Year for Productivity: Session 5: It’s all about the P’s: Paper, Productivity and Pomodoro


Paper as a productivity tool?  Really?  In this day and age of super connected mobility with online resources? Believe it or not, paper still has a great deal to offer to our productivity toolbox.

Kevin Purdy, in a LifeHacker Top 10 post from 2008(Top 10 Printable Paper Productivity Tools), suggests:

“There’s a reason there’s still so much paper around in this hyper-connected, everything-online age: the stuff is cheap, portable, compatible with all your applications, and everyone masters the interface by the time they’re out of the first grade.”

His list has stood the test of time and all of his suggested sites are still active link destinations today.  There are sites that offer free downloadable paper types (graph paper that you can even customize the block size), printable rulers for measuring on the go, a template for students using Cornell’s method of note-taking, a nifty format tool that will convert a PDF into a printable booklet, and, what I consider to be the jewel overall, the D*I*Y Planner.  This outstanding site allows you to create a paper planner that is customized to your own needs and whims. Best yet, the templates are all free.   If you can’t find the perfect form at D*I*Y Planner, head on over to David Seah’s site.  He also has a collection of templates to master paper-based workflows.  Some are creative commons and some are for a small fee.

Note-taking and Paper:

In a brand new NY Times bestselling book out this year, Mike Rohde introduces his visual method of note-taking.  The Sketchnote Handbook illustrates his method even as it imparts guidance and principles to enable the reader to apply the method for himself.  Chock full of free-form, quick drawings and multi-sized lettering, it has the appeal of a graphic novel, enticing readers to explore its pages and enjoy its fun presentation while it imparts a clear, easy to implement method for better note-taking. If you are a person who constantly finds yourself doodling during phone calls, webinars, meetings or presentations, this might be just the method for you.  I think this method will also appeal to students who grew up with the graphic format of the technique.

The Sketchnote method only requires the ability to draw five simple shapes: a circle, a square, a triangle, a straight (relatively) line, and a dot. Any sketch can be formed from these shapes.  The idea is not to create art, rather, a visual representation of a thought.  While Rohde prefers a small moleskin notebook and pen(s), the Sketchnote process could also be performed digitally on tablets or smartphones with a stylus. Another option is a new product that is discussed in your exercises. A nifty “Evernote Smart Notebook” produced by the Moleskin folks!

Regardless of whether you use  paper productivity forms or sketch your notes, the underlying states of clutter and information overload from paper-like items is a challenge for each of us.  Some swear by the method of going “paperless”, others say paperless is not the answer either.  Dr. Audri Lanford coined the term “paperitis” to describe this situation.  She, along with her husband host the site by the same name: Paperitis.  They have “been helping businesses save time, money and trees by going paperless since 1985”.  While they are a consultation service, their site is rich with articles and tips on making a start with taking back control. If for no other reason, they have a great set of cartoons that will make you smile.

Pomodoro Technique:

The final topic we are going to consider today is the Pomodoro Technique.  This technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late ’80’s (per his book intro), is a way of breaking time into small chunks (25 minutes) of intensely focused time.  A free pdf of his original book on the technique is available. In 2010, Steffan Noteberg, also published a book on the method worth considering.  It offers a nice introduction to the technique as well as discussing the psychology and physiology that is behind the success of the system.

The technique itself is simple. Choose a project you need to complete. Block out time to work on this project, and arrange that time in 25 minute intervals with 5 minute breaks between. During those 25 minute intervals, you may do nothing but the project.  No answering phones, no reading emails, no putting out fires… Well, ok.  If your office is literally on fire, you are allowed to evacuate until the fire professionals call the all clear, but when you come back, start that 25 minute block over again.

The original technique was developed using a simple kitchen timer (hence the picture of the tomato and the name Pomodoro which is the Italian term for tomato), but application developers have quickly jumped on the bandwagon, creating a plethora of apps that apply the technique and even produce progress reports for your use of the technique over time.  Wikipedia has a nice list of a number of different Pomodoro applications. There are apps for your iphone and ipad, for your Chrome browser, your android devices… just a google search will pull them up.  One that I find useful is focus booster – Live.  It is available as an app, but I like the simple online version that can start that 25 minute countdown by just a click without any messy downloads. If you are an online gaming buff that is motivated by the sands of time slipping away on your quest, Pomodoro might be just the technique for you to try. (Magic sword and damsel in distress not included.)


For Further Exploration and Insight:

  1. Chapter 4 of The Sketchnote Handbook is available for preview. Go to the author’s blog to download the sample chapter. Chapter 4 in the book and describes the Sketchnoting Process. You can also view three short podcasts by the author at his site.
  2. Having read Chapter 4 in exercise #1, try practicing the method while listening to a pre-recorded webinar.  If you don’t have one already waiting in your to-do queue that you need to view, you could watch the video of David Allen presenting his Getting Things Done method that Mary introduced in Session 4.
  3. The Moleskine company has collaborated with the Evernote folks and created a special Evernote Smart Notebook.  Take a few minutes now and check it out here at the Getting Started Guide.  How might this tool help your workflow and productivity?  Could you combine it with the Sketchnote method?
  4. Review the Pomodoro Technique.  Try to apply the method on a project you need to start today.  How often did you  have to keep yourself from straying from the task?  How much did you accomplish during the session?

Selected Readings:

Broida, Rick. Pomodoro Technique apps roundup. PC World, Feb 2012. Accessed 03/2013 from:

Cirillo, Francesco. (2006) The Pomodoro Technique.  Accessed 03/2013 from:

D*I*Y Planner: the best thing in printing since Gutenberg.

Nöteberg, Staffan.(2010) Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: The Easy Way to Do More in Less Time. Pragmatic Bookshelf

Official Pomorodo Technique Website:

Purty, Kevin: Top 10 Printable Paper Productivity Tools  from LifeHacker’s Top 10 Posts from 2008.

Rhode, Mike. (2013). The Sketchnote Handbook: the illustrated guide to visual note taking. Peachpit Press.

Rohdesign: Website of Mike Rhode. Find his ongoing sketchnote podcasts here


Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/

Links Roundup #6

western saddle with a lasso on it


iPad Pro is Somewhat of a Deal, But Doesn’t address Productivity Issues. The point the author makes about productivity still being easier on a desktop or a laptop is so true, especially the item about having only one window or tab open at a time.

iPad Challenged in K-12 by… Sony?. A few colleges are experimenting with giving tablets to faculty and students, and I see no reason this program couldn’t work in colleges as well as K-12.

Wiley makes scientific PDFs interactive with the ReadCube Web Reader from Labtiva.   ReadCube adds some interesting features to PDFs.  You can see it in action here.  I think we’re moving towards software that integrates managing research from the literature review to publication.

Surface Pro Review Roundup.  Snippets from several reviews of the Surface Pro.  Lots of pros, negatives about battery life, weight.

Wanted to give a shout out to Addictive Tips website and newsletter. They do nice reviews of apps/software for a variety of platforms. The reviews are especially useful in that they mention other apps that do the same thing, and they also give details on features, screenshots, and links to download the app.

GMail on Steroids – article from Ask Bob Rankin. He generally does a good job of explaining geek speak for the non-geek or geek wannabe.  This post talks about Google Labs and third party add ons to GMail.

100 Best Android Apps of 2013. PC Mag updates this article as needed, and this is the current iteration.

Is it a Tablet? Is it a Laptop? Digging into the Microsoft Surface RT. Review from the Scholarly Kitchen blog on the hardware, software, and usability. The gist is that it is a start for Microsoft in the tablet arena but they have a LONG way to go to catch up with the competition.

Year for Productivity Session 4: Getting Things Done (GTD) or To Dream the Impossible Dream

year_productivity_graphic_4What does it mean to be productive? Working efficiently, getting the most done with the least effort and time. Working efficiently requires CLARITY about what projects need to be done, what the project looks like when it is done, what deliverables it will produce, and what resources (human and other) are required to produce those deliverables. Clarity needs an organizational tool that can capture all those pieces of information. The human brain, by itself, is not enough. It can only pay attention to a few things at a time.

To-do lists were created to help fill this need. Sometimes they are prioritized, sometimes organized by date due on a calendar. Most of us have made lists only to find it is one more thing to keep track of, so adding to the clutter instead of reducing it. David Allen in his megahit Getting Things Done mentions a woman who, after attending one of his seminars,
looked woefully at her to-do list and remarked, “Boy, that was an amorphous blob of undoability!” (Allen, p. 27)

The core process that I teach for mastering the art of relaxed and controlled knowledge work is a five-stage method for managing workflow. No matter what the setting, there are five discrete stages that we go through in order to deal with our work. We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do.

(p. 33). So to-do lists are a part of Allen’s system, but a small part and fairly useless without the rest of the system. This lesson was originally designed to be on to-do lists, but like a Pac Man critter it got eaten by the GTD system. The bad news is that there really is no substitute for reading the whole Getting Things Done book. While blog posts like this one can summarize the parts of the GTD system, and Allen’s video embedded below also give a sense of how GTD works, they sound a bit arbitrary without reading how he explains (a) the rationale behind the system; and (b) the steps required to implement the system.

Every person writing about GTD is going to view it and explain it differently. Each mind has perceptual filters that highlight what it sees as the most important elements of the system. So what is in this post is my inadequate way of interpreting the GTD system, and it is hoped that those of you who have used it will jump in with your comments on its utility and how you have used it. We also hope that those who haven’t used it jump in to ask questions of those who have.

So remember that, in our view, the purpose of any such system is to provide CLARITY, which in turn produces workflow EFFICIENCY. Allen is convinced that things are in our minds because we haven’t yet decided what we have to do, and what actions are required to accomplish what we need to do. Therefore the brain continually pays attention to these things which eats up all of our focus.

Therefore, the system starts with what I call (Allen does not) a data dump. Put everything you are committed to down somewhere. Does not matter whether you write it on paper or in electronic form. Does not matter, for now, whether it is a professional or personal commitment. Does not matter for now whether it is an action or a project or a category of work. Just put it all down to begin the process of getting it out of your brain and into a system. Keep adding to it as your brain remembers one more thing. And one more thing. And, hey, oh yeah, whatever you do, don’t forget THAT!

Once you have the data dump, you can start organizing it. Most things should fall into certain categories. Scan your list and then create new lists based on your review. The first is a project, something that has a timeline associated with it. To do a project requires actions, and the actions need to be done by a certain date. We’ll talk more about projects shortly. Secondly, scan your list for items which are actions that need to be done. Most of these will fall under projects, and if they don’t fit into a project you’ve identified, add a new project to that list. Now add your actions under the project they fall into. Your last category is, well, categories. These are things you have to accomplish for your work or personal life but do not have an associated timeline. You can organize them similarly to projects.

Now go back to your projects list. Can you identify the next action that needs to be taken to get this project done? It is likely, that for most projects and categories, you haven’t done the clarifying process of defining exactly what the project is. What is the reason for doing the project? Why? Envision what the project looks like when it is done. What are the required deliverables? Is it your thesis or dissertation? The syllabus for your class? For a Librarian, perhaps it is a guide for a subject or a class, or an outline of an instructional session on finding and using library research resources. Next is the question of HOW? What actions are required to accomplish the deliverables? What decisions do you have to make in order to do the required actions?

Many people have reported having trouble coming up with specific actions that are action items – things to be done. Instead they tend to be fuzzy formulations of goals, say, for example, “write dissertation” instead of (a) search the article-indexing databases in my field. (b) capture the useful citations in EndNote (c) download the papers into Mendeley. (d) search the library catalog for books on my topic. (e) check out the books… and so on. For a librarian a project to create a course guide might be (a) search for other guides on the same or similar topic (b) get ideas from those guides for resources and design of my own guide (c) create guide (d) add resources to guide (e) if the guide is for a course, run it by the professor for approval and (f) publish the guide.  For a professor or teaching assistant, a category of work might be Instruction, while a project might be teach class Ed Tech 2010: Instructional Design.

Once you have everything out of your mind, where your brain can see it, and sorted into projects with their associated actions and categories of things that need doing but don’t have a time line, then it is time to make decisions. This can be the hardest part, and the point where many systems break down. Allen has a useful workflow diagram on p. 38. If something is actionable, then do it, delegate it, or defer it. If something is not actionable, then trash it, add it to a someday maybe list of things to do eventually when the time is right, or add it to a file of reference material – facts you need to know to inform actions, but are not themselves actions.

Allen stresses that for the system to work, the brain has to trust that it works. For it to do so, the final important part of the system is a review. Allen suggests reviewing your lists weekly. Try that until you get a feel for what works for you. If your brain starts nagging you again about things you haven’t done yet, you’ve left the review for too long. Also be sure you have made enough decisions about what actions to take. Some of them may be wrong, but you can go back and correct these. Decision making is a habit that has to be cultivated and gets easier with time.

So those are the basic elements of the GTD system. (1) Do a data dump of all your commitments, (2) sort them into projects, actions, and categories, (3) make decisions, (4) act on the decisions, and (5) review the system for next actions and evaluations of the status of projects and other work.

There are, of course, a lot more details, and it is advisable to read the whole book through at least once to see if Getting Things Done is the system you want to adopt. There are alternative systems out there. One good alternative is the one found in Maura Thomas’ Personal Productivity Secrets. If you have tried or developed an alternative system or your own twist on GTD then let us know about it in the comments.

Lots of software has been developed to make adopting GTD easier. Our suggested readings includes a site that lists and reviews such software. For myself so far I use Evernote, as it as adaptable, easy to search, and works on almost any device. Again please add comments to let us know what system/software/hardware you use.

To bring this lesson back full circle, remember that it is clarity that leads to efficiency. If your system isn’t working for you, examine each part to see if a part or parts isn’t clear enough. For a project, perhaps your mind isn’t clear on what the project is to accomplish. Try again to visualize what it will look like when finished. Or perhaps your list of actions needed to finish the project is missing a crucial step. This is another part of reviewing your system.

May your work be as clear as the light of day!

Suggested Readings

From David Allen:

Allen, D. (2001). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. New York: Viking.

David Allen Website and podcast blog:

David Allen Productive Living Newsletter:

Getting Things Done Page of Productivity Tools for Graduate Students Class Guide:  Includes 45 minute video of David Allen explaining GTD:


Items relating to GTD but not by Allen:

“Revisiting To-Do Lists as Record Keeping”.  Profhacker, Dec. 13, 2012, keeping to-do lists as records of accomplishments.

GTD Times: the HUB for all things GTD:
GTD Infographic –  A Google Image search turns up many /gtd Infographics.  We think this is one of the best.

GTD-Related Software:

164 Researched GTD Software Programs and CountingInteractive GTD Software Comparison Table:
New Summary of “task management” software for educators:

Selected Alternative Systems to GTD:
Thomas, M. (2012). Personal productivity secrets: Do what you never thought possible with your time and attention … and regain control of your life. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley.
Forget your To-Do Lists:
For Further Exploration and Insights:
(1)  Do the data dump as described in the lesson.
(2)  Sort it into projects, actions, and categories of work.
Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/

Tuesday Tool Tip: Otherinbox’s Organizer

monkey computer tools

There are several different flavors of tools floating around the web who all promise to solve all your inbox problems and enable you to achieve greater efficiency in managing your email.  One of the more promising applications is the Organizer by Otherinbox .  I was intrigued by its claims and the wide variety of email platforms that it will handle.  I was hoping to introduce our readers to a wonderful email handling solution, so I decided to give it a try.

I installed Organizer on both my Yahoo and Gmail accounts.  (It also runs on AOL and iCloud.)  While these accounts were not linked, I made the mistake of first creating my Organizer account when installing the service on my Yahoo account, and then adding an installation on my Gmail account without creating a totally new Organizer account.    Within a short time I realized that only one daily Organizer email was being sent to my Yahoo account and it combined the folders (tags) created in BOTH Gmail and Yahoo accounts.  This could have been cool, but upon clicking on the organized Gmail items in the summary memo, the system was confused, first asking me to log into Gmail, but still being unable to link to the specific email showing up in the Organizer summary email. This was frustrating.  I do not recommend linking more than one email account to this service for that reason unless you are able to create two separate Organizer accounts.

Upon installing, Organizer started working right away.  Don’t install this service until you are able to work outside your email on other projects for several hours as Organizer will be trying to sort and file your current inbox.  For me, those inboxes were substantial and Organizer sorted what it could, but I never achieved anything close to a zero inbox, though I have worked with the system, tweaking folders, adding folders, “teaching” it where to file certain email addresses, etc.

I discovered a number of Pros and Cons to Organizer during my experiment:


  • My installation doesn’t distinguish between Gmail and Yahoo emails being organized.
  • Since it works on email address as the sort key, trying to send emails to different OIB folders will confuse the system.  Likewise, once you send an email to an OIB box, you will need to be prepared for all subsequent emails sent from address to be automatically put into that box.  This seems like an obvious characteristic of creating a filter, but one that I had not thought through with regards to consequences.  I did not realize how often I made evaluations and treated emails from the same address differently…whether that meant saving, filing or deleting them. For example, I have a number of FeedBlitz emails from various feeds.  I would not optimally sort all of those together into the same folder since they are on different topics.  You can remove an address from Organizer’s sort list and send it back to your inbox, but if you hand file a lot of emails into OIB folders once you review them, Organizer will “recognize” the email again and start sorting that address to the last OIB folder location you chose.
  • Organizer’s Daily Digest is its summary notice of emails that the system has filed.  I like the format of this email as it lists every email it has sorted since the last time the Digest was published.  I have not been able to nail down how often during the day Organizer actually scans my new emails and files them.  I have seen emails normally sorted still in my inbox in the mornings at times, but also seen emails which arrive during the day go to my OIB file folders before I see them pass the inbox as well.  This is a little confusing to me since I end up checking the individual OIB folders anyway if I want to be sure I don’t miss emails that arrive between the delivery times of the once daily “Daily Digest”.
  • My organized mind still feels the urge to “clean out” the OIB folders of “junk” that I don’t want to hang onto once I’ve seen it.  I have discovered that I already had been doing a pretty good job of quickly sorting emails as they come in. While it is nice to have all Shopping emails together in one place when I want to purge/sort, it is still somewhat irritating to have to go through each folder.
  • After a month, I find I’m getting tired of teaching and correcting Organizer.  It is doing a lot of things well, but there is still clutter and misfiled emails to correct/consider. I’ve started wondering how much time it is actually “saving” and how much time it is “costing” me.


  • It is easy to create and customize folders/tags for Organizer.  Just create a folder or tag with the folder name you want and begin that name with “OIB “.  I created “OIB Astronomy”, “OIB dogs”, “OIB authors”, etc. and then placed the emails in each of those folders as appropriate.  Organizer “learned” from my example and then sent all subsequent emails from those addresses to the new folders.
  • I like that expired offers (shopping in particular) are automatically deleted from the folders after several days.
  •  The most significant plus for me is that Organizer has made me think through how I deal with email and given me several good ideas about possible filters I would (or sometimes would NOT) want to set up on my own.  I can apply these lessons to my work email box and other accounts that Otherinbox does not currently support.


I will be disabling Organizer from my email accounts in the near future.  I have found that I prefer using my own foldering system that I do my hand.  Experiencing Organizer has made me think more about filters that I would find helpful.  I will probably create a few of those for specialized categories of emails, but I’ll be using the filtering features of my individual email accounts instead of another outside application

Don’t just take my word for it! If Organizer intrigues you, try it out for yourself.  Even if you do not find it to be the tool for you, I can guarantee that it will make you consider email organization in a new way.  Or if you have found another email organizer tool, tell us about your experiences with it, good or bad.

Link Roundup #5

$99 Tablets and the Fine Line Between Useful and Useless. Tablets this cheap are bound to be used in the education market. This article provides a good summary of the pros and cons.

Dell Aims New Affordable Windows 8 Tablet at Schools, Hospitals, and Small Businesses.  Not sure I find $499 that affordable, but it is better by far than the prices for other Windows tablets.

OLPC Vows to Bring New Education Tablet to Retail Stores Later This Year. OLPC stands for One Laptop Per Child.

Surface Pro: Even Microsoft’s Own Tablet Can’t Solve Windows 8 Intrinsic Flaws. Detailed review of the Pro tablet, and a reasonably objective one. Another noteworthy review is from David Pogue in the New York Times.

40 Best Windows Phone Apps of 2012. Straight list, 1-40, not categorized, sadly.

Firefox 19 Betas: Built-in PDF viewing, Broader Android Reach. Article mentions Safari and Chrome already have built-in PDF viewers, so all three browsers can bypass the Adobe Reader.

Asus Looks to Tap Emerging Markets with $149 Jelly Bean Tablet. Jelly Bean is the latest version of the Android operating system. This looks like it will be another competitor in the education market.

5 Tactics for Managing the Overwhelm. Useful, though not particularly new ideas, and won’t work for all jobs. The author does mention a couple of useful sources, including the book The Power of Habit, and the blog by the gentleman who runs the Persuasive Technology lab at Stanford.

Free Version of Foxit Mobile PDF Reader Now Available for Android. Brief review that does a good job of covering the features offered. The reader is also available for iOS, and for both platforms a free version and a paid version are available. Other sources agree this is one of the best PDF readers.

Apple Could Be Working on 128G iPad for Government and Education Uses. Will be expensive, of course, but could be a good option for students and faculty.

Here’s the beginnings of a great idea – a group has formed called AQuA, the App Quality Alliance. They have begun a Quality App Directory, described as “a directory of mobile apps that have met a certain quality level: a quality level specified by the AQuA members: AT&T, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Oracle, Orange, Samsung and Sony Mobile.” You can search by app title, suitable device, or developer. Would like to see them devise categories for apps, but I guess that’s the librarian in me.

EndNote now has an iPad app.

We here at PKM are big fans of the Gradhacker and Profhacker blogs. We submit for your consideration this post, Turn Your Phone into a Scanner.

Quality ranking of apps seems to be the new buzzword, and about time. See New Analytics Service Applause Ranks App Quality. Talks about the Applause service and the criteria it uses for judging app quality.

Thomson Reuters has introduced a mobile app for Web of Science, so far iPhone only.

Year for Productivity Session 3: Email: To Zero or not to zero… that is one of the questions..


When discussions commence about the topic of productivity, inevitably the topic of email overload is soon a focus of discussion. We have hundreds (or thousands for some people) of emails in various work and personal accounts cluttering up our mailboxes and our minds every day. We have devices that allow us to stay in contact with email wherever we go and it is almost impossible to avoid the sight of individuals tapping and scrolling through their mobile devices, either trying to keep up with the pace of the information or compulsively checking to be sure they find and read critical messages as soon as they appear.

There are several prominent techniques to address the issue of email overload:

That First Hour of the Day:

Popular productivity theory urges individuals to carve away a significant block of time at the start of the day to work on projects, deferring the lure of signing into email until a later time.   There are a number of benefits by cultivating this habit.  First, in most offices, the first hour of the day is often a quiet time with few meetings: a time tailor-made to focus on achieving top tasks from your to-do list.  Second, email is a place where other people are requesting your attention and time on items from THEIR to-do lists, not yours, and you find yourself becoming a person who is focused on reacting to others instead of proactively furthering your goals.  Tim Ferriss calls it “being a slave to your inbox” in his popular book, “The Four Hour Work Week.”   Finally, have you ever looked up from your email to realize that hours have passed and your goals for the day are yet to be started?  Email can be quicksand to your time management goals.

Inbox Zero:

The Inbox Zero phenomenon is most often credited to Merlin Mann, who in 2007 authored a series of posts on the 43 Folders website.  The series, entitled Inbox Zero, described in great detail Mann’s theory of improving productivity by handling email once, sorting, storing, deleting and taking action as needed based on the email content.   His daily goal was maintaining a totally empty inbox.  His methodology is based on the concepts put forth in David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done”, which focused more on productivity using a paper/pencil organization system.  Mann’s 43 Folders website transferred those concepts to the work world online.

I highly recommend Merlin Mann’s Google Tech Talk in our Selected Readings section.  He does an excellent job of making the Inbox Zero method sensible and doable. One question asked of Mann is a common concern:  Everyone expects me to see communications immediately… I can’t only look a few times a day!  Mann  suggests, as do I, to initiate a conversation with your work team and your manager.  Agree on what reasonable expectations are and then work from that point.

But I have HUNDREDS of emails in my inbox!  How could I ever find time to even ATTEMPT a Zero inbox?  Let me share one technique that I have used to “start over” with a zero box.  The first time I attempted zero inbox I first sorted my inbox by date.  I created a folder called “inbox prior to xxxx” (ie, prior to this year). I then moved all emails fitting that criterion into that folder.  I then ignored that folder going forward.  If there were emails there that I truly still needed, they would turn up in a search at some point.  Then I could move that email to a proper folder for filing, or deal with it and delete.  Now my inbox has only the current year emails.  If this is still a massive number, you could repeat the process, creating quarterly folders and then only working thru one quarter at a time, starting with the most recent.  Schedule yourself a half hour several afternoons a week to sort out those more recent emails and clear them out so that you are left with the one prior years folder.  This chunking method can allow you to make a “fresh start” on the Zero Inbox.

Automatic Sorting of Emails:

Another technique that offers a valuable alternative to the overflowing inbox is using folders, tags, rules and filters to organize emails.  People who have been working with the Inbox Zero method have already begun making a few folders.  Now your own personal preference comes into play.  How do you think? I find it very productive to have a larger number of folders that are nested and arranged by topic.  This gives me a bird’s eye view of my information and I can locate information quickly.  Other people become bogged down with trying to develop a folder scheme and then debating over where each email should go.  Use trial and error and some self-understanding of how you work most comfortably to choose the method that works best for you.  Regardless of your choices, understanding the technical capabilities of your email system and how foldering/tagging and filters work is important.   If you haven’t used filters yet, you are missing out on a powerful way to jump-start your daily email sorting.

You already have one major filter that came with your email system, even though you might not think of it as such.  Email systems have become much more sophisticated in recognizing spam and automatically rout spam emails to a SPAM folder.  You never have to see or sort these emails because the email system has already done it for you.  Filters that you create can be equally powerful allies in presorting certain emails.  Perhaps you’d like a “Reading Bin” filter that sent a predefined group of email addresses to a folder for reading later.  This might be useful for listserv emails, university newsletters, etc.  Once you then schedule a time once or twice a week to scan through this folder, you have successfully removed a large block of “noise” and time-diverting temptation from your daily schedule.  In our Selected Readings section, I have identified links to tutorials on how to create filters for several of the most popular email systems.

In addition to creating your own filters, there are also several applications available on the web that will create categories of filters and prefilter your email for you.  ActiveInbox is specifically designed to work with Gmail, and comes with both a free, and a paid version that has additional features.  OtherInbox offers an organizer that works on Gmail, Yahoo mail, Hotmail and AOL platforms.  I have been experimenting with this latter service and it has some positives and some negatives.  I plan to publish a Tuesday Tool Tip next week describing my experiences with this tool in depth.

As with all of the tools and techniques that we will discuss in this series, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  Our goal is to provide some alternatives and to encourage people to think about their situations and needs.  What might be a perfectly good answer for private email accounts might not be appropriate for work accounts or vise versa.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

  1. The author of the Getting Things Done: My Experiences using GTD” blog has a post entitled “Evolution of my email setup”  Read this article and write a short accounting of how you would describe your email evolution. Are you a slave to your inbox?
  2. Investigate the tutorials / help sections for your particular email system.  I’ve provided links to several systems in the Selected Reading section below.  Spend a little time and experiment with creating a filter for a category of emails that you want to read but don’t want to interrupt you every day when they arrive. Add an appointment to your calendar to remind you to review that filtered folder at another specified time.
  3. Explore the Inbox Zero resources.  Is Merlin Mann’s technique something you would like to try? Think about ways to chunk the initial setup process to make it more doable for you and your email.
  4. Share!  What helpful hints, techniques, or articles/blog posts would you like to share with the rest of us?

Selected Readings:

General articles on email overload:

Camargo, M.R. (2008). “A grounded theory study of the relationship between e-mail and burnout ” Information Research13(4) paper 383. [Available at]

Whittaker S. & Sidner C. (1996). E-mail overload: exploring personal information management of e-mail. In S. Kiesler, (Ed.) Culture of the Internet. (pp. 276-295). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Ducheneaut, N.B. & Bellotti, V. (2001). E-mail as habitat. An exploration of embedded personal information managementACM Interactions8(3), 30-38. Retrieved July 20, 2004, from

Inbox Zero:

The Inbox Zero Portal:  This portal contains links to the video of Merlin Mann’s original Google Tech Talk from July 23, 2007 on Inbox Zero and also links to his Inbox Zero blog post series:

If you have a Gmail account, you can experiment with the Inbox Zero method by playing Baydin’s Email Game program. : 7 blog posts discussing one person’s process of converting to the  inbox zero method:  Days 5 &6 in particular discuss GMAIL filters in detail.

 Filters, Folders, Tags, Rules, etc Tutorials and Guides:


 Google: (Filters, labels)

Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail:



Making Sense of email overload: conversations & activity streams- Zimbra 8:

Organizing Emails: Folders, Filters and Tags in Zimbra:

Zimbra Video Tutorials:


Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/