Category Archives: Organization

Inbox Zero: Emails You Keep as Reminders

We’ve all had an email that we left in the inbox to serve as a reminder for something. Perhaps we even marked it as unread, thinking that would bring more attention to it. Maybe it’s a task we still need to do, maybe we can’t deal with it until next week, or maybe we’re worried the other person won’t get back to us in time and we’ll have to nudge them again. Regardless of the reason, we leave the email in the inbox as a reminder so we won’t forget.

The problem is, this is the exact opposite of how reminders are supposed to work. The brain is triggered by novelty (things that are new or different), and the brain adapts to repetition (things it sees all the time). The longer an email stays in your inbox, the more often you’ll choose to ignore it, the more it will become part of the scenery.

In contrast, a good reminder shows up when and where it is most useful. If an email can’t be dealt with until next Monday, that’s when you want it to appear in your inbox again. If it’s related to something you have to do at work tomorrow, that’s where you should see it. If you want to get those reminder emails out of your inbox, you’ll need to find a better system to remind of you things. Here are some of my favorite systems:

1. Boomerang for Gmail or Outlook

Boomerang is a free program (as a Chrome Extension for Gmail or in the Microsoft AppStore for Outlook) with two main features: 1) It gives you a Send Later button, allowing you to write emails now that won’t be sent until a specific time in the future, and 2) It has a boomerang function that will remove an email from your inbox but send it back to you under certain circumstances, such as “send this back to me if they don’t respond in two days”.

2. Calendars Reminders

In addition to adding date-specific reminders to your calendar like any other event, most calendar programs have the ability to set reminders for existing events. For example in my early days of employee reviews, I would set my Google calendar to email me 10 days before an employee’s anniversary so I could set up their annual review.

3. Task Management Apps

Any task manager worth using will include reminders as part of the system. My favorite is Asana. I can create a task, set a date for it, and throw it on the very bottom of my “Later” list, hidden from sight. A week before the due date Asana will automatically bring it into my “Upcoming” section, and on the due date it will show up in “Today.” This means I can throw any long-term tasks into Asana and forget about them, confident that I’ll be reminded when it’s time to do them.

4. Waiting Folder/Label

In my previous accounting job I often ended up with small issues that needed to be reconciled but were temporarily on someone else’s plate. For these things, I had a Waiting folder. Items that were currently someone else’s responsibility went in the Waiting folder, and I went through the folder every Friday to see who I needed to nudge. The key to making a Waiting Folder work is scheduling a regular time to look through it, otherwise items may get forgotten permanently.

5. Siri / Okay Google / Cortana

The majority of modern phones and computers have some kind of built-in digital assistant, and this feature can be great for capturing thoughts for later. I use Siri on my iPhone, and I’ll often tell her things like, “Remind me to email Brian when I get home” or “Remind me about tote bags tonight at 7PM”.

You may find yourself needing to use several different systems to account for all the different types of reminders you need in your life. I’m currently using four of the five I listed above. I would recommend starting with the system that feels most intuitive, and exploring the other options as needed.

We leave emails in our inbox to nag us, to keep being a bother until we finally do something about them. But if we can’t take action on it right now, that nagging is just another form of distraction.

Your Mission:

  1. Choose the reminder system(s) that seems most appropriate to your life and your emails
  2. Identify 1-3 emails you’ve left in you inbox as reminders
  3. Ask yourself “When and where will I need to see this next?” and replace each email with a reminder
  4. Check back in a week to see if more reminder emails have appeared, and if your current system(s) can accommodate them

When Life Maintenance Collides with Life Events

I recently worked with a client on her home office. She explained that the space used to work quite well for her – she could pay her bills, invoice clients, do her writing, etc. It was perfect. Then she got caught up in a legal dispute, needed surgery that limited her mobility for months, and had an existing medical condition worsen. On top of all that, her cat died. For about a year it was just one thing after another. Pretty soon her office wasn’t perfect anymore. Things stacked up. Paperwork wasn’t filed. The desk got covered in junk. She found herself avoiding the room completely. By the time I got there, she didn’t even want to go into the office if she didn’t have to.

It happens to everyone at some point. An interruption or major life event happens, and slowly the parts of our lives that used to work stop working. The problem is that once things have gone off the rails, we can’t bring them back using our old habits. Asking your maintenance systems to fix a year of built-up stress is like asking a handyman to build you a new house. The recurring processes and habits of daily life, such as dealing with the mail quickly or getting the desk clean at least once a week, only work so long as they keep moving. Interrupt those systems and habits for long enough and the machine gets clogged: the stack of bills is so tall you just avoid it, the package of paper towels begins to live on the floor. Your old systems can’t run anymore, and the clog only gets worse.

The life events that cause these interruptions don’t have to be huge. I just experienced one myself in these last few months. I had been blogging consistently during the summer, and I’d settled into a good routine of posting every two weeks. I had set up my writing program with ideas for upcoming topics, I’d color-coded it to ensure there was variety, and I had a procedure for doing final edits, posting, and promoting. But November was coming, and with it came National Novel Writing Month. I knew I wouldn’t want to be working on blog posts while also trying to write 1667 words every day for NaNo, so I tried to do a little extra work in October to prep the November posts. But this was an interruption in the system. It didn’t fit with the workflow I’d established, and I was only able to get one November post written and scheduled ahead of time. I decided one post in November would be fine, and went ahead with NaNo as planned.

But once November was over, I was burnt out on writing. That burnout kept me from jumping back into my old blogging habits. The system was interrupted, the old maintenance habits were clogged, and suddenly it was January 1st and I hadn’t posted anything in over a month. I was disappointed and embarrassed.

It was around this time that my client, fed up with her unusable office space, called me. She couldn’t say how or why it had gotten so bad, just that it was a big enough source of stress in her life that she needed help. And it wasn’t until I articulated the cause of the problem to her that I was able to see it so clearly in myself. What she needed was an outside professional to help her clear out the physical spaces that were getting in the way of her routines and habits. What I needed was to be reminded that I am susceptible to the same traps my clients are, and that I don’t need to be ashamed of that anymore than they do.

The skills and habits of maintenance won’t pull you out of the hole, just like they couldn’t pull me or my client out. We both needed something a bit bigger, a bit more drastic to happen in order to reset the system and get the machine working again. If there’s an area in your life that used to work but isn’t anymore, it might be because some big event got in the way. You need to match a big event with a big response. I can’t tell you for certain what that response is, but I can tell you how it starts: Acknowledge that being interrupted is not the same as failing. You can’t control what interrupts you, only what you do to get back on track.

Why I’m the Last Organizational Product You’ll Buy

I think a lot of people assume one of the main things I do is recommend specific organizational products to my clients. While I certainly can make purchasing suggestions, I rarely need to because most of my clients have plenty of organizational products and furniture pieces in their homes already. They have tried to buy their way out of this problem many times before, and it is only now, as a last resort, that they’ve finally decided to buy an expert.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Container Store as much as the next highly leveraged professional. And there are times when the right product is the perfect and only answer to your organizational problem. Shoes, papers, pot lids, sewing notions – some things just need a good storage solution or they will never feel organized and useful.

But too often people assume a product can save them from a deeper problem. Nothing you can buy at Storables will help you say goodbye to your grandmother’s scarves. There are no specialty racks or drawers that will change how frequently your spouse does laundry. Ikea doesn’t have a drawer unit for hobbies you never seem to get around to.

What’s worse is when these same products prove useless and end up stuffed into a hall closet or piled up in the garage, clients feel guilt and shame. They wasted all that money on something that didn’t work, and now they just have more stuff.

I don’t need to recommend products because everything we need is usually in the house already. The good products can be repurposed and used as the base for the newly cleaned space. The bad products are just another form of clutter to let go of – along with the guilt of buying them in the first place.

A Solution (or two) for That Drawer of Mysterious Power Adapters

Nearly every home I visit has a drawer, a bag, a box, or a pile of power adapters for unknown electronics. Power adapters usually don’t have many identifying marks on them to tell you what device they go to, and there’s no universal standards for plugs, which means some adapters work on multiple devices and others don’t. Once separated from their original device, usually the only way they will ever be returned is if you want to use the device and go searching one by one through the drawer until you find what you’re looking for.

The thing is, the bulk of what’s in the mystery adapter drawer is no longer needed. The electronics that you actually use have their adapters plugged in throughout the house. This drawer contains only power adapters for things you rarely use, or more often, things you don’t even own anymore.

There are two ways to handle this drawer. One is an easy way that lets the problem persists but will help in the long run. The other is a lot harder but will allow you to get rid of the mysterious adapter drawer permanently.

Let’s start with the easy answer: adding dates. When you know for a fact that one of the random adapters in your drawer is 10 years old, it’s a lot easier to part with it. But because you don’t know what they’re for, they all look the same, and they show little signs of age, the ones you got 6 months ago are indistinguishable from the ones you got 7 years ago.

So do your future self a favor and add dates to all of them (I usually use painter’s tape and a sharpie). Since you don’t know how old they are, you can start with today’s date, since they are at least that old. Or if you know you haven’t touched this drawer since last September, you could put that date instead. The point is that next time you come across the drawer, whether it’s one or three or six years from now, you’ll know that everything in it is at least as old as today.

The more difficult but ultimately permanent way to take care of this drawer is to gather together all of your electronics together. And I do mean ALL of them. Go through every closet, into every drawer, behind every piece of furniture, and across every shelf in the garage. You’re on a hunt for anything electronic that may have needed a power adapter at some point. You can ignore electronics that you use regularly and are currently plugged in, since you already have those adapters. You’re only looking for the lesser-used items.

Once you have all your electronics together, it’s simply a matching game. Find a device with no adapter and start plugging each one in until you get a match. You’ll likely end up with several adapters that don’t go with any device, which you can confidently send to the electronics recycler knowing that they don’t match anything in your house. With everything else, you can now store the adapter with the device itself, rather than jumbling them all together. I would even suggest you label the adapter itself with what device it goes to so that if ever it gets separated again, you’ll be able to match it up easily.

However I’d also suggest that this is the perfect time to cull some of those miscellaneous devices you found throughout your house. Consider how deep you had to search to find it, how long it’s been since you’ve used it, and how likely you are to ever need it again. With electronics specifically, the longer you hold on to it the less useful it will be to anyone else. A device that could go to Goodwill today will barely be of use to the electronics recycler five years from now. Many people feel guilt over throwing things out. The best way to avoid that guilt with electronics is to make sure your unwanted items leave your house in time to be wanted elsewhere.

Your Mission

Either put dates on every adapter in your drawer this week, or match them with all your current electronics. The first task shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes. The second one depends a lot on the size of your home and how much you own, but even with large homes shouldn’t take more than an hour if you stay focused on looking for electronics and don’t let yourself get sidetracked with anything else.