End tedious email conversations

I don’t mean by being rude. But you’ve had an email that you’ve replied to and they’ve replied back and you’ve replied and will you just shuddup, please? It becomes like teenager lovers on the phone: “no, you hang up first”. And it is always pointless. It’s just that sometimes you can end it.

If you want a meeting with someone, don’t ask them if they’re up for it and then get into a cycle of checking calendars, of my people calling your people, instead say this:

“Are you free for lunch next Tuesday at noon?”

You’ll be startled how often people say yes. And when they say no, because you’ve asked them in this specific way, they reply specifically. “No, but I can do coffee Wednesday at 4pm.”

And then you’re off to the races.

Just get to the point right away. Whether it’s a meeting or a favour, just ask them. Be polite of course and you can go into the pleasantries after it, but ask up front for what you need and you’ll end the ceaseless, pointless cycle of email tag.

For this one thing, anyway.

Crisis talks #1: fallen off the wagon

Okay, it’s 8am on Monday and clearly there is a problem. I am behind on everything, just everything, and there hasn’t been an article on The Blank Screen since 20 January. Equally clearly, I need to fix this.

Maybe slightly less clearly, I think I have to fix it in front of you.

It’s not that I imagine you’re riveted to details of what I’m up to but if you aren’t already struggling with getting more productive, you will be. You start this stuff and it’s great, you feel happier, but then it goes wrong and I’m realising you feel worse than you did back when you were just lurching through life and work.

Let me show you the fight and hopefully you’ll get something from it. Let me show you the fight and hopefully my knowing you’re there will help me stick at it.

A little bit of background, also known as an excuse. Just over three weeks ago, I got a cold. No question, it was just man flu but it knocked me off my feet. Or it should’ve done: I pressed on as well as I could and definitely that was a mistake. By chance I was mostly booked to be writing in my own office but I had four gigs outside and I vomited on the way to two of them.

Yesterday I thought this was all done, finally over, I felt recalled to life. And then mid-afternoon, bam. Desperately difficult to move. Appetite vanished. Increasingly ratty. In the end, I went to bed around 8pm and spent a very feverish night. Twelve hours later, the fever is gone, I have a what feels like a concussion headache and I’m unexpectedly snuffly. That was one thing I didn’t have during the main cold but I have it now.

I also have very obvious problems to do with getting work done.

First, I don’t look in OmniFocus.

That’s my usually beloved To Do app and every praise I’ve given it before is true, I just don’t dare look in it to see what I haven’t done yet.

The second was my email. I do the Inbox Zero thing where I deal with an email as soon as I see it: if I can reply there and then, I reply. If I can delete or archive it, wallop. If it needs a bit more work, I send it on to OmniFocus.

You can’t believe the pressure and the misery of seeing the emails build up after a couple of years of being on top of this stuff. At one point I had around 40 emails in that inbox and I would look at each of them, actually incapable of knowing what to do. Then a new one would come in from someone I just didn’t want to have to think about so I’d go away.

Early last week, I got those 40 down to 0 by doing the Inbox Zero lark and that’s great apart from how I’ve found it hard to keep it down. An email will come in that I know I need to reply to and I’m afraid I’ll forget but I haven’t the consciousness to do it now, so I’ve been leaving it there. And then we’re right back to the same problem.

Yesterday morning I replied to all the ones waiting and right now, this minute, I’m not looking at my emails at all.

I’m going to look at OmniFocus.

It’s going to be a mess.

I was re-organising my entire OmniFocus life when this hit so I know I have just the most gigantic mess of projects that I can abandon but haven’t, projects that are so late I will have to give up on them, just more and more projects. Actually, hang on, I can do this, let me check: right, OmniFocus tells me I have 76 projects and a current total of 2,993 tasks to do.

I’m going back to bed.

No, wait, get this done. Back in a sec.

Ha! Caught! If you just throw things in to OmniFocus they go into what’s called the inbox: just a growing list of things that you’ll think about later. Bung them in now when you think of them, later go back and decide what you’ll actually do. Decide that this is to do with your work and this for home, that this has a deadline and that doesn’t, all this sort of stuff. I am amazed and deeply relieved to find that I must’ve done this going back later.

For there were just seven things in the inbox. I tell you, face up to your fears, it works out. Especially as I’m not going to do three of the seven: they’re not needed now so I just deleted them. It also turns out that I’ve done two of what’s left so I tapped the Done button and felt good. That left two and one is a big job that’s going to take an hour. I admit I don’t feel up to that yet.

But the last of the seven was just that I meant to email thanks to someone. So I did it.

And that’s where I got caught: going in to email her meant that Mail got all the new emails that I’ve been avoiding looking at this morning.

I don’t know what I was afraid or of what exactly I was avoiding but there are – curiously – just seven emails in my inbox now. Brilliantly, six can be deleted immediately so they went to the trash with gusto. One was a thanks email to me so I read and enjoyed that but don’t need to reply so that’s now archived off.

An empty email inbox is a good thing.

OmniFocus is another. I’ve moved that hour-long job from the inbox and into today’s due tasks. I’ve ticked the thanks email as done, so I have an empty OmniFocus inbox too. But right now OmniFocus looks like this:


That doesn’t look awful at all: you can’t see the details but you can see I have five things to do today. Now, I know that doesn’t include one increasingly urgent problem though I admit I have no idea what to do about that. I feel I may look at that tomorrow.

But look toward the top left where it says Forecast. There’s 53 next to it. And just underneath, you can see I have 52 things I should’ve done in the past.

Now, actually I know I will have done a lot of that. Even in my worst moments I’ve kept on writing so I’m hopeful I’ll have done many of them and just need to tap Done. Okay, no, hang on, I’m being honest with you here so that I can be honest with myself. I feel like you’re holding my hand. Let me check the 52.

I’ve already done 33 of them.

I’m looking pretty smugly relieved here, aren’t I?

I shouldn’t.

Some 16 of those 33 are repeating tasks and I’ve done them yet definitely haven’t done them every day or every week or whatever it is. Actually, I can’t work out how many I have and haven’t repeated.

The bigger number in every sense is further down that same OmniFocus column: do you see where it says 74 projects? I told you I had 76. But this means there are 74 that I haven’t reviewed.

Reviewing is a great thing. You take a minute to look at the whole picture, everything you’re doing, and you add more tasks, you tick off ones that are done, you delete others, you really just get that whole picture in your head. See where you are with everything, make decisions about it all – and then forget the lot. Trust that OmniFocus is tracking everything you need. And instead you just look at doing today’s five things.

The trouble is that reviews take more than a minute, especially when you have 74 projects to look at.

What I need to do is review them all once and then as I go through each one, decide when I want to review them next. Every project must be reviewed but you can say how often. So, for instance, there are certain financial things I review every second day. I keep my shopping list in OmniFocus but I’ve told it to make me review that once a year.

I must go through the rest so that they pop up as needing reviews in some more manageable way. A few a day, for instance. I’ll get on that.

But not today.

Today I am truly struggling so what I’ve just done is create a single To Do task called Monday. I’ve written in it the few things that I truly cannot leave plus some notes about them.

This is not how to use OmniFocus. But it will get me through today. See you tomorrow?

Best productivity deals now on

So you’re stuffed and sleepy and you’re watching Strictly Come Dancing’s Christmas Special. Before Doctor Who begins, go grab some of the very best deals there are for productivity tools and advice.

Email and Paperless Field Guides
All of David Sparks’ Field Guide books are half price. That includes his excellent one on Presentations plus a title I’ve not read 60 Mac Tips and a title I’m not interested in, Markdown. However, by far the best and most useful to you right now are his books on Email and a very wide-ranging one called Paperless.

Read that and you’ll transform your working life. Read his Email one and you’ll make so much more use of your email that you will enjoy it.

David Sparks’ Field Guides are all iBooks that cost now cost around £3 or $5. I actually can’t confirm the UK price because I’ve bought most of these already so the iBook Store doesn’t tell me the price anymore. Get them on the iBooks Store or check them out on Sparks’ official site.

The Blank Screen
My own book is half off too: it costs you £4.11 and after it you’ll be creative and productive. I may have mentioned this book before but this is the first the Kindle version has ever been on sale. Grab a copy now.

Drafts 4
This app for iPhone and iPad looks like a very simple notebook kind of thing. It is. Tap that icon and start typing. If you never do anything else with it, it’s still good because it’s somehow just a pleasure to write in. I can’t define that, can’t quantify it but also can’t deny it. I just like writing in this notetaking app and in fact I am doing so right now.

What happens after you write a note, though, is what makes this special. I’ll send this text straight to The Blank Screen website. But I could choose instead – or as well – pop it onto the end of note in Evernote. Chuck it over to my To Do app OmniFocus. (Which reminds me, OmniFocus for iPad is not on sale but it’ll still be the best money you spend on apps ever.)

Equally I could write a note in Drafts 4 and send it to you as a text message. Or an email. I don’t know that it’s actually got endless options but it must be close. And that combination of so very, very quickly getting to start writing down a thought and then being able to send your text on to anywhere makes this a front-screen app for me.

It’s down to £2.99 from £6.99 on the iOS App Store.

TextExpander 3 + custom keyboard
When I want to write out my email address I just type the letters ‘xem’ and TextExpander changes that to the full address. Similarly, I write reviews for a US website called MacNN now and each one needs certain elements like the body text, an image list, links, tags and so on in a certain order. I open a new, blank document, type the letters ‘xmacnn’ and first it asks me what I’m reviewing and then it fills out the document with every detail you can think of.

The short thing to say next is that this is via TextExpander and that it is on iOS for a cut price of just £1.99 instead of £2.99. So just get it.

Got yet yet? Okay, there’s one more thing to tell you. TextExpander began on Mac OS X and it is still best there. The iOS version wasn’t really much use until iOS 8 when Apple allowed companies to make their own keyboards. Suddenly you could switch to the TextExpander keyboard whatever you were doing or whatever you’re writing on your iPhone or iPad. That meant you could expand these texts anywhere. Fantastic. Except the TextExpander keyboard is somehow less accurate and harder to use than Apple’s.

So what you gained with the text-expanding features, you lost a bit with everything else you typed.

Except many other apps work with TextExpander. Apple’s ones don’t but Drafts 4, for instance, recognises those ‘xem’ or ‘xmacnn’ things and works with them. So buy TextExpander 3 for iOS in order to get these things set up and working. It’s a bonus if you like the new keyboard.

Get TextExpander 3 + custom keyboard.

Hang on, Strictly’s nearly over. These are my favourite deals on productivity books and apps available right now but remember that they won’t stay on sale for long. If you’re only surfacing from Christmas and reading this in February, ignore the prices and just focus on the recommendations. None of these are here just because they’re cheap, it is that they are superb and the sale is a great bonus.

Email is great, now leave it alone

There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that email addiction leads to stress and unhappiness. Now, for the first time, researchers have tested this idea directly and found that, yep, there are probably positive psychological benefits to intentionally ignoring your email whenever possible. In a new study in Computers in Human Behavior, Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia took a group of workers and, over the course of two weeks, assigned each to one of two conditions: One group was told to keep their email program closed, turn notifications off, and check their email only three times a day, and the other was told to leave notifications on and check their email as often as possible. After the first week, each group switched into the other condition, and each group was regularly surveyed about how often they were checking their email, how stressed they were, and how productive they felt.

To De-Stress, Check Your Email Less – Jesse Singal, Science of Us (December 4, 2014)

Read the full piece. Via New Republic.

I didn’t see your message, sorry

It is handy when you know that someone has seen your email or your text or your update or your anything, but actually it is never handy. You’re a writer, you know they’ve seen it, why aren’t they saying anything?

Worse, you’re wrong. They haven’t seen it. They really haven’t seen it. I’ve had this come up with people who tell me they know so-and-so read their email DAYS AGO and so is being rude not replying. Or they NEVER OPENED IT ONCE, same thing. In each case, you don’t know. Maybe they saw the three-line preview on their iPhone and didn’t bother to open the message. Maybe they got eleventy-billion emails that morning and simply didn’t see yours in there.

But none of that matters when the person in question is you. And when the question in question is whether you have read something or you haven’t. You could just let the online world go on its little way, sending out read receipt acknowledgements wherever it may, or you could fight back. Stop it happening.

Lifehacker’s got your back. Read its full feature on how to switch off bleedin’ read receipts in the most popular software around.

Buy of the week: Email – the MacSparky Field Guide

I use email every minute of every day and so do you. I thought I understood it and I really thought I was using it well but the original version of this book gave me so many Damascus moments. I’ve made tiny changes to my email now that get me more time to write and keep the distractions away.

And the new edition, just out, has been updated with new sections on services to mass unsubscribe you from all or your choice of those endless emails companies send you. Lots on the new changes in iOS and Mac Mail. gmail. Outlook 2014.

The best version of it is an iBook: that’s what I have and it’s gorgeously designed and readable. But you can only get that on iPads, iPhone and Mac and the email advice applies to every one of us, everywhere. So there is also a PDF version. Have a look on author David Sparks’s website for details.

MacSparky Email book updated

I’d have said Email: A MacSparky Field Guide by David Sparks was the last word on email but I’d have been wrong. Maybe there can never be such a thing but an already very good go has just been improved. An updated version of the iBook is now available on the iBooks Store. Take a look at David Sparks’ official page about it for more details.

But while you’re at it, have a listen to him and colleague Katie Floyd on the latest MacPowerUsers podcast because that’s about the same thing. I’ve already read the original version of his book, my iPad is downloading the update as weak speak, but still I learnt some things from that.

We are fooled by spam – we really are

I had a legitimate request to re-enter some credit card details the other day and still I hesitated. We are so used to these so-called phishing spam scams. So many of the details were legit – it was for an online backup service that I do use, that was the name of the machine that backs up to it, that was the right renewal date and the expired credit card number was correct – that I didn’t just chuck the email away. But I also didn’t click on it: I separately went to the online backup company’s website, logged in there and checked the details.

But apparently that’s unusual. And so unusual that I can’t brag about it: the odds are that I’ve been fooled by scams before and will again. Seriously. You get these stupid spam messages and you wonder how anyone can be taken in by them. Intellectually you realise they must be because the spam keeps coming, it must be worth the spammers’ time, but you will be head-jerk-backed shocked at how effective those emails are at getting people’s details out of them:

Even on the worst-performing phishing websites, 3 percent of users still submitted their data. On the most effective phishing sites, as many as 45 percent did.

Google notes in its write-up that this is big business for scammers, as one attacker can be responsible for millions of phishing emails.

Once a hacker is able to access someone’s account, they spend an average of three minutes figuring out how much it’s worth, and will apparently move on if the account doesn’t seem valuable enough. According to the study, hackers use Gmail’s own search function to figure out if an account is worth their time, looking for terms like “wire transfer” and “bank.”

What happens next probably won’t surprise you: The hacker tries try to get money from an account’s contact list. They send emails to the person’s friends, family and colleagues with fake stories like “we were mugged last night in an alley” in the hopes of getting them to send cash.

Google Study Finds Email Scams Are More Effective Than You’d Expect – Damon Beres, Huffington Post (7 November 2014)

Read the full piece for more details and some advice about stopping being scammed. Mind you, if you’re reading this and you also click through to read that, you’re probably more aware of the issue than most people. And being aware is a key protection.

Use an email client instead of the web

I’m prompted to say this to you because of an short article about Gmail whose writer says:

I’ve been using Gmail since 2003 exclusively. It’s awesome. And when I learned the keyboard shortcuts in 2006, it vastly increased my email productivity. I highly recommend taking the time to learn them.

Yesterday I discovered the biggest boon to my email productivity since shortcuts: Gmail Offline, a Google Chrome app that does just what it says: Allows you to read and write email (in the browser) when you’re not connected to the Internet. But that’s not the key point. I haven’t even been offline since I started using it.

Do Your Email Faster by Getting Offline – Ev Williams, Medium (13 May 2014)

He sounds so surprised. Here’s the thing. If you get to your email by firing up Firefox or Safari or Chrome or (twitch) Internet Explorer, then logging on to a site like outlook.com (hotmail.com as was) or laposte.net, you’re reading your email online. (* See that asterisk? It’s important. But shush, I didn’t say it yet.) You’re reading your email online. That’s nice. You can do that from anywhere, absolutely anywhere that you can get an internet connection and it’s fine.

So long as you have an internet connection. You are bollixed if you don’t. And so long as your email provider remains your email provider. A friend recently moved from one broadband supplier to another and in the process was told she would lose her old email address. You know that’s a problem: if there are any statistics into why so many people remain subscribers to AOL then they probably conclude that it is solely to keep that familiar @aol.com address. Same with Hotmail. You keep putting up with the crap because you’ve given everybody that bleedin’ email address and there is nothing you can do about it.

Until forced. Then you change to something good and that may well be Gmail but this is another story.

Back to the online versus offline stuff.

If you work in an office and your PC or Mac there includes Microsoft Outlook, you’re getting your email offline. It might be stored on your company’s network servers but it’s not sitting out there on the internet waiting for you to login or for Microsoft to switch you off.

Back when this used to be an either/or kind of situation, there were advantages and disadvantages to online and offline email. I have always used offline, though, and I’ve done so because it means I have all the email right here. It’s mine and on my Mac and on my backups, you can’t take it away from me without theft and some serious effort.

It’s called using an email client: Apple’s OS X Mail is a client, Microsoft Outlook is a client and email is served to them. Your computer goes off to get email for you and brings it back, you don’t have to keep going to a website or leaving a website tab open.

Also back in the day, leaving that connection open cost you money. I knew someone who stay online while slowly peck-typing her emails, not appreciating that it was only when she hit Send that she needed to be online. I did tell her that and her internet connection did keep dropping the line because, as far as it was concerned, she wasn’t using it for a very long time. But I have no doubt that she persisted until whenever she got broadband.

These days we can have both worlds. I have all the advantages of having my emails on my Mac but they are also on my iPad and iPhone, moreover they are also also on any computer I chose to login to. Where you might have to go to hotmail.com to get your email, I can elect to go to iCloud.com to get mine. I did this most recently at a secure mental health establishment where I wasn’t allowed my iPad or iPhone but could use their office computers.

So that’s all good, then. You can get your email online or offline, whatever what you like, and so long as your supplier doesn’t stiff you, you’re so good to go that you never even realise there’s any choice to be made. Until you do what this Williams writer did and move to an email client, then you find out the other big benefit. The benefit so big that it surprised him and it now surprises me that not everybody knew this:

The reason Gmail Offline makes you faster at your email is because:

It’s freaking fast. Gmail proper is fast, most of the time. But sometimes it takes a second or two (or three or…) to archive or reload your inbox. When you’re plowing through email — especially with shortcuts — that seems like an eternity. Gmail Offline removes those waits, pretty much completely.

Yep. That would do it.

If you’re on Gmail, Williams is enthusing about Gmail Offline, and here’s where we:

*throw in an asterisk.

Purely and entirely to be awkward and not because Google wants to take over the world, Gmail Offline uses your web browser. It has to be Google Chrome with extensions so it’s really turning your browser into something that uses local storage like a regular document-creating application. But it’s your browser. So all that stuff I said about how you can tell you’re reading email online because you use a web browser, not so much.

But offline is faster? Very much.

Google revamping Gmail

I know this is just me, but Gmail is confusing. And sometimes even announcements about Gmail confuse me. Such as this one. I read Google’s news about a new email solution called Inbox and it felt like I was swimming in a little ocean of very gorgeously photographed images but not an awful lot of information. I did get that Inbox by Google wants you to include your To Do list in your email and that’s just a bag of spanners waiting to fall on you.

But a lot of smarter people who do like Gmail have been reading that same information and understanding it. Here’s one:

Today, Google unveiled a new email solution called Inbox, which looks like a marriage between Gmail and Google Now. Currently available by invitation only, this new app takes bits from your email like purchase invoices and bank statements and groups them together for fast access. Like Google Now, Inbox adapts to the way you operate, highlighting key pieces of emails like flight plans, photos, documents and upcoming event information.

Google’s new Inbox app is a marriage between Gmail and Google Now (update) | 9to5Mac (22 October 2014)

Read the full piece and let me know what it means.