A 10-Step Plan for Productive Email

This is the second in a series of blog posts that I intend to write about my productivity practices. The first described my general approach to email, tasks, and scheduling. In this post I will focus on email.

I used to deal with a lot of email. It got me down. It was a constant pressure and it made me feel unproductive. I still deal with a lot of email. But now I am in charge. I am more productive because I get more done in less time and I feel much better for it. Here’s my 10-step plan.

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Yet Another Productivity Post

Recently I have found myself giving a few talks to young researchers and faculty on how I manage my time to get things done. During these talks I have described some of the tools and techniques that I use to manage my time – something I thought was obvious – only to receive a barrage of questions and requests for more information. So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts on this topic. This post covers the basics at a high-level and in future posts I will take a deeper dive into email, tasks and calendars.

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Sensors 2.0 – Beam me up.

Some interesting things seem to be happening in the sensor space recently, particularly in area of food scanning and nutrition monitoring. Monitoring food intake is a common feature of many life-logging, exercise tracking, and quantified self apps these days but it has always felt clunky and unsatisfactory. The standard approach is to expect people to simply log what they eat. Some apps take a bit of the guess work out of this by providing users with access to a database of common foods to choose from. Others go a step further by, for example by allowing users to take a photo of their food which is then analysed by experts or crowdsourced calorie counters; check out the Meal Snap app for instance.

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Living on Air

I love my MacBook Air. My 2012 version is the second I have owned and it is hands down the best laptop I have ever used. Speed, size, weight, battery life are all great. But for some reason, lately I have been thinking that it is too heavy. Yes, the MacBook Air – more or less the thinest, lightest, laptop ever – is too heavy for me. In truth it is not just the Air. It is the Air (1.35kg) plus its charger (approx. 200g) plus the iPad Mini (300g) that I always carry, and the logitech keyboard for the Mini (just over 200g). That’s more than 2kg in total.

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3-2-1 Backup!

In my experience PhD students tend to finish in batches. I wish it wasn’t that way but for me it is, mostly because of funding cycles. This means that once every 4 years I have between 4 and 8 students finishing up. It’s a stressful time for them and for me. And, unfortunately, every cycle there is a reasonable chance that one of them will experience a catastrophic loss of data, due to a hard-drive crash or equivalent, which really exposes weak backup policies. For a PhD student it can be devastating because it can mean a loss of thesis and experimental data that could in the worst case set them back years.

Thankfully it has never come to this because I always hammer home the 3-2-1 rule of backups:

3 – Keep 3 copies of everything.

2 – Keep backups on 2 different media types or at least in 2 different locations.

1 – Make sure one backup is offsite.

I use a variation on this approach as follows. First I keep a copy of my main Documents (root) folder sync’ed through Dropbox. There is a particular trick to doing this and care needs to be taken – check out these instructions – but once it is done you will have a backup stored by Dropbox. A great advantage of this is that you now also have access to all of your Document files from Dropbox on any of your other devices or through a browser.

Second, I use Apple’s Time Machine to perform daily incremental backups to a hard-drive at work. This also allows me to recover lost files using Apple’s great Time Machine browser.

Third, every week (more or less) I create a clone of my laptop drive using Carbon Copy Cloner to a USB drive at home. This means that I can boot up from this external drive in a pinch if I need to and have access to up to the second files via Dropbox.

This has worked well for me, allowing me to recover from some bad drive failures without any significant downtime.

That said I am currently evaluating how I might be able to spend more of my time in the cloud, as a strategy for ditching my laptop, or at least not carrying it everywhere. I plan using a iPad Air with a keyboard as my main machine. No doubt this will introduce some new backup and syncing challenges…