We are a summation of our experiences. So let's take control of the chaos and be great.

By Gajan Tharmabalan

BOKEHinc is a photography company, but our journal is not solely a photography blog. Here, we attempt to create and share material that we find useful for photographers. In this four part series, I’ll be going over the tools I use to stay productive and maintain my sanity. While there are dozens of apps and services I interact with on a weekly basis, this series will look at the specific subsets that revolve around time management. What do I use to manage the incoming onslaught of information? How do I maximize the services I use? And how do I maintain a regimen? These are just a few of the questions I plan on answering throughout these entries.

Everyone is busy. But it doesn't have to feel that way.

Everyone is busy, and everyone maintains the perception that their lives are busier than those around them. That’s fine if you’re into the whole pissing contest about what you do all day, but truthfully, there is a sense of accomplishment when you don’t feel busy, yet continue to get a lot done. Between BOKEHinc, another full-time job, a new home, commitments to my fiancée, family, and friends, as well as a puppy; the sheer fact that I haven’t run away with PTSD to a remote part of the world is a miracle. I have the Getting-Things-Done (GTD) system to thank for that.

Formulated around the teachings in the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen, my personal system revolves around having a series of inboxes where I dump information. I then attend to those inboxes on a daily or weekly basis and schedule items religiously. This is my interpretation of the GTD system. This first post will look at how I handle my mail, why I prefer Gmail, and how one app helped me conquer almost 1200 archived emails.

Gmail is my email provider of choice for both my personal and professional workflows. It’s fast, reliable, and most importantly, can be easily accessed from just about anything with an internet connection. Whatever your platform of choice, there are a few key practices you can do to truly take control of your inbox. Whether you implement one, all, or none of them, these are just a few things that help me stay on point:

1. Label Emails

I set up labels that are as broad as “Brands” for the pseudo-spam, or as specific as a single person. This will help you assess your inbox at a glance. Often coloured, labels will quickly let you discern if there is a lot of important material in your inbox, or just a bunch of coupons to that thing that you love to thing.

2. Archive

Your labels will help you search for email, so go ahead and archive anything you do not need right now. Most email providers provide ample storage space, so you may as well get these emails out of your immediate view. Don’t need that Excel spreadsheet until next month’s presentation? Archive it!

A glance at some of my labels.

3. Turn Off Alerts

If you have an electronic device that can stop you in your tracks to let you know something appeared in your inbox, turn that feature off. You may think it makes you more productive, but it doesn’t. Feel free to keep on push notifications so that items appear right away and load in the background. However, keep those alerts and badge icons off to truly streamline your attention.

4. Follow A Schedule

Try to only access your inbox 3-4 times a day depending on your incoming volume. Personally, I have a regimen of 10am, 1pm, 4pm, and 7pm. Avoid the habit of checking every single email as soon as it becomes available. Focus on your inbox when you have given yourself time to be in your inbox. When you are doing another task, don’t cheat that duty by accessing your mail as soon as something new arrives. Furthermore, get out of that habit of checking your email right before or after you sleep. This is just not good for you.

5. Reply if <2 Minutes

Reply to a message or complete a request if it takes less than two minutes of your time. If something comes in, and it can be resolved quickly, get it out of the way so you’re not thinking about it later. On the flip side, if it requires more than two minutes of your time, schedule it (maybe with a reminder?) for a later time so it’s not taking up space in that lizard part of your brain.

6. Delegate

If you have the luxury to shift tasks to other people, do so fairly. I’m not advocating that you defer all your work to some other poor soul, but take advantage of all your resources. Does it take you 10 minutes to print daily reports, but you have an employee that can do it for you? Nice! You just freed up over 3 hours a month.

7. Delete!

This is where most people may hesitate, but if you have something you won’t need later and it doesn’t require any immediate actions, delete it. I love coupons as much as the next South Asian, but if I don’t plan on ordering my bottle of Alpha Brain in the next few months, then the corresponding email is trashed.

Mailbox. One of the greatest mail apps to grace the iPhone.

BONUS TIP: Find Your Killer App

More likely than not, if you have tons of email to get through, you probably have a mobile device to access them readily. In this situation, try and find that killer mail app that’ll help you sift and sort your email faster. Being on the iPhone, you have the luxury of quality and choice. My personal preference is Mailbox. While I use the regular Apple Mail app to manage Exchange accounts, all my Gmail accounts are tied to Mailbox. It’s a cross between a mail client and to-do list, wrapped in a very attractive UI coating. This app helped me quickly get through and manage almost 1200 emails from the last year alone! Whatever your choice, just find something you enjoy using and that, ultimately, doesn’t impede your productivity.

That concludes Part I of our journey to control the chaos that is our daily life. What tips do you have? What apps do you use? Make sure to leave your comments and questions below. Also, be sure to stay connected for the upcoming entry where I tackle Calendars and To Do lists.

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