Information Overload: Coping Strategies for email

We're all dealing with it. Some subconsciously. Others consciously.

For those of you who aren't on Om Malik's brilliant email newsletter- he summed it up perfectly when talking about the changes happening in media:

Your Attention Please
One side effect of this distribution democracy is the sheer volume of information that is coming at us from all sides. The torrent of information threatens to drown us and encourages short-term thinking. In a speech earlier this week, Andrew G Haldane, an economist who works for the Bank of England, said:
Information is streamed in ever-greater volumes and at ever-rising velocities. Timelines for decision-making appear to have been compressed. Pressures to deliver immediate results seem to have intensified. Tenure patterns for some of our most important life choices (marriage, jobs, money) are in secular decline. These forces may be altering not just the way we act, but also the way we think. Neurologically, our brains are adapting to increasing volumes and velocities of information by shortening attention spans. Technological innovation, such as the World Wide Web, may have caused a permanent neurological rewiring, as did previous technological revolutions such as the printing press and typewriter. If that is indeed the case, and I do believe it to be true, then the concept of what is media needs to be rethought and re-imagined — and that also means that we need to start rethinking our tools of measurement and methods of monetization. And as for my friend who lamented about the quality of content on CNN, he should probably get used to it. With increased competition for attention, he can expect even more of the trivial bits as part of his info-diet.

And it's not just media- it's all communication- and for me it's email. For some people it's a constant barrage of communication and struggling to make sense of it all. One of the evenings at TheNextWeb 2011 conference was spent discussing productivity techniques with @SaintSal, and his subsequent tweet to @jansn prodded me into action.

Those of you that know me well, know my obsession with inbox zero. It's the implementation of David Allen's famous Getting Things Done in email. What's the big deal I hear you ask? Well have you ever wondered how those super busy people get so much done? Process so much information, are so responsive, don't let things drop and are super annoying as a result? Yup. I used to. A lot actually. I wondered how they did it? Were they super human? Or did they worked all the hours god sent and never saw their families or friends? Maybe they didn't have either! But regardless- I was intrigued- how did they do it??? My mother in law kept telling me about this amazing system she used to manage her productivity- but I was always too busy and stressed to read it... Finally after completing an assignment in New York my wife convinced me to read it. And it's changed my life in terms of productivity. The key to managing the information deluge is to have a system. The key concept of GTD is that your brain is like a computer- it only has a finite amount of RAM- short term memory- i.e. what you need to get done. Filling your head with everything you need to get done all the time means you have little room in there for focused work- where you need to allocate lots of RAM to that process. The key therefore is to get as much out of your heads' RAM and into a system. GTD is that system. The key concept behind GTD is categorising tasks into:

  • Delete
  • Delegate (I wish)
  • Defer
  • Respond
  • Do

To which you apply the two minute rule. When an item arrives in your inbox, if completing that entire task will take less than two minutes, do it then. If you don't do it then you'll add it to your RAM and you'll be trying to remember to do it, plus you've spent time thinking about the action, why waste that thinking time again? If you can't complete it within two minutes- you need to apply one of the five actions. So how do the five types of actions work?

  • Delete is obvious. I don't delete- I archive- but then I've got bottomless storage ;)
  • Delegate is the next one- if you can delegate that action- delegate it now.
  • Defer is where the action needs to be performed at a later date- or needs a reminder- so stick this in your calendar and archive it.
  • Respond is normally what you do in the two minutes.
  • Do is actually adding work to your todo list.

Almost all the information I have in my life comes via email. I know it's sad... So that's the key communication channel to manage. And being an Outlook user, I need something that works in there. Here's my take on GTD in Outlook. So this is my Outlook inbox right now:

Zero! :)

Firstly check out the folders- I have three: Next Actions, Later and Archived.

So when I have something I actually need to do and it can't be done in less than two minutes- I put it in Next Actions. If it's something I want to consume or reference later- I put it in Later. Archived is... my archive. If in the very unusual cases something I need to do doesn't come in via email- I mail myself to get it in there. It's pretty simple and it works really well. No more remembering which emails in the 700+ mails need actioning. No more dropping the ball. Just trust the system and if you do it properly, you'll be amazingly productive. There are however things that don't fit well into this structure: projects. The way I cope with projects is to review my project list (stored on email) when I do my weekly team update, doing actions that arise immediately, adding next actions if they take longer than two minutes and diarising any future actions. That's it. When I want to find something- I use search rather than folders. Search in 2007 and 2010 has got so much better I don't see the need for folders, and with Mimecast, the search is even better.  To get to my Mimecast archive I click on Mimecast in the toolbar and search there and the results display within Outlook where I can manipulate them like they were stored locally. One of the best things about Outlook 2010 are the Quick Steps in the toolbar.

You can see the two I've configured, each quick step "moves" and "marks as read" to one of my most used folders- Next Actions and Archived. This way I can triage my inbox super quick- especially first thing in the morning when there can be 80-100 emails... And this system works in the mobile environment too. I can triage my inbox on my smartphone constantly keeping on top of communication- responding, moving to next actions or diarising, so I don't reduce my productivity on the go. Plus I get rid of the "inbox shock" when you return to your desk. Do you use GTD or another productivity system? How do you implement GTD in Outlook- I'd love to hear your tips so feel free to share in the comments or on twitter.