The (n) Ways of Highly Ineffective People

I had the pleasure to watch hordes of co-workers, past and present, struggling to get through their days without going insane. The lot of them are capable people, but they appear to waste a lot of time (and nerves) by not asking the right questions when it comes to technology. And I am talking here about developers and non-developers.

Also, before I go any further, let me clarify one thing: I am writing this not to tell people they suck, but to share some personal findings and experiences about common pitfalls and how to get around them. I am aware that you can buy books about this topic by the dozen, and I don’t want to go into philosophy, so this is merely a list of tiny things that I changed on my machines that had quite an impact on my productivity. Also, all this stuff works for me – it might not for you. I’m just saying.

The general idea is to get rid of some obstacles that keep my mind from running like the well-oiled, finetuned, skillfully honed bucket of bolts that it is. This idea is neither new nor original nor mine, but hey, it’s good!

So, onwards – let me share some observations with you.

IM contact status notifications are EVIL.

The other day I was sitting in a meeting, watching a presentation, when I noticed the constant barrage of IM presence notifications popping on and off in the lower right corner of the presentation laptop’s desktop. Approximately one every 15 seconds. “That guy came online” and “The other guy went offline” and “OMG the third guy is out for lunch now”. It was hard to follow the presentation, to be honest. The funny thing was that the presenter didn’t really seem to notice them anymore. Or didn’t care, hard to say. In that case: why did he even turn them on in the first place? Oh, wait, he didn’t, the messaging client has them activated by default. My advice: turn them off NOW. Usually these things do nothing else than stealing your attention from your actual work, either your conscious or unconscious attention. Seriously, you probably don’t need them anyways. If you want to know whether someone is on, just take a peek at the damn contact list, that’s what it’s there for.

IM new message notifications are EVIL.

Most IM clients have an in-your-face attitude. When there is a new message coming in, it’s slapped across the screen, on top of everything else, stealing the focus. Let’s say you’re typing a mail, looking on your keyboard, as most people do, and a new IM is coming in – the message window pops up, the cursor is put in the reply box, and you’re writing the rest of the sentence (that was supposed to be part of the email) into the messenger window. My advice: change that NOW. My client is configured to get out of my face. When a new message is received, the window is either popping up in the very background of the desktop, not stealing focus, or it is opened minimized in the taskbar. That’s enough. I’ll see it soon enough, and it doesn’t keep me from working.

IM client sounds are EVIL.

Seriously, they might be hilarious at first, but the constant chirping and barking and clingclanging and dingdinging is unnerving. My advice: deactivate sounds NOW. Mostly because you don’t want your IM client to steal your attention or your focus, and sounds are the very best way to achieve that. Nice side-effect: your co-workers will start to like you again.

New mail notifications are EVIL.

Many IM or email clients allow you to watch your mailbox, telling you when new mail is coming in. Constantly. That’s almost as bad as IM contact status notifications. How the hell are you supposed to follow a train of thought if shit is popping up all the time? Exactly. My advice: turn them off NOW. You have a mail client, you check it every one or two hours anyways, that’s enough.

Reduce email polling interval.

Three words: Information inflow paralysis. I get a few hundred mails per day, something like 1 mails per minute. Mostly mailing list mails and bug tracker mails. My advice: Polling for new mails once per hour is enough. YMMV, of course. You have to answer them at some point, or even read them. At least in my profession (engineering, read: coding and fixing things) I have to do real work somehow, and I won’t get anything done if I stare at my inbox all day long.

Now suggesting this I often hear the argument “But I am supposed to answer mails right away!". Really? I mean, really REALLY? I would be surprised. If I had to venture a guess I’d say that isn’t true for most people. Unless you’re working at NORAD and waiting for clearance to bomb Utah or Thuringia from space, it’s probably okay to take an hour or two to reply to a new mail. So what I do is keeping my mail client minimized, and taking a peek every hour.

Email client: Use filters, for the love of God, USE FILTERS.

As mentioned above, I get hundreds of emails. I’d be pulling my hair out if I had to sift through them manually. Therefore, I set up filtering rules in my email client (I use Thunderbird 3alpha, by the way). When new mails are coming in, they are checked against ~3 dozen filters. They are tagged with the name of the mailing list, they are checked for particular keywords and filtered by senders – and tagged accordingly, too. Once that is done, everything that is tagged is moved out of the inbox into a huge archive. In addition, I have a number of saved searches; one for every mailing list, one for every keyword or topic. I can see on a glimpse how many new mails came in via any given mailing list. I can see on a glimpse whether there are new mails dealing with that particular project XYZ I am working on. But first and foremost, the only stuff left in my inbox is everything that has not been processed, and that’s usually the new mail for me. No bug reports, no mailing list mails, just stuff I should probably read right away. Also, the other mails are sorted into neat piles for easy consumption whenever I have the time. So I can see that the list has 3218 new mails, but I also know that this is not important and can wait.

I’ve seen the inbox of some of my co-workers, and at any given time they have a few hundreds or (deity forbid) thousands of unsorted mails in there. No kidding. I mean, WTF. How can you not feel totally overwhelmed with that many mails, read or not? It’s clogging your mind, get rid of it.

Email client: Keep your inbox clean.

  1. Read.
  2. Answer/process.
  3. Tag and archive / move to related folder.

If your inbox is full, even with emails already answered, then your unconsciousness thinks something like “OMG more work” and blocks your thoughts. No good.

Email client: use threading.

Threaded view is great since you don’t lose the context of a discussion. It’s a matter of taste, of course. I like it. You might not. Nice side effect: you can collapse threads.

Desktop: Delete all redundant and useless icons.

If you open your laptop and see ~200 icons on your desktop, and you don’t think that’s too much, you’re crazy. (I’m not making this up, I’ve seen desktops like that.) Get help. Without knowing your desktop, I’m sure you could delete half of it without missing anything afterwards.

Sum up.

These are just a few things that come to my mind. I know that thinking about setting up 20 or 30 different email client filter rules might be a bit off- putting, but think about it – it might be worth it. You might be spending an hour or two, but imagine the benefits: a clean inbox, more room to breathe, less crap your eyes see and which causes your to ponder all the time, knowingly or unknowingly.

All of these things work for me personally. As I’ve said, YMMV. But I found that jumping through one or two hoops, like reconfiguring your IM client or adjusting your email client, was a good investment of time that helped me deal with all the information that comes my way and the amount of work in front of me.

Maybe it works for you, too. Who knows.

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Carlo Zottmann @czottmann