Life is busy. Twitter, email, online media, television, online social networking and face-to-face social networking. I don’t know about you, but I have four email addresses and two Twitter accounts. I have two phone numbers with voice mail and text. I have accounts with LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+. I have dozens of actual friends and sometimes I spend actual time with them.
I do what I can to consolidate the streams, but it’s still a lot of information, flowing in each day. Over time, I’ve learned a critical lesson: “keeping up” is overrated. We all step out if the information stream from time to time. We go on vacation, we get on airplanes, we have the flu. Sometimes we even just stop paying attention because we’re tired. What successful people do better than the rest of us is to catch up more efficiently.
Stay away at regular intervals. I know this might seem counterintuitive in a post about catching up. But the more you practice catching up, the more effective you will be. Taking time away from the river of messages and information is the best way to get focused.* And focus-time is the BEST way to create high-quality output. Plan time away from the stream, it will allow you to recharge your batteries and practice the rest of this catch-up strategy.
Set a time limit for catching up. If you’ve truly been away – on vacation or just away from your desk for a few days – I recommend taking 30-60 minutes for every day you’ve been away. That means, on the first day back from a one-week vacation, you’re going to spend two to five hours catching up on everything you missed. If instead, you are tackling a big pile of unread mail, ask yourself, “what’s a reasonable time to spend on this?” If you have been ignoring that mail for more than a few weeks, chances are you could throw the whole stack away without missing a beat.
Make a list of VIPs. There are some people whose every communication is important to you. If you miss an email from your boss, you could have problems later on. Same goes for your spouse (they may be willing to remind you, but still feel slighted when you don’t respond). Customers are almost always critical. Define your VIP list ahead of time so that you can focus on those messages/tasks first.
For each stream, determine an expiration date and delete everything older. Different streams have different “best by” dates. Most voice mail messages are obsolete within a few days. Texts are obsolete in roughly 24 hours. Email messages are stale in one to two weeks. Mail is outdated after about two weeks. Twitter posts are likely to repeat, so you can jump in to today’s posts and not miss much. If something really big happened (assuming you’ve already taken care of the VIPs), someone is going to tell you about it. If no one is talking about it hours or days later, it’s not worth your time.
Prioritize on the fly. There are lots of ways to set priorities, and lots of software that will help you keep track of the priorities for every task. If you don’t want to spend time making endless to-do lists and setting priorities for every item, try this quick method: “Will this improve my life?” If the answer is yes, those are your top priorities. “Will this improve the life of someone I care about?” If you can say yes, those items/emails/tasks are your second priorities. Everything else is optional. It’s a ridiculously simple method for determining what to address when you’re catching up.
Start with the most recent. Learn a lesson from Twitter; if you haven’t logged in for a few hours, your Twitter feed will jump ahead to more recent stories. Take the hint. If you have more than three streams of information coming at you, you can’t read or respond to everything. Start with the most recent items and work your way backward in time until you reach predetermined “expiration dates”.
In a nutshell, here are the steps to filter, so you can catch up quickly, whether you’re coming back from a trip around the world, or a two-hour meeting:
- Set a time limit for catch-up.
- Quick-scan all media for messages, start with the one that contain most of your VIPs.
- Address items from people on your VIP list, then file or trash (don’t leave them on the list).
- Quick-scan anything past its expiration date. If critical, take action and/or file/trash.
- Set priority by asking, “will this make my life better?” or “will this make someone else’s life better?”
- With your streamlined list, work quickly to take action, file or delete, starting with the most recent.
- When your allotted catch-up time is over, file or delete the rest of the list.
The last item is toughest for most of us. By following these steps in order, you know that you have addressed your VIPs, set appropriate priorities and addressed the most recent items. Seriously, the rest are probably not worth your time. In some cases, you will want to send a quick message, explaining why you aren’t (or weren’t) able to respond. But saving things for tomorrow’s list isn’t helpful. If it wasn’t a priority today, it probably won’t be a priority tomorrow. Tomorrow will bring its own tasks and challenges, and “later” never comes.
Now that you have caught up, logic says you should be able to keep up. But don’t worry about it. You know how to catch up and that remarkable skill is the one you can use over and over again to stay on top.
* Postscript: Lately, I’ve been re-reading a great e-book called “Focus”, by Leo Babauta that deals with some similar topics. It’s a soothing, practical read about how to free up time to focus on the things that are important to you. I recommend it highly, there’s a free version and it’s well worth your time.
photo credit: Copyright (c) 2005 David Kirkby, Some Rights Reserved — http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdm/84202849/