Dealing with Lots of Email

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.

Rejecting the Soft Skills Fairy

A couple of months later, the Dare Conference still swirls into my head at least once per day. Great experiences are like that — they don’t just affect you on the particular day, but for months and years afterwards. Kathy Sierra recently wrote a brilliant piece about how great talks are a user experience (and so the speaker is really just the UI).

Dare Conf was one hell of a user experience.

I still can’t really articulate everything I learnt. Everything I heard. Everything we experienced as a group. Dare felt like early SxSWi. Like you were connecting with people who just got it. Who were simultaneously so different and so like you. Who were taking the time to learn some pretty hard shit, together as colleagues rather than as combatants. Who were deliberately opening themselves up to the scary change, the frightening ideas, the things that might just change the world.

[I appreciate that if you went to much more recent SxSWi you are probably wondering what I’m smoking: read this excellent post by Anil Dash on the web we lost.]

I know I’m doing things differently. Whether it’s realising when my amygdala is hijacking me, remembering to “get in the car” as my friend Neil exhorted, or using Dave Gray’s culture map to illustrate to an organisation why the delta between what they SAY they believe in and what they ACTUALLY believe in is hurting them.

The thing I most want to share with you today about Dare though, is one of the slides from Karen McGrane‘s excellent opening keynote:

Karen was highlighting that in our industry we have (and highly prize) technical skills, but to be really effective we need the others too — we need to be able to work with others (External skills, as she puts it), and we have to have to be able to work with ourselves (Internal skills).

I’ve been managing people for a number of years now. I repeatedly see this play out: someone who is technically brilliant slowly becomes incredibly frustrated that they don’t have the impact they want to have. If they’re lucky, someone helps them to realise that they need to not only be clever and technically brilliant, but they also need to have the soft skills (External) to get other people involved and they need the self-compassion (Internal) to manage their internal frustration at this not being as easy as the stuff they’re already good at.

The only difference between those who managed to develop those skills and those who don’t? Belief in the Soft Skills Fairy.

The Soft Skills Fairy has a wand, and if you were touched with it at birth then you have soft skills. If you weren’t you don’t and can never develop them.

Sounds silly, right? Seriously though, people seem to believe this. The people who believe that anyone can be taught to code, that design skills can be learnt, honed, developed, these same people believe in the Soft Skills fucking Fairy.

The truth is much harder to face: everyone can develop these skills. But it is hard, it takes work, and no one has a magic wand to wave over you to make it happen overnight.

Do yourself a favour: reject the Soft Skills Fairy. Invest in yourself. Make time for learning some of those soft skills in between the technical skills; they are both essential to being awesome at your job. Find people who are good at this stuff and ask them how they learned. Find ways to practise, outside and inside of work. Find people who will tell you the truth about whether you’re getting better and then ask them.

It’ll be hard. It’ll be worth it.

If you want a ready-made safe environment to learn some of these things, come to Dare Conf Mini in January in London. There’s still a £100 discount if you grab an early bird ticket by Monday 18 November. [UPDATE: You can now get a significant discount by using code MERI at checkout too — thanks to the organisers!]

As you’ll see from the line-up, I’m speaking (and running a full day workshop on Practical People Skills) but honestly, I’m hugely excited about what I’ll learn from the other folks speaking and attending. I imagine Dare Mini is going to be another incredible experience and I’ll walk away doing things differently. Better. And I’ll continue to utterly reject the goddamn Soft Skills Fairy.

The Best £25 I’ve Spent This Year

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

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. 

People Management in an Agile Setting

This was first published on the Cabinet Office website.

After speaking at AgileTeaCamp, I thought I would share how people management has evolved in the GDS Delivery Team.

What you get for free with agile

Agile product teams are self-managing. With the users’ needs in mind, the product manager defines what needs to be done and the team itself decides how to achieve it. This is instantly a more motivating approach. You’re trusting people to design the best solution to meet the need, rather than handing down a ‘solved problem’ to be implemented. You’re also making the most of the smart, talented people you’ve worked so hard to find.

The approach we’ve taken at GDS is to create high-performing multi-disciplinary teams.  These teams consist of designers, developers, user researchers, content designers, technical architects, delivery managers, product managers and experts in customer insight, web operations and product analytics. These people all work together to build digital products and services. Managers are no longer expected to tell people what to do and how to do it.

So what do the people managers do and do we still need them?

How the role of ‘manager’ has evolved

The role of the manager now focuses on:

  • looking after people (what used to be called ‘pastoral care’)
  • matching people to challenging, engaging work (ie understanding what someone’s skills and interests are and then matching them to an appropriate team and opportunity)
  • personal development and training (discussing with folks whether they want to deepen their specialism or widen their skill set, and helping them plan how to make that happen)
  • career guidance (coaching, mentoring and helping people find out what the opportunities are)

Communities of practice

Most of our managers are specialists in their own right and they’re extraordinarily good at what they do. They act as head of the specialism and they line manage the specialists in their area. They arrange training and regular meet-ups, and they create opportunities for work to be shared across the different product teams.

At GDS, these communities are at various stages of maturity. One of the best examples is our design team. Ben Terrett, head of design, holds regular ‘design crits’ in which designers share their work and receive feedback from other designers. The design team visit relevant exhibitions and attend design-related events.

The advantage of this approach is that most people can learn from their line manager, who is a specialist in their field. People also have the opportunity to work with colleagues with different skills and viewpoints. This diverse mix generates excellent solutions to challenging problems.

The future

We will of course continue to evolve our approach. We’re eager to hear about other people’s experiences of agile and their views on how traditional people management is changing. What needs to be preserved and what is no longer necessary?

Going from Inbox 4000 to Inbox Zero

Through a combination of holiday and time off to let my repeatedly dislocating shoulder heal, I was out most of October. So when November 1 dawned I had over 4000 emails in my inbox. Yes, you read that right, 4000. And my work inbox isn’t like my personal — there’s almost no spam, no newsletters. So virtually every one of those 4000+ emails was really for me.

So on November 1, I felt a bit like this:

Man with his head in his hands, behind a laptop, with stacks of paper on either side of him. Clearly overwhelmed by volume of work!

Rather than resorting to a simple panic attack and a paper bag, I pulled out Getting Things Done and reminded myself that processing is powerful. Rather than viewing the “inbox of doom” (as it was becoming known ;-)) as an insurmountable mountain of “stuff to do”, I started looking at it one by one.

For each item, I chose whether to action it (if not: file immediately in the right place, if so, put immediately in @action folder), put it in @maybe-someday, @read-later or @waiting-for (e.g. if a conversation/topic had moved along but the next action was with someone else). Surprisingly, this really didn’t take that long. Within a couple of days I had processed the insurmountable 4000+ down to ~500 I had to actually do something with!

Best of all, I was back at Inbox Zero. And I’ve gotten back down to zero every day since.

Having nothing in your inbox, even if you have 514 in your @action folder, is curiously calming. Knowing that you know exactly what needs to be done, that it is held in a safe place, that you no longer need to frantically make notes in sharpie on napkins at lunchtime because “OH SHIT I JUST REMEMBERED” is … serene.

Tropical beach, blue sky & sea, with palm tree

I can highly recommend it 🙂

Further Reading

For anyone wanting an introduction to GTD, LifeDev’s GTD Cheatsheets are a nice clean resource; Gina Trapani’s Simplified GTD is fabulous too.

Important vs Urgent

In any job, it’s easy to get caught up in urgent day-to-day matters — “fire fighting” as many describe it. One of the most useful tools I’ve found for breaking the cycle of always working on what is most urgent rather than most important is this prioritization grid.

Grid used for prioritization of tasks & deliverables, plotting by importance and urgency
Grid used for prioritization of tasks & deliverables, plotting by importance and urgency

The grid helps you divide your tasks & deliverables into four categories:

  1. Urgent & Important (fire fighting) — these are the everyday priorities, things that have either come up urgently or important things that you didn’t get to until they became urgent.
  2. Urgent & Not Important (distraction) — these are the easiest things to move on to once the fire fighting is done, but hardly the most productive. Everyone has their tasks that fall into this category. For me, it’s checking my email or voicemail rather than making a choice to work on something more important.
  3. Not Urgent But Important (quality time — aka fire prevention) — the things that are important. Part of your strategic vision. The kind of things that mean you have left a positive mark on a place after working there. Shouldn’t you be investing more time here?
  4. Not Urgent, Not Important (time wasting) — ever noticed the guy in your office who seems to spend time arranging his desk rather than doing any work? Or putting new colour labels on files that were already perfectly workable? My best friend avoided revision for our final exams in school by deciding he simply HAD to learn Linux right then in that fortnight when revising should have been top priority… 😉

The point isn’t to never do tasks in certain categories, just to become much more conscious of the choices you’re making. I’ve been using this grid for years now and I can certainly not claim that I never do tasks that are not urgent & not important — but now I make a conscious decision about whether to take on the next big important thing, or whether to spend the 5 mins before lunch sorting through my expense reports.

Try it for a week and see if it makes a difference for you!

Look at Your Email Sideways

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 😉