‘Lifehacks’ Category Archives


Dealing with Lots of Email

by Meri in Lifehacks, Productivity

I’ve written before about dealing with huge volumes of email, and my approach of looking at your email sideways to slice & dice it more appropriately. Since then, the various email clients and services available have improved a fair bit, making some of these things easier.

Bulk Processing

Mailstrom is great for when you have a bunch of stuff in your inbox and want to process it fast. It extends the sideways approach I talked about previously, also giving you options to unsubscribe from mailing lists (including many companies’ promotional emails), see only emails from people you have emailed, and categories of shopping and social. This in addition to being able to sort by subject, sender, time or size, as one would in a mail client.

Mailstrom also sends you emails giving you some insight into your inbox and how you’re handling it, which can be useful — sometimes an automated analysis actually makes you realise things you otherwise wouldn’t! The profile pages give you a (sometimes scary) look at how your inbox size / rate of email looks compared to others also using the service. I find mine quite worrisome.

It’s a service I happily pay for, and signing up via this Mailstrom link will get you $5 off if you’d like to try it.

Daily Upkeep

Day to day, I use Mailbox on my phone. I like that it has swipe gestures for archiving, deleting, filing (though annoyingly only in folders under Mailbox) and a snooze function. The snooze is the real killer feature IMHO — you can defer an email until tonight, tomorrow, the weekend, next week for for a month. You can also have it come back at a certain date, but I find I don’t use this much; I prefer to add things to calendar that are really for a specific date or time.

I’ve moved my @action, @readlater, @waitingfor, etc GTD folders to being under Mailbox, and swipe stuff into them when processing on my phone in a spare minute here and there.

Structured Gmail Inbox

The only issue with filing items away is that they can seem filed away. So the final piece of the puzzle, for me at least, was to structure my Gmail inbox so I couldn’t fail to see emails in my @action etc folders. I used this approach to customise my Gmail inbox and find it helps keeps the right things top of mind.


The Best £25 I’ve Spent This Year

by Meri in Lifehacks, Productivity

Faced with plenty of long haul flights and long train journeys whilst on my current sabbatical, my iPhone, iPad and mifi were all annoyingly short-lived in terms of battery life. I was delighted to discover the PowerGen Mobile Juice Pack, which is my favourite gadget purchase so far of 2013.

What is it?

A battery pack that you can charge other devices from. It has a micro-USB lead built in and two USB ports — one juiced appropriately for charging an iPad, the other normal mobile phone type devices.

PowerGen Juice Pack with a Kindle plugged in to its integral micro-USB and an iPhone cable to one USB port

How Does it Fare?

I’ve been very impressed with it. It will fully recharge my iPad, iPhone and Kindle on just one charge — and if I use it mainly for phone and Kindle it will do them each about 4 or 5 times before it needs to be plugged in itself. When I’ve just used it for my iPhone, I’ve managed to get up to 9 recharges out of it.

It weighs a little more than my iPhone, but slips easily into a bag or pocket — I generally just leave it in there and only take it out to charge it every week or two. To charge it up from completely empty to full takes a few hours, but the LEDs keep you apprised of progress and happily it charges off a micro-USB cable rather than bringing another custom cable into your life.

At the moment it’s still just £25 on Amazon — seriously good value. Being able to recharge wherever, whenever has been a great productivity boost, and after some friends were impressed with it today I thought it might be worth sharing 🙂


A Tidy Start to the New Year

by Meri in Lifehacks, Productivity

With the new year upon us, take some opportunity to do some tidying. Clearing up some mental garbage, if you will. Those little niggling things that aren’t quite big enough to keep you up at night, but chitter at the edge of your consciousness.

Here are five things you can do to quiet that chittering and to have an altogether tidier start to the new year.

1. Sort out your passwords

We all know the best practice that we should have good strong passwords, unique to each site that we use. But how many of us can really claim it?

Solutions like Lastpass (cloud solution, premium account gives you mobile apps) or 1Password (cloud and device-only options) or KeePass (open source, device-only) are all worth looking at. It depends on your own tinfoil hat comfort level which will suit you best, but certainly anything that helps you have more unique passwords can only help!

2. Pull together all your insurance documents

Home insurance. Car insurance. Bike insurance. Travel insurance. Pet insurance.

Do you know where all those documents are right now?

Go find them, put them all in one well-marked folder. It’s a simple thing, but you’ll be surprised how satisfying it is to know exactly where your important documents are when you need them. And when you don’t.

3. Put your passport somewhere safe AND memorable

You know what an awesome place to stash your passport is? In a click-lock box like one of these.


It’s harder to lose than anything flat, can’t accidentally get trapped between paperwork or folders, and can be stashed somewhere REALLY memorable. Like in the cupboard behind the tea bags, or in your underwear drawer, or behind a much-watched DVD boxset. You’ve probably got either all of West Wing or Buffy or Battlestar Galactica up there, right? 😉

4. Sort your backups out

If you don’t already have an automated, incremental backup solution sorted, then spend a little time to pick one and sort it out. I favour Crashplan personally, but there are a plethora of options — some to the cloud, some to another computer in your network or to an attached external hard drive (CrashPlan can do all of these).

Also don’t forget to occasionally back up everything in your Dropbox or similar!

5. Be nice to your future self

Remember the half hour lost untangling Xmas lights? Or ferreting out decorations? Finding your menorah? Be nice to yourself, 11.5 months from now. Pack your winter festival stuff away sensibly, in a big box that a present arrived in, or something. Stash it so all you have to do next year is find ONE BOX. Next year you will be Proper Grateful.

Simple things, seemingly not that important, but try it. I think you’ll find the small sense of relief is palpable. 


Look at Your Email Sideways

by Meri in Lifehacks, Productivity

I’ve just returned from 4 weeks out of the office. Though I am now part of the Crackberry generation and have been able to keep vaguely up-to-date READING my email, my normal inbox processing habits are hard to keep up via an interface which relies entirely on clickwheel with hampered prescience. Another benefit (no really) of the Blackberry is that it is so painful* to write email back on it that I only ever write short urgent responses — everything else waits until I return to a laptop with email client.

This is very much a double-edged reality — on the one hand I tend to focus better on my holiday or business travel, limiting email time to 15-30 mins per day. On the other hand I am now faced with over a 1000 emails still left cluttering up my inbox.

I usually deal with this via a mammoth processing session, using many of the tips already covered in the Inbox Zero series. If you’re not nodding along with me here, stop right now and go investigate Inbox Zero. It’s a brilliant attitude to owning your email rather than it owning you and how to get brutal to make that happen.

Since I have been in roles where I have travelled A LOT, I’ve gotten pretty good at these mammoth processing sessions. Here are some extra tips — essentially how to look at your email sideways in ways that make those 1000 shrink down to something much more manageable:

  1. If your email client is also a calendar, sort by “message type” or “icon” and deal with any meeting invites, responses or cancellations first. These are the simplest type of message as all that is expected is that you accept, accept tentatively or reject.
  2. Next, sort by sender. The same people will have emailed you multiple times and often you only need to actually deal with the most recently received. The rest can be filed or deleted en masse (as per your usual strategy).
  3. As needed, group by conversation. Occasionally you’ll come across a long, complicated conversation thread. Again, you’ve been away so you can probably save time by skipping to the most recent instalment or two and ignoring the rest of the conversation. No one likes the bastard who returns from holiday and presents everyone with a point-by-point treatise on the entire email chain.

Pretty simple, but sometimes the simple things make the most difference. Next time you have a mass of inbox processing to do, try looking at your email sideways to shrink it.

* Please note: I have both RSI and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome so for me using a Blackberry (and most other computer equipment) really is painful. This was not a slur on Blackberry interfaces in general 😉


Quick Tip: Text Yourself

by Meri in Lifehacks, Productivity

Ever get a great idea and then forget it because you didn’t have a pad and paper to hand? Ever wake up in the middle of the night with the solution to your biggest problem and then in the morning have nothing left other than that nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something?

This used to happen to me all the time. First, I tried carrying a hipster PDA, but remembering to take it EVERYWHERE was difficult. Then I realised that I already had something that I always carried with me — my mobile phone!

Now, I have a very simple process: any time I get a good idea, whether it be for a blog post, a solution for a wicked problem or an idea for a great new site, I send myself a text. Try it — it works great!


Do Not Disturb Strategies

by Meri in Lifehacks, Productivity

Sometimes you just need to get your head down and get some work done. Do you find that you’re staying late in the office, or coming in really early, just to be productive? If so, you need a “Do Not Disturb” strategy.

In the olden days (i.e. before the introduction of cube farms), getting some quiet time in which to focus was easy — you simply closed your office door. In the modern office, though, there are a myriad attention-seekers. Online, you can choose to shut yourself off — sign off from IM, close down your email (or at least stop it reminding you of new mail every two minutes) or even just unplug yourself. You can turn your cellphone to silent and set your office phone to go direct to voicemail. But what about people coming up to your desk to bug you directly?

Essentially, you need a way to signal to the world that you are busy and getting some serious work done. Pick a hat or scarf or something and wear it whenever you’re “in the zone”. Educate your coworkers and customers that if you have that article of clothing on, then they should turn around, go back to their desk and email you instead. Better yet, get your entire team to adopt such a strategy — that way if one of you is head-down and someone makes to disturb you, your team members will run interference, explaining the system to them.

The most important thing, whatever signal you choose, is to BE CONSISTENT and use the signal sparingly. Some people put on headphones when they want to concentrate, but because they also sometimes put on headphones when they just fancy a little Caliko, noone really knows whether it’s OK to disturb them or not. And when in doubt, chances are folks will go for the option that benefits them most — interrupting you.

UPDATE: This got picked by Lifehacker — great content in the comments there (and now here too!). Particularly it seems that in less of a team situation, having a polite sign can work wonders…


Blitz Your Email

by Meri in Lifehacks, Productivity

Ever have one of those days when you get to 4pm and have NO IDEA what you’ve achieved? Chances are pretty good you’ve been “doing stuff” … checking your email, dealing with queries, answering your voicemail and possibly even getting the odd bit of work done … but you still don’t feel like you’ve had a productive day because everything has been reactive rather than proactive. Always-on can be fantastic, but being linked in to every possible distraction for every minute of the working day is often not the most effective way to work.

So what can you do about it?

Personally, I’ve had a great deal of success with a very simple strategy that is mainly about dealing with email distraction. Working in technology, I find that most of my communication comes in via email — if your main distractions are IM or phone, then you might want to adapt this.

Essentially the key concept is to do email blitzes. Don’t try to check email every 2 mins and deal with emails one-by-one. Instead, take an hour, or even a half or quarter hour and mission through as much email processing as you can. For each email that you read, decide whether it:

  1. Shouldn’t have gotten to you anyway –> delete it
  2. Just needed reading –> archive it
  3. Needs a response –> do it right then and there, if it’ll take less than 1 minute
  4. Needs a more indepth response –> leave it (or move to a “needs indepth response” folder)*
  5. Needs you to perform some action –> add it to your normal todo tracking system

I find that taking 30-60 minutes, twice a day, helps me to stay 100% on top of my email. The timings of the blitzes are important though — I find first thing in the morning and just after lunch are the best times for me. The former is because I’m in a role where sometimes there are urgent fires to be put out — others feel quite rightly than an alternative strategy can be more effective. The latter is because just after lunch is typically quite an energy lull — especially if you work in the North East where they believe in proper hot lunches!

At other points in my career, when I had different job responsibilities, I used to find that mid morning (after the initial “get stuff done” burst of early morning energy had passed) and mid afternoon (around 3pm, when everyone just wants to get a cup of tea) were the best times for my email blitzes.

Whatever the timings, though, restricting how much of my life I spent in Outlook or Notes or Thunderbird to just a couple of email blitzes a day has improved my productivity immensely.

Want more tips on managing your email? Try these links:

* I just leave things that need a more in-depth response in my inbox, which is against some of the Inbox Zero-style teachings, but then I easily manage to keep my inbox to less than a screen so I’m happy with my own process here 😉 YMMV.