Using a Task-Focused Email Account to Bring Order to Chaos

by Stephen Mills on August 11, 2010

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Guest Article Tuesday

Note From Stephen:  I get a lot of requests for guest articles.  I’ve decided to create a new feature called Guest Article Tuesday where readers or other bloggers can express their ideas to my readers.  This week Art Decker with Self Storage Co. shares his interesting email solution.

Until recently, I had an organization problem. A bad one. I was late to every appointment, I forgot tasks, I would get distracted, etc.  Even when I added tasks to my do list, somehow the to do list would get lost, left at home, or shuffled into a pile of papers that I wasn’t going to have time to sort through.

One weekend, I had an “aha” moment when I suddenly realized that I had found my Achilles heel — and that it was email. I was looking at every email that came into my account, whenever it came in, no matter what it was. An email notification felt like a ringing telephone — something I needed to attend to right away. (In fact, the telephone was a secondary part of the problem — but more about that in a moment.)

If you recognize one or more the five habits below in yourself, you may have the same problem:

  1. Your email is set to notify you immediately upon the arrival.
  2. You receive personal and work email at the same address.
  3. You receive automatic emails (lists, alerts, statements, etc.) at that same address.
  4. You process and/or act on each email frequently throughout the day.
  5. Your email inbox contains too many emails to fit on one page.

I knew that I had to stop spending so much time on email. Email was eating my life, eating my work tasks, and eating my sanity! I decided that I could not go home until I had come up with a system that would prevent me from spending all day on email. I started with the following steps:

I set up two new email accounts

  1. A free email account for all my automated emails that I would check occasionally but not every day. This shrunk my inbox down to about one third of its former size.
  2. A new task-focused email account to be the heart of my new productivity system. This email would be the one that I would check regularly, and that it would be free of personal email, free of spam, and free of automated bank statements and the like, because I would not give this email address out to anyone. I set it up so that my old email address, the one I was now using just for personal email, was featured in the from line. No one needed to know the new address — not my wife, not my boss, not my best friend. If they knew the new, super secret task-focused email address, they would only hijack it by sending non-work emails.

I went through all my emails and unsubscribed to all the junk

I turned my old email account into my personal account

I would check it once a day. I set up my vacation responder to let people know that they would not be getting immediate replies from me unless they were emailing me about a current work assignment. I could just forward emails going to this account to my new accounts (see below) by setting up filters.

In the settings for my old email account, I set up a series of filters

My filters take the email that I really need to see right away — the emails from clients, for example — and forward those emails to my new, super secret task-focused email address.

I also added a small program called Jotter to my cell phone

Jotter allows me to send myself emails telling myself to do things — very handy when I am out visiting a site and have my cell phone, but not my computer, with me.

I stopped checking my old email address during the day and turned off notification

I will check my personal emails at home and respond to them in comfort, while I am relaxed and not worrying about all the things I haven’t accomplished yet today. That makes for nicer email replies sent out to my family and friends!

I did not give out my new email address to anyone

I wasn’t joking when I called this a super secret account. It is my gatekeeper — the gatekeeper to my sanity. I won’t tell anyone the address. I’d rather give out the PIN number for my ATM card (which is not a good idea, in case you’re wondering) then give out my super secret email address. It’s the only reason I am starting to get things done.

Once I made these changes to my email habits, my life began to change for the better. But I have other plans for my super secret email. I can use my email program’s filters to apply custom labels. That way, I can make the items in my email inbox into a series of context lists — much like the context lists used by people who rely on the GTD productivity system. When I am ready to work on a particular context, I can just open the emails with that label. I am considering some other tweaks as well, like color coding. Perhaps I will just add the color red to the really urgent emails.

Each email can have more than one label. That means that different emails can have labels for projects, for their context (phone, email, etc.) and for the due date. I can do a series of numerical labels ranging from 1 to 31, or a series of labels for each day of the week, or each month of the year. That way they can be organized by the due date in addition to organizing them by context and I can pull up my to do list in several different ways.

I am so organized! I have a life again. I have my sanity back. I am ready to go ride my bike….

Art Decker is a division manager with Self Storage Co. Art leads a stressful life, with much of his time eaten up by meetings and conference calls. He also spends a lot of time traveling from one self storage site to another. As a result, Art has developed a strong interest in topics such as productivity, organization, working while traveling, balancing work and home life, and reducing stress.

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Daniel August 13, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Instead of having two different accounts – which is not really simple – I like using GMail Filters.

I set up filters for all the newsletters and stuff and let them skip the inbox and get a label (e. g. “Inbox 2”), so I don’t have to read them right away and I only get notifications for mails that go directly to the first Inbox.

You only have to set up the filter once. Thats not that bad. And you do not have to login to two accounts.

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