How To Manage The Chaos Of Work (So You Can Focus On What Really Matters)

The digital age has created more demands on your workday. Here are tricks and tools to handle the busy-ness so you can focus on your business.
October 03, 2013

Okay, I'm just going to come out and say it: Lifehacking and business 2.0 are a swindle. 

What business on the Web and in the cloud really means is that you basically feel like a hunk of lead in the Large Hadron Collider. Emails, links, connections, tweets, posts and meeting requests bombard you like the uncountable multitudes of subatomic particles every millisecond in a tightly focused proton beam.

You can't ignore that stuff, but if you let yourself simply react, you'll never get to the really important stuff that's going to transform your business.

The key, I've found, is to have systems to manage the chaos. The more you can get this stuff out of an undifferentiated pile in your brain and into a largely self-managing system, the more room you'll have in your brain for the things you should be thinking about. 

While it's an ever-evolving system, here's the set of tools and the systems I use to give myself the space to not just get things done, but, as the father of modern business and management Peter Drucker put it, get the right things done.


The worst offender of all, email is the first source of chaos to get under control. What I've found is that once you pass a certain number of emails per day, you can't just read emails and act on them as they come in. You have to curate and manage them as their own work stream.

I don't have a complicated set of folders—I find that's too much to maintain. I try to keep everything archived that isn't active. Gmail gives you near infinite space and great search (natch) so it's always easy enough to dig something up if you need to. So, if it's unread, then I, you know, haven't read it. If it's starred (or flagged), then it's something that requires action from me. If it's read and unstarred, then it's a conversation I'm monitoring. Those are all the rules: all you would need to look at my inbox and know exactly what's going on.

When I go through email, I go in rounds. First, I delete everything that I know I can just delete. Then I archive anything I know I can just archive without reading. Gmail's inbox tabs are really helpful here: A lot of stuff in the secondary tabs (social, promotions and forum emails) falls into this category. Then, I read what's left. 

If it's something I can take action on in less than one minute, I do so. For everything else, I star or leave emails alone if it's just something I want to monitor until everything's read. The end result? My inbox is a brief summary of conversations I'm watching and items I need to act on, and I can prioritize accordingly. 

A key to the above is that I can do almost all of it from my phone. If you can manage your inbox on your phone, you can make a lot of progress in time that would otherwise be lost—time waiting in line or for a plane to take off.

Connecting With People 

Everyone knows that networking is important. I'm fairly extroverted, so I enjoy meeting people and developing relationships, but my problem is the time it takes to do so. For me, that's the beauty of social networks. They allow you to connect with the people you want to keep up with, and have small interactions with them regularly, again, often from your phone.

But you can help yourself out: I set up Google alerts for people so I get notified when they've done something online and I have a reason to catch up. If you want to go super pro, create a simple call sheet: a spreadsheet with names, contact info and last contact. Set aside a small chunk of time to just cycle through people. Drop an email, set up a time to meet up for coffee or drinks. Then you know you're taking care of your relationships and you don't have to worry about it the rest of the time.

Keeping Current

So often, what's clogging my inbox are all the articles people want me to read. For that, I have Instapaper, a browser plug-in you can click on to save online content to read later. Rather than filling up my email, I send all those items to Instapaper so I can read them in a batch, say, on Saturday mornings.

Also, it may seem like a small efficiency, but if you have more than three or four news sites or blogs you want to keep up with regularly, a feed reader with a good mobile experience is a huge help. It lets you keep up in one place and is usually quicker to scan than any given site.

Random Tasks

Finally, there's your to-do list. I use Trello, which is more of a Kanban system than your typical to-do list. Kanban, if you're unfamiliar, is an agile methodology that attaches work items to cards and then moves them through a workflow represented by columns. Trello is a very simple (but fairly powerful) implementation of the philosophy, and you can create whatever columns you like and all the cards you want. A simple personal Kanban system would have a To-Do, a Doing, and a Done column. You'd limit the number of cards in Doing at any one time, and every so often archive everything in the Done column. There are a couple reasons why I think such a system is more effective than crossing stuff off a big, long list.

First, like any to-do list, you want to be able to capture tasks as they come along quickly (so you HAVE to have it on your phone, and Trello's app is lovely) and organize your work in a way that's meaningful to you. Using the Kanban system, I create a new column for everything done in any given week, which in turn gives me a sense of how many tasks I can actually expect to get done every day. That way, when I go over what I want to accomplish each morning, I have a good sense of what my limit for my Doing column should be, and I can make realistic choices about what I can get done. If I can realistically get done what I select for myself, then I can make proactive choices about what's actually important, and not have that decision emerge for me. Limiting the number of things I'm trying to do, but making those limits a conscious choice means I don't have a nagging feeling that I'm ignoring something important, and I can focus at the task at hand.

It's not perfect, and worse, I'm far from perfect about keeping it up. But the important thing is to have a system that self-manages as much as possible to help free your mind. The more the little things can be governed by a clear set of rules and kept in an organized system, the more you can forget about them and know that they'll be taken care of in due course. Then maybe you can relax and get something really important done.

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