Gmail does a pretty good job of categorizing your messages. You can train it to do better.
Move messages that you must review, respond to, or take action upon to the Primary tab.
- Move social network notifications to the Social tab.
- These messages duplicate information in your social networks.
- You should be able to select and delete everything in this tab without missing it.
- For example, notifications from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, WordPress, etc.
- Move business offers and informational newsletters to the Promotions tab.
- These messages promote products, services, people, and ideas you like but can safely ignore.
- You should be able to select and delete everything in this tab without missing it.
- For example, messages from Medium, Substack, Seth Godin, Walgreens, and Pocket.
- Move important messages that you should see but usually do not need to act upon to the Updates tab.
- These include automated automated paystub/billing/account/renewal notifications.
- Move messages from message boards and mailing lists to the Forums tab.
- You should be able to individually review and delete most of these messages.
Routinely unsubscribe from notifications and newsletters you don’t read. Some senders let you cut the frequency from daily to weekly or monthly.
Stop using your email as a holding pen for I should do’s and somedays.Me, thinking to myself 🙂
My email inbox was a bottomless pile of messages seen and considered but not resolved. Having so many small choices increased my stress and reduced my ability to get things done.
Then, about a month or so ago, I heard “inbox zero” mentioned. I intuitively grasped the concept and set about finding a better way to process my email that reduces my effort, stress, and mess. It’s most obvious feature is that you have zero emails in you inbox.
Now (Feb 20th) I’ve been doing this for over a month and have gotten faster and better at it. Here’s my updated system, which I call zero inbox.
Before you practice zero inbox, train Gmail to sort your messages.
- Scan and delete the messages that don’t matter.
- In Gmail, this includes everything in your Social and Promotions tabs.
- Scan and read the messages that matter. Do the following and then archive these.
- Respond briefly, if needed
- Forward messages that require attention or action from others. Include a note saying what you want them to notice or do.
- If writing this note takes more than a few minutes, schedule a 10-minute videoconference or call with them.
- Make to-do tasks from messages require further action. (Don’t let yourself start working on this things now.)
When you’re done every message should be deleted or archive. Your inbox should be empty.
It helps to know what your focus/responsibilities/goals/interests are. Don’t waste time on messages that fall outside of these. Don’t get sucked into email threads that don’t concern you or your work.
However, this new approach has created a new problem: a ballooning to-do list. Now, I must find a better way manage these tasks.
|More urgent||Less Urgent|
|More important||Do it now||Schedule it soon|
|Less important||Divide & conquer, or delegate||Delete it, say “No,” or toss|
it in the “someday” folder
I’ll let you know how it goes.
Recently, I wrote about zero inbox, my hack for getting rid of email stress and mess. I also mentioned that it depends on having a to-do list that can link back to your email messages.
A few years ago, I started using the free version of Todoist, an elegant and dependable app developed by a Germany-based software company. I was so pleased that I upgraded a year or so ago to their Premium version for $3/mo, billed annually.
Getting the most out of my to-do list requires a little skill and effort. Here’s how I add tasks to todoist:
- Using the todoist extension in Chrome, I create an item for (almost) every task I encounter. The extension makes it easy to link to an email message or browser tab that’s open.
- I avoid creating duplicate to-do items for tech docs deliverables I’m already tracking in an enterprise tool, like Jira or Bugzilla. Duplicates double or triple the amount of maintenance work I have to do.
- For tasks I’m already tracking in enterprise tools, I create an umbrella task like “Work on the top priority item in Jira.”
- Because this work is my highest priority, I type “p1” as a keyword in the item’s description: Todoist highlights the task with a red checkbox and moves it to the top of my to-do list.
- I also mention the “every weekday” keyword, so Todoist makes this item a recurring task.
- Finally, I click “Add website as task” so Todoist includes a link to Jira in the to-do item. This helps me reduce the number of open tabs in my browser, so I’m more productive.
Recently, I started practicing zero inbox. I didn’t read any specific how-to articles or books, I just implemented it based on these two principles:
- DON’T USE YOUR EMAIL AS A TO DO LIST.
- MESSAGES: DELETE, ARCHIVE, OR DEAL WITH THEM.
A quick search for “zero inbox” turned up this article and a 2007 Google TechTalks video on YouTube featuring Merlin Mann:
Merlin’s approach is a more nuanced (and probably more efficient) than mine. My approach is simpler:
- I CHECK EMAIL between tasks and scheduled work periods.
- I DELETE messages that have no informational value.
- I ARCHIVE messages that seem to have some informational value. If the topic comes up in the future, I can search for it.
- I DEAL WITH IT by replying to the message, adding a task to my to do list, and archiving the message. The to do task is linked to the archived email message.
This system works for me. It reduces my stress, mess, and effort.
As technical communicators, how do we ensure that our user instantly gets what the topic is about?
Here are the answers to that question, based on my reading of “Simple,” the central chapter of Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick.
Making something simple does not mean dumbing it down.
To make our content simple, we must:
- Find the core idea and present it first.
- Use the remaining content to support the core idea.
- Eliminate everything else.
To illustrate this, Made to Stick describes a problem the US Army had a with orders: By the time commanders in the field received the order, it was outdated and the commanders had to choose between ignoring the order or implementing an order that no longer made sense.
To solve this problem, the US Army improved its communication protocols in 1980 by adding a commander’s intent (CI) to each order. The CI is “a crisp plain-talk statement, [to] the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation.” As a result, field commanders could act on the intention of the order, its core idea, despite changing circumstances in the field.
The CI sounds a lot like the DITA shortdesc element writers put at the beginning of their topic, just below the heading.
- For a procedural topic, use the shortdesc to “explain what the task information helps users accomplish, the benefits of the task, or the purpose of the task.”
- For a conceptual topic, use the shortdesc to, “introduce the concept and provide a concise answer to the question ‘What is this?’ and in some cases ‘Why do I care about this?’ If the concept is unfamiliar, you can start with a brief definition.”
I know some of you feel ill when you hear DITA mentioned in tech writing discussions. Even if you’re not using DITA, you can’t deny that it makes sense to give your readers a clear statement of the core idea at the beginning of your topic.
Doing this helps your reader to quickly “sniff” whether this is the information they are seeking so they can decide to read more or continue looking.
The opposite of identify the core idea and putting it at the top is:
- Burying it somewhere else in the content.
- Presenting multiple competing ideas.
- Including tangential or irrelevant information.
We don’t do these things on purpose. They happen because we are either blind to them or lack the time and energy to revise them out of existence.
The ugly; revising to good
For me, words are like stepping stones that mark a path through a garden of information. When I revise a topic I’m working on, I reread the words and retrace the path I laid out earlier.
As I do this, I notice odd spots:
- If I notice a misplaced stone, I move it to a better better spot or toss it out.
- When I find a gap, I fill it with a stone from somewhere else or I generate a new stone by generating the idea that belongs there.
Usually, these changes create new odd spots in the path. So, with each move or fill, I spend a bit of time working it into place and reworking the surrounding material. I keep doing this, developing my thoughts and moving them around until I feel like I’m done.
Then I come back the next day and see a whole new set of things that are out of place. This is more of a problem with blog posts like this one than with technical content, whose structure is more defined.
The trouble with “eliminating everything else” is that I’m still generating new ideas (stones) when I’m revising. To solve this, I have to force myself to stop creating and focus only on removal. This isn’t easy if I’m attached to interesting by irrelevant ideas in the content. The solution is to save off a copy of the document before I start cutting away the excess. That way, when I finish the current topic, I can review the copy and use the interesting bits to generate new topics.
This is the first in a series of posts on my journey as a technical writer to improve how I deliver ideas to readers’ minds and make them stick there.
You never know where you’ll discover a gold nugget. I found Chip and Dan Heath’s work by chance in a Google docs slide template called Making Presentations that Stick.
Intrigued, I googled “Chip and Dan Heath” and found their New York Times bestseller, Made to Stick, why some ideas survive and others die.
I was amazed to see that Amazon’s preview of Made to Stick generously gives away the “big secret” at the very heart of the book! It’s right there, free for anyone to read and use!
Most books keep their core ideas hidden away so you have to buy the book. Here, the authors flip that approach on its head. They give away the core idea for free, like open source software. They know these ideas are so simple and useful that they’ll find a much larger audience than if they were hidden. Then, that audience will turn right around, buy the book, and mention it to everyone they know. That’s what I’m doing right here.
The principles of the book boil down to an acronym, SUCCES:
I know, I know, you might be thinking – “ugh! Yet another business book with a catchy acronym!” But this book is SO much more than that. It’s a deeply researched and thoughtful work. Each principle is explained and demonstrated with a fascinating collection of stories – examples and anti-examples that give weight and depth to each principle. I’m amazed I didn’t hear of this book sooner. I wish I had read it years ago.
This book has had such a profound effect on me that I’m completely reworking the Explain Better talk I proposed to Write the Docs – Portland 2021 last month. I’ll hear back in a couple of weeks whether it was accepted. Even if it isn’t, I’ll hold an unconference on Explain Better.
In the following newsletters, I’ll discuss how I apply each of the SUCCES principles to technical writing.
I’m doing this to:
- Get more hands-on experience running Kubernetes.
- Set up a development environment for my son, who is a game developer.
- Try my hand at developing a simple app or microservices.