The Week of Email Mastery

Is your inbox a source of despair? Fear not! You can conquer it and develop good habits which will reduce its negative impact on you in the future.

First, a few basic principles:

1. Discard the idea that every email you get deserves your full attention.

2. Discard the idea that every email you get deserves to be answered with a correspondingly lengthy reply or, in many cases, any reply at all.

3. Discard the notion that you must file everything you save. Mail programs have search functions; unless its a category where you regularly need to know the last action on it or something that would be hard to capture in a search, just throw it in one big Archive folder.

4. Discard more email. Delete delete delete!

If your work is like mine, you have probably five main kinds of email:
– incoming, haven't looked at it
– action required
– action required, but not by any particular time (e.g. articles to read, someday/maybe projects)
– filed by topic (in my case, at minimum, folders for each customer and folders for each product release & sometimes the particularly discussed line items within that)
– archive (all other "dealt with" mail)

Additionally, those who subscribe to mailing lists or who are on group aliases will want to segregate any incoming mail to those which do not require reading on a daily basis. For example, my department has a group alias but that's often very timely information, so it goes into my regular inbox. Our customers have a mailing list where they trade tips and discuss issues but they are instructed to open calls with our help desk for anything urgent; since I could ignore the list for days at a time if more urgent matters arise, I have set up a filter to direct that mail into a separate folder. (And I have that folder inside a folder called lists so that I can't see the count of messages in it and get tempted to go "clean it up" when it is really not the first priority).

Some people like to have their inbox separate from their "action required" folder, but I adhere to a different approach: label quickly and then act on things in the right order.  My labels are: Urgent, 2 Minute, 10 Minute, 30 Minute, Waiting For Someone. This last label has a special meaning if it's in my inbox: check on this if you don't get a response quickly. Otherwise, things that I don't have to do anything on until someone else moves it forward can go in my Waiting For Someone folder.

More about specific techniques tomorrow!

Money Day

Those of you affected by the U.S. tax day who have not done your taxes, do them today. You don't want the horrible frenzy next Saturday and the driving in the line of cars to post your return. Just get it out of the way.

Everybody else, today's a good day to take a look at where your money is going. Are you going deeper into debt or paying it off? How's your tax withholding? If you had to pay out a huge amount at tax time and your income hasn't changed much, then maybe you should increase the withholding to spare yourself the scramble for the money. Got a huge return? How about lowering that withholding and setting up an automatic transfer of that cash difference in each check into a retirement account – you won't feel the difference throughout the year and your money will be earning you interest.

Some tips:
– Balance your checkbook & credit card statements every month. Not only will it keep you aware of any trends in the flow of your money, it will also mean that you can catch bank errors or identity theft while there's time to do something about it.

– Pay off your higher interest debt first. Make minimal payments on the rest and put as much as you can towards those big bad boys.

– My financial security rule of thumb: if you are carrying debt with over 6% interest, you should cut optional expenses to the point where you can make significant payments on it every month. Try for 10% of the current amount remaining this month if you can and then keep paying that amount. That will rid you of it within a year.

– Even when you're paying off debt, set up an automatic transfer of $25 into savings every payday. If your company has retirement contribution matching, take advantage of it.

Bypass a hassle with the curb test

Got something you think someone would want and planning to donate it to charity? Try the Friday night curb test:

– as soon as you get home from work Friday night, neatly set the item out by itself on the curb with a sign on it saying "FREE".

– if you live in New York City, take a picture of it (e.g. with your mobile phone) and mail it to street at garbagescout dot com. It will appear in a nice mashup map of interesting curbside finds.

– check out the window periodically and see if it's gone; if so, throw away the discarded sign. Voila!

– if it's still there by midday Saturday, then take it away and donate it to charity.

Note: curbside sharing not recommended during rainstorms or blizzards and don't put out whole boxes of stuff which get pawed through and scattered around the area making your neighbors hate you. This is best for the discrete item, e.g. "dresser", "1960's stereo", "big stewpot", "pair of shoes". Visit Garbage Scout for good examples.

Learn other methods of sharing at

Good advice for losing weight

My friend Lance Arthur wrote a wonderful piece of advice which I keep taped up on the inside of my kitchen cupboards:

That debate about fat vs. carbs and what should one eat to lose weight is rearing its head again, and speaking as a person who has recently lost weight, I can tell you what the answer was for me: Eat Less. That's what I did. Oh, sure, I cut some things from my diet completely (donuts, potato chips, soft drinks) but mostly I just cut back on everything. I also stopped eating snacks at night, never ate dinner after 8pm, started eating something for breakfast (it jump-starts your metabolism) and began getting off my ass and exercising. But there's no magic cure. You can adopt a new diet and lose weight, but unless you stick to it (you really never want to eat pasta again? no lasagna? no spaghetti? ever again?) you're bound to gain it back. And you can come up with all sorts of excuses for not losing weight, but I'd probably label you lazy. Get off your ass and go outside and put down that fried chicken leg and drink more water and stop going to anything with a drive-thru and eat less. Eat Less.

(reprinted with permission)

Clean paws

Discard those germs you keep picking up.

One of the best things you can do to stay healthy is get in the habit of washing your hands more often. Of course after using the toilet and before eating, but how about also as one of the things you do when you arrive home or at work? (I refer to this as "washing off the Muni").

Want to wash effectively? Start following this advice from my doctors.

Remember what’s optional

My mother lives in a remote area and is a member of a book group in her old college town many hours away. In a recent letter, along with news of car repairs for one of the family vehicles, she described this moment of internal debate:

On the drive home, I suddenly realized that it made every kind of sense to skip the book group this time.  The van is not comfortable for me to drive for long distances, and also if I took it, Paul would be without transportation for two days.  And I really feel like going to sleep fairly early, not staying up late to finish the book.  By the time I got home I was convinced, and I've continued to feel very good about that decision — in fact every little while a wave of elation sweeps over me, with the realization that I'll have two days mostly at home instead of two days of hurrying on the road.

When letting go is an incredibly invigorating choice, don't be silly: let go!

Cash that sanity check

We're one quarter of the way into the year now. I don't know about you, but some days I feel like I've been running non-stop since last Thanksgiving. Work is hectic, the social calendar fills up, and sometimes it seems like even my "to do for fun" list gets overwhelming.

Today (or a full day very, very soon) you need to recharge. If your family or social obligations are always too pressing on the weekends, take a vacation day. You deserve to feel well and happy.

Clear your day of all but those activities which will reduce your stress and energize you.

Things I recommend doing:
– Go outside and look for signs of  the changing seasons. What are the trees and flowers in your neighborhood doing? What kind of clouds are there today? (See any interesting shapes?) What animals are around and what are they up to?

– Listen to old, old favorite songs. Do you have fond memories of any of the music in your household growing up?

– Do something you really love doing without worrying about what anyone else thinks. Get off of their itinerary.

– Eat (or best of all, cook for yourself) something you really love to eat. This is especially good for those who avoid a certain food because a family member or significant other doesn't like it.

– Get enough sleep.

– Drink lots of water.

– Breathe.

– Drop the worries for today.