My Totally Great Guide to Managing Email Like a Pro

This morning I read a new article from Joshua A. Krisch posted to fatherly.com called “Why Email Is So Stressful, According To Science”. As the headline makes clear, the author believes that email anxiety is one of the biggest causes of stress for the average office worker.

Everyone seems to have their own system for dealing with email, whether it’s treating it like a game, trying for inbox zero, responding to a few at a time and ignoring the rest, or throwing their hands up and declaring email bankruptcy.

The last option is not uncommon, but is also scary since we all assume that somewhere in those unread emails is that exact opportunity that we’ve been waiting for, and it’s through our inability to manage the growing pile of correspondence that we’re missing out.

Another fear is that we’ve waited too long to respond to an email, and as time goes on we naturally want to respond to it less, as our guilt around not responding grows. The podcast Reply All decided to fight back two years ago by starting the holiday Email Debt Forgiveness Day, which was just a few weeks ago. If you missed out you can still find info on their site on how to celebrate, along with a helpful email template.

But does it have to be this hard? I get stress from email time to time, but I admit that it’s never been all-consuming in my life, personal or work. I don’t think that I’m preternaturally disposed to being less stressed by communication, far from it. I have found a few things that make email easier to manage for me, and I’m going to put on my productivity wizard hat to dictate how you should handle your communications.

1. Check Email Less Frequently

This one should be the most straightforward. If you check email less frequently, you have a better opportunity to treat it like a discrete event. Use the novelty of checking a few times per day to provide more focus to what you’re checking.

I keep my inbox clean enough that I’m ok with keeping it in reverse chronological order. I click at the top, and have the Gmail settings for the send and archive buttons as well as the auto-advance lab feature on. I also use keyboard shortcuts on my accounts, allowing me to use my keyboard more, which I’m already using to write.

You can find the Send & Archive button as well as the keyboard shortcuts in Gmail in the settings page located at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#settings/general. The Auto-Advance lab feature can be turned on here: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#settings/labs

The Send & Archive button on email compose means I save a few clicks and a screen load.
The Auto-advance feature also saves time by letting me move directly from one email to the next.

Using those features I can more quickly progress through email while clearing out my inbox. Every email is acted on and archived.

I start out with a win by making a lot of email skip the inbox in the first place by filtering them to folders if they are automated notifications or newsletters. I currently use Unroll.me to group emails together, but I’m phasing it out as I transition to a new email account.

2. Get off of the Notification Cycle

I’m not a fan of notifications pretty much anywhere. I have a few things that can send me notifications like work messages and texts, but otherwise I let apps and websites stay quiet unless I choose to check on them.

I could expound upon how this relates to email specifically, but honestly it helps reduce stress with a lot of how I use the web. I end up checking some things more frequently than I’d like, but I let them fit to my schedule, not the other way around.

3. Know When to Say No/Manage Expectations

I know the urge to say yes to requests can be powerful. I do this all the time, and I don’t fault anyone else who does. It’s only over the past few years that I’ve started learning how to say no to things that don’t fit my skillset, or that don’t directly help me gain new skills or serve clients better.

I get the idea that you miss 100% of shots not taken, but maybe those aren’t the shots that I should be taking anyway.

I also try to let people know when and how I’ll respond, if I am going to have to pass on something, or if there will be further action taken. Being direct is one of the best things that I’ve learned to do in email both to set expectations for others, as well as clarify my thinking.

If I can put my desires into words, I can have a better chance of making them happen.

4. Treat Email as a Separate Medium

This is a habit that’s hard to make. What I mean by treating email as a separate medium is that it’s not a text, it’s not a letter, and it’s not a social media update. Email has existed in a similar form to what we use now for almost fifty years, yet we still want to write full letters with greetings and salutations.

Chances are I know who you are if I’m responding to an email, and vice versa. I understand that some people feel rude sending short emails, but generally an email that can be answered quickly – or doesn’t require an answer at all – makes recipients feel even better. One hundred people can send me emails that individually take them a few moments to compose, but if they all send in teh same day that equals hours of time dealing with them.

On the topic of emails without response, I’m still looking for a polite way to let people know that emails don’t require a response. Don’t feel obligated to send me a “Thanks for handling this!” email, when all it ends up meaning is another message to manage.

So, that’s my attempt at an email listicle. What email tricks should I be trying out? Make me feel more productive!

Sometimes You Have to Let a Project Rest

Yesterday I wrote about my starter child theme For Genesis, and said that today’s post would both be earlier, and cover a code generator.

As you can probably tell by the time of posting, I didn’t keep that first promise, and I think I’d prefer not to keep the second promise either.

It’s not that I don’t want to show off this code, tell you how it saves me time, and make it available for your use, since I do. But I realized yesterday that there’s a lot of cleanup that I want to do to both my starter theme and the theme generator.

I spent a fair portion of my downtime today updating my starter child theme, and making some modifications to my development toolset. I’ll have to talk about that sometime too, since things that I assumed would be simple ended up taking far longer than intended.

Why it’s OK to Delay

Because it’s my excuse for not getting something done. ????

Ok, that’s not quite fair. True, I have given myself some extra time, but I also realized that I needed to step away a bit, and look at this with fresh eyes. An issue that I was having with a build tool earlier came down to it referencing an incorrect folder, pulling the wrong version of a file. A lot of dev work comes down to these simple mistakes, where you’re sure that everything looks like it’s supposed to, but something minor slips by.

In taking a bit of time to rest, you let yourself view a project fresh when you return, which can often lead to spotting things that you missed before due to carelessness, or more likely over-exertion. Those things that were in your blind spots are suddenly lit up, making you wonder why you wasted hours in the first place.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m taking some of my weekend to clean up some personal code because I want to deliver something that has fewer bugs, and is more in-line with the quality that I want to put out.

I’ll save those posts for next week most likely, since I figure work related things are more likely to be interesting on weekdays. In the meantime, have a good weekend!

Tools and Techniques That Have Improved Development Tasks

Next up on my run-through of things that have improved my workflow is development tasks. This is one area where I know that I need a lot of improvement, as there are so many tools out there.

Starting Projects

I typically begin each WordPress based project via Vagrant and a VVV box on my local machine. We did a meetup on this and other local development environments last month, and some notes and links can be found on our recap post.

I started using Brad Parbs’ excellent addon Variable VVV, or just VV. It’s made creating new development sites even easier, and adding blueprints on top of that have made it even even easier. For instance, this basic blueprint installs the Genesis framework, installs a Genesis child theme that I made that is in need of update, activates that child theme, installs Gravity Forms, activates and licenses it, installs and activates Jetpack, and loads some test content from wptest.io so I can see how the site that I’m creating looks with various content. Not bad for what becomes a one line command!

{
  "genesis": {
    "themes": [
      {
        "location": "An up to date Genesis Zip",
        "activate": false
      },
      {
        "location": "davidlaietta/obm-genesis-child",
        "activate": true
      }
    ],
    "plugins": [
      {
        "location": "An up to date Gravity Forms Zip",
        "version": null,
        "force": false,
        "activate": true,
        "activate_network": false
      },
      {
        "location": "jetpack",
        "version": null,
        "force": false,
        "activate": true,
        "activate_network": false
      }
    ],
    "options": [
      "current_theme::obm-genesis-child"
    ],
    "demo_content": [
      "link::https://raw.githubusercontent.com/manovotny/wptest/master/wptest.xml"
    ],
    "defines": [
      "WP_CACHE::false",
      "GF_LICENSE_KEY:: My Gravity Forms License Key"
    ]
  },
}

The most important thing for me is that I have things to start with. VVV and a starter theme or plugin do more for me than just save time. They also save mental energy and keep me away from that dreaded blank page that makes even simple projects more daunting. With a starter I feel like I’m half done when I get started, because in essence I am. Every project doesn’t need a complete rewrite, and the time and energy saved can be better put to the specifics of this one project.

Maintaining Projects

I’ve been getting better at committing code to a version control system for every project. I’m still working on most things solo, but when someone else needs to jump in or review, it’s been a big help, at least in making me look more professional. For clients we use Bitbucket, but in general I’m going to start posting more things up on Github. I’m at least going to put up a gist library of common code snippets that I use and reuse with lots of projects, as that cuts down the amount of work and places where mistakes could crop up if I am constantly redoing it.

I keep copious notes, often in Drive in a client folder, that I can review for later, as well as the tasks in Trello that I mentioned yesterday. Even if I’ve got a feature or change that I know is not coming up now whether through time or budget constraints, I prefer to keep it in mind so that it doesn’t surprise me later. Plus, there are often easy wins, like being able to reuse member registrations for one portion of a project for another, that can allow me to offer extra value to clients with little additional work. Writing something right the first time is a lot easier than writing it one way then having to shoehorn a feature in later.

Conclusion

I specifically didn’t go too in depth, because when it comes to tools, I mainly feel that what works for you works. I use Sublime Text as my editor, but there are a lot of great ones out there. I personally don’t really like using an IDE for general web development, and like the versatility and breadth of plugins that Sublime offers. I also think the process that works is the one that you stick with. Despite the things that I know that I need to get better about (setting up projects in Sublime, utilizing Grunt as a task manager, etc), I can still be productive and slowly add new knowledge over time.

Do you have any specific tools or processes that have saved you lots of time or that you expect to save time in the long term? I’m always looking for ways to level up, so let me know!

Four Things ‘The Wind Rises’ Taught Me About Passion

Last night I rewatched ‘The Wind Rises’, an animated biopic about the early life of Jiro Horikoshi. Mr. Horikoshi was an engineer who designed airplanes, most notably the Zero Fighter infamously used by Japan during WWII. Like another Jiro that I wrote about two years ago, he had dreams of his work that led him to his passions.

There were many negatives to Jiro’s work (which he famously acknowledged), as well as a long list of lives affected or ended by his creations. The story presented in the movie is not about these negatives or the moral dilemma of the subject. Instead it portrays a man driven by his passion, quite literally dreaming of amazing creations.

thewindrises2

I’ve taken a few key points away from the movie relating to how I view work and passion. I truly believe that the most powerful thing that you can do for yourself is to work on your passions.

1. Start With Love

The Wind Rises - Start With Love

It’s tempting to look at what others are doing that seems easy or fun and decide to do it. It’s even more tempting when you can see people making a solid living in whatever industry you’re viewing and decide that you will do just as well. The real challenge is to avoid the temptation and instead focus on the thing that you can’t stop talking, thinking, reading and even dreaming about.

If you can’t start with “love” then everyone who does love will beat everyone who “likes” or “hates”. 

James Altucher

The things that you love to do are those things that will carry you through when it gets rough. When you feel like you’re stuck in a rut and everyone is surpassing you and it’s not as easy as it initially looked. When you get so far down but don’t even question it, because of course this is the thing that you were meant to do.

2. Learn From Your Mistakes

The Wind Rises - Learn From Your Mistakes

You will mess up. With any luck, you’ll mess up big time. If you do this and you keep going, you know you’re doing the thing that you love.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my work, and continue to do so. The important thing is that I attempt to learn from those mistakes and mitigate them in the future.

It is easy to screw up and give up, but why stop when you’re putting in your 10,000 hours on the way to mastery? Looking at it another way: I’d rather keep going than have to start over again somewhere else because I’ve made a mistake. You can’t gain mastery if you give up after your first setback.

3. Do the Hard Work

The Wind Rises - Do the Hard Work

Passion is great, but sustained work is exhausting. There will be times when you question whether the love is enough to get you through. Those are the times that you need to dig in and focus on the hard work.

Sometimes you have to do something that you don’t want to do on the way to your goals. Sometimes you have to work on or learn things that you don’t care about because they are stepping stones to the things that you do want to be doing.

It’d be a lie to say that doing what you love means that you never get tired of it and never feel drained by it. The important thing, like sticking through mistakes, is staying the course even when the thing you love sometimes feels like the thing that’s killing you.

4. Keep Dreaming

thewindrises4

Finally, don’t forget that love that got you where you are in the first place. Work will become stagnant if you don’t keep thinking of ways to expand and improve. You can become the best at the level that you’re at while still having people in front of you to follow.

The nice thing about perfection is that it’s an impossible dream. The great thing about passion is that it doesn’t even consider that. It will drive you to strive for perfection, giving you new dreams of new things to get you there.

Do you want to get better? Do you want to learn how to do something new? Take a hint from the first tip that James Altucher offers in the story that I just linked. Love it. Love your work, then follow the rest of the steps to get there.

Sharing This Link is a Crime

I’m not generally a political person, though I do have an interest in the process and outcome of politics from time to time. This is especially the case when it comes to technology, and the future of the web. As the revolving source of my life and livelihood, I care deeply about the usability of the open internet, and how that changes based on the opinions of others.

Tonight, the president will be giving the 2015 State of the Union Address. I won’t be watching it live. I will instead be at Orlando Soup, looking at some upcoming projects to benefit Orlando, and trying to do a small part to help out. I do know that one topic that he is going to discuss is changes to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and will tacitly if not openly be offering support for CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which is being reintroduced for a third congress, ready to get terror support after the recent Sony hack.

Part of the updates to the CFAA involve changing hacking crimes to racketeering crimes. The CEO of Errata Security has posted a bit of what this means, but the short of it that is important to me is that sharing publicly available information (or in some cases viewing it) can be seen as a crime almost as bad as making that information public in the first place.

I answer questions on Quora. I share knowledge at in person events and lectures, share thoughts via Meetup and Facebook groups, link to new information on Twitter, and post some of that same information here, on my own blog. Will I be liable for links that I share to warn people of new hacks and vulnerabilities on their sites? If I give out some information on the WordPress support forums relating to security issues, how am I certain that I won’t be running afoul of the law? By the way, of the many companies that aren’t 14 year old tweeters in basements, even though they aren’t blindly supporting Rep Mike Rogers, Automattic is one of the companies standing up to prove him wrong.

Next weekend I’ll be helping out at Code for Orlando. We’ll be working on tools to showcase what locals can do with open city data, with the goal of producing economic output for the city and the creation of new companies. The ability to view and interact with data that is created by us and on our behalf is important. The control of that data has become more valuable than the control of physical assets, and there’s no doubt that limiting access is an attempt to consolidate that control.

They may say that they want us to share, but what they really mean is that they want a one way street. We’re free share our information with the government, whether we choose to or not, but we get arrested, fined and jailed if we choose to share with anyone else.

CISPA image by Paul Swansen is licensed under CC BY 2.0