My Single Most Powerful Productivity Trick

You could circle the world at least dozen times just by stringing together all the words that have been written about productivity.

In particular, managing information overload in a social and new media era is a topic that never ceases to draw the masses. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t see at least a post from someone lamenting how they simply can’t keep up anymore, or keep track of what they have to do, or how they’re getting buried in information but not finding anything valuable out there. It happens to the best of us.

There’s a secret to all of this though. Well, a few, but they’re all kind of wrapped up into a single concept:

Exercise your filters.

You have the tools available to you and you don’t even need fancy software to achieve it. It’s totally fine if you have a few favorite programs to keep you on your game (I’m an Evernote devotee, for example). But at the most fundamental level, you need to constantly be focused on filtering information and accepting a few truths. Here’s what I mean.

1. The Delete Button and Its Cousins

Your email inbox isn’t nearly as critical as you think it is in every waking minute. And you shouldn’t be afraid of the delete button (unless you’re in one of those industries that commands that you archive everything, but even then they ought to do that for you enough to get it out of sight).

Every email productivity system in the world – if it’s any good, like Inbox Zero – requires that you get rid of the stuff you don’t need to reference anymore. If you aren’t going to get to it, read it, or reference it later, delete it. If you’re going to do it, either do it now or add it to The List (see below) and archive it. If you need to reference it later archivingis fine, but be realistic about what you really need. Saving or trying to consume everything “just in case” is simply folly.

2. The Unfollow/Unfriend/Uncircle/Unsomething Gesture

This social networking stuff? It’s all opt-in. All of it.

I understand that there are causes important enough to you that you want to spend time advocating for (or against) them, or engaging in discussions or even arguments around those things for some greater good. If that’s the case and that’s what you’re doing, you’re probably not complaining about the noise.

And listen, we all kvetch about what’s in our streams. I’ve done it myself. Guilty.

But by far, the most powerful thing I’ve done to get a handle on it all? Taken the network into my own hands to change what I am willing to consume or tolerate. Too much negativity? Cull the members of the crabby camp. Too much discussion about the social network on the social network? Filter them out and start your own discussion. Unhappy about the attention someone gets because you don’t like their approach? Remove them from your field of view and focus elsewhere (and ideally doing it better). See the pattern here? In large part, you’re responsible for managing what makes it to your eyeballs, and how you counteract what it is you don’t care for. If I contribute to your malaise? Please unfollow me, too.

There’s a lot of stuff out there that won’t suit your tastes. That’s okay. But you’ve only got so much energy and attention to burn. Do you want to waste it railing against the things that don’t work, or building and working on the ones that do?

Customize your experience and home in on the stuff that matters to you. Leave the rest aside. I promise the world won’t collapse under your feet if you don’t follow the famous tech blogger or the big shot marketing author. Afraid you’ll miss something? If it’s really worthwhile, chances are it’ll make its way back to you through other channels.

3. The List

All that stuff you have to do? Some of it is simply more important than the rest. You either have hard deadlines, or work that will more substantively move your projects or your business or your personal stuff forward. I guarantee you possess the ability to look at your list and find the five most important things (or six, if you like, or three or four even. But no more than six.)

What it’ll take is one big session to sit down and get a handle on it all. A couple of hours, combing through your email inbox or your notebook or whatever to make one big, massive list. How you organize that is up to you. I use a plain ol’ Moleskine notebook and a pen. Use something computer or cloud based if that suits you. But the important factors are to have a list of everything so you know it’s captured, and then be able to pull out the five most important things to create laser focus.

What’s most important to you isn’t the same as the next guy. Your criteria should be different, because your business and work are different. And I don’t buy that you don’t know what’s important (after all, what we want to be important and what really *is* important are often different things, but we usually know what they are). Even if you get a few of them mixed up, you’ll already be ahead of the game by focusing on any of the more important things.

Review the list daily. Add new stuff to the big list. Strike the stuff that’s done. And find the five or six things every day that absolutely need doing.

The Truth

You may not believe me, but I don’t suffer from information overload.

Sometimes I feel like I have too much to do, but the reality is usually that I just don’t have a handle on what needs doing. Once I’m organized, I’m not overwhelmed anymore, no matter how long the list is. My enemy is lack of awareness more than anything else.

I never manage to read all the blogs in my reader, and I haven’t yet suffered a great loss from missing a compelling post. I consume what I can, and leave the rest to Mark All As Read. I focus on the social networks where I’m interested, engaged with interesting people, and where I personally find value and worth. I spend time on Twitter, on Google+, on Facebook (not as much on LinkedIn, just not my personal favorite). I enjoy them all, and have what I consider to be valuable conversations on every single one.

And even though there’s tons of information streaming in all the time, I don’t let it own me. Ever. I spend as much time as I’ve got, but don’t stress if I don’t have more. Maybe that’s why I don’t get fatigued or burned out or pay much mind to the “gah, another thing to pay attention to” talk. I just adapt to what works, and jettison what doesn’t.

I have a simple to-do list. I do the stuff on it. I put deadlines first, and mission-critical work next (and my definition of that will vary from yours, so it doesn’t matter what that means to me). The rest either goes away, or gets taken care of when it can. No one dies if I screw up. I clean up the mess and move on.

You control more than you think. The trick is that it takes a spine to look at something and say “No.” To delete the email. To postpone the meeting. To turn down the interview. To click that wicked “unfollow” button.

You’ve got this. I promise. Be ruthless about where you place your attention. You’ll thank me for it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1045691909 Mic Johnson

    Nice post, Amber. I use some of those very same tactics. Keep preaching and all of us organized folks will take over the world. Muuuuhhaaaaaaaaaaaawwaaaaaaaaa!!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      We haven’t already? Damn. :)

  • Keith Lauby

    I always like the quote from my favorite chef – Alton Brown: Organization shall set you free!  Thanks for the great resource.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I love Alton. He’s the bomb diggity!

  • http://www.extremejohn.com Extreme John

    Totally agreed. Overload of information can be overly distracting that if we are not able to handle it properly, things are going to become frustrating as we might end up finishing nothing at all. I also love listing down all the things that I need to do and then pick up those that deserve a top priority. I totally agree that it works pretty good especially in managing a business. 

  • http://www.extremejohn.com Extreme John

    Totally agreed. Overload of information can be overly distracting that if we are not able to handle it properly, things are going to become frustrating as we might end up finishing nothing at all. I also love listing down all the things that I need to do and then pick up those that deserve a top priority. I totally agree that it works pretty good especially in managing a business. 

  • http://www.extremejohn.com Extreme John

    Totally agreed. Overload of information can be overly distracting that if we are not able to handle it properly, things are going to become frustrating as we might end up finishing nothing at all. I also love listing down all the things that I need to do and then pick up those that deserve a top priority. I totally agree that it works pretty good especially in managing a business. 

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      It does indeed. And we can take back control of our own overload if we’re willing to make some tough choices and just let some things go. Thanks for the comment.

  • http://www.joemanna.com/blog/ Joseph Manna

    Well said! Often if I unsubscribe from stuff, I don’t miss it so it’s not valuable. Rarely, I do miss it, so I come back for more. 

    You nailed it. It takes a spine to say ‘no.’

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      It sure does. But it’s one of the most liberating words I’ve learned, and in a business sense, it sure helps me free up time and energy for the things I really DO want to do.

  • http://twitter.com/christammiller christammiller

    I’ve been finding that to implement these, to be able to say “no” effectively, I have to have a much better handle on my own business. I’ve been working on better defining what it is I do and provide so that I know just what to say “no” to, and prioritize the rest.

    I know that seems glaringly obvious but I’ve found that it isn’t always so cut and dried. You may (as I have) think you know what you’re about, until you realize that all you’ve been doing is reacting to stuff and not really moving forward… I’m in the “pulling back” phase now and am looking forward to implementing these organizational methods (which have never really worked well, again because I just didn’t have a strong enough core purpose). Thanks Amber!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      That’s a great point, Christa, needing to have a better handle on things. We don’t often give ourselves enough time to think that through, to sit and spend the effort to organize our thoughts much less our tasks. Great point.

  • http://twitter.com/susan_silver Susan Silver

    This is one of my personal goals this year and it has helped with the Social Media fatigue I was feeling. When I realized that not every little thing was important it was very valuable. Now I only focus on what is really important to me.

    A great book that will help you with all of these issues is Bill Jensen’s “Simplicity Handbook”. Great tips on how to get organized and focus on what matters to you. 

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I’m so glad you got some relief with that, Susan. And thanks for the book recommendation.

  • http://kyrenedesigns.com Katherine

    thanks for the reminder – as my previous incarnation is that of a LEAN industrial engineer I knew it more than most… but so easy to get into bad habits!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      It is indeed, and hard to break them especially if we don’t even realize we’re doing them!

  • http://twitter.com/camiloolea Camilo Olea

    Excellent post, Amber. I agree and actually have a very similar system. I keep a simple text file on my MacBook with all my to-do items. I group them by importance, and I keep a daily log of everything I did during the day and whats still to be done.

    Personal favorite quotes:

    “In large part, you’re responsible for managing what makes it to your eyeballs, and how you counteract what it is you don’t care for.”

    “You control more than you think.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Regards from Cancun!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Fantastic if that works for you, and I love the simplicity of it. I find for me that the more simple the system, the more likely I am to use it. Thanks for sharing your trick.

  • http://www.morphodesigns.com/ Mitchell Allen

    Amber, you’ve echoed my sentiments perfectly. Except for deleting gmail stuff diligently, I am always pruning the information weeds.

    My favorite tips: turn off notifications, make a tiny filtered list in TweetDeck or HootSuite and stop subscribing to RSS!

    I’m making sure Google Plus doesn’t become a wasteland of ignored crop circles. Reciprocity is a two-headed hammer: swing back too far and you’ll knock yourself out.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Ha! I love the quote about reciprocity. And glad to hear it sounds like you’re in command of your information life. :)

  • Kern W

    It really doesn’t have to be as complicated as we like to make it, does it? Very helpful post. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start hacking away at the email forest and working on my List.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Nice!! Let us know how it goes. It’s a refreshing feeling to cut some of the clutter. As with closets, so with email. Or something. ;)

  • Shantay

    Great information!  Thanks for sharing!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Glad you liked it. Thanks for reading.

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Amber! You’re so right… what works for you won’t work for me.  Despite my age and the proximity I’ve had to computers pretty much my entire life, I still like to use the old day planner and pen to keep track of what I have to do.  I have my long term list of things to do, and when I get to the office, I write them out into a daily to-do list. That way I can keep track of what I have due on a daily as well as monthly (or more) basis. 

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      The point is to have a system, whatever it is, so I’m super glad you have one that works for you. Pen and paper still has a prominent place in my world, so you aren’t alone. :)

  • http://twitter.com/guywyers Guy Wyers

    Excellent points. I couldn’t agree more with the “getting
    rid of things” argument: the way we handle stuff that’s already dealt with, can
    either be a productivity booster or a drain. Getting stuff we no longer need of
    the radar is usually not very time consuming, so in not doing it, we fail to
    capture an easy way of reducing information overload.

    To make that even easier we have created Tagwolf (www.tagwolf.com). It’s an intelligent email
    filing assistant that analyzes each email and suggest the most likely folder on
    an intuitive tag cloud. It greatly reduces the time and effort for emptying
    your inbox in Microsoft Outlook. 

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Guy, normally I’d poke someone for link dropping, but I appreciate the comment you wrapped it in. :)

  • Anonymous

    “Sometimes I feel like I have too much to do, but the reality is usually that I just don’t have a handle on what needs doing.”  You said it perfectly! 

    When I feel the need to regroup, I set my IM status to “BUSY”, I create some meetings on my calendar so no one else can fill up my time, and I set to work.  I recently returned from vacation, and earlier this week I filled up some of the free time on my calendar with meetings using the subject “Getting Things Done!”.  Working through my assignments in a disciplined manner, and having uninterrupted time to do that, is what works for me.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Donna, great tactics. Setting time on your calendar for YOU is so important. I’ve kind of flipped my calendar on its head; rather than it all being open to others with small windows for me, I’ve done the opposite and scheduled in “office hours” for calls, meetings, and such on select days and I stick to them as much as possible. Helps me carve out substantive time to focus on project work.

  • Anonymous

    “Sometimes I feel like I have too much to do, but the reality is usually that I just don’t have a handle on what needs doing.”  You said it perfectly! 

    When I feel the need to regroup, I set my IM status to “BUSY”, I create some meetings on my calendar so no one else can fill up my time, and I set to work.  I recently returned from vacation, and earlier this week I filled up some of the free time on my calendar with meetings using the subject “Getting Things Done!”.  Working through my assignments in a disciplined manner, and having uninterrupted time to do that, is what works for me.

  • http://equinejointsupplements.blogspot.com Mauricio

    Great post of helping people. The post is very Useful. Thanks for sharing this. I was really inspired from you.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Thanks, Ricardo. Glad you found it useful.

  • Anonymous

    Great post really hit home we are in control always good to remember that ;-)

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      It is! Especially the more information we try to consume. Solving overload is usually a couple of clicks away. :)

  • http://oxsteinlabs.com BrettGreene

    Great post Amber.  I’d add reading the book Making Ideas Happen and using the ActionMethod app & website.  They developed the simple app and systems based on interviews with some of the most successful creatives in business.  It’s the best productivity tool I’ve found …and they aren’t paying me to write this. :)

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Thanks for the recommendations, Brett. I’m rather a minimalist when it comes to tools, but hopefully they can give someone a new idea to try!

  • http://sylvanmedia.com/blog Michael

    Great post!  The unsomething gesture is brilliant.  I am a fan of archiving emails (maybe I am a ehoarder :) .  I think archiving these into folders (e.g. gmail) is beneficial.  You never know when you are going to need those emails.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      If that works for you, awesome. I archive, too, but a couple of times a year I go in and even clean that out. It makes me feel lighter. :)

  • http://voice.com/ Voice

    Interesting tactics…but personally, I find I can get sucked into the paralysis of doing too much organizing and not enough doing. 

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      That’s quite true! What I can honestly say is that some of these things are seamlessly part of my system, so they don’t take much time. Other times, I spend dedicated time to do things like make my lists, but that’s what *facilitates* the doing. Like everything, though, you’ve got to recognize when you’re spending too much time on the system itself rather than on what it’s supposed to help you do. Thanks for the comment.

  • http://www.coactiongroup.com Geoffrey W. Holman

    This was a great article!  I’ve been steadily identifying and taking the non-essential stuff off the plate.  It’s amazing how often we believe we will “come back and read it later” for so many things.  You article reinforces the need to develop and maintain better habits.

  • http://twitter.com/beauthebault Beau Thebault

    Well said, Amber. We developed Close the Loop as tool to assist Inbox Zero. You might find it interesting or useful. http://www.closetheloopaddin.com And feel free to connect with me directly for any quick demos.

  • http://mrspenson.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/say-thank-you/ Mrs. Penson

    The line, “If you’re going to do it, either do it now or add it to The List,” has been SO helpful. I’ve been forcing myelf to handle each e-mail as it comes instead of putting it off, so I can think about it more. I find the solution or action that I come up with later is probably going to be the same as the one I come up with right now. It takes discipline, and is quite uncomfortable, BUT it’s been so freeing! And my e-mail inbox has not been backed up since I implemented this. It used to have items from several months back. At this point the oldest e-mail is from Monday (only because I’m waiting for an answer and want to remind myself to follow up. But I might just move that to my list and get it out of my inbox.) Thank you, thank you and THANK YOU!

  • Pingback: Curated Series – Tips, Stats and Wisdom (issue 16) | unifiedinbox

  • Pingback: 6 Reasons your Social Media is Stagnant (and How to Fix It) | Brass Tack Thinking

  • Nick Sweeney

    Oh good god, thank you! I know I’m late to the commenting party, but I needed this so bad.

    “Shhh…it’s okay. You DON’T have to read everything.”

    I feel just like Peter Parker in Spiderman 2 when he gave up the suit.

    Ahhhhhh! That’s the sound of relaxation and re-discovering my spine.

  • Pingback: Flashback Friday: Best Posts of 2011 | Cirqueudmot.com

  • Pingback: Enforcing Silence « Trends and Patterns and Such

  • Pingback: As For Auto Posts…I Take It Back. Almost. | Brass Tack Thinking