The Airtight Inbox: A Day In the Life Of an Email Productivity Evangelist

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jared Goralnick (@technotheory), founder and productivity evangelist of AwayFind, a web application that helps people to stop constantly checking their email.

Like many of you, email and social network messages have threatened to overwhelm me in recent years. Over time, I’ve developed a workflow and schedule that helps to keep me a bit saner. This workflow involves a number of tools and methods that allow me to stay in touch without being continually interrupted, and that’s what I’d like to share with you today.

From 9am to 12pm, I get things done outside of email. Every night, I jot down two or three important tasks and take note of any appointments for the next day. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t check email. With Outlook, Postbox and Gmail all closed, and my task list in hand, I start my day around 9.

So how do I stay connected to my inbox without constantly being interrupted by it? Well, I get a little help from some applications:

  • I use RescueTime (Solo Pro, $5-8/month) to keep me away from social networks and distractions until noon. When I turn on its nifty “Get Focused…” feature, it actually blocks distracting sites from my web browsers, without needing much customization. (Disclosure: RescueTime is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.)
  • I use AwayFind Orchant (currently in private beta) to send me alerts if anything critical comes up over email. So if an important client or the person I have lunch plans with that day emails me, I’ll get an IM, SMS or voice call that tells me their message. (Disclosure: AwayFind is Goralnick’s own product.)

I check my email just before lunch. I have my own approach to batch processing my email that is fairly similar to Inbox Zero. The stuff I want to deal with later gets put in a folder called “@to-do or read.” Since I clear my inbox completely at this time, I actually will go back to this folder several times throughout the day and when I create the next day’s list. The “To-Do” folder approach fails for most people because they usually have a more urgent task list still sitting in their inbox; so they never even end up looking at the “To-Do” folder. Don’t leave anything in your inbox!

There are a few tools and techniques I use to make this batching easier for me:

  • I use NutshellMail (free) to keep me out of the narcissist’s rabbit hole that is Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. NutshellMail delivers an email just before lunch that summarizes activity on my social networks that morning (Facebook notifications/messages/birthdays, Twitter searches/@’s/DM’s, LinkedIn requests/messages). I can respond from within NuthsellMail’s summary message without getting sidetracked on those sites.
  • I use Outlook flags to create reminders for email items that I need to address at specific times. If you use Outlook 2003/2007 for Windows and haven’t tried flags, it’s as easy as right-clicking the flag at the right edge of a message and choosing “Add Reminder…”
  • You might be wondering how I stay responsive on Twitter if I’ve shut down my other applications. I have a virtual assistant who monitors and responds to urgent messages — as well as certain search terms — on a few of my Twitter accounts. I also leave Seesmic Desktop running with one or two particularly urgent alerts that rarely go off.

An important part of my email workflow are the email accounts themselves, as they play a large role in my ability to process messages. I typically spend most of my time in my work account, and less time in the others. My four accounts are:

  • “Work” account (in Outlook 2007) — this is the most important inbox to me, and where most of my processing time is spent. It also has a separate inbox within it for customer support inquiries for AwayFind.
  • “Personal” account (Google Apps, accessed via Postbox ($30)) — this personal account is where I receive mail from friends. There’s zero junk in this account, and anything work-related gets responded to from my work account.
  • “Purchases, Newsletters, and Sign-ups” account (Google Apps, accessed via Postbox) — this account is for sites that need a consistent email address, or for content I may want to read or at least file for reference.
  • OtherInbox account (Free or $20/year) — While I don’t use OtherInbox to organize my email, I still love using the entire domain it gives me for bacn email. For instance, when I want to download a “free e-book” that requires an email address, I can use ebookname@myusername.otherinbox.com.” I rarely log in to my OtherInbox account, since it forwards daily summaries of stuff that’s been delivered there. This is the ultimate bacn-block (and it shields your identity, too).

After lunch, I try to spend most of my time outside of email, but often that’s not possible. Since I had left my morning completely free from emails, calls and meetings, the afternoon is often cluttered and requires some that I spend some time in Outlook. Either way, my morning accomplishments help me to actually get some real work done.

I’ll process email again at around 5pm using the same process as above. In the evenings, I’m hopefully away from my computer. If not, I’m free to slack off however I’d like.

How do you structure your day? Are there other applications that make it easier to spend more time outside of your inbox and to make better use of your time within it?

Photo credit: stock.xchng user GretheB

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