Productivity by Number, Part 2

This is the conclusion of a two-part series on productivity. You can catch up on Part 1 here.

Step 4: Prioritization

Yes, everything I have ever read about productivity and life satisfaction emphasizes priorities. But it’s hard to appreciate their importance and power until you see how completely you lack them.

Two weeks on RescueTime forever changed the way I think about this. For instance, I at first gave email a score of “Very Productive” because part of my job is evaluating marketing opportunities – most of which come through by email. And after all, I reasoned, in the knowledge-worker economy, aren’t people’s jobs based more and more around communication and making decisions? Even if we don’t like it, don’t we have to accept that email has become a huge part of our daily duties?

However, after looking at a week’s worth of data, I realized that much of the email I get really is NOT important compared to other things I could be doing. 87% of people report that they don’t read all the email they receive; well, up until I had this epiphany, I was one of the 13% who did. Not being afraid to delete email that looks uninteresting has freed up a lot of time.

Then Steps 1 & 2 finally sank in. Knowing what needs to be done is good. Knowing what needs to be done next is better. There were two areas where this could be immediately applied:

1. Email Folders

I had folders that divided newsletters into my practice area, “Marketing,” and the company’s industry, “Legal.” But with over 50 different publications flying at me (yes, for the purpose of this blog, I counted), there was no way to keep track of which were the most useful.

Instead, I created four new folders:

  • Committed to Read (for the 2-3 most useful publications that I never miss, and occasionally, things that colleagues send me to read)
  • Would Like to Read (things that are always interesting, but less targeted to my job description or industry)
  • If I Have Time (I never do, but if I ever did, these well-known newsletters would be worth glancing through)
  • Uncategorized

At first, everything got dumped into Uncategorized, and I let them build up for several weeks. Then I grouped by publication and read through each until I could determine which of the other categories it should go into – or if I should simply unsubscribe. It’s still a work in progress, but I spend much less time trying to keep up and get more value out of the time I do spend. I also don’t worry about missing something if I delete emails that have built up in the bottom two categories.

2. Email Flags & Categories

I had set up a system of flags for emails that divided things into “Emails people have sent me that I need to do something about,” “Emails I’ve sent people that I need to follow up on,” and “Emails about projects I need to keep an eye on from time to time.” The obvious problem? I had no idea which were approaching a deadline or which had lagged for long enough.

Those got reworked into “Emails to deal with today,” “Emails to deal with or follow up on this week,” and “Emails with no particular deadline”.

It takes a little time to keep it current, especially if a lot of emails are flying back and forth about a particular subject, but on the whole I find it to be minimal effort for a lot of benefit. The number of follow-up emails I receive has dropped to nearly zero, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s having to be followed up with.

Step 5: Managing Expectations and Delivering on Time

The first time someone demanded I create and deliver something NOW, and I was able to spend 10 seconds glancing through my flags and tasks and tell them, no, you can’t have it now, but you can have it on Tuesday, because these higher-priority things are due on Monday, had them agree to this schedule, and was then able to deliver it slightly ahead of the promised time… well, that was a great feeling.

Like all tools, my system only works if I use it. Years of procrastination make for a hard habit to break, and I still sometimes find myself falling down the rabbit-hole of a not-immediately-important project. And I admit that depending on what comes up in a day I don’t always get to all the emails I’ve flagged to respond to that day. But following the system has made me feel much calmer about my to-do list and much more confident that the important things are getting done, and that in itself frees up attention and time.

Productivity is a different journey for each person, but I hope this has given others who are still searching some ideas they can try. Also, if there’s something that works wonderfully for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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