If you haven’t developed a case of digital fatigue yet, chances are you will soon.
The problem, explains information guru Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload, is that we lack good solutions to the digital overload. His book—available as a download from iTunes and on Kindle—is a mother lode of methods for clearing out data clutter.
Here are some of the biggest challenges and Hurst’s tips for dealing with them:
The average e-mail box brims with junk. It’s hard to prioritize items, find specific messages and recall the content of what you’ve read. The clutter cuts productivity and leaves you feeling buried, no matter how much you accomplish.
To cure it, categorize e-mails as personal, newsletters, FYIs (non-actionable messages keeping you in the loop), calendar items and to-do items that require action. Keep that inbox clean as follows:
Read all personal e-mails, then delete them.
Delete all spam mail.
Read and delete FYIs. If you’ll need them later or need to keep the attachments, store the e-mail and attachments in a folder, then delete the FYI e-mail.
Put all calendar items on your calendar, then delete the e-mail.
Deal with all to-dos. When the action can be completed in less than two minutes, do it immediately. If the item requires more time, move it to a to-do list, giving it a date and priority for completion (more on this later). Then delete from your inbox.
Read newsletters quickly. If you have too little time, scan headlines and delete. Save (in a file, not in your e-mail) any portions you feel might be useful later. Delete.
This will help you clear your inbox by the end of every day.
When writing, respect your recipients’ time. Use a clear subject line suggesting the content of the e-mail, and keep the message brief. Put the most important information first, review your message to ensure it’s clear, then edit mercilessly—the less time a message takes to read, the more likely it is to be read. E-mails may not be opened when you send them, so stating a deadline of “tomorrow” is meaningless. State the actual date you mean.
Don’t write a memo or letter and send it as an attachment—this makes the recipient have to work to get to the content. And remember that once sent, e-mails take on a life of their own; never say anything private, cruel, offensive, gossipy, etc. And never send an e-mail when you’re angry.
Your Sent Items folder is not a suitable a filing system. Instead, include yourself in the BCC (blind courtesy copy) field to keep a record of sent e-mails. Since they arrive in your inbox, you can then handle them as you would the rest of your incoming e-mail. Set up your sent items folder to delete e-mails one week after sending.
Most of us organize our daily and weekly work lives using to-do lists. Keep yours as an electronic file on your computer. (They save paper and space, sort and reorganize quickly, and “scale” up or down with your changing workload.) Set up a boilerplate to-do list using columns for action item, priority, due date and notes. That way, you can slot an incoming action item on the day you need it completed, give it a priority and keep any detail regarding the item.
Newsletters and Other Media Content
Most of us must keep up with a variety of items related to our profession, competition, industry and business community. Divide your media diet into four categories: stars, scans, targets and tryouts.
- Stars are the trusted sources you always read in detail.
- Scans are those sources that consistently contain a few worthwhile items.
- Targets are those that you need to read for specific information, such as a competitor’s newsletter.
- Tryouts are those you test for inclusion into your star/scan/target list.
As you read them, copy and paste the relevant information you need, noting the source.
Naming and Storing Files
A good file name should include just enough information to suggest the contents of the file. For ease of searching, you need to use a consistent file-naming scheme. Hurst suggests the following: Initials (of the file creator)-Date-Topic.extension
For example, if on Jan. 6, 2012, Rain Deere writes a report about competitors’ websites, the file name might read RD-010612-CompetitorWebs.doc. This system allows you to quickly see creator, date and content, so it’s easy to search. And it’s simple, so everyone in the office can follow it.
The system for storing files should consist of a few Parent Folders—for example, a folder titled Documents, a folder titled Photos, a folder titled Music and a folder titled Personal. Inside each parent folder should be two types of folders: Project Folders and Category Folders. Project folders may be named after a client or a specific project. Category folders deal with typical repeating topics, such as expenses, passwords or news clips. Project and category folders contain the files you’ve created, and they may also contain sub-folders, such as specific projects for a long-term client.
Like it or not, we’re all deep in the information era. Keeping up with incoming data is a mandatory job skill at every level of the organization. Following these simple steps will help keep your virtual desk clear.
Tell us your tips or tricks: What have you found helpful for successfully managing your data?
Vincent Hyman is a St. Paul, Minnesota–based writer and editor.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FedEx.
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