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For the Catholic Writer Guild, and for all people of the Word:
Communications should be a huge concern for Catholic writers, but we’re caught in some of the same techno-traps as everyone else. The difference? WE are supposed to help the Body of Christ articulate problems so as to facilitate the process of finding solutions! Here are 5 ways I’ve improved my communication skills now that they are inextricably linked to my (considerably less developed!) cyber-skills.
1. Intend, Believe, Begin!
Until you determine that it is your responsibility to clear up the email muddle swirling around you and your in-box, it won’t happen. Granted spam, people who reply-all, coveted subscriptions and all the other things that make it hard, getting to CLEAR starts with the intention. Then, you’ve got to believe it’s possible. Once you’re buried under 2000 emails, this gets harder. But it is possible, if only you’ll begin. Start by assessing how deeply buried you are. Leaving everything that didn’t show up in this current week, how many emails do you need to get rid of? If it’s more than 10, Step One is “Move ‘Em All to a New Folder Labeled: Backlog”. If less than 10, you’re doing great compared to most everyone I know!
2. Schedule Backlog/Slash Current Email Immediately
Whether it’s once or twenty times a day, be in control of email-checking, or it will be in control of you. Say to yourself, “I will now check email at my scheduled time,” (even if that time is every quarter hour) before you check it, and that pause will help reset the “I am an automatic clicking machine” button in your habit patterns. Once you’ve determined only to check it on schedule, you can think about merging two or three shorter intervals together into fewer, longer email periods per day, and then going even further with backing the email monster into a corner. Make one scheduled period each day the BACKLOG time, and, except for THAT PERIOD, do not touch that backlog folder. We’ll cover that one next, and then dealing with your current email more effectively.
3. Backlog in the Background
Look at that Backlog Folder only once a day, for a pre-set amount of time. It will eventually be empty and never needed again. Whatever is in it that begs to take up more of your time will just have to wait. You must be ruthless! The first task, surprisingly, is not to find the most important emails in it, but to Intelligently Toss the least. It’s much easier to spot things that are worthless, but if you toss them without a thought, you’ll miss the information they give about how you got into this fix. As you toss, look for categories that could be dealt with better in the future. I’m one who signs on for email newsletters and then partly regrets, partly enjoys those. I signed up for the free tool, Unroll.me, and love the way it has pared down my inbox. It’s like having a virtual assistant – you can easily click ‘unsubscribe’ on whatever subscriptions it deflects from your inbox. You get a daily ‘roll-up’ of all those, which is also archived if you’re worried you’ll miss something. This tool is Number One for getting rid of the backlog, and will begin easing the inbox burden, too. TOSS everything in the Backlog Folder that comes via subscription (NO, you don’t have time to read it during the one Backlog session per day!) and Unroll.me will pick up on them all from now on.
4. Make Policy Decisions
If you have a set of rules to follow when you open your inbox, Current Email can be cleared every day. In fact, that’s the first rule I suggest: “Clear Current Daily”. If you’re using your inbox to remind you that responses are needed, or tasks need to be done, or follow-up needs to happen, you’re using it in a way that’s guaranteed to pile up. If action is needed, set a reminder in your To-Do system (paper calendar, online calendar, Evernote reminder system, phone reminder) and move it to a file called Action Pending. Put another reminder on your system to check that file for overlooked items monthly. If the email contains an attachment, or reference to an article or webpage you want to look at, go immediately and clip it (InstaPaper, Evernote, for example). Put a regular ‘review to-be-read’ note on your calendar system and delete the email. If you just can’t imagine letting go of it, move it to a ‘Reference’ or ‘Keep Info’ file, just get it out of your inbox. If an email is sitting in your inbox to remind you to follow up on someone you’ve emailed (heavy sigh….), move it to Await Reply, and set a reminder to consider those poor people who do not respond without constant goosing on a once-a-month basis. Note, I do not suggest you stop following up! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve (and they’ve) been glad one of us had her head screwed on straight and persevered for a response! Make it your Number one policy to respond within the week of receiving an email, and this will be much easier when you’re dying to clear that inbox at the end of each day. If my personal response is holding my inbox hostage, it’s also holding up someone else.
5. Back Up Rules with Tools
Determine the different categories of items clogging your Backlog Folder and entering your Inbox. RSS feeds can automatically be handled by Outlook, for instance – shunted to their own folder – or you can move all those to Feedly, or another aggregator. Spam can be reduced by better filtering, a better email service provider, or by getting those email addresses you’ve placed on your websites changed to ‘encoded’ formats (like CharOster ‘at’ Outlook ‘dot’ come) spam-bots can’t read. (Speaking of spam, Empty Folder Daily without hesitation. Don’t spend any time in that sea of smut wondering if something good got caught there!) Subscriptions can be drastically reduced with Unroll.me, or Unsubscribe. PDFs can be forwarded to your Kindle to read later. If you have huge project teams emailing round and round, you might switch all that traffic to an alternate address (simply forward all emails from so-and-so, or with ‘Project Name’ in the subject line to that address given only to team members, and then schedule it as part of project work). Facebook and LinkedIn items will be picked up by Unroll.me, or you can use filters to move the daily traffic to a scheduled, once-a-month SM Reading appointment. Some email programs will let you color code or flag certain emails based on pre-set filters as ‘family,’ ‘boss’ and the like.
I know you’re seeing articles like this everywhere, because this problem is an epidemic. The reason I bring it up again, here, is that I believe there are much more profound reasons than ‘efficiency’ or ‘productivity’ for getting a grip on email overwhelm. We may find ‘prayer’ a spiritual topic, and forget that ’email control,’ though less important, helps make time for prayer. We consider ‘service’ an imperative of social justice, but leave human beings waiting for a simple human response, because our email has crippled our humanity. I hope you’ll find more ways to become more response-able about your use of email!