The 10 Email Commandments You’re Breaking Every Day

Do you live in fear of your email inbox? It is such an effective tool for information exchange that it can render us completely ineffective in our attempts to control it.

I fear that I’m going to miss the proverbial wheat because of all the darn chaff overstuffing my inbox. You, too?

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Well, apparently we’re in good company. As a student of behavioral economics and finance, my ears always perk up when behavioral economist Dan Ariely has something to say. He struggled so much with  managing the daily email harvest that he decided to create two apps, one that helps people send him better emails and another that helps him prioritize the emails he receives.

This inspired some colleagues and me to ask: “What are the ways that we might be contributing to the chaff in the inboxes of our business associates and friends?”

What are the often unspoken rules of good email etiquette? Here’s what we came up with…

The 10 Commandments of Business Email:

1. Thou shalt not gratuitously “cc.”

You’re on it–they know.  

2. Thou shalt not needlessly reply all.

In addition to cluttering the inboxes of the needlessly cc’d (see above), avoiding the “reply all” button will also reduce the probability that you’ll fire off one of those unintended, embarrassing emails in which you roast someone you forgot to exclude on the thread. Which leads to…

3. Thou shalt not write anything in an email you wouldn’t want to be on the front page of The New York Times.

Two words: paper trail. This will also help ensure your prospective run for public office won’t be derailed.

4. Thou shalt not reply solely with “Thanks.”

Let’s just collectively agree to assume everyone is thankful, thereby eliminating 3-5% of all emails.

5. Thou shalt not bury the main point of your correspondence deep within the body, instead accomplishing as much as possible with the subject line.

Heck, see if you can limit the email to subject line only. And instead of beginning with any smalltalk, get right to the point and save the pleasantries until the end.

6. Thou shalt not forward lengthy email exchanges to a new audience with the direction, “See below.”

Now they have to read your email–and five to six others! Start a new email that summarizes and then ask your question.

7. Thou shalt not follow up an email within two hours asking, “Didst thou receive my email?”

“Such a thing is an abomination unto productivity,” says time management author Laura Vanderkam.

8. Thou shalt minimize the number of topics, questions or themes to as few as possible (preferably one).

You’re more likely to get answers to all of your questions if you only ask one.

9. Thou shalt limit the body of one’s email to five sentences.

This will help ensure you don’t receive the dreaded “TLDR” (too long; didn’t read) response.

10. Thou shalt indicate whether a response is necessary and, if so, a desired response time.

And “if the desired response is less than four hours, thou shalt pick up the phone and call instead,” says Vanderkam.

There’s no judgement here. We’ve all sinned and fallen short on every one of these commandments–and likely will again!  

Of course, there are even some exceptions to some of these rules, but just imagine how much cleaner all of our inboxes would be if we’d follow these commandments.  

For more, take a look at the following resources:

Oh, and by the way–of course I want to read YOUR email. That’s the whole point! Check out my new Shortwhale page.

Why Busyness Isn’t Good Business

12 Experts Share Their Thoughts

It’s old news that we’re busy and that we wear our busyness as a badge of honor. But a new study found that Americans, in particular, are actually buying it. Specifically, the study concluded that Americans who always say they’re “busy” are actually seen as more important. Unfortunately, it’s all a charade.

Busy, busy, busy

Busy, busy, busy

Numerous studies have shown that busyness isn’t actually good business, and here’s the big reason why: It makes us less productive. We’re all susceptible to it, but If I’m saying to myself (and I have), “Woo, I’m busy; really busy,” I’m likely being distracted from the most important, most productive work that I could be doing. I may feel like I’m doing more, but the net result is actually less. And it often feels like it.

But not everyone wears busyness as a status symbol. In response to the research and their own well-informed gut feelings, many are finding enjoyment in more productive work at a less busy pace. I wanted to know how these people recognize when they’re devolving into busyness and what they do to stop the downward spiral, so I asked 12 thought leaders who’ve inspired me two simple questions:

  • How do you know when you’ve gotten too busy?
  • What is a technique that you use to “unbusy” yourself?

Here’s what they had to say:

My Complete 10-Step Bullet Journal Productivity System

In a recent Forbes post, I offered five reasons for why analog task management can be more productive than a digital alternative. But in addition to the WHY, I pledged to offer specifics on exactly WHAT and HOW I’ve applied the Bullet Journal system in my own pursuit of productivity.

bullet_journal_heroFor fans of my online productivity system hack using Trello, please know that it still works just fine! You will see the familiar blend of Steven Covey as well as David Allen’s GTD principles in my analog system, with just a few modifications and some new Bullet-friendly verbiage.

Before you jump in, I do recommend that you watch a short video in which Bullet Journal founder Ryder Carroll explains the system in his own words. Then, here is precisely how I’ve adapted the concept for my own purposes as a financial advisor, writer, speaker and productivity seeker:

5 Reasons Why Non-Digital Time Management Is More Productive

As technological innovation marches forward in so many aspects of life, there is a movement gaining momentum to return to the past in search of something important that progress may have left behind.

No, you can’t beat the convenience of streaming and digitized music, but the listening experience still falls short of dropping the needle on a vinyl record. Similarly, while the ubiquity of tech-driven tools may make the process of managing our time easier than ever, we may actually end up increasing our productivity by decreasing efficiency through an analog, manual, pen-and-paper system.

Personally, I’d been successfully employing a time-management system for years—a simplified, customized amalgamation of David Allen and Steven Covey’s wisdom—designed using the online tool Trello. As someone who believes our most valuable investment is time, however, I was still curious when a friend I respect told me about a new system that he’d been using effectively. But when I invited him to show me, he didn’t pull out his phone or tablet, but a simple journal—a Bullet Journal.

The Bullet Journal is a product, but it’s also more than that. It’s really a modifiable productivity method that has grown into a community. The system, interestingly, was created by a digital product designer, Ryder Carroll, as a way to bring the discipline of task management under the practice of mindfulness. After testing out the system for a few months—and becoming an adherent in the process—I discussed the inspiration for the Bullet Journal with Mr. Carroll.

While how, exactly, I’ve adapted the Bullet system in my work as a financial advisor, writer and speaker—including the specific journal and writing tools I use—does make for an interesting story, today I’d like to address the bigger question:

WHY?

Simple Money Is Here

A No-Nonsense Guide to Personal Finance

Unfortunately, personal finance has been reduced to a short list of “Dos” and a long (long) list of “Don’ts” typically based on someone else’s priorities in life, not yours.

But personal finance is actually more personal than it is finance.

Learn More and Get Your Copy of Simple Money

That’s why what works great for someone else may not work as well for you. Money management is complex because we are complex. Therefore, it is in better understanding ourselves—our history with money and what we value most—that we are able to bring clarity to even the most confounding decisions in money and life. As an advisor, speaker and author, I’ve made a career out of demystifying complex financial concepts into understandable, doable actions. In this practical book, I’ll show you how to

  • find contentment by redefining “wealth”
  • establish your priorities, articulate your goals, and find your calling
  • design a personal budgeting system you can (almost) enjoy
  • create a simple, world-class investment portfolio that has beaten the pros
  • manage risk—with and without insurance
  • ditch the traditional concept of retirement and plan for financial independence
  • cheat death and build a legacy
  • and more

Learn More About The Author

The problem with so much personal finance advice is that it’s unnecessarily complicated, often with the goal of selling you things you don’t need. Tim Maurer never plays that game. His straightforward, candid and yes — simple — prescriptions are always right on target. Jean Chatzky
financial editor of NBC's 'Today Show'

Here’s what others are saying about Simple Money:

“Reading this book is like having your own personal financial advisor.”—Kimberly Palmer, senior money editor at US News & World Report; author of The Economy of You

“You can’t manage your money without thinking about your life—and the system that Tim proposes can make a radical difference in both.”—Chris Guillebeau, New York Times bestselling author of The $100 Startup and The Happiness of Pursuit

“Maurer teaches us how to literally redefine wealth in a way that will both honor your life values and priorities while simultaneously reducing your stress.”—Manisha Thakor, CFA, director of wealth strategies for women for the BAM Alliance; writer for The Wall Street Journal

“Amen! Amen! Amen! Simplicity is a gift . . . and this book offers it by the truckload!”—Carl Richards, New York Times columnist;  author of The One-Page Financial Plan

Read more praise for ‘Simple Money’

7 Steps To Creating The Best Personal Task Management System With Trello

Originally in ForbesI have tried more productivity systems and tools than could possibly be productive.  Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits are deservedly legendary, and I’m better for every habit I’m able to employ.  David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology was even more helpful for me, especially because it seems to hone the best of Covey’s principles to a more elegant simplicity.  But both of their complete proprietary systems proved too much for me to maintain long-term.

7 Steps-01After keeping up for a few weeks—even past the 21 days that supposedly cement a new habit—I always failed to maintain the system after a reliably random task turned into a seemingly wasted day followed by a week of piled emails and unfulfilled pledges (and all of the guilt and shame to boot).

Another reason I’ve failed to maintain well-meaning systems is that after the initial novelty wore off, the checklists and to-dos all seemed to become rote and, well, boring.  I needed something more visual and engaging to hold my attention.

Then Ryan Carson, the founder of Treehouse, introduced me to Trello (via blogger Leo Babauta).  Trello is a highly visual (free) online collaborative project management tool (with access online and on iOS and Android devices), but Carson re-engineered it to become his go-to personal task management system.

I’ve been using it for five months now without fail, synthesizing everything from Covey and Allen that stuck, along with Carson and Babauta’s wisdom, to create the only task management system that’s ever really worked for me.  Here’s how it works for me and could work for you:

skitch

1)     After creating a Trello account, create a new “board” and call it Tasks.  Each board is comprised of vertical “lists”—these will function as your task prioritization system.  Then, each new “card” you add to a List represents an individual task.

2)     Create your lists.  My lists are a conglomeration of what I’ve learned from Covey’s 7 Habits and Allen’s GTD.  My first list on the left is called “Big Rocks”—the priorities in life that I want to consume the majority of my time.  Next is “Today,” the list of items that I hope to accomplish today, followed by “Incoming,” new tasks that have yet to be prioritized.  As you might guess, “This Week” houses the tasks I hope to accomplish this week; “Later,” those tasks I’d like to get to eventually but are not yet urgent; “Waiting On,” that which I’ve accomplished but requires action on another’s part; and “Done,” a list of the tasks I’ve accomplished that day.

3)     Whether you call it Big Rocks or Big Picture (Carson) or Most Important (Babauta), create a list under that heading with your biggest priorities in life.  Mine are Spiritual, Family, Health, Writing/Speaking, Business and Personal.  Now, click on your first prioritization category listed; you’ll see an option to “Edit Labels.”  I recommend making each of your Big Rocks a specific color, and clicking “Change Label Titles” will allow you to give each color a name corresponding with your Big Rocks.  Now, each time you add a new task, you can color code it with an appropriate label.

4)     Add tasks.  If you’re importing tasks from another system or just want to do a brain dump, add all of your tasks to Incoming and then decide where to put them later.  Click “Add a card…” at the bottom of the appropriate list and type a brief description describing the task to be performed.  Before you even hit the green “Add” button, hit the drop down in the bottom right corner and that will give you the option to add a label.  Once the task is added, a host of new options can be seen by clicking on the card itself.  Here you can give the task a longer description, create a checklist within the task, attach a file or give it a due date.  Preferring the GTD approach, I keep it simple and trust my daily prioritization ritual.

5)     After adding a bunch of new tasks, it’s time to prioritize each one by placing it in the appropriate list.  Simply click and drag the card with the task you’d like to prioritize and move it to the appropriate list.  If your lists span beyond the edge of your screen, you can simply hover on the screen’s edge and watch the board traverse in that direction, allowing you to place the card in the list of your choosing.  You can also grab and drag the screen in any direction you choose.

6)     The one essential habit you must form for this—or any other task management system— to work is to perform a review of your tasks board each morning.  Ryan Carson recommends taking 19 minutes to start every day organizing your to-dos.  “Limiting this to 19 minutes,” he says, “keeps you focused and ensures you don’t spend all your time prioritizing instead of doing.”  First, add any meetings or calls on your calendar that day to Today with a precursor (M) for meetings and (C) for calls, along with the time. Then, relocate new Incoming tasks to the appropriate list.  Review This Week to determine which tasks should be completed Today.  Then, review Later to see which tasks should be bumped up to This Week and scan Waiting On to determine if you need to nudge someone else.  Only keep tasks that were completed for a single day in the Done list, purging this list each morning by either moving the task to Waiting On or archiving the task.  You can archive individual tasks by clicking on the card’s drop down, or you can “Archive All Cards in This List” by hitting the list’s dropdown in the upper right-hand corner.

7)     Now, the fun part—getting things Done.  If you spent 19 minutes reviewing your board in the morning, you shouldn’t need to look at any lists except for Today and Done for the remainder of the day.  Throughout the course of your day, move completed cards to Done and reprioritize Today, leaving the next action to be performed at the top.

One of the perpetual faux-tasks that leads many of us astray from the completion of actual tasks is our email.  As Claire Diaz-Ortiz reminded me this week, “Email isn’t work.”  It certainly feels like it, but email is more a conduit leading us to tasks than a task in itself.  Your email inbox is also a horrendous task management venue because it distracts us from the next task on our priority list, but we do often send and receive tasks through email, so Trello provides us with an answer:

Hit “Show sidebar” in the top right of your Trello screen; under the Menu header, click on Settings, then click on Email settings.  This will allow you to copy and paste a specific email address that will send emailed tasks from your inbox to the board and list of your choosing.  (Be sure to create a contact for that email address—something like Trello Tasks—and you won’t have to remember the email address.)

Trello is intended to be an interactive project management solution for groups, but it has become my highly-individualized, personal task management system of choice.  The interactive, visual nature of Trello is what attracted me to it and has kept me using it, but the best part about it is that you can create your OWN system within Trello.  Once you do, or if you already have, I’d love to hear about it.

 

Men Want It All Too: Work And Family

Mr._Mom__1_“I wanted to be able to change diapers.”  That’s what Tim Donohue told me when I asked him about the life-altering choices he’d made regarding the elusive work/life balance.  We had both just read the recent New York Times article, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” revisiting the topic of women with Ivy League pedigree and promising career prospects who’d “opted out” of corporate life to dedicate themselves wholly to the art of maternal domestication.  Judith Warner’s findings were decidedly mixed, but with all of the talk of women on the “Mommy Track,” I was left to wonder, What about the dudes?  What role do men play in weighing their obligations at home and the office?

The debate about working moms is now so ubiquitous that we must conclude it’s a real issue—that women are wrestling with this topic so consistently that the battle waging within them is genuine.  Women, as a whole, seem clearly to want both a) to play a formative role in the upbringing of their children and b) to satiate the desire within to capably accomplish tasks of seemingly greater import than changing diapers or organizing class parties or even holding office within the school PTA.  Regarding the now public discourse over this internal wrestling match, men have done largely what they should—if they know what’s good for them—remain silent (sitting behind their three-olive martinis, newspapers and crossed feet adorned with the slippers June brought to the front door).

I am not fool enough to break that silence, but I do seek to explore whether there is any similar angst, any similar wrestling over this topic regarding their own roles, in the realm of men.  As it appears, there is and they are.

The 60-Hour Work Week

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Tim, Lesley and Louise

Tim and Lesley Donohue live in Denver.  Tim is a mortgage banker, Lesley is a nurse, and they both played a meaningful role in bringing Louise, their beautiful newborn baby girl, into this world.  What makes them unique and relevant to this discussion is that they’ve been planning—for years—to also both play a meaningful role in Louise’s day-to-day care into the future.  They intend to accomplish this with Tim working (roughly) 36 hours per week and Lesley 24, co-parenting along the way.  Why 36 and 24?  They’re compelled by the logic of philosopher, author and theology professor, Gilbert Meilaender, who suggests that in order for a family to support itself financially, practically and relationally, the parents’ aggregate occupational efforts should consume no more than 60 hours.  “We simply can’t have it all,” Tim told me.  So he will don the Baby Bjorn while Lesley works two 12-hour shifts per week.  Tim will fill in the gaps with his flexible work schedule, and maybe they’ll need six-to-eight hours of childcare per week.

No, you don’t just up and decide to do this.  Tim’s been planning on it for over a decade, since well before he even met Lesley.  I can corroborate that because I recall him telling me, very specifically, at a coffee shop, about ten years ago, that he was engineering his work-life to accommodate his life-life.  He wanted a job that offered good pay, lots of flexibility and a boss who trusted his employees to get the job done without being micro-managed.  “I wanted a career that was a good expression of who I am, but that also gave me plenty of space to be who I am.”  Fifteen years ago, when he made these career decisions, Tim was a mentor to high school and college youth.  Today, he’s a husband and a father, a son and a brother, a friend to many, and an active member of his community.

But Tim knew it was going to take a lot of effort to put himself in that position.  In a volatile business that is 100% commission, he started socking away money very early.  He knew that an overabundance of income one year could turn into a drought in another, so he worked to save one, and then two full years’ worth of living expenses as an emergency reserve.  He saved cash to buy a car with no debt.  He bought a house in a high cost-of-living area north of Baltimore, and aggressively paid his mortgage down with every shred of excess income, so that when he and Lesley moved to Denver (with a lower cost-of-housing), they were able to buy a house without a mortgage.  In their mid-thirties.  With two years of living expenses saved.

What makes Tim and Lesley so successful in finding a healthy balance between work and life is that they don’t consider it to be a balancing act.  Instead, they have successfully integrated work and life.

Is it possible that our notion of work/life balance implies that these are two opposing forces, and furthermore, that positioning them as competitors creates inertia that keeps them from being more successfully integrated?

Tim and Lesley make it look easy because of their forethought and the deliberate steps they took years ago to make a more integrated personal and financial life possible today, but most of us didn’t do that level of planning and are entrenched in seemingly irrevocable roles today.  Or are we?

Opting-IN

Women may not be the only ones giving up elite Northeastern educations for parenting purposes.  Andrew Ritter has two degrees in geological sciences (one from Colgate) and plied his trade up the stalactite ladder (or would that be stalagmite?) all the way to Project Manager, around the time he met his wife Jennifer, an attorney.  But as Jennifer’s legal career gained momentum, Andrew was burning-out of…whatever it is that geological scientists do.  He decided to punt his degrees and valuable experience, starting up a residential remodeling business, the work he did during college.  Andrew didn’t fall prey to the “Mancession” of late.  He simply decided that killing himself in 70-hour-a-week increments was not the way he was going to spend the majority of his adult waking hours.

Therefore, when baby Wilson and his little brother Ridgely came along, and as Jennifer’s career arc soared, Andrew had the occupational flexibility to opt-IN to being a part-time stay-at-home dad.  “There’s no question,” Ritter told me, “that it has been difficult financially.”  In a high cost-of-living area, they feel sometimes as though they’re just treading water.

“Was it worth it?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t trade these years for any corporate accomplishment.  I get to walk my kids to school every morning, and when Jen is in trial—leaving at 6 am and returning at 2 in the morning—I can be here to make sure everything runs smoothly at home.”

Maybe the key to “having it all” is simply a willingness to redefine our “it all.”  Or maybe the secret is to pursue our “it all” with less.  (Or both?)

Messrs. Ritter and Donohue both agree that the choices they have made are their choices—they’re not universal and worthy of widespread adoption.  But there are themes here that very few of us would dispute:

  • It’s becoming increasingly difficult for a household to live comfortably and save for the future with a sole source of income.
  • Both moms and dads struggle to know exactly how to allocate their time between the individual purposes to which they feel called and their chosen roles as partners and parents.
  • Dedicating ourselves to a work/life ratio that feels out of kilter eats at us, and can leave us dissatisfied with our efforts in the office and at home.

Our attempts to balance work and family have failed.  But resourceful, forward-thinking moms, dads and companies are getting more out of work and life by creatively integrating the two.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

7 Reasons I Dumped Facebook

facebook-01It’s official.  I’m off the Facebook grid.  Nobody offended me.  I didn’t have a bad experience.  While I’m not thrilled about the idea of Big Brother watching my every move, I’m not particularly paranoid about social media sharing.   Therefore, I’m sharing why I’m dumping Facebook and committing to Twitter and Instagram.

1)     Facebook sucks time from my life, and unlike money, time is a zero sum game (thanks to Laura Vanderkam for reminding us).  Without question, some of the time I spend on Facebook is edifying and life-giving.  For example, my good friend, Nick Selvi—a husband, father, teacher and musician—is stricken with stage four rectal cancer, and his Facebook page keeps me informed of the battle he and his family are waging.  I’ll miss that, but hopefully I’ll be a real friend and call and visit to support him.

2)     Most of my Facebook friends aren’t (actually friends).  They’re not enemies.  It’s not that I wish them ill, but for the majority of them, there’s a reason we don’t associate other than on Facebook.  For most, it’s not because of a geographic disparity or because they don’t have an email address or phone number—it’s because we’re simply not actual…friends.  (This makes me wonder if the reason I initially got on Facebook was actually a matter of pride.  “How many virtual friends can I assemble?”  I appreciated the reminder from Leo Babauta this week that comparing ourselves to others is an exercise in futility.)

3)     There are other (better) options for photo sharing.  Seeing my friends’ and family’s pictures, and sharing my own, is what I like most about Facebook.  A picture and a caption can generate a belly laugh or bring tears to my eyes.  I also know that it is the real-time exchange of family pics that likely inspired 90% of the grandparents who are on Facebook today—so I’m not going to leave them hanging.  Now instead of merely using Instagram to obscure my lack of photographic skill and then upload pictures on Facebook, I’ll simply use Instagram as my photo exchange medium, inviting only family and close friends to follow me there.

4)     Facebook brings out the worst in people.  How I didn’t quit Facebook during the last presidential campaign, I’ll never know.  The willingness of so many to spew half-baked punditry that almost assuredly alienates them from half of their friends—and convinces precisely no one of their opinion—boggles the mind!  Yes, these offenders are buoyed by the 10 Likes they get from the people who think similarly, but scores more harden their opinion in opposition and are likely offended in the process.  (If this point doesn’t resonate with you, you may be an offender.)

5)     I learn more on Twitter.  Twitter is to Facebook as a biography is to a novel.  I know there’s nothing wrong with reading fiction, but I confess that I (wrongly) feel a little guilty when I spend time reading something that didn’t (or won’t) actually happen.  I enjoy being on Twitter, much as I enjoy reading a good biography, but I’m allowed to feel like I’m better for having done so—that I’ve learned something beneficial.  Twitter is now my number one source for hard news and opinions I value, as well as a relational connecting point.  Twitter is more of a resource and less of a popularity contest.  And let’s face it, for all too many, Facebook is really closer to the intellectual or emotional equivalent of eating a tub of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting.  (It’s not good for you.)

6)     The presence of ads on Facebook is getting ridiculous.  I care more about you than the fact that you like Cherry Coke.  I certainly care more about you than whatever Facebook wants me to buy, and it seems like there are increasingly more ads every day.  Am I the only one who notices that?

7)     Less is more.  I’m on a mission to simplify life, to slow it down to a pace at which it can actually be consumed, not just tasted.  I don’t want to hide behind the ubiquitous, “I’m really busy” as a badge of honor.  I want a lower cost of living (not just financially) and a higher quality of life.  I want to limit the number of [things] that compete for my attention so that I can apply more attention to those [things] I care the most about.  Less is the new more.

Goodbye, Facebook.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

(And just to keep me out of any potential regulatory hot water, my comments here are regarding Facebook as a service—not an investment.)

How Insurance Works, In 90 Seconds

Every time we experience a calamity, like Hurricane Sandy if you’re on the east coast, it reminds us that there are risk factors in life beyond our control.  Through insurance, we transfer these catastrophic risks we cannot bear to insurance companies, but knowing HOW INSURANCE WORKS is vital to understanding why, how and what we need to insure.  Take the next 90 seconds to more thoroughly understand HOW INSURANCE WORKS:

[youtuber youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rxYK40avGQ&feature=youtu.be’]