We all know this picture a little too well – email inbox overflowing with messages, notes all in artistic disarray waiting to be turned into a meeting summary, browser window slowly approaching its limits around open tabs and overdue priorities piling up at the pace of light. Adding the new reality into the picture – social distancing due to COVID-19 pandemic and compulsory home office, it seems to increase the difficulty of dealing with different contexts efficiently.
Although it reads like a grim picture – it doesn’t need to be! 🙂 As a software house that builds dedicated software and works with clients in various fields and timezones, our teams need to address multiple tasks daily. We found a few ways that utilize the very basic tools and help us stay organized – especially when workload intensifies.
So what’s our not-so-secret recipe for success when organizing your work? Here are a few tried & tested tips, that worked for us.
- browser profiles
One good practice you can implement is the proper configuration of your very basic tools – email and browser. Start by separating your work and personal Google Accounts (or Outlook and other email clients that you use).
Such a division helps to avoid unnecessary distractions in the form of e.g. social media. Having your files, favourites websites and passwords separated into two contexts helps you stay organized and focused on key priorities. To make your work flowing even more efficiently – especially if you often switch between devices, remember to allow synchronization. This way the information you store in your browser will always be up to date, no matter where and when you access them.
- email filters & tags
Creating a set of filters & tags on your incoming post may seem like a time-consuming task. However, filters did right can help you save a lot of time later on, and the initial base can be later modified on the go as new email categories emerge.
Organize incoming messages in such a way, to make sure you only see the most important ones in your inbox for example emails that are addressed to you directly, come from important Clients or current projects. Create separate filters for various types of reports or administrative processes that may not need your attention right away. Less clutter in your main inbox means more focus on issues that matter the most.
One important thing
Did you know that when the word priority first appeared in the English language, it was only meant to be used in the singular form? As it means the very first, it made sense to only define one issue at a time as a priority. With the rapid growth and increasing workloads – people started addressing multiple priorities at the same time. Trying to divide your focus between multiple contexts seemingly of equal priority seems like a struggle and often proves inefficient. The awareness of goals constantly piling up affects our well-being and in turn – decreases productivity.
So how about we approach prioritizing the traditional way?
We recently got inspired by Gary Keller’s One important thing. Following in Gary’s footsteps, for some time now we’ve been focusing on one important thing and doing it by 12 pm every day. Morning hours are usually when our bodies reach their maximum performance, which helps keep the right focus and energy levels necessary for the most demanding tasks.
Doing your most important tasks early means fewer distractions or tasks that appear all of a sudden and need your attention, and so – increases your chances of success.
How we extended it
In addition to focusing on one important thing by noon, we also decided to focus on one important goal a month for various roles across the company. This means our employees can focus their attention on one chosen improvement they’d like to introduce to our ways of working. One goal a month may not seem like much, but multiply it by 12 months, and we have 12 accomplished projects a year. Multiplied by, say – 5 roles, we might be able to successfully implement 60 improvements a year!
The One important thing approach has a lot in common with Brian Tracy’s famous “eat-the-frog” technique. They can both be the key to efficiency in time management. Dealing with the most unwanted task of the day (which is our frog) immediately after getting up helps develop discipline, and also gives enormous energy. Once you’re done with the most demanding task early in the day – the sense of accomplishment makes it easier and much more pleasant to continue with further tasks.
Make the most of your basic tools
The obvious but very important thing – use the calendar! We all have them, sometimes even in many forms and apps, but it feels like we’re not always using their features to the full. Especially now, when we’re all working from homes and have limited possibilities to drop by our colleagues’ desk to see what they’re up to – the calendar is invaluable support.
How to maximize your calendar potential?
- Use the calendar not only for meetings but also for more important tasks that need your focus.
Creating such blocks will make you less prone to procrastination and may shield you from external distractions. Your colleagues, seeing that you’re busy working on a task – may be more willing to wait for your response or support a little while longer.
- Define working hours
Let other people know when to expect you at work. This way you can avoid meeting proposals that fall out of your schedule. It’s especially important if you’re also using tools like Calendly, that synchronizes with your calendar and do some of the scheduling for you.
- Attach agendas to meeting events
To make the most of your meetings – remember to always include an agenda in the calendar invitation. The agenda itself is an invaluable tool to make sure everyone stays on time & track of the issues to discuss. Linking it to the calendar invitation means it’s easily accessible for everyone in advance. It saves time on preparation for all participants.
- Meeting for a larger group – Find Time will come in handy
By using the Find Time function in Google Calendar, you can easily set up video conferencing for multiple participants. The features show you an overview of all participants’ calendars, highlighting dates and times when everyone’s available.
- Tracking time? Include task symbol in the event title
As our teams track time on each task in the project, efficiency around organizing meetings is also crucial. We always include a task symbol for each calendar meeting planned, to save team members time & trouble of looking for the right one. With over 800 tasks in the more complex projects – it often proves a real lifesaver!
“Inbox Zero” is a method of organizing your mailbox that structures your workflow may help boost productivity. If like many managers you’re flooded with emails daily – this might just be the tool for you.
How does it work? In the simplest terms – the goal is to keep your inbox empty, with no emails that are unread or awaiting a reply. Although there are many approaches to reaching the ultimate zero emails goal, below we listed some suggestions you might want to try out.
What decisions and actions can you take around your incoming emails, aiming to reach the Inbox Zero sweet spot?
Is this email important? Does it contain valuable information? Will you ever need the information in the future?
If the answer is “no”, then you probably don’t need such a message filling up your inbox and your mind. Delete and move on!
Additional tip: You might consider unsubscribing from the thread if it’s no longer useful, or filtering out future messages like this to be deleted right away. Doing an “unsubscribe run” through your inbox now and then (post-holiday email catch-up is usually a good time!) will help you minimize unwanted messages to the minimum.
Can you respond to the email in around 5 minutes, and complete the task this way?
Then “just do it”. Postponing simple tasks only makes them grow in size. It will require more time and energy from you to get back to the same context a few days or weeks later. Additionally, such prompt reply may also help the people on the other end to speed up the end goal delivery.
Additional tip: 5 minutes’ response deadline is only a suggestion, so feel free to adjust it to your field – 2 or 10 mins rules will also do the trick. Also, remember that time is precious. Not every message needs to be an essay. Sometimes one or two sentences is more than enough to get things moving forward.
Am I the right person to answer this email or do this task? Is there somebody who I should consult or include in this thread?
Sometimes we may not be the right people to address every single issue that comes our way. Knowing when and what tasks to delegate may not only save us from a lot of tension when dealing with a matter that’s not within our scope of responsibilities but also will be beneficial for the task, as it will be handled more efficiently when the right team is onboard.
Additional tip: create a “delegated” tag or folder, where you can move such emails. This way you will be able to get back to the delegated tasks to check up on progress when the time is right.
- Add to the task list
Will doing the task require more time and focus? Is there a deadline I need to include?
Try adding such email to your task list. Multiple apps allow you to forward an email directly into your to-do list, and Gmail has an integrated task list within the inbox (all you need to do is click the button Add to the task list in options). Creating a task out of an email allows you to add any deadlines or additional notes that might help resolve it.
Additional tip: create a “to-do” tag or folder, where you can move such emails. This way you will gain a tasklist inside your inbox, clearly marking which messages require your action.
Is there no action I need or can do in this thread right now? Will it be important later?
If you don’t use task lists, but still would like to be reminded of certain emails when the right moment comes, you can use the Gmail “Snooze” feature. When you snooze an email, it will disappear from your Inbox for the time being and will be resent to you again on the exact date you set. Snoozed emails will appear in your email again, as if they were just received, including a note “snoozed” differentiating them from new post.
For our Product Owners, who send summary notes after every meeting, it can be an efficient way to follow up on feedback. Let’s say they send a call summary, asking for feedback on certain issues. If the Client replies – they will see the response in their inbox. If not – after 2 or 3 days (depending for how long the messaged was snoozed), the email will show up in the inbox again, reminding it might be a good idea to follow up.
Additional tip: if you don’t feel like snoozing emails, you might try creating an “awaiting response” folder in your inbox. You can go through the list every one or two days, and decide on taking further actions.
Is there no more action in the thread? Is there a possibility that you might need a trace of it in the future?
If yes, then you may archive the email. It will still be in your mail should you need to find it, just not in the main inbox. Before you send a thread down the archive way, you might also consider tagging it. This way it will not only land safely in historic email box but will also be easier to find under appropriate categories (eg. administrative, reports, invoices).
You probably have a thought in your head that this is a lot to implement. Don’t worry, over time these elements become your daily routine, making everyday work easier. We tried and tested it ourselves and we know that the more effort you put in at the beginning, the more time you will gradually gain in return – time you can reinvest to focus on important issues and enjoy giving them your best.