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Three Ways to Save Time

Over the past few months, I’ve implemented three new practices that have helped me save time.  They’re not my ideas.  They either come from David Allen’s Making it All Work or Scott Belsky’s Making Ideas Happen.  The strategies are as follows:

1. Kick email’s butt.

Email has been kicking my butt for the past three years at least.  I’d say I’ve spent between 15 and 20 hours a week trying to keep up with email during that time, and to be honest, I’ve hated the experience.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for and enjoy almost all the emails I get, but I hate the feeling of falling behind and watching my inbox fill up with more and more stuff.  Then it is doubly troubling to feel buried under email, and I have spent way too much time trying to catch up and apologizing for my late replies.  In fact, I’ve gone several month’s in a row, many times, never getting to the zen-like purity of an empty inbox.

For the past three week’s though, I’ve been kicking email’s butt.  I spend no more than 2 hours a day on it, often much less, and I have an empty inbox almost every day. 

What I do now is simple. I just do my email in order from the top to the bottom everyday at a certain time.  No matter what the email asks of me, I never skip it. Now I just deal with whatever is in my box, in the order I see it, as quickly as I can.


This simple strategy means that I am much more efficient. My replies are usually quite short, four sentences or less, and I don’t spend as much time thinking about what I’ve received.  I just deal with it, and fire it off.  My goal each time I sit down to do email, and I set aside specific times, usually at the end of the day, is to clean out the inbox, no matter what.  This also mean that I forward tasks on to others who might be able to respond better than I—sorry if you’ve gotten one of these emails, by the way.  Whenever I can forward it on, now, I do, and I ask the person receiving the email to cc me on their reply so I know that it has been done.

My replies may not be as detailed and well-thought through as they used to be, but I think people prefer a quick response to a more detailed response that arrives too late to be used.  What’s more, I love the look of an empty inbox.

2. Keep a physical inbox and clear it out once a week.

This is a David Allen idea.  I now have two physical inboxes (one at home and one at KU), and whenever I receive a bill, a form, a request that requires a written response, or some similar task, I toss it into my inbox.  Stuff for my KU work, I put in the inbox at KU. Stuff for my company, The Instructional Coaching Group, or for my personal life, I toss into the inbox at home.  I also put notes to myself into the box, listing mechanical little tasks that I have to do, like, “update my iPod with the new Josh Ritter CD,” or “write thank you letter to Fred.”

Then, once a week, usually Sunday afternoon at home, and Monday afternoon at KU, I deal with everything in the box.  Just like my email, I start at the top and power through until I’m done. 

I like doing this for two reasons.  First, I stay on top of tasks, which feels great.  Second, I stay focused on creative tasks when I’m doing them.  Now, when I am doing something like writing or developing a presentation, and some kind of mechanical task shows up like a bill to be paid, I don’t feel the need to deal with it right away. I just put it in the inbox and get back to being creative.

The way I think when I am writing or doing some other creative act, is not the way I think when I am paying bills or writing to get a refund from United Airlines for a cancelled flight.  By putting tasks in the inbox right when I get them, I’m able to stay in the creative way of thinking without letting the task derail me.  Then when I clear the inbox, I can do it with gusto.

3. File notes by month, not topic. 

I have a confession. I have been terrible about filing my notes after meetings.  Usually, I write notes, and they pile up on my desk or on the top of a filing cabinet.  Then, if I need them, I can’t find them.  Well, Scott Belsky taught me a whole new way to file and I love it.

What I now do is simply date my notes and put them into a folder labeled with the current month.  I file them chronologically.  Then, if I need the notes, I go back to my calendar, find what month I was meeting on the topic I need notes for, and pull out the file to get the notes. The method is quick, efficient, and there are no more piles of paper lying around my desk.


These are three simple methods, but they have been incredibly helpful to me.  When my email fills up, when I lose notes, or when tasks go undone, I can feel my energy draining out of me.  These simply practices free up a lot of time, and they keep the energy drain from happening. They may not work for you, but they have really worked for me.

So what do you do?  If you’ve got a strategy that works for you, please share it. Don’t be a hoarder!  We want to know. Thanks to my new techniques, I’ll also probably have to time to try them out.


Reader Comments (11)

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhmazing! I will start with the "filing notes by date" tomorrow and the "in" box on Monday. Thank you for synthesizing three great strategies to making life more simple, manageable and enjoyable!
May 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJen Thoma
LOVE the filing meeting notes by month- I am going to start today!
May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarilee Amodt
I found a tool that works for me to keep the things I have to do out of my head. I have used iGoogle for a couple of years to get a quick snapshot of items that are important to me, like CNN, the weather, gmail, Red Wings, etc. A few months ago I added a Widget called 'To Do' and it has helped reduce a lot of stress for me. I can see, and edit, my to-do list from any computer, whether at work, home or traveling. I don't have to waste energy worrying about what I have to do because I know I'll see my list every day. The deal I made with myself is to limit my list to 7 items.If I get to seven items I have to complete some of the items right then before I can add a new task. I am much better at remembering things than I was with paper lists and I can focus better on what I am doing. The To Do list I use with igoogle is by
May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelley
Thanks Marilee, Jen and Shelley. Shelly, I'm trying out your method with the program Things. Thanks for the tip.
June 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
I "triage" my email each morning by using color coding. Our work email system allows me to color code incoming email so my supervisor is one color, secretaries another and team mates a third. We also have the ability to "flag" emails in a separate box so I move things I can't give immediate attention to there and then tackle them later in the day.

I have also learned to just turn the email off when I have a major project to work on so that I am not distracted to check it.

But I love the idea of filing by the month! Trying to think if I can make that work for me and how I will match them to my calendar but that is something I am going to play with!
June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTheresa Gray
Thanks Jim. I have connected with many highschool alumni on Facebook and find it very interesting what fields and where they are in life's journey. Your field of research is a very interesting and important one.
I work for municipal government in Alberta and I have one filing trick that I would like to share with you which will take your system one step further.
I file everything by subject folder (eg agendas, minutes, meeting notes) and then by date file which will end up in your folder chronologically. Try it you will like it. Year . Month. Day
(Folder) Agendas
(Folder) Minutes
I hope this takes your wonderful idea one step further and makes someone else's life easier.
June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGail Eyers
Hi Jim
First I love all three of these ideas and having recently spent most of a weekend dealing with emails...and getting in box down from 500+ to under 10 feels so good! I plan to implement all of tomorrow.

I just have to ask...what happens to when life doesn't let you stick to your regular time. For example, if you usually do the at home "in box" Sunday afternoon or evening, you have to go to a dance recital during the usual time slot, followed by having all the inlaws and outlaws for a celebratory meal and then it's Monday you A- catch up ASAP or B- let it go the following Sunday...when it's become so overwhelming that you C- go watch the World Cup and end up buried once again. Though I know the best answer is A though I'm more likely to opt for C.

Laughing at myself,
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July 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNflJerseyOnline
I have also begun taking notes by month, but I do it online with Evernote ( a free download). This means I can get to my notes from anywhere, anytime. And I don't have all those folders! I aspire to manage my e-mail better and will try this strategy.
July 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaurie McC
Nice ideas! I am going to try them all especially the physical inbox. Another way, I guess is when we put labels they must be labeled properly to avoid all confusions - soft and hard copies. This make things a lot easier to locate and file.
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