Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Do I need to get caught up before I can make changes?"

You have 900 (or 9,000) emails in your inbox, papers and notes from the last 2 years scattered on your desk and on the floor, and a stack of unread journals that goes half way to the ceiling.  Your hard drive's clutter makes your head spin.

You have decided to make some changes, and you are asking yourself, "Do I need to get caught up before I can make changes?"

The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  Absolutely not.  

The longest answer:  You get to choose. Getting caught up first is a good idea for some people, but not for others.

A small sermon.   You are in charge -  you decide which current work habits and tools to keep, and which new ones to try;  you decide what new methods do or do not work for you;  and you decide when and how to implement each.  No book, blog, consultant or coach  (even me!) should force you to change in a way that feels uncomfortable or disorienting.

The alternatives

1.  Get caught up first, and then start fresh with a new system.

The advantage of this approach is that you may derive energy from creating a clean slate. 

The disadvantage is that this method requires a high level of energy, concentration, and time. As you are taking several hours or days to clear out, you are inevitably getting behind with new work. The risk is that you will be exhausted, forget where you put things, and end up not feel very motivated to continue with your new plan.  

Choose this method if you have a good plan for a new system, and the time and energyto carry it out.

2.  Don't get caught up, just start using your your new system with current work.  Declare a backlog for undone work.

The idea of declaring a backlog comes from Mark Forster, an innovative and inspiring thinker about productivity and life.  Among the many things I love about Forster's work is that he continuously works to improve his ideas and methods.  I'll be sending you his way again on other topics.

Forster describes the backlog concept in his book Do it Tomorrow, (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008).  Here is the method:  Identify undone work (email, paper, files, journals, to do lists, etc) and say:  "I declare a backlog.  I will not work on anything in this folder/pile/box until I am ready later."  

Choose this method if the conditions for #1 are not met.

Why backlogs work

This method works, in part, because of the dynamic of what Forster calls a "closed list."  The stack of papers, contents of the box, or emails in the folder you have created can never get bigger, only smaller.  You will be motivated by a shrinking stack, as opposed to discouraged by a constantly growing stack. 

A second dynamic is that you will be energized by getting current work done on time.  This energy will make the task of going back to the backlog, when you need to, easier.

How to create backlogs

The key is to physically separate backlogs from your current work. If the backlog is a stack of paper, put it in a box and move it away from your desk.  Label the box "Backlog.  Today's date."   Do the same for reading material.

Your biggest problem may be with email.  Here's how to declare an email backlog:

  • Create a new folder named "INBOX Emails received but not fully handled before   <today's date>."   You can make a shorter folder name if you like, but you get the idea.  I create this folder in the same section as my actual Inbox  (in my institution's outlook, "Mailbox - Johnson, Susan R").  That way I don't forget that the backlog folder exists. 

  • Select all the messages in your inbox and move them to this folder.  In Outlook, use CTL-A to select all the messages.  Then, either drag the block of messages to the new folder, or right click on the selected messages and choose "move to" from the resultant drop down box.  Your folder list will appear;  you should select the new folder you created, and the messages will magically move.
  • Go to the new folder, select all of the messages with today's date, and move these back to the real Inbox.   In Outlook, you can put your cursor on the first message in the group, hold down the SHIFT key, and while holding SHIFT select the last message in the group.  Drag or right- click-move this smaller block of messages back to the real inbox. 
  •  Deal completely with today's email messages.  Tomorrow do the same.  And so on.

When should you work on the backlog?

I recommend that you work on a backlog a) when you are inspired to do so, or b) when someone asks you to do something contained there.

You don't always need to empty the backlog.

For email, start with the most recent messages.  Don't go there until today's new messages are processed.  After you have processed about four to six weeks worth of messages, STOP.  Most of what is left is too old to worry about.  Save the remaining messages as long as you like, even forever, so that you can find those that you might need in the future.

1 comment:

  1. The tip to make a backlog of email is something I followed when I first took your course in 2008. I backlogged all emails older than about 2 months. Earlier this year, I deleted them all. I think I went into that backlog folder once, maybe twice in the intervening 2 + years. Since then, I am happy to say I have kept a very manageable inbox.