doesn’t work . While I was aware of this on some level, I didn’t see a better solution available for the time being, which is fine–we can’t tackle every goal in our lives all at once. But then I learned how to actually get it done–and it turned out to be quick and even kind of fun.

Why keep an empty inbox?
Keeping an empty inbox means no worrying that there’s something I ought to have replied to, no forgetting to follow up on important matters, no burdened sigh on seeing a long list of maybe-I-need-to-do-something-about-some-of-these messages every time I open my e-mail. It improves my mood and keeps me focused on things I actually need to do.

I’ve only had an empty in-box for a short time, but all indications so far are that it will be much easier to keep an empty inbox now than it was to keep a full one before. What enabled me to really tackle this job was switching to a Web e-mail client that I could access from everywhere instead of using one e-mail client on my laptop and another at home on my desktop. Using two programs meant I had to process every single e-mail twice, which was tedious and didn’t seem worth my time. Using the Web client gets rid of this problem, though it doesn’t in and of itself provide any solution to inbox management.

The setup
So Web mail for me was what opened the door to keeping my inbox empty. But what am I doing differently to actually accomplish it? Well, let’s take a look at my e-mail folders (see the close-up, below). The key to this system is that group called _Utility. All the other folders are just where I keep old e-mail for reference.

Information” contains e-mails that have something in them I might someday need to know: login information for a new hosting account, a discount code for a Web site I shop at sometimes, a schedule for a conference I might go to, that kind of thing. It’s there only to keep the most important reference information I receive through e-mail all in one place. Because of the small number of things I need to keep here (I only use it for information I have a high probability of needing), it’s always easy to find what I’m looking for. I’ve been using this strategy for years, and it’s worked really well for me.

Pending” contains e-mails about things I’m expecting from other people. I review it regularly to see if there are any situations that have changed or gone on too long and require my attention. Because there are usually only a few e-mails I’m waiting to have someone else follow up on, it usually contains very few items. Right now it holds only one, a note from someone who owes me a refund on a defective computer part. This is a new category for me in e-mail, but a similar category has worked really well for me in my task list (I use ToDoist, which is free unless you want a few extra geegaws, has good features, and is very easy to use.)

REPLY or act” is my folder for e-mails that need a substantial response or that require me to do something. This might seem like just another inbox at first glance, but it’s actually the key to the whole system. E-mails only go into “REPLY or act” if I have

1) already looked at them, and
2) need to take some action (writing back or doing something), and
3) have decided exactly what kind of action or response I need to provide, and
4) have decided I’ll definitely take that action or make that response (that is, there are no “maybe follow up on this” e-mails in this folder), and
4) can’t answer the message in two minutes or less.

Before I started this system, my inbox contained thousands of e-mails. As of this moment, my “REPLY or act” folder contains exactly eight, none more than a week old.

Things to Read” is where I put things that I’m interested in reading but don’t need to specifically get back to anyone on or do something about–blogs of interest, a non-critical update about a group I’m involved in, etc. I only put things in here if they will take some time to read: anything that I can read within a few minutes gets read right away and never makes it to this folder.

How it all fits together
What this means is that going through my inbox ends up being a process of making quick decisions and taking quick actions. Here’s a letter from a friend: I’ll put that in “REPLY or act” and respond at length later on. Here’s a long description about new features on that Web site I use: I’ll put it into “Things to Read.” Here’s some spam and a couple of notices I’m not interested in: delete, delete, delete. Here’s a short e-mail about recent events at my son’s school: I’ll read it now and then file it. Here’s an e-mail asking if I’ll be at Taekwondo class Thursday: I’ll fire off an answer now. And so on.

The result is that I can mow through everything in my inbox in a very short period of time and bring it back to “empty.” Anything that takes a long time by definition gets shuffled into one of the utility folders.

Then whenever I go into e-mail and don’t have anything in my inbox, or else get through the inbox quickly and don’t find anything interesting, if I actually have some time, I dive into my “REPLY or act” folder, open the oldest e-mail in it, and reply to or act on it. I had tried using a “reply or act folder” with my old system, but since I hadn’t figured out yet how to keep my inbox clear, the huge mass of e-mails in the inbox always distracted me from looking at “reply or act.” With the new system, my empty inbox forces me to look into my utility folders if I want to do anything. What I’m finding is that instead of feeling paralyzed by the mass of mostly low-importance, undealt-with e-mails in my inbox, I’m energized by the short list of really meaningful e-mails in “REPLY or act.”

Principles for easy e-mail management
It’s important to point out that I process everything in my inbox only once. If some message really is going to take a prolonged decision process, it can go into “REPLY or act,” but usually the decisions take a very short period of time. In the past I would defer them in favor of digging around for a more interesting piece of e-mail. Now I have a rule that if the decision is short I make it immediately, and this allows me to respond very quickly to all kinds of e-mails that otherwise might have languished for weeks.

So, the three principles that need to be followed for this kind of system to work are:
1. Process everything in the inbox from beginning to end regularly
2. Don’t defer dealing with e-mails that just need a quick decision or read or a short response
3. Review actionable e-mails in utility folders on a regular basis.

One exception to the above: if you know you have time to answer a more lengthy e-mail, you can just process your other in-box items and then get back to the e-mail you want to answer right away. Anything you are going to act on immediately after processing your inbox never needs to go into the utility folders at all. Just whatever you do, don’t leave something in your inbox because you want to follow up on it soon but can’t immediately. Even one leftover e-mail can encourage us to avoid inbox processing, and all that needs to be done is to put that e-mail into the Reply folder, maybe with a star or a red flag if it’s of special interest.

How to get started
To set this kind of system up, what do you do with the half-a-billion e-mails already in your inbox (if you’re like me and had them piling up)? Well, you need to set aside some time if you’re going to do this, but it only took me a little more than an hour to set mine up and get organized. Once you have your block of time, here’s the process I’d suggest:

1. Make a set of utility folders that works for you.
2. Pick a time period, from 5-30 days. Anything this recent, you’ll consider “fresh” e-mail. (Don’t worry: older e-mails will be covered in a later step, so this doesn’t have to be a long period. I used 10 days.)
3. Move everything older than that to a new folder called “Old Inbox.”
4. Process your inbox in the way I’ve described, starting with the first item and going through all e-mails without skipping any. Only process! This means: delete e-mails you don’t need, put messages needing long responses in your reply folder, file away non-actionable e-mails you want to keep, and deal immediately with any e-mail that you can get through in two minutes or less. Don’t get bogged down in detailed responses for anything that isn’t absolutely urgent: only answer e-mails that will take 2 minutes or less for now. Even very important things, as long as they don’t need to be done right this second, shouldn’t merit responses: you’ll have a chance to get to those soon.
5. When you have processed all of your fresh e-mail, you will have an empty inbox. Everything has been deleted, queued in a reply/act folder, queued for reading, stored with pending (waiting for someone else) items, or filed away.
6. If you think there may be anything important in your Old Inbox folder, start going through it from the most recent item going back. Just skim the titles and check e-mails as necessary if you need to know what’s in them. Don’t worry about processing everything in here unless you have a lot of extra time: just look for actionable items and put them in reply/act, to read, or pending. Everything else is just reference and can be found within Old Inbox if you ever need it. (This step will be especially easy if you’ve been flagging important e-mails prior to now: start by processing all of your flagged e-mails.)
7. Keep your inbox empty by following the three principles above.

My categories are just guidelines: you may find a different way you prefer to sort your e-mail. However, you may find something very similar is the most efficient method for you if you’re interested in keeping a clean inbox. However you organize, make very clear distinctions between actionable e-mail folders and non-actionable ones, or you’ll start to get a huge mass of stuff accumulating without knowing off the top of your head what needs your attention and what doesn’t.

This post owes much to the ideas of Dave Allen and to his book Getting Things Done, although it also is informed by personal experience and organizational skills I’ve learned over the years. Here’s hoping you find it useful.


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