Perhaps you have heard of an organizational expert named David Allen. Over the years, Mr. Allen has helped many people organize their time, their tasks and — perhaps most important — their e-mail in-boxes with a method he calls, “Getting Things Done,” or GTD, for short.
GTD followers are many and passionate. They fastidiously create folders and labels — both physical and digital — in dozens of categories, then file every piece of information promptly. Mr. Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and people pay hundreds of dollars to hear him speak.
But the problem with a lot of organizational systems is that they replace one anxiety (“My stuff’s not organized”) with another (“My stuff’s not organized according to this specific system”).
Not to get too Zen here, but maybe the best system is no system. Or, put another way, the best system requires the least behavior modification. A few small habits may have to be adopted, but nothing as rigorous as GTD. The reason is quite simple really. Technology can do much of the work by automating certain organizational tasks.
I have a simple five-step system, and since no system is anything until it has initials, I’ve decided to call mine LTG: Letting Things Go. Here’s how to do it.
1. STOP ORGANIZING, START SEARCHING I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by e-mail folders and labels. Those tools held so much promise: they were rational ways to divide your e-mail into logical chunks.
But their upkeep could be their undoing. What if one message did not get placed in the right folder? What if a message was not archived properly and disappeared in a routine purge of e-mail data? Maintaining a label or folder regimen requires constant and furious vigilance. Fortunately, technology has rendered folders and labels, if not useless, severely diminished in their importance and promise.
When you are looking for something, you are often looking for one thing: A flight confirmation number, an invitation to dinner, a bank statement. Almost all e-mail programs and operating systems now have a powerful search feature that can pull up any message that contains the word, number or phrase you are looking for. Windows 7’s universal search will find any e-mail stored on your computer; so will Mac OS X’s Spotlight. All of the major Web mail services will allow you to find a message based on sender, subject or body text.
Keeping a folder may be a good idea when there’s more than one thing to look for — when you have e-mails related to a specific long-term project like family vacations or home renovations — but for the most part, you can leave your in-box messy.
Side note: Bear in mind that the search solution will not work as well for e-mail stored on your smartphone. If you are an iPhone user, for example, Apple’s mail app lets you search only what is in the “to,” “from” and “subject” fields. What is in the body of the e-mail remains unknown. If you are using a Web mail provider like Gmail, you can search for words in the body by using the Google app or navigating to the mobile site.
2. BE RUTHLESS ABOUT BLOCKING You can make e-mail organization exponentially easier if you reduce the amount of unwanted e-mail you receive in the first place. To that end, consider “block sender” your brutish but loyal sidekick in this continuing battle.
Obviously, spammers should be mercilessly blocked, but why stop there? Even legitimate people and institutions can be blocked — and should. Catalog merchants? Blocked. Political groups that are still e-mailing after the election/referendum? Blocked. Chris Anderson, once famously posted the e-mail addresses of publicists he blocked because they blindly sent him pitches. It was a staggeringly long list of legitimate public-relations people who were probably crushed to learn that the editor of Wired had not read their pitches in years. Sufferers of clogged in-boxes should hang a picture of Mr. Anderson beside their monitors.
Would it be more humane to unsubscribe from various e-mail lists or change settings on certain sites? Probably, but that takes more time, and why should you be considerate of some site or person that decided to pelt you with detritus?
One other thought: Use the right in-box for the right message. These days, we often have more than one in-box — and not just work and personal e-mail accounts. Facebook has an in-box, as do Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and other services.
In most cases, these other in-boxes can e-mail you when they receive a message or something else happens to your account. I prefer to turn those alerts off and keep these messages on the sites they apply to. Getting an e-mail saying “Joe Smith tagged you in a photo!” or “Jane Jones retweeted one of your tweets.” needlessly clogs your in-box since you can visit those sites and get that message in their natural habitat.
3. BUILD A DIGITAL NAG An in-box is often more than just a place to look at messages. It can be a to-do list too. The most basic version of this is when people e-mail themselves with a reminder or task.
But what about messages from other people? You may get a note from someone that you want to follow up on, but just not now. If you let it sit in your in-box, you run the risk that new messages will push it so far down the list that you won’t see it and will forget about it.
Fortunately, there are sites and plug-ins that can manage your e-mail and make it reappear at the top of your in-box at a specified date. Services like Nudgemail, Followup, Followupthen and Boomerangallow you to schedule a message to reappear as new in your in-box later by allowing you to forward the message to yourself with a time delay — from an hour to weeks or months.
4. USE YOUR IN-BOX AS AN ADDRESS BOOK Save yourself the time and trouble of lovingly and carefully compiling an address book. If you can save all your e-mails, you will have a searchable database of everyone who has ever e-mailed you. If you use Outlook, consider adding a plug-in like Xobni, which can automate address book tasks every time you receive an e-mail.
The next time you need to contact someone, just search for the person’s name. Don’t know the name? Search for the person’s company’s name or the domain of the company.
A nice side effect to this system (besides the fact that you do not have to maintain an address book) is that it is naturally up to date. You will see the most recent e-mail you received from that person. This is helpful because people switch jobs and e-mail services, but you may not have updated your contacts list.
And when you have completed these tasks, there is one more you must undertake:
5. MAKE YOUR PEACE This system is not bulletproof. No system is. Part of living with e-mail is knowing that there is a lot of it and there always will be, so relax. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer was not written to address e-mail woes, but it is surprisingly apt:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/Courage to change the things I can/And wisdom to know the difference.
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