Last updated April 3, 2019. Posted September 24, 2018 in Development, Featured. This post contains affiliate links.
Do you perform a weekly review?
A weekly review might be the single best way to get clear on your commitments. You can identify your ‘open loops’ and get them into a trusted task management system. This leaves you with a clear mind and no more of those nagging doubts that you’ve forgotten something.
So, if it is this effective, why don’t more people devote a small amount of time each week to reviewing their progress?
In this post, I will detail the process I use and the traps into which I’ve fallen while consolidating this habit.
Do you feel overwhelmed by your obligations? Perhaps there are so many things in your head that you can’t focus on getting them done?
As someone dedicated to personal productivity, you should consider a new strategy: a weekly review might just change your life.
What is a weekly review?
A weekly review is a meeting you schedule with yourself to audit your commitments, projects and appointments. You can then capture and prioritise any outstanding tasks in todo list system.
You will need a reliable system for capturing the unresolved responsibilities in each area of your life. A system that will allow you to relax with family or friends (rather than worrying about something you might have forgotten). You can ‘switch off’ and trust everything will be where it needs to be.
Many people use a checklist or flowchart to enable their weekly review. Having a template or guide to walk you through your reviews will ensure you don’t miss any of your areas of focus.
Download a pdf weekly review checklist to use as a guide.
I’ll also include an Evernote weekly review template if you prefer.
You can also have a pdf copy of this post for later reading.
Go to the full page to download a pdf weekly review checklist to use as a guide.
I’ll also include an Evernote weekly review template if you prefer.
You can also have a pdf copy of this post for later reading.
Many systems for achieving goals recommend regular progress reviews, including the 12 Week Year system and The 4 Disciplines of Execution. You might consider incorporating your progress review within a broader weekly review.
I first started using a weekly review as part of my practice of Getting Things Done (GTD)® (Amazon). Although I have added to and adapted my process over time, I still primarily think of it in way GTD® describes.
To provide you with context, here is a YouTube clip of David Allen, the creator of GTD®, discussing the weekly review. I note that it is some years old now, so he mentions some technology that will seem anachronistic. It’s the message that is useful to keep in mind.
Why is a weekly review important?
If you’re like me, you will have a dozen different projects on the go at any one time.
Maybe you’re working on a research study, or perhaps you’re renovating your home. Or you might be doing both at once, as well as reporting to a boss, supervising others and having a large number of regular reports to create.
As a physician, I am continually creating lists of tasks related to patient care, as well as ‘things that need to be checked’ after a specific date. I also have a personal life, mortgage, extended family and social obligations.
With all of these commitments we’ve made running around in our heads, is it any wonder we feel overwhelmed? Reviewing your commitments means you spend the time and mental energy to corral all of that information and organise it in such a way that nothing is lost or forgotten and you know what you need to do next.
Free your mind and create space for deep work: it is likely to have enormous benefits for your productivity.
It has for mine.
Who should develop a weekly review habit?
If you are an adult in this busy world, you will have more projects and commitments than you should manage just using your brain. If you’re a teen studying high school, you will have assignments and studies to organise. (Not to mention your social life and a list of extra-curricular activities as well.)
(In fact, David Allen and his colleagues Mike Williams and Mark Wallace have recently released a new version of his productivity guide, specifically written with teenagers in mind: Getting Things Done for Teens (Amazon).)
Almost everyone can benefit from a weekly appointment with themselves, dedicated explicitly to thinking through their commitments and making sure that nothing is falling into the cracks.
How I do my weekly review
I schedule my review in my calendar, for 90 minutes every Thursday at 4 p.m. This is long enough that I can cover all of my various sources of open loops.
Because I started doing this a few years ago, some of my headings might not be up-to-date with GTD® if Allen has changed the language. I know what they mean though, and that’s what matters.
Download a weekly review checklist to follow along with as you read.
You can also copy my Evernote weekly review template if you use Evernote.
Go to the full page to download a pdf weekly review checklist to use as a guide.
I’ll also include an Evernote weekly review template if you prefer.
You can also have a pdf copy of this post for later reading.
Start by gathering all the pieces of paper that have accumulated during the week. Receipts, ATM statements, notes and memos all tend to find their way into my inbox, wallet and briefcase.
Make sure to check and empty your physical inbox(es) if you have one, and add the paper to the pile you’ve created.
The next job is to process that paper until there’s nothing left. Examine the item and decide what it means. If you need to keep it (e.g. a receipt for taxation purposes), then file it in appropriate storage. If you won’t need it you have a rubbish bin for a reason.
Once you have completed the paper audit, you should have an empty inbox, wallet and briefcase. Now it’s time to move onto to your digital inboxes.
Achieve Inbox Zero
When Merlin Mann coined the phrase Inbox Zero over a decade ago, he was talking about inboxes for your email addresses. Since that time the internet has exploded with all sorts of useful web applications, and they almost all come with an inbox.
The first step is to audit your inboxes. Ascertain which of the services you rely upon have an inbox, and add them to a list. Each week you will process your inboxes to zero.
I usually start with email, but also include my Evernote inbox (where I’ve often clipped or emailed notes to store during the week). I have several email inboxes and so deal with each in turn. My Evernote is set up with a folder structure already, thus moving the notes to the relevant folders is pretty easy.
If you use a digital to-do list as I do, it will also have an inbox of sorts where tasks that I haven’t assigned to projects or appropriately tagged will reside. I review my Todoist inbox for such tasks and make sure I move them to where they belong.
Finally, your work might involve file-sharing in some form, and you would include your inbox in those services in this step as well.
Empty your Head
This step involves scanning your mind for any new ideas, tasks, projects or commitments. Anything at all that has come up during the week, or that is niggling in your brain at the time.
Some people would call this a ‘mind sweep’ or a ‘brain dump’. There are useful strategies to help you complete one. I reached out to my friend Zachary Sexton, author at zacharysexton.com and the host of Able Business Radio. He permitted me to embed his guided mind sweep below.
Here is the episode, click the play symbol to listen.
[File could not be embedded on the AMP version of this page. Please go to Zack’s page if you wish to listen.]
If you’re a doctor, some specific steps are needed. Review your clinic lists, endorse any outstanding results, and correct and sign your letters. Make a note of any actions that pop into your head while you’re doing these tasks: sometimes you’ll remember something important that has slipped through your system.
Once you’ve gotten clear, it’s time to get current.
This part is heavily influenced by the GTD® weekly review. I use a lot of the terminology from that book and based my system mainly on the structure it suggests.
Review Next Action Lists
I use Todoist for managing tasks and projects. I have sections dedicated to work and personal life and have many projects in each section.
During your weekly review, review your progress on every one of your projects. Ask yourself: Is this moving forward? What is the next action? What have I completed this week? Is there anything I can check off? Is there any task on which I keep procrastinating? If so, does it need to stay in my system or can it be delegated to someone else or discarded altogether?
David Allen defines next actions as follows:
The “next action” is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality of this thing toward completion.
Make sure to identify completed tasks and the next logical step for each project in your task manager, and then move onto the next project.
By the end of this process, you should have a sense of the status of each of your projects, and an explicit next action item to do when the time is right.
Review your Calendar
Your calendar can be a rich source of unresolved issues or projects. Look through your appointments over the last week and identify any meetings, conference calls or other activities that might have generated a new task.
Quickly consider each meeting. Did you agree to send information to someone? Did you accept a new project or task? If you did, transfer that information into your task list or manager.
Once you’ve reviewed your calendar for the past week, have a look forward for a few weeks and see what is on your horizons. Upcoming deadlines should be obvious and might remind you of an obligation you accepted but have not yet actioned.
Again, transfer identified tasks into your task management app or todo list.
Review ‘Waiting For’ list
David Allen recommends having a place where you keep tasks that are waiting on someone else. In this way, they won’t be on your list given you can’t take action on them, but they also don’t fall off your lists altogether.
If you are keeping a ‘Waiting For’ list, review it and consider whether you need to remind the other party they haven’t finished their part. If you have received the information or the task is now back for you to complete, you should remove it from your Waiting For list and return it to your active task list.
Review relevant checklists
Some people have checklists for tasks they frequently repeat, including their weekly review.
Run through the checklist and make sure you’ve completed each necessary task. It should only take a minute.
Review your Projects, Goals and Desired Outcomes
Some projects will become less relevant or important over time, or you might decide not to complete them at all. Reviewing your projects each week can help you clarify on which you want to focus. Something you had planned to do might not be needed any longer.
Remove completed or redundant projects from your lists so that your system provides clarity rather than confusion.
If you are working toward a big goal of some sort, or perhaps if you’re using the 12 Week Year system and are tracking your metrics in a spreadsheet, this is the time to review that data as well. In our interview about the concept of the “academic athlete“, Drs Eric Benchimol & Richard Keijzer both mentioned they track their Pomodoro segments completed each week as part of their review.
Are you making progress on those big goals? Do you need to do better next week than this one? Are you hitting your 85% target for tactic completion?
Get in touch with the ‘why’ behind each goal and review how you’re succeeding and where you’re failing to make progress. You might want to review your personal mission statement and reconnect with your values. This process should provide a big boost to your motivation for each of those goals for the coming week.
What ideas have you had this week? If you track them in a digital file in Evernote or a notebook you carry with you, have a look and see what your subconscious surfaced for you to consider.
Sometimes the best ideas are waiting for you to rediscover, right there in the note you wrote to yourself so you wouldn’t forget.
This is also an opportunity to brainstorm. What could you do to develop your career or life that you haven’t yet considered?
If you keep a Someday/Maybe list (also from GTD®), a bucket list or vision board, is there anything you want to move to an active project and start taking action on? Given you have just reviewed your active projects, you will have a good idea of how much time and headspace you have for something new and exciting!
Weekly Review FAQs:
How long should a weekly review take?
As a rule of thumb, sixty minutes will be enough for many people. I schedule a ninety-minute block to allow enough time, but this is something that might vary depending on the seasons of work or life.
There are no rules for how long a weekly review must take. It’s entirely up to you and your commitments. I find that completing my review leads to increased productivity and overall improvement in my time management, despite the time commitment it requires.
My suggestion is to start with sixty minutes and adjust as you proceed.
What should I include in my weekly review?
Most people have a variety of obligations and commitments encompassing their work, personal, spiritual, family and social lives.
If you’re trying to get your head as clear as possible, it might be helpful to clarify your commitments in each of those areas such that you finish with an all-encompassing overview of where you are expending your time and energy.
I’ve outlined my approach above. Again, it might take some experimenting to find the best system that works for you.
What is the best day to complete my review?
Many people conduct their weekly review on a Sunday afternoon. They feel this prepares them for their week by providing clarity on their outstanding tasks and projects and allowing them some time to set their goals for the coming week.
Others prefer to review at the end of their working week so that they can enter their weekend with a clear mind. They can trust that their work will be in a ready state for when they go back to work, and they have accounted for all of their projects.
It might depend on your obligations as to when you conduct your review. I have a young family and find that a weekend review isn’t ideal. I also have a clinic on Friday afternoon second weekly, which means that Friday afternoon doesn’t work for me. Thus, Thursday afternoon is when I schedule my review.
That might change as my commitments change, but it works for my current mix of work and family life.
Which productivity tools should I use for my weekly review?
The minimum set of tools you will need includes:
your inbox (either physical or digital)
notepad and pen, or digital equivalent
your to-do list or digital task manager
Beyond those, it depends only on what tools you use in your day-to-day work and life.
My toolkit is:
Google Calendar (digital)
Clinic lists & patient task list (paper – for privacy/security purposes)
Mindmap of my areas of focus (digital)
A checklist of steps in a weekly review could help as you embed this new habit. Download mine to use as a guide.
You can also have an Evernote weekly review template if you prefer, and a pdf copy of this post to read later.
A checklist of steps in a weekly review could help as you embed this new habit. Go to the full page to download mine to use as a guide.
You can also have an Evernote weekly review template if you prefer, and a pdf copy of this post to read later.
How does a weekly review help with:
Imagine your poor brain trying to keep all of the random thoughts about all of your different commitments clear and retrieve them when necessary. David Allen calls these thoughts ‘open loops’ and defines them as follows:
Anything that does not belong where it is, the way it is, is an “open loop,” which will be pulling on your attention if it’s not appropriately managed.
Now, imagine sorting through all of those open loops, deciding on their meaning and storing them in an appropriate system. This is what the weekly review is for, and it should lead to a sense of clarity and peace you might find unfamiliar if you’re used to the overwhelm created by hundreds of open loops fighting for your attention!
One of the primary reasons people struggle to prioritise is that they can’t see the wood for the trees. They are so mired in all of their open loops that they don’t know what things look like from a higher level.
When you make the time to get that perspective, you can see where you’ve been and where you’re going. Your priorities are clear, and the tasks you need to complete are laid out like a pathway. You can make active decisions about what to prioritise rather than only dealing with the emergencies that arise when you lose perspective.
Get in touch with your motivations as part of your weekly review, and you will feel more connected to your goals and be far more likely to achieve them.
Do you ever feel like you want to make progress on a project, but you don’t know where to start? What might it be like to know exactly what your next step is for all of your outstanding projects, such that whenever you have time to work on something you don’t even need to think what to do?
Your weekly review can provide that level of clarity. By defining the next action for each of your projects, you will know what to do, and you are less likely to fall prey to procrastination or distraction.
I hope that by now it is clear how useful a weekly review can be, and how I approach my reviews.
A weekly review is another meeting in your schedule and, for some people, it can feel like ‘just another thing they have to do’. Implementing a weekly review has made the rest my week so much easier. I wouldn’t trade that ninety minutes for anything.
By clarifying your commitments and getting clear on what you need to do next for each of your projects, you can face the whirlwind of your daily life with confidence. You will achieve more and feel calmer while doing it.
What’s not to like?
Do you perform a weekly review? How has it helped you? Let me know in the comments!
The Weekly Review: Conquer your Overwhelm in an hour each week! was last modified: April 3rd, 2019 by Mark
Last updated May 3, 2019. Posted August 29, 2017 in Featured, Interviews, Tools. This post contains affiliate links.
It seems like a cruel joke, doesn’t it?
If you’re anything like me – and I bet you are – you receive more email than you know what to do with. In the days before writing this post, I received hundreds of emails. I have eight separate email addresses, and those are just the ones I can remember. The chance of me managing my emails under these circumstances is almost zero unless I utilise a robust email management system.
Sound familiar? What if I told you that you could regain control?
I can show you how to get your email inbox to zero every day.
You just need to follow the steps in my guide to email management and be disciplined.
The Email Problem
I’m not about to suggest you go off email altogether. Many productivity experts will recommend leading a revolution within your organisation and moving to Slack.
This isn’t practical for me. I can’t change the culture of my workplace, a hospital that employs something like 6000 people. It is impractical to suggest moving to Slack.
Email as a communication tool isn’t going away anytime soon, and certainly not in my workplace!
If we accept this, we need to consider ways to improve our experience of email. Because hundreds or thousands of emails a week is a quick way to become bogged down in other peoples’ priorities.
That’s what an email is, after all. It is someone else demanding your time and attention. It doesn’t have to be assigning you a task or requesting a meeting. Every email requires you to decide what it means to you.
And every decision we need to make leads to less headspace for concentrating on what is important to us.
The scope of the problem with email is so great that email management has become an industry in itself. There are tools and webinars, apps and courses. Trust me: I’ve signed up for a few!
What is Inbox Zero?
Merlin Mann originally coined the phrase to describe the amount of attention you should be focusing on your inbox.
That “zero”? It’s not how many messages are in your inbox – it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. – Merlin Mann
I have embedded a fantastic Inbox Zero video presentation Mann gave at Google in 2007 below. He explains his conceptualisation for email and its role in his life, as well as his approach to email management. Yes, it’s ten years old – a lifetime in internet years – but the principles are timeless.
Consider watching it and then continue reading.
Note that Inbox Zero doesn’t mean you have an empty inbox using the Merlin Mann definition. This has become the modern definition that many people will be assuming when they talk about Inbox Zero and email management.
Having zero emails left in your inbox is an amazing feeling when it happens. However, it is counter-productive to have a system that encourages you to feel guilty if there are emails left. The goal should be to optimise your email processing strategy such that you minimise time spent on managing your email.
This post is over 10000 words. Download a copy to read later.
I’ll also provide a checklist to work through and a copy of my processing workflow.
This post is over 10000 words. Go to the full version of this page to download a copy to read later.
I’ll also provide a checklist to work through and a copy of my processing workflow.
Inbox Zero Step 1: Eliminate
The best long-term strategy for reducing the time spent in your inbox is to reduce the amount of email you receive.
While that might seem like common sense, this step is so crucial that it bears repeating (or tweeting!).
Consider how long it takes you to read the subject line of an individual email, decide whether to open it or not and then click delete. Let’s assume it takes you 10 seconds. Now consider how many emails you receive each day that you just delete without opening.
(I recently checked my email clients to work out how many emails I had processed in this way, and I am too embarrassed to admit the true number!)
If we estimate that you receive 45 such emails each day, you will spend 7.5 minutes each day just deleting emails that you don’t even open.
That’s 52.5 minutes every week – almost an hour!
This works out to 2737.5 minutes per year, a whole 45.6 hours! That is an entire working week every year that you could free up.
What could you achieve with an extra week every year?
But stop, you say, I’m a keyboard shortcuts ninja, and I can process each email in five short seconds. How do an extra 22.8 hours each year sound? That’s half a work week!
Hack your Email Tip 1: Search the Trash
Assuming you use Gmail you can easily find out how many unread messages you have processed.
Go to the search bar while in your Gmail inbox and paste the following:
Go ahead and change the dates if you like, just make them consecutive.
Now, use the handy calculator I created below. Enter the number of emails you’ve deleted without opening and your estimate for how long it takes you to process each of them (in seconds). The calculator will show you how much time you might save just by reducing the flow of emails that you don’t even open.
Email Time Savings Calculator
Number of Emails: *
Number of seconds per email: *
Minutes saved per day:
Minutes saved per week:
Hours saved per year:
What could you do with more hours each year??
Once you have worked out what the scope of your problem is, you can start to make informed decisions moving forward.
Examine the list of emails that you have deleted without opening. How many of them are newsletters or subscriptions to mailing lists? What is the amount of time you could save with this one tip?
Hack your Email Tip 2: Unsubscribe
Remember that search we used in Gmail earlier? What would happen if we added “unsubscribe” to that search? Or some other synonymous terms?
in:trash is:unread after:2017/08/28 before:2017/08/29 unsubscribe OR opt-out OR “opt out” OR “mail preferences” OR “email preferences” OR “manage notifications” OR “manage your notifications” OR “manage alerts” OR “alert preferences”
Try it out.
What should happen is that you will see a shorter list of emails, but they are much more likely to be mailing lists or newsletters.
Why does this work? The CAN-SPAM Act requires commercial email to allow consumers the ability to opt-out of future email. The Spam Act in Australia requires the same thing. Thus, all newsletters and mailing lists should have an unsubscribe link.
The link is often at the bottom of the email. Open a few of those deleted emails and look for it.
Now, go through and consider whether you want to stay subscribed to that service or not. If you don’t think it’s adding much value, unsubscribe!
Although it might seem this step is taking a while, you are investing in your future self. Every one of those emails that you unsubscribe from means that every time that company or mailing list sends a new email you save another 5-10 seconds.
The investment of time now to improve a system, workflow or automation reaps the reward of increased time later.
Hack your Email Tip 3: Unsubscribe redux
There are commercial services that can do all of this for you: one well-known service is Unroll.me. They received a lot of negative press earlier this year when it turned out they were selling user data. Many people were rightly outraged, although what they were doing is in their terms of service.
If you don’t want to offer unfettered access to your data to the highest bidder, there is an open-source script that could help (if you’re using Gmail).
Follow the instructions written by well-known Google Apps hacker Amit Agarwal. What you’ll be doing is copying a Google Sheet into your Google Drive.
Once you’ve copied it into your account, click on the ‘Gmail Unsubscriber’ button in the menu at the right side. Grant the sheet access to your Gmail account, and then set-up an ‘Unsubscribe’ label in Gmail.
The script will check your Gmail account every 15 minutes for new emails with the label Unsubscribe. When it finds one, the script will attempt to unsubscribe you from further emails.
To use it, just assign the ‘Unsubscribe’ label to any emails from which you wish to unsubscribe, and the script will do the rest. You can even do this in bulk – just label multiple messages as Unsubscribe.
You’ll end up with the sheet showing all the emails it has unsubscribed you from in case you ever need to check.
Eliminate: Other Email Clients
All three of those tips apply to Gmail, as the search functions within Gmail are fantastic. (As you’d expect from a company which first came to prominence as a search engine.) You can modify these suggestions to deal with other email providers as follows.
Microsoft Outlook – click into Deleted Items and search for:
unsubscribe read:no AND received:>=28/8/17 AND received:<=29/8/17
Windows Live Hotmail:
unsubscribe before:”2017/8/28″ after:”2017/8/29″
Unsubscribing from mailing lists and newsletters that are no longer of value to you is just dealing with the low hanging fruit. After eliminating, the next step is to consolidate your email in as few inboxes as possible.
Inbox Zero Step 2: Consolidate
Remember those eight email addresses I mentioned earlier? How many do you have?
It is harder to be efficient when you have to manage multiple email accounts. I would encourage you to simplify if you can. If you’re not using an account, close it. If you can’t remember the last time you got an email at that address, close it.
What if you don’t want to close your account? You have two options:
Use an email client that allows you to manage multiple email accounts
Set up a forwarding arrangement so that all your email ends up in one inbox
I use a combination of both of these approaches.
Hack your Email Tip 4: Get mobile
In my opinion, the best way to process your email quickly is to do it on a mobile device.
Many Android or iOS apps will allow you to setup import from Gmail, Outlook, Exchange Server and other email services. Centralising is the best way to manage multiple email accounts while on-the-go.
My favourite of these apps is Newton Mail (formerly known as CloudMagic). I have set it up such that I can see all of my email accounts in my Newton interface.
I can choose to view all of my emails in a massive combined inbox. My preferred option is to keep emails from different accounts separate, however, as this allows me to ignore work email on weekends but keep using my personal accounts.
When looking for such an app try to find one that allows you to send as if you’re in the account’s native app. In other words, if you’re looking at an email in your Gmail account and want to respond, the recipient will get an email from your Gmail address.
I will be discussing mobile apps and Newton more in the Process section.
Hack your Email Tip 5: Import / Export
You can set up Gmail (and many other webmail applications) to import email from your other accounts. You can even grant Gmail access to the other account’s servers so that email will appear to have come from the other account. (i.e. I send the email from within the Gmail interface, but it seems to have come from my productivephysician.com address.)
I only use this feature for my webmail services. These include an old Hotmail account, a Yahoo account, and the email accounts associated with this website and another website I develop.
Although this step is slightly technical, it isn’t all that hard for someone savvy enough to be reading this website!
Import from other accounts
The first step is to open the settings in your Gmail account. Look at the top right of the screen in your web browser for the small gear (cog) icon with the drop-down arrow beside it.
Click the gear and choose Settings from the menu that appears. The settings screen will appear, and you need to select ‘Accounts and Import’.
Find the section labelled ‘Check mail from other accounts:’ and click the text link ‘Add a mail account’.
A new window will pop-up and appear something like this:
Add the email address from which you wish to import and click Next. The pop-up window will change. You will see the option to use ‘Gmailify’ or POP3 depending on the account from which you’re importing.
If Gmailify is available, this will allow you to send as if from the original account. If only POP3 is available, you will be importing emails only at this stage. Click Next and the screen will change again.
You now need to enter your email account details. Enter your username and password.
You can obtain the POP Server address and Port from your email account provider or by a quick Google search.
Click Add Account and the process should finish.
Send via other accounts
If you can’t use Gmailify for your account and are stuck using POP3, you can still set up Gmail to send from your other account.
Go back to the Accounts and Import page and find ‘Send mail as:’. Another window will pop up asking for the Name you wish to send email as and the email address.
Add your details and click on Next Step. You will now need to enter your SMTP settings. Again, you can get these from your email account provider or Google.
Add your account, and you should now be able to choose to send email from that account from within Gmail!
After eliminating as much incoming email as possible and consolidating your email inboxes into as few as possible, the next step is delegation.
Sign up now to download an Inbox Zero checklist to work through and a copy of my processing workflow.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf.
Go to the full version of this page to sign-up and then download an Inbox Zero checklist to work through and a copy of my processing workflow.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf.
Inbox Zero Step 3: Delegate
Many productivity buffs will suggest you employ a virtual assistant (VA) to process your email for you.
Of course, this is one way in which you could reduce your time spent in email. However, I am not yet at the point of trusting someone else with the keys to my online world. So much of our lives is now managed through email. Just think of the number of account activation emails and receipts you receive and consider the potential for identity theft.
As a doctor, I also receive sensitive material via email from time-to-time. This isn’t something I encourage, as many email clients aren’t fully secure.
In the United States, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) outlines an extensive array of protections to ensure sensitive health information isn’t inadvertently released to third parties. Although this doesn’t apply to me (the Australian equivalent does!), health professionals need to understand their local privacy laws when considering the safe use of electronic communications.
Utilise an Executive or Personal Assistant
One way in which you might consider delegation is if you are lucky enough to have a personal (PA) or executive assistant (EA).
Given I have never worked with an assistant before, I reached out to Christina Holzhauser at Tips For Assistants. I asked her some questions about how to optimally work with an assistant in managing email.
Christina is the founder of Tips for Assistants, which is an online resource designed to give advice and resources to assistants and administrative professionals to help them to perform at the highest level. She has more than a decade of experience in a wide array of assistant roles. You can connect with Tips for Assistants on the following platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Google+.
For my first question to Christina, I wanted to clarify the types of tasks that an assistant might help their manager with. (Note that Christina writes in US English while I use British English.)
For someone just starting to work with an assistant, in what ways can an assistant help with email management?
The ways a manager utilizes their assistant’s support will vary and email management is no exception. For example, some people prefer for their assistant to reply to specific emails whereas others do not want their assistant to perform that function at all.
Assistants can sort emails into folders, set up rules, categorize emails and come up with more efficient email processing systems.
A lot of the time, email management overlaps with calendar management. Meeting requests end up in the same inbox and communication frequently occurs about those, so that is a related task that assistants tend to manage as well.
What are some of the most effective ways that an assistant can help manage email for the manager?
A strategic assistant would think of different perspectives when it comes to approaching email management. The assistant would think from the perspective of being on the defense (when they are working inside of their manager’s inbox) and the offense (when they are working outside of their manager’s inbox).
When the assistant is on the defense, there are numerous ways for them to keep the manager’s inbox organized, efficient and generally running in a way that aligns with their manager’s preferences. The key word is preferences; every manager will want their inbox overseen differently, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all guide.
Here are some general tips that can be personalized to fit the needs of the individual the assistant is supporting when they are on the defense:
Discuss the current email management system
At a high-level, assistants that help with the email management task are actually acting as productivity managers to maintain a system that allows their managers to be as efficient as possible. The assistant needs to know what is working, what is not working, if there are any past systems that should be revisited and what the specific goals are.
Determine how often the manager wants their inbox checked
Having baseline agreed upon times set up from the start ensures clear expectations. This is especially helpful when the assistant is managing multiple managers’ inboxes.
Establish a folder system The system is something that can either be established by the manager or by the assistant. If one has already been established, there might be a need to optimize the folders in place. The main aspects of a great folder system are that it is a living system, it’s uncomplicated and helps to maintain the manager’s inbox goals.
Set up mail rules The assistant can set up mail rules to help keep the manager’s inbox organized at an even faster pace. However, I have seen emails not part of the rules somehow wind up in a folder that they weren’t meant to go into. I recommend assistants monitor all folders and not assume that the rules are running 100% correctly on autopilot.
Establish a labeling system If there’s a system in place, the assistant should keep their eyes peeled for ways to keep it optimized. One element that should be considered when either setting up or establishing the labeling system is whether it will be used for assigning purposes. For example, a specific label could indicate if an email is assigned to either the assistant or the manager to take action on. Another element to consider is for sorting purposes. If the manager finds it helpful to reference emails by labels, then those types should be set up.
Work to unsubscribe the manager from all email lists It is easy for inboxes to get clogged up with junk emails so assistants can help to remove their manager off all (or some) email lists. Before unsubscribing, assistants should get permission from their manager to do so.
Determine how to best respond to emails When the assistant is new, it is important for the manager to outline what kinds of emails he/she expects them to either draft or directly reply to. After narrowing down the types of emails the assistant will be taking action on, the assistant can work with the manager to get a few templates or examples to refer to.
Set up canned email responses If the assistant or the manager find themselves writing the same responses over and over again, canned responses can be created to save time. All of those extra minutes add up over time!
There are ways in which the assistant can be effective on the offense when they are outside of their manager’s inbox as well:
Work to move the manager to BCC whenever possible Quite often the assistant is emailed communications that their manager is copied on. Instead of clicking ‘Reply All’, the assistant should take a moment to decide if it’s necessary to keep the person they are supporting on the email chain. This is especially the case when it comes to emails regarding calendaring; the manager doesn’t need to be copied on all the back and forth.
Consolidate emails The assistant should always work to consolidate emails that they are sending to their manager whenever possible; they should avoid sending one-off emails unless they are time sensitive or of high importance. What has worked for me is starting an email draft with non-urgent updates and sending it at the end of the day. You’d be amazed at how many one-off emails this practice saves! For an example of how to go about this process, check out my article here.
Think through the email before copying the manager I recommend assistants take a moment to decide if their manager needs to be copied before doing so. If the answer is yes, assistants should anticipate the questions the readers on the email might have and provide that information up front. Including all details from the get-go decreases the chance of additional follow up emails.
Be concise and get to the point Whenever assistants need to send emails to their managers it’s a good idea to avoid being wordy. If there’s no way around having bulky content, assistants can use bullets to ensure the email is well organized and easy to scan. To prevent ambiguity, assistants should proofread their emails to make sure their word choices are as clear as possible. Taking the time to do this avoids the need for clarifying questions (and ensuing emails) later on.
Don’t compose an email If the assistant knows he/she will be getting some face time with their manager soon, then any updates or questions could be discussed at that time.
Another way for assistants to be on the offense is to explore task management programs. These programs were not only designed to help manage tasks, but they have optimized team communication and resulted in reduced emails. I keep a master list of task management programs that I recommend here.
One final note about assistants being on the offense is for them to keep their eyes peeled for other apps that can help to declutter and optimize their manager’s inbox. For example, if the assistant notices that their manager’s inbox is inundated with constant back and forth emails about scheduling, they could take that as a cue to look into scheduling programs that could help to eliminate emails about that entirely. (I keep a great master list of calendaring apps here).
What are some of the potential risks when an assistant is helping with email, and how might they best be mitigated?
Unfortunately, there are some potential risks when an assistant is helping with email. The most crucial item I want to bring up is security. I do not recommend managers share their passwords for their primary email accounts with their assistant; that is what the email delegation feature was created for. The delegation feature gives the assistant all the access they need to do their job.
Trust is an important aspect of any relationship, and it takes time to establish. When the manager gives delegate access to their email account the assistant can preview a lot of information, which they are able to forward, download and save on their own computer. Some managers might not feel comfortable giving this kind of access right away.
There’s a creative solution for the manager to receive immediate help with email management without giving access to their main email account. The manager can set up a second email account and start forwarding emails to their assistant to manage there. This way their personal and sensitive emails are kept separate until they are ready to give delegate access to their main email account. Starting with an indirect approach gives time to build up trust before giving full access to all of their sensitive emails right off the bat.
Another risk is the assistant opening scam emails that the manager might normally delete. Unfortunately, hackers are learning how to craft more legit looking emails these days, so it’s important to make sure the assistant has a keen eye. The manager could send over a few articles for their assistant to read so they are aware of key identifiers to be on the lookout for. In addition, the manager should make sure their assistant’s computer is safeguarded with an antivirus program and firewall to help to protect against phishing scams.
Many of us have accidentally sent emails before we were finished composing them and there’s a chance that assistants might accidentally do this when composing emails on behalf of their manager as well. There are a few ways to mitigate this error. One way is for the assistant to delete all of the recipients off of the email draft until it is ready to be sent. The other way is a tip for Gmail users. If the manager has Gmail, the Undo Send feature can be turned on.
My last tip is for the manager to be diligent when articulating best practices with their assistant. It is a huge risk if the manager doesn’t communicate the necessary updates in order for their assistant to do their job well. If the manager doesn’t want their inbox managed poorly then any updates should be given to their assistant in a timely manner.
Do you perceive any risks with using a remote EA/PA (or VA) to assist with email? If so, what are they and how can they be reduced?
There is a risk if the manager is using an assistant outside of their organization because the assistant will be using their own personal computer to do the work. The manager should find out what antivirus program the assistant uses, if they use a firewall and if they use a VPN. Basically, the more information the manager knows about the security measures the assistant is taking to protect their sensitive information, the better protected their email account (and the rest of their personal information) will be.
If the assistant is outside of the manager’s organization, the manager might want to consider having them sign an NDA (Non-disclosure Agreement). These are fairly common as part of the on-boarding process for many assistants, especially in personal settings. As I mentioned before, emails can easily be forwarded, downloaded and saved on the assistant’s computer. A lot of times companies do have guidelines in the employee handbook about keeping company information confidential. An NDA would act in a similar way to help the manager keep their personal information confidential.
What are any ‘best practices’ you advise? Standard operating procedures? Guidelines or agreements? Policies or procedures?
Ongoing communication is an essential part of a strong relationship between the manager and the assistant. There will be extra time needed for the manager to invest in communication upfront. In order for the assistant to learn all the manager’s preferences and to manage their inbox exactly how they would like it, that extra time spent communicating those preferences in the beginning is necessary.
The manager should prioritize weekly check-in meetings with their assistant as part of their commitment to ongoing communication. If these meetings have not been established, here is an article on the many reasons why they are important. In general, these meetings are a great time for both the assistant and manager to ask questions, to discuss feedback and for the assistant to get any pieces of information they had been waiting on to complete tasks related to email management.
The assistant should be recording all best practices, procedures and preferences in their job manual and there should be a dedicated chapter for email management. The manual should be kept in a place that the manager can access, preferably on a shared cloud drive. If the assistant has not started a job manual, I wrote an article on how to set up one of those binders here. All procedures and preferences should be included in the binder.
If a back-up ever needs to temporarily help with the email management task, then that chapter could be shared as a how-to guide to follow. Typically, processes will undergo a bit of tweaking over time when either the manager or the assistant notice ways to make improvements and the assistant should always be recording those. Whenever the manager notes a change in preferences, the assistant should record those as well. Essentially, the binder is a living reference for everyone.
Do you have any other ideas or concepts that you consider important when asking an assistant to help with email?
I want to throw out the notion of keeping three separate email accounts: a work email account, a personal email account and a miscellaneous email account. Most likely a manager won’t require an assistant to oversee their personal email, so keeping those emails separate allows for a bit of privacy. The miscellaneous email account is one that might need some email management, but would not be the main inbox to manage. The main function of that inbox would be for email subscriptions, newsletters and orders that might result in being placed on mailing lists. Basically, this inbox keeps the clutter out of the work and personal inboxes. The work email account would be the primary inbox that the assistant would manage. One person I assisted had this system and it made a lot of sense!
I want to end with the manager prioritizing open communication and encouraging the assistant to think outside of the (in)box. Just like the idea of looking into a task management program if one isn’t being used already, it’s important for the assistant to feel like he/she can come to the person they support with new ideas to try. Every email that comes in requires a decision and the more ways that can be reduced, the more time the assistant has to spend supporting the manager with other tasks.
I found Christina’s responses really helpful, and if I am ever lucky enough to have an assistant I will be referring back to them for guidance. Thanks, Christina!
Hack your Email Tip 6: Say Hello to Amy
If you don’t have an EA or PA and aren’t willing to use a VA, would you consider using AI?
There has been an explosion in AI in recent years, and one area that has benefited is scheduling meetings. The most well-known service is x.ai, but there are several others including Kono.
When you start using an AI assistant to schedule your meetings, you will need to grant them access to your calendar(s). Then you just need to cc your AI assistant on a meeting request email.
In this example, Amy from x.ai will carry out the emails on your behalf. (Amy is a bot, not a real person, and you can call her Andrew if you prefer a male AI assistant!) Amy will check your calendar and only offer times when you are free. Once a time is set, she will send a calendar invitation to both you and the other parties.
The long waiting list for access to their beta programme means that I haven’t had much chance to work with Amy at the time of writing (but I have been accepted, yay!). I have tried a couple of other, similar services. The feedback from my meeting guests was that the AI scheduling bot was often a little pushy. My colleagues found it somewhat confronting trying to schedule in this way.
Use a dedicated scheduling service
If you aren’t someone who would consider yourself an ‘early adopter’ you might be wary of giving an AI access to your calendar. There are several meeting scheduling services available that don’t work with AI.
When you grant access to your calendar to one of these services, you will setup rules for when you will be available and when not, preferred days and locations, and preferred meeting duration. The service will then give you a link that you can give to people who wish to make a time to see you. When they go to that website link they will see when you are available and can select a time for themselves.
Many of these services allow you to request documentation, biographical information and other data that will be useful for the meeting. None of this requires you to be involved. As long as you setup rules to protect time that you don’t want to be scheduled, you won’t need to take part in the emails required to settle on a time and venue.
Think about the emails you send each day. How many of them are variations on the same type of email?
If you’re like many people, you will find yourself sending many emails with similar content. Whether it’s responding to requests for information or answering frequently asked questions, did you ever consider whether you could automate the process?
I once heard a productivity guru state that if they ever typed the same email more than once, they considered whether it would be a good idea to save the email as a template. One of the best ways to create re-useable templated responses is a text expansion app like TextExpander.
Hack your Email Tip 7: Save your Snippets
TextExpander is available on Mac and iOS devices, and in 2016 Smile Software released a Windows version. I have been using the Windows version since release and fell in love.
The basic principle is that you assign a short series of characters that, when typed, trigger an expanded piece of text (snippet) to appear instead. The software works anywhere you can type text. This means that you don’t have to have different shortcuts for different apps.
So, for example, when I type ppfs (for ‘Productive Physician full site’ so it’s easy to remember) TextExpander replaces that text string with https://productivephysician.com. I use ppe to type my email address (‘Productive Physician email’).
Text expansion isn’t only useful for email. I have a variety of snippets set for medical terminology, as well as my personal details like phone number and address.
When it comes to email, however, you could use TextExpander to develop quite complicated text snippets. I have embedded a video below that demonstrates how using TextExpander could make your life in email easier.
Another way to produce reusable templates for common emails is to use ‘canned responses’.
Canned responses allow you to produce a text snippet or full email that you then save and reuse whenever it is applicable. The benefits are similar to the use of a text expansion utility like TextExpander. Their limitation is that you can only use them in the email service in which you create them.
Automating Frequently Asked Questions
One use for a text expansion application like TextExpander is to create reusable snippets of text that can act as the answer to questions you are frequently asked. You could type out a quick response yourself:
Thank you for your email. I’m afraid I’m not in a position to help you at the minute. Good luck getting the help you need.
Alternatively, you could use a snippet that contains what TextExpander calls ‘fill-ins’. When you trigger a snippet that has a fill-in a pop-up box will appear. You can, for example, enter the name and the subject and have the remainder of the email as above.
Fill in the person’s details in the fill-in fields.
Hi John. Thank you for your email about your speaking opportunity. I’m afraid I’m not in a position to help you at the minute. Good luck getting the help you need.
This way your recipient gets an email that you appear to have personalised without it taking a lot of your time to create. If you have a lot of emails that you send in response to questions you could conceivably create snippets that save you hours.
Summary of Inbox Zero Steps 1-4
If you have completed Inbox Zero Steps 1-4 you will be reaping the time benefits already. You will have eliminated unwanted subscriptions, consolidated your email into as few interfaces as possible, delegated any email that you can and automated your responses to save time.
The first four steps have all been ones that you might go through now and then, with the goal being to reduce the total burden of email received and the time spent replying to the email you do need to receive.
Your daily work begins with Step 5: Process. This is a set of best practices that you need to employ every single day.
Still reading? Download a copy of this post as a pdf to read anytime.
You can also have the checklist and workflow diagram, for free!
Still reading? Go to the full version of this page to download a copy of this post as a pdf to read anytime.
You can also have the checklist and workflow diagram, for free!
Inbox Zero Step 5: Process
My approach to processing email is influenced by that of Merlin Mann who, in turn, reports being heavily influenced by the writing of David Allen in his wildly successful book Getting Things Done (GTD).
The diagram below summarises the GTD processing workflow.
I also recommend Episode 15 of Able Business Radio by my friend, Zachary Sexton. Zack was kind enough to allow me to embed some of his material below for ease, but I encourage readers to check out his site and podcast. They’re always filled with useful ideas and suggestions.
Here is the episode, just click the play symbol to listen.
[File could not be embedded on the AMP version of this page. Please go to Zack’s page if you wish to listen.]
Zack’s workflow is like a modernised version of the GTD workflow and relies heavily on the digital tools he uses to manage his life. Your inbox is digital: storing reference material online and creating actions in a task manager makes sense.
Merlin Mann, Zachary Sexton and I all recommend processing email in bursts and then closing your email client. Make decisions on what the emails mean to you and then refocus on your other work priorities.
Processing, not checking
Note that you aren’t ‘checking’ your email, you’re ‘processing’ it. Although some might argue this is semantics, words convey meaning. To me, ‘checking’ suggests passivity or acceptance.
Processing suggests action and decisiveness.
Leaving your email client open all day just invites trouble: every new email that appears is like a shiny bauble to distract you from your real work.
So, make a time in the morning and in the afternoon to process your email. Schedule thirty minutes each time. And adopt an email processing workflow.
This is mine:
Is it Actionable?
The first question you need to ask when processing your email is: Is it Actionable?
If it isn’t something you need to do, it doesn’t need to to take much more of your time. You only have one more question to answer: Do I need it?
If you won’t ever need this email, delete it! If you might need it in the future, decide whether it gets archived or sent to a reference storage such as Evernote.
For emails that are actionable, you have a further question to answer.
Will it take less than 2 minutes to respond?
There’s no point spending your time creating a task in a to-do list if it’s only going to take you two minutes to answer. And, thanks to your use of canned responses or text expansion saved snippets, you now have lots of emails you can answer in two minutes or less.
If it’s going to take less than two minutes, answer the email and then archive it, send it to reference or delete it.
If it is going to take more than 2 minutes, you have one final question to answer.
Am I the best person to answer this email?
If you aren’t the best person to answer the email, who is? Delegate the email to whomever is most appropriate and move on with processing the remainder of your inbox.
If the email is actionable, is going to take more than two minutes and you’re the best person to respond, it is now a task. And, as a task, it belongs on your to-do list.
Sign up now to download my processing workflow as a pdf.
Go to the full version of this page to sign up and download my processing workflow as a pdf.
Note that the final outcome of any of the pathways in my processing workflow is one of the following six options:
Do it now!
Create a task
There is no option listed for ‘leave it in my inbox, procrastinate on it for months and then finally make a decision’. Your goal is to decide on each email once, and then move to the next. Try not to skip or leave for later.
Hack your Email Tip 8: Keyboard Shortcuts
I’ve suggested that you should archive an email when it isn’t actionable but you might need it later. There are several ways to make archiving an email as simple as a click or a swipe.
When using the web, you will have access to keyboard shortcuts in apps like Gmail and Windows Live Hotmail. Using a keyboard shortcut means that you can delete or archive emails without even using the mouse.
For Gmail users, turn on Keyboard shortcuts by going into Settings via the gear icon at upper right of the screen:
In the ‘General’ tab, scroll down until you find ‘Keyboard shortcuts’ and click the on radio button:
Scroll to the very bottom and click ‘Save Changes’. You can now use keyboard shortcuts in Gmail!
Now, after you’ve decided you don’t need to reply but do want to keep it for later, just type ‘e’.
Voila! You have archived the email.
In Outlook and Windows Live Hotmail you will need folders as there isn’t an archiving system. To move an email to a folder click ‘Ctrl + Shift + V’ and a menu will appear asking you to which folder to move it. (If you want to delete just type ‘CTRL + D’.)
For Yahoo Mail, you again need to use folders. The ‘D’ key will open the Move menu.
Note: Keyboard shortcuts are available for many web applications and are not limited to email. A quick Google search will find a list of further shortcuts you can use.
Hack your Email Tip 9: Mail to X
In my workflow above I recommend that you send reference material to online storage (Evernote). Now I’ll show you how to make this easy.
Sending an email for storage in Evernote is as simple as sending any other email. Assuming you have an Evernote account, go to your Account Settings. Scroll down and find the section toward the bottom with the heading ‘Email Notes to’. The email address listed there is the address to which you send your emails.
The subject of your email will become the note title. It will default to going to your Evernote inbox, but you can specify the folder by adding ‘@foldername‘ to the subject line.
Similarly, you could set tags using ‘#’ and a reminder using ‘!’.
This will work as long as the order of things in the subject field follows this template:
[Title of Note] ![Reminder Date] @[Folder] #[Tag]
You don’t have to use all of the options, just don’t try putting a tag before a folder.
You can also do this in OneNote.
First, check the email address you used for your account at their Email Settings page.
You will see the address from which you can send to store emails in OneNote. Click on ‘Add another address’ to define other email accounts from which you can send to OneNote.
Then, send any email you want to store to firstname.lastname@example.org from one of your addresses and it should be safely stored away for reference!
Hack your Email Tip 10: Deeper Integration
The workflow image also suggests sending your tasks to a task manager or to-do list application (e.g. Todoist). Just like with Evernote and OneNote there are ways to do make this quite simple.
If you have a Premium account at Todoist there is an email address for each project as well as even for the comments for a project. You can find the email address for your Inbox by clicking the project actions icon at the right above the list of tasks.
After the drop-down menu appears select ‘Email tasks to this project’ to get the address.
Once you have the address to send your tasks to, save it in your email client for easy access. Similar to Evernote, the subject line of the email will become the task name. There are also shortcuts that can apply labels, due dates or priorities if you place them in the subject line or email body.
Todoist also has a plugin for Gmail and Outlook that allows you to create a task from an email without leaving the email client.
You can get the Gmail plugin here and the Outlook plugin here. Once you install it you will see a new button in the message view.
Click on ‘Add to Todoist’ and you can add the email directly. You can also apply projects, labels, priorities and due dates.
Now you don’t need to remember the email address or the subject codes as you can create the task directly!
Hack your Email Tip 11: Swipe Actions
Remember that I mentioned processing email on a mobile device near the start of this post? One of the reasons that I love Newton is that you can connect it to other web apps like Evernote and Todoist, as well as a host of others.
The other reason is that you can define four different swipe actions for the inbox list screen that allow you to do different things with the emails. You have the option of half or full swipe either left or right.
I have assigned a full left swipe as ‘Mark as Spam’. Full right swipe means ‘Delete’. Half left means ‘Snooze’ and half right means ‘Move to folder’. Here is a view of my settings screen.
When I am processing email on my phone I have four options for dealing with an email accessible by sweeping my finger.
I have written to Newton support asking if they can create an option to use a supercharger for a swipe action. This would make Newton my perfect email processing machine. I would replace ‘snooze’ and ‘move to folder’ with a swipe to Evernote and a swipe to Todoist.
Newton can’t yet assign swipes to superchargers like Evernote or Todoist. However, the ability to glance at an email header and swipe it to spam or delete means that I can process a significant proportion of my inbox in around a second per email.
Hack your Email Tip 12: Even Deeper Integration
Most people who have been online in recent years will have heard of services like IFTTT and Zapier. These services hook into many different web applications and provide links between them.
This can be incredibly powerful.
Once you grant access to Gmail for IFTTT, for example, you could trigger an action just by starring an email. That action could be to copy the email to Evernote or store it in Dropbox. It might be to add the sender’s details to a CRM.
IFTTT is advertising that they now link over 500 different services, while Zapier claims over 750 integrated applications! Microsoft has a competitor called Flow which, despite being a long way behind in terms of the raw number of services (currently 159), provides deep integration with many Microsoft products.
IFTTT is free. Zapier and Flow both have a free tier that includes many apps but limits users to fewer steps in each automation. (They also reserve some applications for premium accounts.)
It is easy to get started: the simplest to understand is IFTTT. You can sign up and have an integration linking your Gmail with Evernote or a task manager within minutes.
I prefer Evernote for reference material and Todoist for my task list, but you might prefer alternatives. I’ve already shown you how to email into OneNote for storage. Dropbox doesn’t have this facility, but you can use IFTTT, Zapier or Flow.
Google Drive is another popular choice for Gmail users, and you can save attachments directly from within Gmail. Alternatively, all of IFTTT, Zapier and Flow can link with Drive to enable storage of your emails for later.
If you prefer Box for your storage, you can email in or use any of IFTTT, Zapier or Flow.
There are many alternatives to Todoist for task management. One of the most popular is Trello. You can email into Trello, or hook into it with Flow, Zapier or IFTT. You can access Toodledo in all four ways as well, as you can Asana and Wunderlist.
Summary of Inbox Zero Step 5
Processing our email is one of the main areas where most of us can improve. Some fundamental principles are important to reiterate:
Processing is an active word and is much better to use than ‘checking’. It suggests ownership and positivity.
You should process your email two to three times per work day in short bursts. This allows us to focus on what is important, not on others’ priorities.
Processing follows a simple algorithm with only two or three questions for each email (depending on the path through the workflow).
The processing workflow doesn’t allow for deciding to leave the email in your inbox for another time.
Be diligent and decisive. Take control of your inbox by making two or three decisions and moving on to the next email until you’re clear.
Want to take control of your email?
Sign up for a course and learn more techniques to help you manage your inbox.
Now that you’re getting more efficient with your email, if would be great if you could lead the way for others. By demonstrating good email behaviours, your friends and colleagues might learn some new techniques that in turn make your own life a little bit easier.
In Cal Newport’s masterpiece Deep Work, the author discusses his approach to email. Although I suspect that I wouldn’t get away with behaving like he reports he does, there is a section of his book that has been of great use to me. In his fourth rule (Drain the Shallows) his second tip is:
Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails
Newport suggests taking a moment to consider what the intended outcome is for each email exchange. Then you need to answer the following question. What is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
Once you’ve answered this question for yourself, replace a quick response with one that takes the time to describe the process you identified, points out the current step, and emphasizes the step that comes next.
He provides several example responses:
“I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I listed two days next week when I’m free. For each day, I listed three times. If any of those day and time combinations work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of those date and time combinations work, give me a call at the number below and we’ll hash out a time that works.”
“I suggest we schedule a phone call for a month from now for this purpose. Below I listed some dates and times when I’m available for a call. When you respond with your notes, indicate the date and time combination that works best for you and we’ll consider that reply confirmation for the call. I look forward to digging into this problem.”
His theory is that more time spent up front will reduce the amount of back and forward. This will save time overall by reducing the number of emails he has to process.
Consider when you send your Emails
Do you like getting an email from your boss at 8 pm? If you’re a conscientious worker, you might well think about answering the email irrespective of whether it was sent during your rostered working hours. However, this could take your attention away from other things that are important to you.
What about 10 pm? Or, midnight? Where’s the line when sending an email becomes intrusive and counter-productive?
(Of course, I would suggest you shouldn’t be processing your emails at 8 pm, 10 pm or midnight. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t know your boss had sent you one.)
If receiving such an email is likely to provoke angst for you, your next job is to consider whether you are responsible for doing this to others. I imagine that many of us have done this without thinking of the impact on the recipients.
If you want your colleagues to be refreshed and effective when they are at work, it might be worth deciding whether any email you might send out-of-hours will help them or harm.
One way to ensure you don’t intrude is to use an email scheduling tool. Boomerang for Gmail and Outlook is a well-known example. Among its many capabilities is being able to schedule an email to send later.
If you are working at night and writing emails to colleagues, might it be better to schedule the email to send at 8 am the next morning?
Think Twice before you Reply All
One of my greatest bug-bears is the profligate use of ‘Reply All’. As Christina outlined in our interview above, it should only take a moment to consider whether your response needs to go to everyone on the cc line.
If not everyone needs to see your response, don’t Reply All. Send your emails with intent, not as a reflex.
I have started to reduce my own participation in email chains in which there is heavy use of Reply All. I don’t think they are that effective in resolving whatever issue is under discussion.
You’re a keen reader! Download a copy of my processing workflow.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf and an Inbox Zero checklist.
You’re a keen reader! Go to the full version of this page to download a copy of my processing workflow.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf and an Inbox Zero checklist.
Inbox Zero Step 7: Close your Email Client
Even if you do get your inbox down to zero every time you process your emails, you need to go ahead and close your email client or browser tab anyway.
Because every time a new email arrives you’re at risk of distraction from the more important work you should be doing.
Keeping in mind that when Merlin Mann defined the term Inbox Zero he stated that:
It’s not how many messages are in your inbox – it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox
Many email clients will have a visual or auditory alert to say that new email has arrived. Their purpose is to demand your attention and drag your focus back to your inbox. Don’t let them hijack your brain like that!
The safest way to keep your brain out of your inbox is to close the inbox.
What if you need to access archived email for the work you’re doing? Well, you can try your best to turn off all new email alerts, although I suspect this won’t be enough. The lure of the shiny new email waiting for you to read it is likely to be too great.
Hack your Email Tip 13: Inbox Pause
Boomerang recently released a new feature called Inbox Pause. Inbox Pause will move all incoming emails into a separate folder. You can even hide that folder from view if you’re worried about seeing an unread count!
When you activate Inbox Pause you will see a pop-up offering several options. These include an Auto-Responder, the aforementioned ability to hide the label and the option to Unpause automatically at a certain time.
The paid subscriptions add delivery exceptions for people whose email you want to allow and scheduled delivery into the inbox.
The really fantastic thing? Boomerang intercepts your email irrespective of how you access your account. Even if I access my email on my mobile using Newton, my inbox remains paused. I won’t see new emails until I unpause it.
Since using Inbox Pause, I’ve been able to keep my Gmail browser tab open at my desk while I work, without risking distraction. The best of both worlds!
Hack your Email Tip 14: Turn off notifications
I wear a smartwatch as well as carrying my mobile phone. With both set to the vibrate mode during business hours, I often feel like I spend half my time checking on yet another buzzing sensation in my breast pocket or wrist!
I’ve recommended the use of mobile apps for processing your email. It would be neglectful not to mention the impact their notifications and alerts can have on your concentration and attention. One of the best things you can do is turn off notifications for your email app.
iOS and Android deal with notifications differently, so the steps you need to take will depend on the device you carry. It isn’t hard to find the information online: a quick Google search is often all that is required:
I can’t tell you how much better I feel without having my phone or watch buzzing me every time new emails arrive. This is one of the highest yield setting changes I think you can make.
Hack your Email Tip 15: Tell people how to reach you
As Dr John Jurica from The VITAL Physician Executive points out in the comments below, if you are only going to process your email intermittently it is important to ensure people adjust their expectations of when you will see their email and respond. He suggests using an autoresponder, and I think it’s a great idea.
You can create an autoresponder in Gmail by going into Settings then General. Scroll to the bottom to find ‘Vacation responder’.
Then, choose when you want the autoresponder to fire and what message it will send. Ideally, you would provide a way to contact you urgently if required, as well as a timeline for when to expect a response.
You will find instructions for doing the same in Outlook via Google.
If you’re still with me you’ve eliminated unwanted emails, consolidated your email accounts, delegated some of your emails and automated common replies. You’re using a processing workflow two or three times daily and you’re being kind to others. Lastly, you’re closing your email client or browser and you’ve switched off mobile notifications. Now you can concentrate on more important work!
I hope this ultimate guide to managing your email will help you achieve Inbox Zero.
What is Inbox Zero? Inbox Zero is a state of mind. I think of it as a way to maintain your attention to focus on what is important to you.
If you follow the steps detailed above you will have dramatically reduced the amount of irrelevant email you receive. You will also have developed strategies for dealing with the emails you do need to process.
Good luck as you plan how to use all your free time.
Has this post been helpful? Do you have any other email management strategies that might help people achieve Inbox Zero? I’d love you to leave a comment below!
Inbox Zero: The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Email was last modified: May 3rd, 2019 by Mark
Last updated July 10, 2019. Posted February 23, 2017 in Development, Featured. This post contains affiliate links.
What is all the fuss about creating your personal mission statement??
This guide will help you to understand:
What a personal mission statement is
Why having a mission statement can be so valuable
How to write a personal mission statement
What to do with your mission statement once you’re done
It is the synthesis of my findings after researching this topic and developing my own mission.
I hope you will find it useful as you pursue your lifelong self-improvement journey.
What is a Personal Mission Statement?
Your mission statement is like a roadmap for where you want to go and how you want to get there.
It can guide you in your daily decision making, by giving you a set of principles or core values that can help you decide:
what you want to do or accomplish
how you want to act
where you want to be
what you will prioritise
how you will set your goals
You have to make sure that you allocate your resources in a way that is consistent with your priorities. You have to make sure that your own measures of success are aligned with your most important concern. And you have to make sure that you’re thinking about all these in the right time frame—overcome the natural tendency to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term.
Want a worksheet to help you create your Mission Statement? Download one today for free.
I’ll even throw in a copy of this post to download for future reference.
Want a worksheet to help you create your own Mission Statement? Go to the full version of this page to download one today for free.
I’ll even throw in a copy of this post to download for future reference.
When you create your mission statement, you identify your most important values and beliefs, and consider how they interact with your long-term goals. As a result, you can realign your daily priorities and maintain a sense of purpose.
Why should you have a Mission Statement?
Developing your mission statement can be one of the most rewarding, satisfying, illuminating and challenging processes you can go through.
At the end of the process, you will have reflected long and hard on core values and why you hold them. Consequently, you will achieve clarity on what you want to be, do and achieve, and how the outcome will look.
There is as much value in the act of creating or refreshing your mission statement as in having one.
Writing or reviewing a mission statement changes you because it forces you to think through your priorities deeply, carefully, and to align your behavior with your beliefs.
Once you’re finished, you will have a set of guiding principles that reflect your personal values; a statement of purpose to counter your greatest doubts.
You will have developed a strategic plan that will help with decision making: it becomes much easier to say “no” when you know what you want to achieve and how you want to be. It can also inspire you to stay motivated!
Listen to Stephen R. Covey discuss the value of having a Mission Statement in the clip below:
How to write a Personal Mission Statement
Creating your mission statement could take weeks or months. This process of self discovery requires introspection, reflection, review and revision. Considering you are trying to capture your purpose in life, it isn’t surprising that it might take multiple rewrites to get to the end product.
In his book, Stawicki notes that his ‘recipe for making a mission statement is: examine yourself to the verge of insanity; use imagination; write everything down’.
Stawicki lists 27 different areas you should consider when assessing yourself, with examples including:
Identify the most important roles you perform or want to perform in the future
What is the meaning of your everyday work?
What do you consider your greatest failure?
I can report from my self-assessment that often these thoughts will provoke other topics or themes, and therefore I wouldn’t consider Stawicki’s list definitive. Feel free to follow flights of fancy but make sure to keep good notes!
Another way to get some inspiration in this part of the process is to try using the mission statement generator at Franklin Covey. This simple web form will walk you through considering your passions, skills and talents. It will also guide you through a visioning process, whereby you answer simple questions that might reveal profound truths. Furthermore, they also provide several mission statement examples, including material from Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and anonymous entries as well. Get inspired here.
Once you have spent time considering your values, personal goals, talents, passions, strengths, limitations and regrets, you will be able to move on to the next stage in Stawicki’s recipe.
You might need a worksheet to help you in creating a mission statement. Go to the full version of this page to download one now!
You might need a worksheet to help you in creating a mission statement. Download one now!
Use Your Imagination
When you’re capturing the purpose of your life, employ creativity and be aspirational.
Stawicki suggests a visualisation process for this part of his recipe and provides several prompts:
Imagine you only have six months to live. How would it change your actions?
Visualise the end of your present career. What contributions, what achievements will you want to have made in your field?
Visualise how your life will be in five, ten and twenty years from now, if you don’t make any significant decisions for all those years. Do you want your life to look like this?
Among the many other imaginative tasks he sets, Stawicki finishes by asking you to write your own eulogy. If anything is going to provoke you to consider what you will achieve in life, it is likely to be writing out the words you would like people to use to describe you and your contribution to their lives!
Write Everything Down
The raw material that you generate in following the above process could come to pages of brainstorming notes, scribbles and diagrams. Some might come up with charts, or include images from magazines like when creating a vision board. Whatever materials you generate you will need to capture them in their entirety.
I know that I often forget real moments of insight when listening to a podcast when driving, for example. I always wish I had captured the thought somehow so that it wasn’t lost forever.
This process of self-appraisal and imagining will generate all kinds of thoughts, but they are easily forgotten unless recorded in a rough draft.
Chiselling your Mission Statement out of the Raw Material
The final step in Stawicki’s book is to take the ideas, thoughts, regrets and goals that you have identified and work through them. This process is about considering and selecting the precious few that best represent your character and values (in the most succinct way).
You could consider each one using headings as guidance, ensuring that each item addresses an important theme or facet of your life. The Franklin Covey web app mentioned above uses the following headings:
I am at my best when…
I will try to prevent…
I will enjoy my work by finding employment where I can…
I will find enjoyment in my personal life through…
I will find opportunities to use my natural talents and gifts such as…
I can do anything I set my mind to. I will…
My life’s journey is…
I will be a person who is…
My most important future contribution to others will be…
I will stop procrastinating and start working on…
I will strive to incorporate the following attributes into my life…
I will constantly renew myself by focusing on the four dimensions of my life…
Stawicki provides a list of the areas of his life that he wanted specifically to address:
Following my friends’ examples
Being present – focus on Now
Ultimately this is your mission statement, and the themes and domains that you choose to specify are yours. The important step is to take the raw material you have generated in self-appraisal and imaginative tasks and work until you have refined, combined or excised your way to a cohesive statement that reflects your innermost beliefs.
Traps to Avoid
Make your mission statement personal
The critical element of the term ‘personal mission statement’ is personal. This is your mission, so don’t adopt ideas or set goals that aren’t truly yours.
There can be a tendency to write what we think should be in a mission statement rather than what ought to be in our mission statement. You will struggle to adopt your statement as your own and live by its ideals if you include things you think should be there rather than those that belong.
Don’t fall into the trap of writing your mission statement to suit someone else. It is designed for your use.
Use specific language
Another trap is to use language that is non-specific or wishy-washy jargon. The video below of Dan Heath discussing company mission statements captures this trap perfectly:
When I am teaching my medical students about presentation techniques that allow them to effectively and efficiently handover clinical information to their peers or seniors, I always recommend they start using definite terms like ‘I will…’ and ‘I want…’ as soon as possible. I reason that the sooner they sound like they know what they are talking about the sooner others will take them seriously. They are then more likely to involve them in the day-to-day learning opportunities they need.
When asked questions like ‘You’re the intern in the ED, and this patient comes in – what investigations would you like and why?’ medical students will often respond with answers like “well, you could order a chest x-ray??”. They sound far more ready for their role as an intern if they say something like “I will perform a chest x-ray to confirm my suspicion of pneumonia”.
Similarly, the use of concrete (and concise) language will make your mission statement far more inspiring and meaningful. By starting your sentences with the word “I” you both personalise your statements and take ownership of the content.
I will be a loving partner and parent
I value ongoing personal development
I will ensure my good health by eating well and taking regular exercise
Last chance… Download a mission statement worksheet to help you create your own!
You can also have a copy of this post for later reading.
Go to the full version of this page to download a worksheet to help you create your own!
You can also have a copy of this post for later reading.
Although creating your Mission Statement isn’t all that hard, sometimes we all need some inspiration to get started.
Here are some examples that might help get your creative juices flowing.
Examples for Students
For my medical colleagues, there are a few publications listed in Pubmed that are relevant.
In Personal mission statement: An analysis of medical students’ and general practitioners’ reflections on personal beliefs, values and goals in life the authors examined medical student submissions of their mission statements.
Some examples from their paper include:
I will become a responsible, relevant (and) trustworthy doctor. I will put my patients first rather than myself.
To train myself every day to be the best husband, father, son and a [sic] doctor to all those who place their trust in me.
I will study hard, keep learning and growing in order to become a person who can contribute to the society and live a life of dedication.
I will live as a happy and successful person… live a happy, healthy and enjoyable life…
The authors of Promise of Professionalism: Personal Mission Statements Among a National Cohort of Medical Students provide further examples of medical student mission statements. They include:
Let me listen to the best of my abilities, so that I can better understand my patients.
May I be a reservoir for your concern and pain, and may my training and humanity interpret and understand your need.
To remember who I am, to hear my own voice, to not lose part of who I am…
May I never forget, no matter how frustrated I may be at the time, that each patient is someone’s mother/father, sister/brother, son/daughter.
I hope these examples serve to inspire you as you create your own.
Now that I have my Personal Mission Statement, what do I do next?
Your personal mission statement is not a certificate of accomplishment to be put into the drawer. It is supposed to be your lens, starting point, the source of focus. Use it.
There is no point in spending all of the time and mental or emotional energy required to develop a mission statement only to discard it and go on with life as before. Hopefully, you wouldn’t want to!
Once you have invested in creating, refining and revising your mission it is important to keep it at the front of your mind. Stawicki suggests many ways to keep reminding yourself of the content of your personal mission statement:
Read it every day. Or even better – read it several times a day. Create a ritual for it.
Meditate upon it. Take a comfortable position. Clear your mind. Breathe deeply. Let it be just you and the words of the mission statement inside your head.
Listen to it. Record your personal mission statement and listen to it any time and any place you want.
Visualize it. This is especially important if you included some future aspirations or desired changes in the mission statement.
Create a vision board. Add some headlines with the words of your mission statement.
Make a mind movie. Make a movie and add the recording of your personal mission statement as a track or add music dear to your heart.
You created it: Now use it!
Again, this is your mission statement, so how you use it is entirely up to you. One good idea would be to review it as part of a morning ritual upon rising in the morning. Further, you could develop a short series of affirmations based on the values you describe.
When you next sit down to set short term goals you can do so with a clear vision. Your roadmap can also help you to reassess your long term goals. You could use your statement as a guide for review and accountability, as part of a personal development plan for continuous improvement.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure to keep your mission statement in your mind, so that you can draw upon it daily for guidance.
Finally, don’t hesitate to amend or adjust your mission statement in the months or years ahead. It isn’t a static document but should grow with you and change over time, just as you do.
Developing a mission statement for your life can be a rewarding experience that offers insights into what you value in life and therefore provides guidance for the day-to-day decisions we all face.
Although it might not be a short exercise, you could find that it is the best possible investment of your time.
Do you have a mission statement? Have you seen examples that are particularly meaningful? Let us all know in the comments.
Create a Personal Mission Statement for the Life YOU Want was last modified: July 10th, 2019 by Mark
I have never been good at setting and achieving my goals. I would dream of something ambitious, but work and life often get in the way. It was easy for me to let deadlines slide, re-prioritise or just drop the goal altogether. As part of my ongoing self-improvement readings, I discovered the book and now have just completed my first 12 Week Year.
I set four fairly ambitious goals and commenced the process on 27th June 2016. I intend for this blog post to document my process and achievements, failures and lessons learned for the benefit of others.
Read on for:
a description of the 12 Week Year process as outlined in the book,
examples of how I implemented the strategy,
the goals that I set, and
how they were achieved.
Spoiler Alert: My first 12 Week Year was a wonderful success…
In it, Moran and Lennington outline their perception of why many people don’t complete or achieve their goals: they set their horizons too far in the distance. Annual targets are too hard to conceptualise, they believe, leading to procrastination and then failure. The 12 Week Year avoids that by making the timeframes much shorter.
By defining each year as 12 weeks long, Moran and Lennington suggest we might have more chance of success in achieving our goals. Implementation of a tracking and internal feedback system is necessary to ensure the best chance of completion.
At the end of every twelve weeks, there is a thirteenth week which you can use for completing the last few things to achieve your 12 Week goal(s). This week can also allow review and analysis to decide how to do things better the next time. Finally, you might also wish to celebrate, recharge and refresh before commencing another 12 Week Year.
There are four cycles of thirteen weeks in each calendar year.
Would you like a spreadsheet to use as a sample plan and weekly scorecard to help you with your next 12 Week Year? Download the 12 Week Year scorecard template for free!
(I’ll also include a pdf version of this post to read whenever you like.)
Would you like a spreadsheet to use as a sample plan and weekly scorecard to help you with your next 12 Week Year? Go to the full version of this page to download the 12 Week Year scorecard for free!
(I’ll also include a pdf version of this post to read whenever you like.)
Why would I use the 12 Week Year?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve tried various goal-setting strategies with mixed success. Sometimes you manage to achieve the goal and other times you don’t. Sometimes you’re hard on yourself about that, and other times you move on quickly.
The 12 Week Year outlines a set of principles for setting and achieving goals. What it offers might well be a crystallisation of the works of many other authors, as some Amazon critics might contend. If you’re new to the goals and achievement realm it could provide a helpful structure that takes care of some of the common pitfalls that can plague us all.
I had no shortage of goals but didn’t really have a handle on how to track and measure their completion. The 12 Week Year creates a structure that enabled me to see how I was tracking to achieving my goals at any point throughout the 12 Week Year cycle.
What are the elements of the 12 Week Year programme?
The book goes into significant detail describing why those using annual targets often fail to meet them. The authors contend that annualised thinking often lies at the root of those failures. In their words:
Most of them believed, either consciously or unconsciously, that their success and failure was determined by what they had achieved over the course of a year. They set annual goals, created annual plans, and in many cases broke the goals down into quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even weekly plans. But in the end, they evaluated their success annually.
At the heart of annualized thinking is an unspoken belief that there is plenty of time in the year to make things happen. In January, December looks a long way off… We mistakenly believe that there is a lot of time left in the year, and we act accordingly.
The annual execution cycle blinds people to the reality that life is lived in the moment and that ultimately success is created in the moment. It lulls people into believing that they can put things off— critical activity— and still accomplish what they desire, still achieve their goals.
Moran and Lennington explain their belief that by redefining a year as a twelve week period, success can be achieved. Twelve weeks is long enough to set and achieve goals worth achieving, and short enough that every day and every week must count. The mad rush of productivity that occurs in the countdown to the end of a calendar year will occur four times during the year instead.
The great thing about having a 12 Week Year is that the deadline is always near enough that you never lose sight of it. It provides a time horizon that is long enough to get things done, yet short enough to create a sense of urgency and a bias for action.
They contend that the short timeframe means that one can’t simply write off periods of time when one is unproductive. There isn’t enough time in a 12 Week Year to have more than one or two bad weeks if you hope to hit your targets.
Finally, with a new ‘year’ commencing every twelve weeks, someone who does have a bad 12 Week Year can regroup and get started again with a fresh slate.
This video might help to give you an idea of what the 12 Week Year programme is all about:
The 12 Week Year execution system
The first part of the book outlines defining a vision, planning for a 12 Week Year, weekly planning, keeping score and accountability. The second groups these ideas into three principles and five disciplines:
The three principles
Accountability = ownership
It is a character trait, a life stance, a willingness to own actions and results, regardless of the circumstances.
The ultimate aim of accountability is to continually ask one’s self, “What more can I do to get the result?”
Commitment is a personal promise that you make to yourself. Keeping your promises to others builds strong relationships, and keeping promises to yourself builds character, esteem, and success.
Greatness in the Moment
Greatness is not achieved when a great result is reached, but long before that, when an individual makes the choice to do what is necessary to become great. The results are not the attainment of greatness, but simply confirmation of it.
The five disciplines
A compelling vision creates a clear picture of the future. It is critical that your business vision aligns with and enables your personal vision. This alignment ensures a powerful emotional connection that promotes a sustained commitment, and continual action.
An effective plan clarifies and focuses on the top-priority initiatives and actions needed to achieve the vision.
A set of tools and events that align your daily actions with the critical actions in your plan.
Measurement drives the process. It is the anchor of reality. Effective measurement combines both lead and lag indicators that provide comprehensive feedback necessary for informed decision making.
If you are not in control of your time you are not in control of your results. Using time with clear intention is a must.
Criteria for setting effective goals and tactics
The authors outline five criteria for setting better 12-week plans:
Specific and measurable
Quantify and qualify what success looks like
State them positively
Rather than focusing on a 2 percent error rate, you would target a 98 percent accuracy rate
Ensure they are a realistic stretch
If you can accomplish the goal without doing anything differently, then you probably need to stretch more. If it is absolutely impossible, then factor it back a little
This applies to people who are executing as part of a team (if you’re on your own, the accountability is all yours). Individual accountability for each goal and tactic is critical!
Make sure to include a date by which the goal is to be reached, or the tactic is to be executed.
Finally, each tactic should start with a verb, be a complete sentence, and be executable as is.
After setting your 12 Week Goals, Moran and Lennington recommend installing process control. These are ‘tools and events to create support structures that can augment willpower’. Their suggested steps include:
The weekly plan is a derivative of the 12 Week Plan. It supports progress toward the larger goal and acts as a game plan for the week.
Weekly Accountability Meeting
Form a group of 2-4 motivated people who meet weekly to foster individual accountability.
Best held on a Monday morning, lasting 15-30 minutes only.
Score points for completing tactics and then divide by the total number due that week to get a percentage completion score.
Review the weekly score as part of the Weekly Accountability Meeting.
Finally, they also discuss time blocking in order to ensure there is enough time in your calendar to get the things done that matter. (The tasks that move you closer to your 12 Week goals.) I won’t go into this any further for now.
The 12 Week Year as a self-correcting system
Moran and Lennington describe this as a ‘closed system’, in that it contains everything that is needed to achieve success.
When applied in this way, the 12 Week Year becomes a self-correcting system that creates a breadcrumb trail that allows you to pinpoint any breakdowns and take corrective action on a timely basis. It is a deliberate practice system that is designed for continuous improvement.
This post is really long… Download a pdf version to read whenever you like, for free.
You can also have a 12 Week Year excel template to help you plan and score your next 12 Week Year.
This post is really long… Go to the full version of this page to download a pdf version to read whenever you like, for free.
You can also have a spreadsheet to help you plan and score your next 12 Week Year.
After all of this discussion of the contents of the 12 Week Year book, and how the authors make their case that periodisation of goals makes them more likely to be achieved, surely it’s time for some case examples? Glad you asked…
My first 12 Week Year
When I was planning my first 12 Week Year I had trouble choosing good goals: some things I considered were way too ambitious and others too easy to achieve. Additionally, I knew that I had only eleven weeks for my first twelve week year, as we had a family holiday planned during which I would have no ability to achieve professional goals and limited ability to track and monitor any others.
I eventually decided on a weight loss goal, a personal relationships goal and two professional goals. The first professional goal was to confirm that I was closing my private practice after six years, and then do everything necessary to have it finished with no loose ends before our family holiday. In the past, my private practice has intruded on family holidays and it was important that I try to prevent that on this occasion if possible.
My second professional goal was to increase my clinical research activities as this has been an area of dissatisfaction when I review my professional performance. As the goal title is somewhat nebulous (“increase research activity” doesn’t really have a clear outcome attached) I decided to focus on setting tactics that would demonstrate progress in and of themselves.
So, in 11 weeks, I had four goals to achieve. A weight loss goal that I felt was achievable (5.2 kg in 11 weeks), a personal relationships goal, and two professional goals.
Tracking in Airtable
The 12 Week Year process suggests tracking completion of tactics (lead indicators) that will lead to goal completion (lag indicators). I just needed a dashboard to bring it all together.
Inspired by reading a case study at Asian Efficiency I decided to use a spreadsheet as my execution dashboard. Of course, the rise of internet-enabled devices means I could simply have used a Google Sheets spreadsheet on my phone and the web for tracking, but I wanted something more like a form or checklist.
Not wanting to spend more money than necessary, I eventually settled on Airtable for tracking. Airtable allows free users to set up tables and provides a form interface for inputting data. I could use the app on my phone or the web interface to check off that I had completed a tactic for that day, and Airtable would then sum my completions and provide me with an ongoing metric for performance.
I set up a 12 Week Year tracking system in Airtable that had a table for each of my four goals, and then automatically collated completion and turned that into a percentage for each week. Moran and Lennington contend that a completion rate of greater than 85% each week will usually lead to someone meeting their goal at the end of twelve weeks.
My summary table which collated data from each goal’s table.
Prompting in Todoist
I have been using Todoist daily for almost one year and have found myself to be far more effective as a result. If I accurately capture my commitments in Todoist, I am pretty confident that I will get them done.
At the start of the 12 Week Year, I set a new project with four sub-projects. I assigned it a new colour so that it would stand out amongst my usual projects and tasks. Finally, I moved the project to the top of my project lists.
I ensured that each tactic I needed to complete had recurring schedules or specific dates. In this way, I was confident I would be reminded of my 12WY goals every time I opened Todoist.
This did introduce some duplication to my tracking – I ticked off tasks both in Todoist and Airtable. Given that I use Todoist so frequently during the day, this arrangement made sense in terms of my daily workflow. I checked things off in Airtable at the end of the day, which supplemented a daily review of my progress.
1.1: Weight loss goal
Anyone who knows me also knows there have been times in my life where I haven’t been exactly svelte. In recent years this hasn’t been as much of an issue, but I did feel I could afford to trim down a little.
My first goal in this first 12 Week Year was to lose at least 5.2kg.
I identified the following tactics:
Weekly weigh in (Monday)
Calorie intake diary (Daily)
Water intake diary (Daily)
Exercise on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday
I didn’t feel the water diary was core but was trying to solidify a new habit I had started to develop earlier this year, so decided to piggyback it into this goal. I was already using Google Fit on my phone and smartwatch to track activity and had some soft targets that I didn’t track but checked in with from time-to-time. Those were of greater than 2000 calories expended daily and greater than one hour of activity daily.
I used an app on my phone and the web to track my caloric intake and another app to track water intake. Google Fit automagically takes care of tracking steps, distance, activity etc.
My progress toward this goal varied from week-to-week. It didn’t seem particularly clear that weight loss or stability necessarily followed my weekly completion rate. I had multiple instances in which I was socially obligated to break my diet – workplace functions, social gatherings etc – but always tried to manage that by eating less on other days. I dutifully collected everything I ate in my calorie tracking app, successfully recording my full intake on 61 out of 77 days.
Compliance with weekly weigh-ins was easy – I wanted to know how I was going so it was harder to not jump on the scales in the morning than to do so! Finally, I logged water intake of greater than 1.8 litres on 72/77 days.
12 Week Year Goal 1.1
I barely completed any exercise during this eleven week period. I had intended to do some formal exercise like going for a brisk walk or bike ride on at least three days per week. For a variety of reasons (excuses, I suppose) I hardly did any formal exercise at all. I did check in with Google Fit and noted that most days I failed to reach my one hour and 2000 calories targets.
I made my goal to lose weight. On day 78 I had lost 5.3kg.
1.2: Personal goal
In some respects, setting this goal was a bit of a mistake. I won’t be going into exact detail for personal reasons, but this goal was largely around relationships with people important to me.
One of the lessons I have learned from my first 12 Week Year is that goals really need to be measurable in order for this system to work. As a scientist and physician, I am interested in data, and tracking lead measures in the way Moran and Lennington recommend holds natural appeal. In other words, I am more likely to achieve my goals if I can set and track specific metrics as I am naturally inclined to look for the data anyway.
Although I did identify lead measures, they were a bit ‘fluffy’ and therefore tracking them felt different to tracking the metrics for the other goals I had set.
Finally, there were a series of personal life events that occurred during this 12WY cycle that made it very hard to meet the lead measures I had identified, and therefore to achieve the end goal.
Although I don’t consider this goal to be a failure, I have learned valuable lessons for the future in terms of setting achievable goals and measuring my progress toward them. I am confident these lessons will hold me in good stead as I prepare for my next 12 Week Year.
1.3: Professional goal – Close private practice
This was a big one. My practice had become less rewarding over time, especially in light of my newly rediscovered passion for teaching. I am studying a clinical education higher degree, and working full time as well. I didn’t feel I had the time or motivation to continue in this role. Given all of those factors, I wasn’t spending enough energy on promoting the practice or getting the most out of my work there. In sum, I was in a situation I wasn’t enjoying and felt I wasn’t doing myself or my practice justice.
After many long discussions at home, I finally decided to close the rooms. The first tactics I needed to complete were to speak with the team who run the practice and let them know my decision. This was delayed by a week or so due to (their) overseas travel. After telling people that I would be closing, I then sat down and went through to find patients I needed to see before I closed, those with prescriptions that were important and needed to be followed up, and patients having imaging follow-up etc.
Finally, there was a long list of reports to write before leaving.
Once I set the closure date, it became a little easier to focus on achieving this goal as it was so clear what had to be done and by when. This reminded me of what Moran and Lennington seem to be trying to ensure by suggesting 12 Week Years instead of the annual year we are used to. By having a clear, medium-term, stop date, I had to do what I had to do to be done. There was just no wiggle room to allow for procrastination.
12 Week Year Goal 1.3
Despite that, I certainly wiggled where I could. Some weeks were better than others, but in some weeks I found it hard to motivate myself to complete work for a job that I had decided I didn’t want to maintain. This confirmed for me that I had made the right decision, but did limit my progress to my goal to a degree. In the final assessment, however, I closed my practice in week 10 of 11 and the patients have appropriate ongoing management arranged.
I made my goal. I closed my practice on day 64 (Week 10).
1.4: Professional goal – Increase research activity
As stated above, the title of this goal is nebulous and doesn’t really give much insight into what the target is. I had a list of things that might be good to achieve that fall under this domain, and that I knew would contribute to a greater sense of achievement. A grab-bag of activities might not excite the goal-achieving senses, but I hoped there was enough to keep me interested.
After identifying that I had a few ideas for small projects, I set a schedule of meetings, sent emails and made calls. I had also agreed to supervise a student research project in early 2017, and this would require completion of a literature review before applying for Ethics Committee approval of the project.
12 Week Year Goal 1.4
Finally, I also felt I wanted to experience more of the peer review process for journal publication, so I contacted several editors and offered my services. To my great surprise and delight, one of those journals saw a larger role for me than I had imagined. I have completed my first task in this role and am excited by the potential in the future – I think I will learn a lot.
I achieved my goal. I submitted two projects for Ethical Approval with my collaborators and joined a journal’s editorial team. Now I am in a good place to increase my research output in coming months and to learn much more about peer review, which were the original overriding goals.
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Barriers to execution
My schedule is quite variable when compared with that of a full-time employee within a company. I have one workplace on Monday, another on Tuesday and Wednesday and yet another for Thursday and Friday. This meant I made little use of the scheduling and time-blocking advice given by the authors as much of it was of little relevance to me.
I also needed to adjust my expectations during a period in which I was on ‘ward service’. When I do inpatient work with our junior medical staff I am scheduled to be on for four weeks, with overnight calls and ward rounds during the day. I need to adjust my usual schedule during these periods and needed to factor this into my expectations for how much I could move forward on my 12 Week goals in that time.
One of the major barriers was other people. My work – as for most physicians – has a lot of time that I spend on other people’s priorities. I can’t necessarily schedule things and know that they’ll happen as intended. I need to plan, but also allow for flexibility, and learn to adapt as life evolves.
Weekly Accountability Meeting
One of the major issues I faced was the lack of an accountability partner or team. I like the idea of a Weekly Accountability Meeting (WAM) but had to make my own version with only me participating. I suspect I missed out on many of the benefits of the WAM, including encouragement and advice from others who had experienced similar roadblocks.
Also, I found that my adherence to the WAM was quite poor. Monday mornings have been part of my most busy day until I closed my private practice, so making the time was a challenge. I did find the process rewarding, in that it helped me to re-focus on the goals I had set and remind me of the plan for the week ahead.
Finally, the WAM could be included as part of a regular weekly review, a productivity best-practice that you should probably be doing anyway!
Advantages over traditional timelines
I found the short period of 12 weeks helped me to focus at times when my motivation was lower. Knowing that time was moving on and I needed to keep moving forward was empowering. It provided a big ‘stick’ acting in complement to the ‘carrot’ of the goals I had set. I also found that knowing there would be a reward (family holiday) at the end was helpful in maintaining focus when I was getting up at 5am to write essays for my course or staying back late to complete reports.
Of course, I still had the usual obligations and commitments to manage, so I needed to work very hard during this period to meet my goals. I came to the end of my 12 Week Year feeling exhausted but satisfied. The completion of three of my four goals feels great, and I have enough momentum to start thinking about my next 12 Week Year.
Relevance to a Physician’s practice
There are many elements of what the authors describe that are directly relevant to my situation. There are others that I needed to modify or discard altogether. I am sure that many professionals would have to make similar choices. Rules that apply to people who work for a company and have a manager they report to are different to those that would help the self-employed.
Another factor is that a lot of our time can’t be blocked out or scheduled as we might like. I have fixed clinics during the week that take 3-4 hours at a time, and therefore I needed to allow for those when planning my task completion, as well as for the ‘administrivia’ that comes with being a physician.
What I’ll do better next 12 Week Year
I have learnt from my experience of setting Goal 1.2 and aim to make all of my goals focused and measurable. I can’t understate the satisfaction that came with checking things off. Knowing that I was moving forward on my goals provided a powerful sense of encouragement.
I plan to reduce to three goals for my next 12 Week Year. Four goals made things slightly harder to focus appropriately. I will have one personal goal, one professional and one other, the nature of which I am still considering.
It would be much better if I was able to consistently check things off rather than having bursts in some weeks and not others. Sometimes the gaps – especially in Goals 1.3 and 1.4 – related to factors outside of my control. There were weeks, however, when I just dropped the ball. For my next 12 Week Year, I aim to be much more consistent.
As seen in my tables, I might not have set goals with clear-cut lead indicators that can be followed to ensure execution. I look forward to planning my next 12 Week Year to see whether I can come up with more readily measured lead indicators.
Finally, I want to find an accountability partner. I have been playing with the idea of joining a mastermind group for some time, but don’t really know how to find one. I would like to think that if I can find someone with similar goals we could help each other move forward.
So, that is my enormous combined 12 Week Year book outline, case study and implementation guide.
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Do you have goals that you are struggling to meet? Does the 12 Week Year system appeal? We’d love to have your comments below…
Achieve your Big Hairy Audacious Goals in a 12 Week Year was last modified: April 1st, 2019 by Mark