..has dropped a little on this front, but in a war on many fronts, sacrifices are made. Back to the business – the business of productivity maximisation.
(Sing along – ‘theyyyre’s no bizness….’)

43 folders is the best source of information for how to make your work and leisure more efficient, whilst perversely being an ideal place to while away a lot of time that could have been better spent doing other stuff. From a typically tip-packed post , I am particularly in agreement with this:

Standarize your Subject lines – I think well-crafted email subject lines are largely a lost art today. Back in the day, people would use them like IMs, creating a message where the Subject line could stand as a request or answer all by itself. No more. I know I’m guilty of my share of “Subject: Hi” emails to be sure. We all are. But good subjects can save tons of time when used correctly and consistently. Whenever I manage projects, I encourage everyone to start the subject line for all project emails with the same 4-6 letter code. Spacely Sprockets’ project emails might start with “SPROCK,” for example. This makes filtering a breeze and helps you visually organize your inbox more quickly, especially when you work with a given person across several projects.

Yes, yes, a dozen times yes. Another tip I would give is to use gmail, or any kind of email system with threadable conversations, to group circumscribed projects cleanly and simply. For those who aren’t familiar, when you get a reply to a message in gmail, or reply to a message, these are paired together in your inbox: If Sam asks “Let’s meet at 6. where shall we?” and I reply “Foyles on Charing Cross Road”, then the inbox will read ‘Sam(2)’ and clicking will reveal a page with both messages displayed in chronological order, making it a snap for me to refresh myself of all the salient facts. This stacking will persevere as long as somone doesn’t change the header or send a new mail rather than replying.

I’ve done this on a larger scale with my projects I am running with students. I’ve got 4 groups of roughly 3 students each, and with those numbers the inbox can get peppered with responses that may or may not be labelled or placed in folders, leading to a high tendency to disorder. So when the first group approached me, I gmailed them with “miniprojects” as a header, and asked them to keep to correspondence by replying to this account. When other students started applying for the projects, I forwarded/replied to the first groups response, deleting their email and the email content and sending it to the new students. Soon I had conversations with four sets of students, identifiable by the “To” header information, all in one chronological thread, with my outgoing messages placed in order amongst them.

It’s now come a bit adrift as people have been sending fresh emails. I suspect they are inclined to do so because they are not using threaded conversations themselves, so the advantage isn’t really there (I also must admit I have broken the chain on one occasion – still need to train myself into it). But it has proven enormously helpful, especially when trying to organise multiple meetings that were interdependent without losing where I was. The utility of having causal linkage between mail is massive for me – no more hopping from inbox to outbox to verify what the hell I had said in the first place.

In the comments to that post, Tyler Weir shares a nice idea:

Adding useful text to the subject line is a great time saver. At work we commonly do something like this: “Working from home today: 555-555-1234 [nt]” Where “[nt]” stands for “no text.” That way you tell the recipient they don’t even have to open it.

Also in that post is some wise advice about preparing for illness.

Create a sick box – Make up a little box filled with all the stuff you’ll want fast access to on the next morning you wake up with a cold. TheraFlu, cough drops, fresh box of Kleenex, unwatched DVD you’ve been saving, a nice trashy novel, and the phone numbers of anyone you’d need to contact at work. Believe me, you’re in no mood to collect this crap when you wake up with the flu kicking your ass.

Perhaps I should make another list of things to prepare before you get a mighty arm tattoo: hoover, wash-up etc because you won’t be doing any of that for a while, buy a hundredweight of burn cream, work out some way to sleep at night that doesn’t end up with your sticky arm bonded to your vest. OK, I’ve creeped everybody out now.

4 Replies to “Efficiency”

  1. I agree about the email subject and threads (and the better mail clients also have some way of visuallying linking the emails in a thread together), but it does depend on other people getting right. My experience is that other people will consistently ignore instructions, and I have to keep re-filing mail because of a few things they do:

    1) sending work mail to my home account and vice versa.
    2) forgetting to add a tag (I explicitly ask for this from students I teach, but they almost always forget)
    3) replying to old irrelevant messages because its less effort than looking up my email address

    It’s not that these things invalidate what you were saying—that half of my incoming mail does this properly still saves me time—but it would work better if people could just follow instructions.

  2. Yes, that’s it with me. Out of interest, what are the mail clients you are thinking of? Should finally be getting proper broadband at home, and am thinking of kitting my laptop out with software that will actually do what I want it to do, without plumbing through all the possibilities. I hear Thunderbird is ok (and free), as well as things like Pine. Using windows, although I am wondering whether I should move over to Unix…thing is I know too little about it to know if it would suit me. I’ve begun shedding a lot of MIcrosoft based stuff like Word for text editors because I hate the fiddly opacity of it all, and I’m getting fed up with WSIWYG for those reasons. However, I am unsure about whether a lot of the praises sung about say, Pine and Unix are from long-time converts rather than through considered opinion…

  3. I use Apple Mail, which doesn’t put threads together, but it does highlight all the other messages in the same thread as the one I’m currently reading, which is as much as I need from it. I wouldn’t recommend text-mode mail programs. Their devotees tend to have a certain “I don’t use a mouse” nerd-machismo, and really the easier random access that a mouse permits is very useful in a mail client.

    Incidentally, I really strongly advise against installing Linux for a home computer. Some of my colleagues would shoot me for saying this, but it’s just too much work. Once your system is all up and running it would have certain advantages over Windows, but the amount of time you’d have to spend either learning how to use a non-intuitive system or simply battling the software to get it working would not result in a net increase in your productivity. Now if your dept has a pre-exisiting Unix system that you can get access to, that might be more worth using, because someone else (whose job it is to be expert in such things) is doing the administration of the system for you….

    Oh, and I’ve switched from Word to LyX for document processing. For me it gets the right balance between being somewhat visual and mouse-responsive but not distractingly so. Having said that, I’ve never used the Windows version, and in general Windows ports that require Cygwin and an X server are more trouble than they’re worth.

  4. I forgot to mention: gmail has the best threading view I’ve seen. It’s generally a very well designed webmail interface, and it’s a great illustration of how much time such a thing can save as compared to using the bog-standard webmail systems.

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