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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Moving your focus from email to next actions

Nearly all time management systems advocate a clear focus on what's important, rather than what appears to be urgent. The technologies we've adopted - most notably email - lower the barriers in reaching out, and in being reached. The hidden trade behind being made accessible is that we're now far more interruptable too. Certainly this was true ever since the advent of the telephone, but there is a greater cost to using the phone that doesn't apply to email: emails can be replicated, CC'ed, forwarded, etc. They seem to almost breed on their own, whereas phone calls or other in-person communications proliferate at a slower pace.

Compounding this is our own natural desire to stay informed, which leads us to "live" in our email inboxes for the most of the day. We further continue our desire for connection to breaking news by enabling new mail alerts and popups and through obsessive blackberry-checking. The trouble is, none of these methods filter or arrange information. All notices, even spam, arrive with precisely the same urgency: Send me your attention and Read Me Now! Is everything that is so urgent also so important? Certainly not. And since your creative contributions are a product of your focus, it follows that when your focus is broken, it should be broken only for something more important than what you're presently working on. This is simply not possible to maintain if email guides your activity.

Let's refocus toward what's important and eliminate interruption.

We can admit that ignoring email entirely isn't reasonable, but we can decide to be deliberate about checking it. If you've read the articles listed below by David Allen, you'll recognize email as just another input to the "process" step. The decision to break from focus, to attend to sweeping inputs and processing them extends beautifully to email. First, turn off those "new mail" alerts, since you (rather than the email program) will be controlling the timing of interruptions. In Outlook, this is simple: uncheck the boxes that say "Play a sound" and "Display a New Mail Desktop Alert" when new items arrive. You can find those checkboxes on a dialog that will be displayed if you navigate to Tools/Options, click "Email Options", then click "Advanced Email Options...". With these two checkboxes disabled, you'll no longer be interrupted when new mail arrives. "But I might miss something important!". Chances are you won't, particularly if you check your email at appropriate intervals, non-compulsively, during the day. What you will miss are all the unimportant emails that are more likely to distract you from what you are working on, which is presumably very important.

Focus on the task list, not the inbox.

Once you're no longer interrupted by incoming emails, and have dedicated time to processing them, the next step is to turn your focus from your inbox to your task list, which will become your source of next actions. After all, if you're looking for what to do next, you'll need a comprehensive view of all that lies ahead, not just those items that are associated with email. It's probably safe to assume that not all of your work comes to you in the form of email. You most likely have items that you have identified independently. Isn't that the basis of creative initiative? Your next actions list becomes your dashboard, displaying all the items that require your energy. I find that Outlook's Tasks view is sufficient for my needs, although there are certainly other programs, or even paper-based systems, that can do the job. One key benefit of using Outlook's task view is that it can manage the items I unput myself, but can also very adeptly manage actions that derive from emails.

To fully facilitate working with emails as tasks, I strongly recommend the Getting Things Done plugin from Netcentrics. This plugin works with Outlook to facilitate processing of email messages under the guidelines David Allen suggests.

The GTD plugin can be downloaded for evaluation before purchase, and will remain functional for 30 days before you need to buy a license. There is no difference between the trial version and the fully licensed version. You'll lose no prior work accomplished during the trial when you enter the license code.

Installing the program is straightforward, but I have seen some users encounter some problems that aren't immediately apparent. If the program has installed correctly, you'll see a new toolbar added to your Outlook window.
And, in addition, you'll see that there are new view configurations available in the task pane.
If you don't see this, then check to see that the plugin isn't disabled by bringing up the Disabled Items dialog from the About/About Microsoft Office Outlook dialog. If it appears in the disabled items list, select it and enable it.
If that doesn't correct the problem, use the installed Admin Tool, from Start/All Programs/Getting Things Done/Admin Tool. Ensure the first box is checked. You may also need to refresh the plugin to get it to re-attach to Outlook.
You'll notice that several new folders have been created in your Inbox. These are meant to store messages that have been associated with next actions. For example, if you delegate a message, an @Waiting For next action will be created in your tasks, and the instigating message will be moved to the @Waiting For folder under the Inbox. There's seldom a reason to use the contents of those folders directly. Their contents are completely managed by the GTD plugin. You might find however, that having these items stored under your Inbox is confusing, or at least adds to the total size of your Inbox, making you approach storage limits sooner. Fortunately, you can tell the plugin to keep these folders elsewhere. From Outlook's Tools menu, select options, then select the Getting Things Done tab. You'll notice the default setting for "GTD Folder" points to your inbox.
You can click the ellipsis (...) button to specify a new location. I found it convenient to direct these special folders to an Archive mailfile that I keep locally.
When you press OK, the GTD plugin will move all the contents to the location you indicate. Note that this means you do not (and should not) ever move the folders manually.


Blogger Wojtek said...

Great stuff! I'll try this one.

11:34 PM


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