Today’s Calling Cards

Your email signature file identifies you and your context. People will use it to reach you and to form an opinion of you.

Take a minute to be sure it's
– without errors
– up-to-date
– including only the contact methods that you want to be contacted by
– emphasizing what you want to emphasize
– succinct
– text-only

Good email manners go a long way to set you apart from the crowd.

Build Your Day Out Of The Right Pieces

Here's a little trick for starting a day off.

First, think of the way you'd spend the day if you had no obligations at all, if you could do whatever you want.

Second, identify those things that must happen today or else tomorrow or the next day will suck.

Third, note the commitments you made to other people and/or social possibilities you'd already been considering which still sound appealing.

Now, build a day which has all three represented, with adequate time between to not feel rushed. I recommend cutting from group three to ensure you get enough of group one.


What would it be like if your day was an even balance? 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work, 8 hours play. Would you be well-rested, stimulated, and relaxed?

Okay, 8 hours sleep, maybe doable regularly if you don't have a baby, but the rest? Most employers want 8 hours all to themselves and expect you to take your commute and your lunch break out of your play time. Lots of jobs are calibrated such that they're generally only done in 50-60 hours of work a week and that extra comes out of some part of the rest of your day.

And not every waking non-work moment is playtime; somebody's gotta keep the mundane things in life like garbage, laundry, shopping and housework ticking along okay.

So what can you do?

– Do your job in less time. Seriously. Sometimes constraint builds efficiency and you'll also find that prioritizing your work so that you spend most of your time on the most important things – those things your boss and co-workers and customers measure your contribution by – some of that other unimportant junk that used to eat up time turns out not to really be necessary.

– Put your commute to work. By using public transit could you gain some productive time to read, write or plan? By downloading my work email before I leave the house I can open my laptop on my short bus ride and arrive at work already having reviewed it, assigned it to the appropriate category to handle later in the day, written replies to the super-easy-to-answer messages, and then pulled back to a high level to decide what I really should be focused on when I sit down at my desk. Let your slow start to the day happen before you get to your work place.

– Make your lunchtime more personally rewarding or take a shorter lunch. Personally, a lot of days I'd rather take a 20 minute lunch and leave 40 minutes earlier than I might have otherwise.

– Here's the really bold one: live on less money and find a job that only requires you to commit 20-30 hours of your week.

Next up: playing more, playing better, and what to do about chores.

Today, Next, Soon

Here's an inbox tip:
Everything worth keeping can be sorted into Today, Next, Soon, and Someday.

I like to keep Today in my inbox (but with labels applied as I've described in past posts on using Thunderbird and similar mail programs to help me prioritize and distinguish the messages I've thought about from the new, unprocessed arrivals).

I created two additional folders, Next and Soon, into which I throw any mail that I do plan to do something with, but which is not urgent.

Next is for things that I want to be sure to think about as soon as I've dealt with all of Today's stuff. In chaotic times, this can take a few days to get to, but it should not be allowed to sit stagnant for more than a week. I recommend reviewing its contents Friday afternoons and sometime midweek to pull anything to Today that can't wait any longer.

Soon is for that stuff that isn't timely or especially important, but which is of enough interest not to be immediately deleted. I get to this when I can, often when I'm stuck somewhere without an internet connection or in a logey half-hour after a big lunch. (Tip: do not stick things in Soon which the sender is expecting a reply on without first sending a short note saying "I will have to get back to you later on this." so they know you got their message).

There is a last category not entirely captured by these three; those things which are not urgent, timely or easily completed, but which seem too significant to be thrown away. These usually represent something you want for Someday. I either file these where they belong with other information (my reference folder, with the planning notes for a coming project they relate to, under the person/institution who sent the information, etc) or note the idea they represent on a separate list of Someday/Maybe projects.

Do Your Real Job

Think about your job description. Does it read like this?

Have an empty inbox and no loose papers on the desk.

I'm guessing it probably doesn't and instead has something to do with building customer satisfaction, keeping superiors or clients informed about the status of ongoing work, producing results on those projects on time and under budget, etc.

It's hard to remember to do, but if you're like me, you need to let go of the illusion that your job will be done properly when you're "all caught up". Dig out that job description and the comments from your last review and see what the real measure of "things going properly" should be. Put it in priority order. Write it up and discuss it with your boss to refine it as necessary.

What you want to end up with is a touchstone you can pull out when you feel overwhelmed, adrift or unrewarded. This kind of a list is particularly crucial for anyone whose work doesn't reach regular cycles of completion and congratulation on a weekly or monthly basis.

Stick it up on your wall and refer to it whenever you need to decide what should be worked on next.

Here's an example list for someone maintaining a sales team's software demonstration machine:

  • All reported problems with demo server investigated and resolved or resolution in progress.
  • Status of problems reported to stakeholders.
  • Aware of demonstration schedule (to avoid conducting maintenance during demos).
  • Software on demo server up-to-date.
  • Server status webpage on intranet current with software versions, known issues, and links to demo scripts.
  • Aware of coming software updates including new examples which will need to be set up.
  • Aware of operating system/hardware requirements for coming updates and shortcomings reported to manager with a plan for their correction.
  • Maintaining familiarity with products being demonstrated.
  • Maintaining familiarity with operating system and hardware being used, particularly with security and backup needs and techniques.
  • Keeping an eye out for ways to improve workflow for self and co-workers.
  • Progress on long-term, non-timebound projects.
  • Progress on professional growth goals.

So, imagine our hypothetical sales engineer after a wild morning of resolving some surprise software issue before an important demo. He's coming up for air and trying to remember what he had been planning to work on today instead of the crisis du jour. What he shouldn't do is start trying to completely resolve everything reflected with an email in his inbox.

Instead, he should run down this prioritized list of conditions and do what needs to be done to achieve that state for each one in order.

He's going to scan his inbox and voicemail for any newly reported or unresolved issues on the demo server which require his action. He's going to make sure he's let the necessary people know where everything stands now, any pending actions and who is doing them. He's going to take a quick look at the demo calendar to see if there's anything new he needs to prep for. He's going to check the status on development and if there is new software coming, he will work around the demo calendar to schedule the next software update, again notifying the necessary people and adding any downtime to the calendar. He's going to look to see if he needs or wants to do any other operating system or server maintenance at the time of that update. He's going to take a quick look over the intranet page he maintains and make sure it's current.

Then he can start looking to the non-urgent mail from the development team or listservs which keep him up-to-date on what's coming in the longer term. He can thus plan accordingly and send out any necessary questions to the developers to help avoid last minute crises. Once all these conditions are met, he can broaden his activities to gaining deeper knowledge of his company's products and of the tools he uses or might want to start using. He can also take this knowledge and propose improvements to his own and others' workflow. He may prepare a description of a longer term project based on these ideas or continue working on an already approved such project. When all is in order and moving forward properly, he can also take time to work on professional growth such as the acquisition of new skills, participation in professional activities such as conferences or publication, or other activities he and his manager have identified as desirable for his continued growth and success.

What is very important to note here is that he can reach the bottom of that list – he can be doing his job beautifully – with lots of mail in his inbox and lots of papers on his desk. Those things are not the measure of a job well done.

However, they may be very distracting, so tomorrow I'll be back with some tips on cutting the clutter to help yourself stay focused.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, get stuffed.

If you don't work on an actual mechanized assembly line, why act like you do? I don't think the average human is satisfied by mechanistic repetition without variation. All the ergonomic experts come around telling us to vary our physical positions to keep our limbs from becoming unduly stressed, but I think you need to vary your mental position just as much.

Shift your tasks based on your energy and the tools at hand.

I know that I tend to have an energy slump in the early afternoon, so that's when I schedule meetings or routine tasks. In the late morning and late afternoon tends to be when my brain is ticking over at high speed, so that's when I like to do heavier mental lifting such as writing that's not based on previous work or in-depth testing of a complex problem.

Try microbreaks and nanobreaks.

When my work could be very stressful due to more falling onto my plate than it can hold, I can often fend off that overwhelmed feeling by taking a moment to remind myself of the good things in my life. Between tasks I'll take a quick look at one of a few sites I check every day – three friends' photoblog sites, a web-based comic, and, for the longer breaks, a link-blogger who frequently has tech news of interest to me at work, but who is so interesting as to be a risk of longer distraction, and a snarky news commentator who does a daily video post. Pulling myself out of context when I feel the stress building diffuses the tension and allows me to return to work a few seconds or minutes later with a fresh mind.

Nanobreaks are a new enhancement to my stress-busting repetoire. I have stocked my screen saver and changing desktop pattern with pictures that make me happy: friends, flowers, landscapes, and other favorites, mostly copied from my Flickr contacts. When I need a little jolt of happiness, I just minimize my windows (F11 on the Mac, yay!) and there's something on my desktop to bring a smile to my face. A second or two may not seem like it would make a difference, but for me it is profoundly useful. I recommend any cube-dweller who doesn't have a beautiful view to use for recharging give this a try.

Reclaim your commute

Are you getting as much out of your commute as you could? My congratulations if you find it valuable and rewarding time. I suspect, though, that many people feel it is quite the opposite.

I am really happy with mine since I traded in driving for walking and transit. I get a refreshing three-block walk down my hill, a short ride on the Muni metro, a two-block walk over to the transbay bus terminal and usually a good 15-20 minutes of comfortable riding over the Bay Bridge to the stop three blocks from work. By the time I reach the office I've moved around a bit enough to wake up properly and often seen some pretty views from my high seat on the bridge.

What makes it really valuable to me is that I can download my mail before I leave the house and sort through it all before I get to the office. I often am able to compose answers for all the quick questions and usually have time left over to plan out the rest of my day. When I arrive at the office and plug in, I send mail and move on to the appropriate next action, rather than just reacting to whatever is coming at me.

On the way home, I usually just relax and look out the windows at the view. Sometimes I read and sometimes I watch a bit of a DVD on my laptop (old tv shows I'm catching up with are particularly suited to this).

I know folks who drive who listen to books on tape to make their commutes more relaxing and let them claim some of that reading time they wish they had more of. There are other tricks for the car as well, such as practicing a new language or keeping up with your daily news intake with podcasts or NPR.

Start looking at your routine and see how you might make it serve you better.