But productivity is an elusive goal, these days. The pursuit of productivity is marred by laziness (the under-utilization of attention capital, e.g., I have this extra time - I'll watch some TV), procrastination (the over-utilization of attention debt, e.g., "I'm too busy, so I'll learn/do that tomorrow" -- and yes, it leads to attention deficit, as you already guessed), perfectionism (e.g., "I can't do anything else until I'm done with this" -- or, just as bad, "I won't start this, because I'll never be able to do it well enough").
I don't have time to write this blog post. I won't write it well, and in the process I'll probably spend too much time trying to polish it into something 'worth' posting. Still, it's time to do something.
Gmail just introduced Priority Inbox. At first, I was inclined to ignore it - after all, I have my system, and it works well enough. But, being susceptible to the allure of the latest, greatest technology (especially from the G-people), I decided to see what it could do. As it turns out, I like it. I have, for a long time, consistently maintained fewer than ten read emails in my inbox at any given time, with those ten basically representing whatever things I've received that will eventually require some sort of time/effort to deal with. However, these things do tend to pile up, and the more important ones get lost at the bottom of that stack just like everything else. Also, I generally have Starred emails in order to provide a special visual reminder that they're important, but this tends to lose its impact fairly quickly.
This is probably where I should mention Inbox Zero, the strategy a very process-savvy friend of mine> uses and brought up when I started talking about this today over Buzz. I think his flavor of this strategy makes a lot of sense (using Stars for followup/future reference but always Archiving immediately after reading), and I wish I could use it myself, but the reason this is not currently a possibility for me is that I don't have consistent access to anything but pen and paper during the workday, meaning that I either have to manage my task list in my brain (with help from whatever emails I may or may not have in my Inbox regarding those less-pressing tasks that I would be prone to forget), or use pen-and-paper or some solution equally undesirable because of its incompatibility with the digital age that I live a large portion of my life in.
Inbox Zero and its arguable brilliance aside, here's my strategy for configuring (and then USING) Priority Inbox to increase my productivity.
What I do not plan on getting out of Priority Inbox: Time savings later on. Why? Email in an inbox is inherently hard to scan, and even when properly categorized, you have to rescan each email individually for it to remind you of anything. Just because my inbox is now divided into
- Important AND Unread,
- Important, and
- Everything Else
doesn't somehow magically let me know what email I should be re-reading right now in order to inform me what my next efforts should be directed toward. Often, an email gets a Star and sits in my Inbox precisely because I know I won't be able to do anything about it for at least a week, and I figure I'll forget about it if I don't leave it there to remind me later.
What I do plan on getting out of Priority Inbox: A reason to ask my brain to do more of the work as soon as I receive the email. When an email arrives, Gmail will do its best to decide if it is Important or not. If it isn't, the email will fall all the way to the bottom of my Inbox, even though there are read emails sitting above it. If I can trust Google to guess correctly, I can now safely ignore that email entirely until such a time as I choose to go through my unimportant email and deal with it. If, on the other hand, the email is marked as Important, I should probably read it now. If the email was indeed worthy of my immediate attention, I will leave it marked as Important - otherwise, it will be marked Unimportant. If the email requires a response of some sort that I am unable to provide immediately, I will leave it in my inbox - otherwise, it will be Archived. If the required action is of considerable effort, I will Star it (thus providing a visual indicator of how many heavy-duty items are on the list).
The other thing I want to discuss here is Gmail Labels - something I've used because they were like folders (and because Filters made them easy to apply automatically) but have applied poorly and used very infrequently. Today's thoughts about Priority Inbox have helped me decide on a better use of Labels. Again, the theory is that it is best to ask my brain to manually categorize an email as soon as it arrives (using, of course, keyboard shortcuts to make the process bearably fast). The categories, though, are the issue - what rises to the level of a category? I have decided that my life is focused around certain basic desires or pursuits, and these should correspond directly to my Gmail Labels. Previously, I had labels like Commerce, Bank, Internet, and Church. Not only do I have no need for a view that shows me all Bank-related emails, but it really doesn't help my brain to classify an email as having to do with banking. When it comes in, I already know all I need to know about it from the first line, and the vast, vast majority of those emails aren't interesting in the slightest. An email from a friend about Photography, however, or an email to a flight instructor about my next lesson - these things are worth categorizing, because it is worth reminding myself regularly what my priorities are, why, what order they fall into, and that each of them requires some regular effort in order to maintain (if, indeed, I want to maintain each one).
This leads me to a question, which may be better addressed in a subsequent post. Around what do we organize our lives? If we're organizing them around anything other than our basic pursuits, I suspect we're fooling ourselves into a false organization that serves mostly to exalt the stated rather than the actual purposes of our lives. Let's talk about this soon, shall we?