I’m generally regarded as someone who is quite organised and productive, which still baffles me from time to time because I don’t think I’m that organised at all. Most of what I’m writing about here seems fairly instinctive to me, but in the hope that it might help someone ready this then I’ll try and outline how I organise my day, and how I maintain at least a demeanour of getting things done.

My first rule is to get up when my alarm goes off, and to automate as much of my early morning routine as possible. I do the same things each morning, so it shouldn’t require much thought at all, and generally it doesn’t. I can be up and out of the house in about 20 minutes, as long as there is nothing to disrupt my routine (one of my cats bringing me a gift is the usual suspect for that). I then have a 25 minute walk at the start of my commute, and I tend to use that to listen to music and think about the challenges of the day ahead. This is followed by a 25 minute train journey, during which I read either the Metro or whatever book I’m currently reading on my iPad. By the time I get to work I’m wide awake, and focused on the day ahead. I then have a cup of coffee and start work.

A few years ago I did an exercise where I recorded everything I did for a week, and tried to match time slots to specific sorts of task. I’ve repeated this regularly for a few years now, and I have a fairly good idea of how to plan my day to get the best out of the time and energy I have. Solitary tasks such as writing, answering email, and tasks that require technical focus get done first thing in the morning while I’m wide awake and the office is quiet. I then put aside two slots for meetings – a morning slot for collaborative work, ideas generation, and meetings where I need to contribute a lot, and then an afternoon slot for meetings where I need to be present, but am not one of the main contributors. The rest of my day I work though my todo list, and my email inbox (both of which which I like to keep as close to zero as possible).

I also automate as much of my working week as possible. I have set weekly meetings with my manager, my co-worker, my team, and my direct reports. I also have set monthly meetings with a variety of other people and teams. All of my meetings are recorded in Google Calendar, and the agendas appear in Evernote 15 minutes prior to the meeting starting, thanks to the magic of IFTTT. I then make notes in Evernote on my iPad, and move any action points to my todo list as soon as the meeting finishes. Minutes are then archived to a workbook, so that my Evernote inbox contains only my todo list and things I am actually working on at that moment.

I used Google Calendar to organise everything I do (and everything I plan to do), and go back afterwards to ensure that how I spent my time is accurately recorded. This allows me to track how much time I spend on tasks, and how my work and personal schedule change over time. I also colour code everything, and have separate calendars for work and my life outside of work, which I strongly recommended as a compartmentalising exercise if nothing else.

I’m not a great fan of clutter, although anyone who has seen the inside of my study might debate that fact. I like to keep a clear desktop (physical and virtual), and I’ve been largely paper-free since November 2013, which has helped both with the reduction of clutter and with general productivity.

Finding wifi on the move

During my recent trip to London, I decided that I’d try and stay online as much as possible, whilst at the same time not paying for (or in fact stealing) an internet connection. It was actually a lot easier than I thought, and made me realise that if I lived in London I’d not really need a 3G dongle or an internet capable phone in order to conduct my online life on the move.

What I found out was largely as follows:

The hotel I was staying in advertised itself as having free wifi on the ground floor. It did, but the signal was no greater than 40%, and as I was on the 7th floor I had to come down to the bar to use it. This was fine, and I used this for my morning and evening email sessions.

There are lots of University buildings in London, some of whom subscribe to the JANET Roaming Service. As I’m a member of a participating University I can use their networks for free. This got me a connection on floor 7 of the hotel twice, and would have been an option in a couple of other places as well.

The rest of the time I generally used The Cloud, mostly in or around Pret A Manger stores. It’s possible to get free wifi in a fair few places (largely pubs and cafes), and my most productive session of the whole trip was the last hour outside Euston station where I got through all my home and work email with a near 100% signal.

So yes, I managed to stay up to date, and maintained Inbox Zero throughout the trip.

Inbox Zero

I get a fair bit of email (up to 100 messages a day), and I think it could be quite easy to get swamped, and to miss something important. Over the last year or so I’ve been looking at methods of dealing with email, and in particular have explored variations on Inbox Zero.

My current routine for dealing with email is quite simple:

  • I only have two mail folders; Inbox and Dealt With.
  • Everything comes into my inbox, and doesn’t leave my inbox until it has been dealt with.
  • Dealing with a message could include reading it, replying to it, or using it as the basis for a calendar entry, a task, or a block of time put aside to work on a particular project. Once the item exists elsewhere, then the email itself is dealt with and so it can be moved.

I do this with all emails; at home and at work. Home emails are really straightforward, because most of them are from mailing lists or are for information only. I use Thunderbird at home, with Google Calendar to manage my schedule and tasks. At work I get a lot more mail, and it is a lot more important. I use Evolution for everything (or Outlook on Windows), and if a task is suitably complicated it gets converted into our call logging software and becomes a task/project with a target date and time put aside to work on.

As far as backups go, work email is backed up centrally. Home email is copied to the mail/file server in our study as soon as it is delivered, so that if I accidentally delete anything I have a second copy.

My other mail rule with email is that I have times in the day when I will always clear my inbox. In the morning before work I clear my home inbox. I then go to work, and clear my work inbox as my first job of the day. Then I clear it again before I leave. I then do home email again when I get in, and then again before I go to bed. I never leave work or leave home with messages that have not been dealt with.

And that’s how Inbox Zero works for me.