Your email client should support good habits, especially since email itself can lead to so many bad ones.
Over the past few months, I’ve been tweaking my Gmail inbox trying to find a configuration that makes it easy to stay focused and productive while I’m using it. Here’s what I’ve come up with. The best part is, it ended up being really easy to set up.
Here’s how I did it
Set up Gmail’s priority inboxes: I followed the instructions described in this comment (the instructions are in the comment, not the actual article itself.) If that’s not clear, here’s a screenshot of what my Gmail inbox settings look like. Basically just divide your inbox into three sections; one for unread email, one for starred email, and one for “Everything else” that will stay collapsed by default.
Use a Google Apps Script to deal with Starred email bloat: I fell into a bad habit of letting starred emails linger in an expanding “I’ll deal with it later” pile. I ended up fixing this by writing a Google Apps Script to automatically label any starred email in my inbox older than two weeks with a big red “DEAL WITH ME” label. It gives me an extra push to not let things pile up for too long. When I’ve unstarred or archived an email, the label gets automatically removed by the script.
The Google Apps Script was pretty easy to write. If you want to, just copy and paste mine. I’ve posted detailed instructions here.
I think this setup is great because…
It reinforces good habits. It’s now more work for me to keep an email in my inbox than it is for it to disappear after reading it. That automatically keeps things tidy. No willpower required.
It doesn’t break other displays. I can have this display in my browser, but my phone still gets the “everything” view. That fits the way I use email on my phone a little bit better. There is nothing automatically removed from the inbox in a way that might make things difficult to locate on other devices.
It’s easy to set up (and easy to undo). Once I had everything like I wanted it on my work email, applying the same settings to my personal Gmail account took about 2 minutes. If I ever decide to switch to something else, or go back to the Gmail defaults, it’s really just a matter of hitting a “reset settings configuration” button to get things back to the default state. I don’t think I’m going to do that, but it’s good to know I can.
Do you have any good inbox hacks?
This setup is working really well for me. I’m really curious to hear what other people think of this approach. Also, if you’ve made any other productivity-boosting modifications to your inbox, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
I try to keep my inbox clean, and for the most part I do a pretty good job at it. There’s one bad habit I have, though. I star emails in Gmail so I’ll remember to follow up with them later, and then I never get around to it. Emails just keep getting pushed further down the list and piling up. I can’t deal with all emails right away, but after a while they just stick around because I’m avoiding making a decision on them. What I need is a way to automatically to something give myself a little nudge after a certain amount of time. A little push that will remind me that those emails aren’t going to just answer themselves.
I was able to write a couple of functions to automatically add a label to any items that were in my inbox that also had a star label. When I remove the star, or archive the email, the label is removed. Here’s what the output looks like.
Here’s how I set it up
Go to script.google.com, and create a new project. I called mine “Add nagging label for old starred items”
Paste in the following code
[updated 4/23/13 to fix a bug that was causing un-starred threads to not have the label automatically removed]
Save the script, then test to make sure the scripts are working by selecting the “addNaggingLabels” or “removeNaggingLabels” functions from the dropdown in the script editor toolbar, then clicking the arrow to run them. You’ll be asked to allow the script to be run on your inbox before you can test it out. You should only have to do that step once.
When the “Deal with me” label gets created, it won’t be red by default. You’ll have to go find it in the left sidebar of your Gmail inbox and click the arrow next to it to manually change the color to red (or some color you really hate. Whatever will be the most motivating).
Finally, click the “triggers” icon, and set up the following triggers so both functions run every hour.
That’s really all there is to it. Now, I get a nice big red label automatically added to any stale starred items. It doesn’t totally prevent things from piling up, but it helps give me that little prod to make an effort to keep things tidy.
Everyone’s had that moment…
You’ve been working on a project that’s humming along really well, and you’re nearing the point where you can see the end of it… then boom! All of a sudden everything grinds to a halt, and you run smack into a brick wall that keeps you from bringing it across the finish line. Try as you might, you can’t seem get things rolling again. Distractions become more distracting, and the excuses and justifications start to form an unsatisfying pile where you’re finished project should be.
It’s a crappy feeling. I know because I’m in the middle of one right now. It’s frustrating and doesn’t make any sense, because I’m working on building something that I’m really excited about.
I’d like to pose a question to you
You seem like smart folks, and I know I’m not alone with this problem. How do you break down that wall that’s blocking you from finishing up the last little bit of a project? What are your best productivity hacks or strategies for breaking out of a rut?
Please share in the comments!
The RescueTime productivity score is a way of looking at your time based on the productivity level you’ve assigned to the various activities that you’ve logged time for. It’s a way to boil your time down to a single metric, so you can get a quick understanding of how you’re spending it without having to dig into the more detailed reports.
But, it sometimes generates a bit of confusion, so I wanted to dig into it a bit and see if I could clear up some of the misconceptions.
How exactly is the productivity score calculated?
First off, it helps to know exactly what that number means. RescueTime lets you assign any activity or category a productivity level. There are five options, ranging from “very distracting” to “very productive”.
If you assign a productivity level to a category, it will filter down to all activities in that category, unless you explicitly add a productivity level to an activity, in which case it will override the category productivity level.
Your overall productivity score is calculated as an average of the time spent on each productivity level. If you spent all day on activities marked as “neutral productivity”, you’d have a 50% productivity score. If you spent all day on something marked as “Productive”, you’d have a 75% productivity score. All day in activities marked “very productive”, you’d have a score of 100%.
Misconception: “My productivity score should be as high as possible, right?”
- The average productivity score across the entire RescueTime user base is 67%. While obviously I haven’t talked to all of them, I can tell you these aren’t a bunch of slackers. They’re smart people who are very thoughtful about how they spend their time.
- Around the RescueTime office, we’re averaging around 79%. We think about this stuff a lot, and I think we’re pretty well optimized for productivity.
Occasionally I see comments from users that suggest that they think they should be shooting for a productivity score of 100%. I can understand the sentiment, if you’re really efficient and getting all my work accomplished, it seems like the number should reflect that, right? Honestly, if we were rebuilding RescueTime from scratch, we might choose a less charged label than “productivity”. But the bottom line is that the productivity score doesn’t tell you anything about what you actually produce. It’s simply a number that can give you an interesting baseline of where your attention is, but doesn’t tell 100% of the story. It’s a way to understand your patterns, and not a prescription for how you should be spending your time. Moreover, there are some pretty compelling reasons why you shouldn’t shoot for a super-high productivity score.
Let’s look at another metric for context, shall we?
If you were tracking your Body Mass Index, you might want it to be lower, but you’d never want it to be zero! Through a lot of research, there are some accepted guidelines, but the scale itself doesn’t make an implication about an absolute measure everyone should shoot for. What it does, however, is give you a number that becomes important context for your physical activity. If you’re exercising more, you’ll likely see your BMI drop. If you’re eating a lot more, you might see it rise.
So, what’s the “healthy” range of productivity?
Since how you spend your time on the computer hasn’t received the same amount of scientific scrutiny as BMI, there isn’t such a clear recommendation. It’s really contextual. What may be the ideal mix of activities for you might not be for someone else. It’s also important to remember that just because something that’s classified as “distracting” doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. But it’s a good generic measure of where your attention is focused.
Some tips for using your productivity score
Change it to suit your needs: It’s important to remember that we try to make RescueTime as customizable as possible, so you can change the productivity levels to match what YOU consider to be productive or distracting.
Don’t think of it as a judgement. So many factors enter into your time that it’s impossible for a system to say definitively how you should be spending your time. The best we can do is give you a measure that you can use to make your own judgement. Work-life balance is different for everyone.
It will fluctuate, and that’s ok. The changes mean just that, something has changed. Not necessarily good or bad. See how it changes over time and you’ll have a better understanding of your natural patterns.
Downtime is good and healthy. No one should be expected to be 100% productive all the time. In fact, there’s a big pile of science that says it’s bad for the quality of your work, your creativity, and your well-being.
The score is a helpful metric when you’re trying new things. If you’re trying to optimize the way you work, the changes to your productivity score baseline can give you an objective measure of the impact of your changes. For example. I tried an experiment and turned off all notifications on my phone and computer. Just that change alone caused a 9% rise in my productivity score.
Hopefully that helps paint a clear picture of the productivity score and how we think it can be valuable. If you have any questions or thoughts, let us know in the comments!
For the past week, I’ve been taking an hour or so at the coffee shop near my office to knock out most of my email and communications. Then when I get back to the office, I stay out of email as much as possible. The experiment has made me realize that shaking up my work environment can help me stay more focused and productive. It’s sort of like the concept of Timeboxing but with more of a physical twist. “Location boxing” seems appropriate.
Getting your head in the right place for a new activity is hard
There are four main types of thinking I need to do in a typical work week:
Design-thinking: Visual design and thinking about the user experience
Coding-thinking: Building new features, solving technical problems
Business-thinking: Internal communications, interviews, and helping out on some sales calls
Support-thinking: Bug fixes, and responding to questions from RescueTime users
It’s next to impossible to do any of those simultaneously and be effective. You have to get into the correct mindset for each one. Design and coding require substantial periods of “maker time“, while support, sales, and communications generally involve a lot of rapid-fire bouncing around from task to task.
Timeboxing is a great idea, but I’ve found it really hard to stick to. Maybe I’m a little too scatterbrained, but my meticulously planned out schedule can easily be derailed by things like email, which can swoop in unexpectedly and steal hours from my day. Plus it’s just hard for me to flip the mental switch between, say, customer support mode and design mode.
The answer? Restrict activities to a location
Altering my physical environment seems to help me switch activities, for a couple reasons…
I can find the right place for the task at hand
I find coffee shops a little distracting when I need to really focus hard on a single task, but they’re great for a series of short, repetitive tasks. I get to enjoy a latte while I churn through emails that I’d otherwise pick at throughout the day. I don’t code or design very well without a second monitor, so that focuses me even further. My 13-inch laptop screen is pretty well suited for communications, and not a whole lot else.
The physical shift becomes a “switching ritual” that signals my brain that it’s time to start thinking differently.
There’s something about the change in surroundings that seems to make it easier to quiet down whatever gears are still spinning from the last activity and re-focus on a new task.
You can’t always move to another location
It’s not practical to go to a different physical location for each task. You’ll probably get the most benefit if you can identify a single activity that has a high potential for derailing the rest of your day and banish that to another location from your other work. Sometimes, though, you just can’t get away. Here are some other ideas for altering your environment:
- Have different desk configurations. Try moving your monitor from one side of the desk to another as you shift tasks. Maybe a totally clear, uncluttered desk works better for certain activities, while a desk full of pictures and knick-knacks works better for others. The act of switching configurations might be just enough to jog your brain into a different mode. It’s sort of the “hyper-functionible workplace” version of this. For example, I have an adjustable-height desk, and I usually do my coding-thinking while standing, but designing while sitting.
- If you work from a laptop, you can almost certainly find an unused space in your office that you can switch to without being too disruptive.
- If you can’t change your environment, just get out of it for a while. Go for a walk, or do anything else to signal to your brain that it’s time to start acting differently.
Have you ever gotten any benefit from location boxing your activities? I’d love to hear how. Let me know in the comments.