Are the queues in your life stressing you out?
Our lives are filled with queues, from email inboxes to your to-do lists to voice and text messages to a variety of different inboxes in social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to work applications to RSS readers and bookmarked “to-read” articles and more.
For many people, managing all these queues is stressful, never-ending, and complex.
Let’s look at how to simplify things, how to clear your queues, and how to let go of the stress of managing them all.
Queues That Rule Our Lives
One of my favorite bloggers, Alex Payne, wrote a post a little while back called Life As A Series of Queues, and in the post he listed some of his queues. I’m reposting them here because they’re fairly typical for a lot of people. Of course, your particular list will definitely vary, but this is an example:
- work email (by far the most insidious queue)
- personal email
- instant messages (they queue while in meetings and away from the computer)
- text messages
- missed phone calls and voicemail
- @replies on Twitter
- direct messages on Twitter
- requests for links to applications by Twitter API developers
- requests for whitelisting by Twitter developers
- code review requests
- tickets on our internal bug tracker
- tickets on the Twitter API tracker
- items in my personal to-do list
- calendar event requests
- unread items in my feed reader
- unread items in Instapaper
My personal list would be fairly similar, except that the main queues I have today are:
- my Gmail inbox
- Twitter DMs and @replies
- my to-do list (I switch between Taskpaper, Gmail’s Task list, and text files on a whim)
- unread items in Instapaper (a great to-read service if you don’t use it)
I also have voicemail on my cell phone but never check it. I’ve (mostly) stopped using Google Reader as I dislike having to keep up with RSS feeds. I don’t check other social networking sites as much as I should. I don’t have a paper inbox. And other types of items on Alex’s list are funneled into my Gmail or to-do lists, at least for the moment.
What are your queues? It may be useful to make a list of your own so you can plan your strategy.
Strategies for Clearing the Queues
So now that we know just how many queues we have, how do we clear them or at least keep them manageable? Here are my favorite strategies — your mileage will vary. Also note that you won’t apply all strategies for every queue — pick the ones that work best.
1. Simplify your queues. Do you have 15-20 different queues in your life? You might try to simplify and see if you can get them down to 4-6, as I have (or even fewer if you’re bold). This greatly simplifies things because you have fewer queues to check every day. A larger number of queues is fine if they are already integrated into your daily routine — if you check them all in the morning and before you leave work, for example, and never have to check them at other times. Or if you always open a certain kind of software and check the queue at certain times of the day, then that’s fine. But if you have to remember to keep checking a dozen or more queues all the time, it gets difficult. See what you can eliminate or consolidate. For example, do you need more than one email inbox? Do you need multiple voicemail inboxes, or even voicemail at all? Do you need to be a part of 3 different social networks? Are there things you rarely use that you can drop? Give this a little thought over the next few days or couple weeks.
2. Self service. No, this isn’t dirty, you bad reader. Banks and companies that sell tickets (airlines, buses, theaters, etc.) have figured out a way to avoid massive queues: let people serve themselves through technology. So instead of lining up for a teller, there are ATMs everywhere. You can buy tickets through machines or online. So how do you use this to clear your queues? Figure out what types of requests are constantly coming at you — through work, even in your personal life, online, etc. — and try to figure out ways you can allow people to serve themselves. For example, are people always asking you for information? Post the information online. Do they need your approval on everything? Set up a list of criteria and allow them to approve things themselves if the criteria are met. See if you can automate certain processes. Remove yourself as a bottleneck, and your queues will shorten considerably.
3. Stop at the source. Whenever I get a newsletter or other such mass email from a company, I automatically go to the bottom and click the “unsubscribe” link. It takes a few seconds longer than just hitting “delete”, but it saves much more time in the long run. I hugely dislike getting my inbox filled up with notices and newsletters and ads from companies — what a waste of my time having to sift through them all. So I stop them at the source, so they no longer get sent to me. If there is no easy way to unsubscribe, I hit the “spam” button.
4. Filter out unnecessary stuff. It takes a minute or two to set up a filter in Gmail (or whatever email program you use), but as a result you’ll save a lot of time. If you get certain notices you want to keep on file but don’t need to see in your inbox, filter them out to a label or folder just for those notices. Look at everything in your queue to see what you don’t really need to see, and find a way to filter those out. For things like to-do lists, you might use a program (such as the aforementioned Taskpaper) that can use labels (such as @today) that you can use to filter out everything you don’t need to see today. For example, when I click on the @today label on my to-do list, it only shows me the three things I plan to do today — not things I want to do later in the week. There are many other tools that can do similar things for other queues. For example, you can use Tweetdeck to sort all the people you follow into groups, so you can filter out everybody but just your actual, real-life friends into one group, or your work colleagues in another group. If you use a feed reader, you can also set up groups or folders so that you can just check the most essential feeds, instead of having to sift through everything in your unread folder.
5. Pick the most important. A queue is usually unsorted by priority, so that when you make a to-do list, you have things listed in order of when you wrote them down. Your inbox (and most other queues) have the most recent items at the top. But that means you’re going to have to tackle everything, which can be overwhelming (and a waste of time) … or it means you’re going to have to continually scan through the entire queue to pick out the most important. Instead, find a way to choose the most important and just focus on those. In email, you might highlight everything in your inbox except 5 most important emails, and move everything (except the important ones) to a “to-read” folder to look through later. Then just deal with those 5 important emails until your inbox is cleared. Again, with my to-do list, I mark my 3 Most Important Tasks with an “@today” label so I can focus on just those. With a to-read folder, just pick 3 important things to read for now (as an example).
6. Clear the rest. Once you’ve picked out the most important, see if you can clear the rest, or at least shovel them somewhere else to deal with at a later time. I’ve already mentioned how you can do this with your e
mail inbox. With a to-do list, you can put them in an @someday folder/label to deal with later. Delete things you will probably never get to, that you’ve been dreading doing and don’t absolutely need to do, or that are unnecessary. Sometimes a big mass delete can be liberating.
7. Skim. This is a good strategy for most queues — instead of trying to process the whole thing, just skim and find the important or interesting items. For example, if you use Twitter, you know that reading every message from every person you follow can quickly become a time-consuming (and stressful) burden. Instead, just skim to see what’s come in, and forget about the rest. The same applies to a to-read queue (such as Instapaper or feed reader) — don’t try to read everything. Just skim.
8. Let go of the need to get to the end. A lot of the stress that comes from managing queues is rooted in a need we seem to have: we want to process every item in the queue and get it to empty. But the nature of queues is that they’re never-ending. You can get your email inbox to empty (and I recommend it — it’s deeply satisfying), but more emails will soon come in. Don’t stress out about this! Just accept this fact of life. The same comes from a to-read list: don’t try to read everything. Enjoy the fact that you have a nice list of things to read — if the queue were emptied, what would you do when you’re bored? When we accept this fact — that we’ll never get to the end of our to-do list, and that that’s OK — we can stop stressing about our queues. Just manage them smartly, and deal with the flow as it comes in.