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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

In-box reveries

Beth Kanter, like me just back from vacation, was fretting over the inbox clutter she returned to, and posted a link to an interesting piece in my home-town paper by Jeffrey Zaslow on in-box management styles and personal productivity. I've been enjoying new-found control over my correspondence I switched to using Google's gmail as my email client - and Beth, an MS Outlook user, asked me to share a few words about my approach to email management using gmail. I'm never sure whether these personal musings on how one guy works are of any use to anyone, but here they are.

First a mini-review of the Google product. All I can say is that it is the sleekest and most efficient email interface I've worked with. Among its innovative features:
  1. Conversations, as threads are called in gmail parlance, are tightly tied together and displayed as a single line when you view your inbox. Deleting or archiving is done by thread, not by individual email, saving time and preventing error.
  2. Labels. There are no folders in gmail. Instead, email is classified by tagging it - and as it most tag-based systems, you can apply more than one tag - or label, as they are called in gmail - to the same item. Tagging a piece of email tags the whole conversation. A built-in label - the star - is useful for flagging items you want to keep on a high-priority list.
  3. Archiving. You do not need to tag a conversation to move it out of your inbox. Just archive it. When an email arrives that is part of an archived conversation, the entire conversation pops back into the inbox.
  4. Search. Rather than relying on tags as your main avenue to retrieval, use search. The rapid Google search we've come to rely on when searching the web will retrieve the mail you are looking for in a fraction of a second.
  5. Setting the From address. Most email clients and services let you set the Reply To address, but gmail lets you set the From address as well. So all my professional email goes out as being sent from my office domain, though I manage it all from gmail. I have all my accounts forwarded to gmail.
  6. Link to the Google Calendar. If gmail sees something that looks like a date or time in the email, it displays a link that will put that event in your calendar. And as my friend from Omaha says, the Google Calendar is "slicker than snot on a doorknob" with an interface that can parse time, date, and location out of a single text input.
Beth asked me to explain my gmail workflow. I never really thought about it, but I have evolved one. I try to use the email system as a tool to enhance my ability to keep my work organized, rather than as an input that makes things more chaotic.

Minimize disruption. First of all, I shut off the notifier whenever I need to concentrate - when I am programming, or writing something that takes a lot of concentration. I hate being constantly interrupted while I am trying to think.

Tag automatically. I have set up a lot of filters to label my mail automatically as it arrives. For example all my mail from clients arrives with the proper client label already in place. I try to label other mail as I read it, to avoid having a big classification project later. I delete anything I am not going to read even if I do not want to flag it as spam - newsletters I sometimes read, for example, but am not going to have time for this week. I don't worry about tagging everything I save since its so easy to get it back by searching for sender or any word in the text.

A morning email review session. Each morning, I review my inbox, and immediately archive everything that I have already responded to, or which requires no response. So I keep a pretty short inbox - maybe 50 conversations items max. I star important things I will want to look at again in the next few days. Then I check the entire starred list to see what can be unstarred. I use this daily review to remember what I did the day before, remind myself of promises I have made for today, and add them to my to-do list. Many emails take time to respond to - I put these tasks on my to-do list, rather than just falling into them. I also use the email review to remind myself of small billable items I have done for a client that I might otherwise forget, and get those timeslips logged. Ya gotta eat!

Sharing email. Another thing I do during my email review session is cut and paste emails that should become part of our office knowledgebase into our project tracking system, so that the information is not mine alone. Making the proper emails sharable is an important part of email management in a collaborative working environment. Note to Google: I'd love to see a team email system with a share flag to make an email sharable to by all members of a group.

Downloading. Since this is a web-based service, there is no issue of where you download your mail. You can check it all, even the archived mail, from any pc on the internet. But since gmail is POP-compliant, you can download it perioidically to Outlook or Thunderbird as a backup. I do it now and then.

Mobile Gmail. Gmail has a mobile interface designed for the small screen. I can check my mail on my Treo at any time. I can even archive and label from the treo, so there is no need to let my inbox become a mess when I'm travelling.
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Comments on "In-box reveries"

 

Anonymous Beth said ... (August 28, 2006 at 11:14 PM) : 

This is excellent and very helpful! I hope to switch soon ... but also have to feel comfortable with the calendar from google too ..

 

Anonymous Beth said ... (August 28, 2006 at 11:25 PM) : 

one more question .. is your task list electronic or analog?

 

Blogger Michael Stein said ... (August 29, 2006 at 7:46 AM) : 

I vacillate between a database oriented to do list (using the tickler in Members Only, of course) and keeping a pure text notepad of tasks, using a sticky-note in Protopage, which I keep as my home page in Firefox.

 

Anonymous Beth said ... (August 29, 2006 at 3:13 PM) : 

I vacillate between paper/index cards and the task manager in Outlook, although I don't like the task manager in Outlook. I do need something that will automatically remind me ...

 

Anonymous Kerri Karvetski said ... (August 30, 2006 at 10:15 AM) : 

Hi Michael,

I'm a gmail user, too, and appreciated your take on productivity. I'm especially going to increase my use of the folders to organize content.

Which project management tool do you use?

-kk

 

Blogger Michael Stein said ... (September 1, 2006 at 9:44 AM) : 

kerri -
We use a mutated version of our nnprofit CRM product, Members Only, to track all of our projects.

 

Blogger Ruth Wahtera said ... (September 11, 2006 at 5:02 PM) : 

Thanks for the overview. I didn't know you could control the "from" domain. You've convinced me to switch.

I already use the google calendar and like it better than Outlook.

I use Basecamp for collaborating with my clients on projects. I'm a writer for non-profits and usually have two or three projects going at any given time, and several people on each team. The milestones can be integrated with my google calendar.

If you aren't familiar with Basecamp, I really recommend you take a look at it. My clients love it, too. You can have one project at a time going for free, forever. (If you should decide to use their paid service,I get a free month.)

Thanks again for the overview. Got to go see about setting up my gmail box!

 

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