What do you do?
Manager of Engineering Outreach at the University of Waterloo. Our office mainly focuses on creating interest, confidence and excitement about the STEM subjects for youth in grades 1 to 11. We also have programs that focus on under-represented groups, like Women in Engineering and Aboriginal audiences.
What mobile device do you use?
iPhone 5, iPad and at times a Nexus tablet.
What are your top five applications or programs?
Thunderbird – to control the above email system.
Excel – in the past two years I’ve realized how little I know about the power of the MS Office suite of programs.
Mailbox (for iOS) – lets me control my home email, making sure I’m not stressed about it.
Downcast – I am a big fan of podcasts
Rdio – Music. End of story.
Best way to stay on top of email?
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to master this, and have two systems that I use. One is a modified version of Gina Trapani’s three folders and the other is based on a recent podcast from Tim Ferriss about productivity.
I never empty my trash, and just use search functions to find what I need—I feel having subfolders to track projects is a waste of time, and doesn’t reflect how I think.
Three Folders – Modified
I have about 5 ‘smart-search’ folders that I use and two tags for sorting.
The tags are ‘Hold’, which, is for an email that I don’t need to see but don’t want to trash and the other label is ‘Waiting reply’. Every email I sent is bcc’d to me. Yes there is a copy in my sent items, but I’ll get to why I do this in a minute. When the email comes back to me, I have a rule that will tag this email as ‘Waiting reply’. I then have the following ‘smart folders / saved searches folders’ that I use. I NEVER look in my inbox, I only look in these folders:
Smart folder 1: Today
Anything that has arrived in the last 72 hours and has no tag– originally this was 24 hours but I was losing the emails from the weekend. Having more than 24 hours also adds nice continuity day to day.
Smart folder 2: Hold
Anything that has the hold tag. Usually online orders, travel tickets, etc.
Smart folder 3: No tag
All messages with no tag. This isn’t my inbox, but closest I get to a ‘true inbox’.
Smart folder 4: Waiting Reply
All messages that have the waiting reply tag. Its important once a week to go through this folder and delete the messages that you don’t need a reply to.
Smart folder 5: Waiting Reply 15
Any message with a tag of Waiting Reply and is over 15 days old. I review this folder daily, and if there is a message in there that I need a reply on, I just quickly resend the email with a message like “Hey Bob, its been a couple of weeks since I’ve sent this. Any word on an answer yet?”. I have a couple other smart folders to help me prioritize things. For example, one folder shows any emails in my inbox with no tags and from a uwaterloo account. It a priority for me to reply to people on campus and after being away from a week, this helps me find those messages faster.
I also have a smart folder for my trash to help me find those messages tag as ‘Waiting Reply’ and ‘noise’ messages (LinkedIn notifications for example). Weekly I’ll delete all the messages from this folder, which also removes them from my trash.
So, yeah I have this sweet system that make me an email ninja, but I’ve also come to another conclusion lately: email controls me more than I control it.
In response to this, I’ve been trying to use the following rules to control my time in email:
No email before 10AM. Starting the day working on a task that isn’t email is extremely empowering. Download your email, then take your email program offline to reply. This stops you from getting in email conversations, which can quickly cycle out of control, and also controls the volume. Put email back online at 2:30PM. Download new messages, send old ones in the queue. Put your email offline again. 3:45 send email, skim for any new earth shattering messages, or those you can deal with in 30 seconds or less. Then shut it down for the day. I admit the above system works for me because I’m not a front line person in our unit. If your job is primarily dealing with customer service, this system has some serious faults.
What is your best time-saving trick?
That email system helps me find things fast and stay on top of communication.
Favourite productivity tool?
I currently keep track with just a notepad. I’ve tried a lot of systems (Evernote, Wunderlist, etc) and find that they make it to easy for me add items, thus growing my list out of control. A simple 4 by 6 notepad lets me keep a hard limit on how many tasks I have to accomplish. Sometimes simple is elegant, and elegant works.
I also find scheduling time on Friday to prep for next week (updating to-do list, review waiting reply folder, update my personal time tracking spreadsheet) helps me get a sense of what’s important, what I accomplished and what my trajectory is.
One non-tech thing you can't live without?
Do headphones count? If I’m walking I’m listening to a podcast. My coffee pot /aeropress too is pretty darn awesome.
Structure of your typical day, how do you divide your time?
I commute in from Guelph to Waterloo. Our office opens at 8:30, but really gets moving at 9AM. I like to be in at 7:45/8. The time alone let’s me gather my thoughts, plan my day, read a bit, go for a walk with my coffee.
I try to set my phone to go off every 30mins. This can derail me if I’m not careful, but it reminds me that I should get up and move around. It also lets me check in with myself ‘am I still progressing on this? Do I need a break? Am I working in circles?’
My day ends at 4:30, so I try to go straight to the gym at that time. If my day goes longer, I have to sacrifice the time at the gym, because I don’t want to get home too late.
I don’t work from home currently, and the aforementioned email system makes it difficult to ‘casually’ check my work email through the Office OWA. I’m alright with this, as there was a time I’d come home, eat, then work for another 4 hours. A couple of years I read this article, and realized that was not who I want to be.
I’ve printed that article and have it hanging on my wall.