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Opinion Editorials

Getting Myself Organized (with a little help from Chris Brogan)

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If you are a blogger, or even remotely interested in the world of social media and Web 2.0, you MUST subscribe to his blog.  The value he delivers on a daily basis is unparalleled.  There are a lot of reasons that I like Chris and his blog (an interview with him is why I started using Twitter, he actually USES twitter, he seems conscientious, he left a comment on my blog), but one of the things I really like about him is that he is willing to talk about his own experiences and challenges, and is willing to ask for help from others and share what he finds.

A recent post of his hit home for me in a big way.  It is called, “How I Tamed my Inbox.”  I get a lot of emails every day.  I have a tough time keeping track of all of them sometimes.  I imagine that Chris gets a whole lot more of them than I do, so if he could get his email life in order, this must be pretty good.I read the entire post.  I adopted most of it, altered the rest of it to fit the way I work, and I wanted to share my finding with you.  My guess is that there is a reader or two of AgentGenius that is wishing life could be a bit more organized.

The Applications I Used

Just like Chris, I use Gmail.  I happen to love Gmail.  I shudder to think what my inbox would be like if I couldn’t archive emails or tag them or organize them into conversations.  Gmail rocks!  You can use whatever email program you want, but I’m sticking to Gmail.

Just like Chris, I use Google Calendar.  Gcal is also awesome.  It makes my life a lot easier.  The fact that it integrates seamlessly with my Gmail and my BlackBerry calendar makes me love it even more.  It means that I don’t have enter appointments into my phone AND my BlackBerry.  Putting it in one puts it in the other automatically.  Sweet.

Unlike Chris, I chose not to use Things for Mac.  I had a few reasons for this.  First, Things is in beta, and it will be a paid-for program upon release.  I try to do free things whenever possible.  Second, I work on two different computers most of the time.  I didn’t want to have to buy two programs, so I was looking for a web-based solution.  Third, I don’t own an iPhone.  Things is going to be compatible with the iPhone at some point, but since I am a loyal crackberry owner, a web-based program is again my preference.  Since our office uses Google Apps hosted by Google, we have access not only to Gmail and Gcal, but also to the new Google Sites.  Gsites is this cool app that is kinda like a wiki-creator.  It allows any member of the hosted domain to create a site and share it with the others on the domain.  You can share the site with everyone, or with no one, and there are plenty of different site templates.

What I Did

1)  I had to go through my Inbox and go back and organize stuff.  I had almost 4000 emails in my inbox.  I went through and archived the ones that I wanted to keep, but didn’t need, and then I deleted everything else (there was a lot of crap in there).

2)  I created labels for my email and filters to attach the proper label to the incoming emails.  I created a label for “clients,” “office stuff,” “officiating,” and “zebra stuff.”  I also created some other labels that refer to specific clients or events, but these are my general labels.  “Clients” is pretty self-explanatory.  “Office stuff” refers to any of the day-to-day office stuff I have to attend to.  “Officiating” is for all those emails I get that relate to my other job, and “zebra stuff” is for all of the things that are related to my blogging endeavors.  I am going to create another label later for “personal.”  I didn’t think of that one right away.  I also created additional labels for each of my current clients.

3)  I created filters for some of the labels so that Gmail will automatically label what emails it can.  For example, every email that comes to me from my high school officiating supervisor automatically gets the “officiating” label.  Emails to or from a specific client email get the “clients” label and the label that corresponds to that client. 


4)  I created pages on my personal Google Site that correspond to the general email labels.  Each of those sites has in it a project list.  On the list, I will enter tasks so that I can keep track of progress.  This helps remind me what issues are out there that are still unresolved, and it helps keep track of deadlines.

5)  I entered all the dates and deadlines I could think of into my Google Calendar.  I also added reminders in there if the deadline is off in the future.  I’m less likely to procrastinate if I keep dogging myself with reminders.  Because of the Gcal sync with my BlackBerry, all those dates and reminders are now in my phone, too.  Sweet.


6)  This one is important.  I made the first 3 tabs of my browser my Gmail, my Google Site, and my Gcal.  This way, it is very easy for me to process my email, and then make any necessary changes to my Gsite and my Gcal. 

That’s it, I’m now on my way to being more efficient and organized.  

One thing that I am going to have to work on that Chris mentions is checking email routinely, and not constantly.  I think that his idea of checking it no more than 4 times a day is a good one.  If you check it too often, you are more likely to let things slide (thinking that you’ll get to it in a second), and less likely to concentrate on what you need to do and entering it in the proper places.

The key to this whole process is that I (and you, too) need to be conscientious about visiting the “project management” hub, and entering the information.  In my case, it is the Google site.  That is where I can see what needs to be done, and when.  It is also a visual reminder of the progress that I have made (hopefully).

So there you have it.  That is the strategy that I using to make myself more organized and efficient.  Two of the things I like about it the most are that 1)  It’s totally FREE, 2) It’s totally mobile.  I can access all of these resources from any computer with an Internet connection, and even from my phone.  Sweet.

I think I’m on the right path, and I hope that maybe some of this has given you ideas about how you, too, can get your email box in order and get yourself on the track to greater efficiency, and even less stress.  

Thanks, Chris. 

I'm a REALTOR, basketball referee, happy husband, and Community Manager (in no particular order). I have a passion for the real estate industry and officiating, a passion that I try to turn into inspiration on my blog, The Real Estate Zebra. I am also the Community Manager at Inman News. When I'm not blogging here on AG or the Zebra, you can usually find me on Twitter.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. mousewords

    March 24, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    Great post! I hadn’t heard of Google Sites, so thanks for that tip!

  2. Brian Brady

    March 24, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    This is a really useful post, Zebra. I use yahoo and can achieve most of what you did, there. It’s not as robust as Google but I’ve been using it for 10 years.

    I like the idea of routinely checking e-mail and not constantly checking it. Miraculously, problems get solved and questions get answered, regardless of my influence.

  3. Andy Kaufman

    March 25, 2008 at 12:34 am

    Awesome post Zebra. I think I might actually give this a go.

    Rocking the blackberry is like being the guy who had intellivision when everyone else had atari

    & I had intellivision

    RIM FTW!

    Of course I’ll prob break down when iphone2.0 comes out.

    Seriously though I need to try something. My inbox is pushing 25K. [don’t ask]

    Another thing, if you’re not following Chris Brogan on twitter (@chrisbrogan), make that the next thing you do. He’s one of the most valuable members of the whole community & his Social Media 100 series on his blog is absolute dynamite.

  4. Brad Coy

    March 25, 2008 at 2:07 am

    Great post Daniel. I’m a big fan of all things G myself as well as BB. I’ve been a bit reluctant to check out the new G sites apps. but now you’ve given me good reason.

    Along the lines of taming and controlling your inflow of email that helps me greatly is starring and filters. I check my email a couple of times a day. Anything that can be quickly dealt with on a return, BAM it’s returned. Everything else gets a star and is archived. Any incoming mail that I don’t want to see regularly in my inbox, but is not spam get’s a filter tag on it. REvendors, newsletters, twitterbacn, etc. After a while of dialing this in you can get your inbox to zero quick every time. Going back to the stared items later to deal with and taking a look at your filtered emails once a week.

  5. John

    March 27, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Great tips. I like the idea of checking email only four times a day. For some reason, our inbox creates a false sense of urgency. Better to close it until we need it.

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Opinion Editorials

Popular opinion: Unemployment in a pandemic sucks [EDITORIAL]

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) I got laid off during the pandemic, and I think I can speak for all of us to say that unemployment – especially now – really, really sucks.

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Stressed man thinking over laptop about unemployment.

Despite not being in an office for what feels like an eternity, losing my job stung. Holding onto work during The Worst Timeline was rough, considering Rome was burning all around. My job was the boat of sanity I could sit in while the waves of bullshit crashed all around. Pre-pandemic, I had just separated from my wife, so my emotional health wasn’t in tip-top shape. But then millions of people go and get sick, the economy took a nosedive, and well, the world changed. When everything around you sucks, and people are on the news crying about unemployment and potential homelessness, you’re thankful as hell that you’re not with them – until you are.

I was writing for a startup, one that came with a litany of headaches thanks to fluctuating budgets and constant directional pivots, but it was steady work. When the Coronavirus hit, it was a scenario of “we’re going to get through this,” but as we switched gears again and again, I started to get an unsettling feeling: I’ve seen this story before. When you live in Austin and are in the creative field, you’ve worked with startups. And there are always trappings on when something lingers in the air – hierarchy shuffles, people aren’t as optimistic, and senior folks start quietly bailing out. Those are the obvious moves that make your unemployment-related Spidey sense tingle, but with COVID, everything is remote. There aren’t the office vibes, the shortened conversations that make you, “I know what’s happening here.” Instead, you’re checking Slack or email and surviving like everyone else.

We were happy to be working, to see the direct deposit hit every two weeks and sigh, knowing you were still in the fight, that you might see this thing through.

We saw our entire business change overnight. Leadership rose to meet the challenges of an old model rooted in hospitality, restaurants, and events, which died with a viral disease shotgun blast. Because the infrastructure was there, we managed to help out workers, and grocery stores work together to keep people fed across the nation. It was legitimately a point of pride. Like all things, though, the market settled. We bought time.

In July, I had a full-blown depressive episode. The weight of the divorce, the lack of human interaction, my work having less value, my career stalled felt like a Terminator robot foot on my skull. I couldn’t get out of bed, and everything I wrote were the smatterings of a broken man. And to my ex-bosses’ credit, my breakdown was NOT my best work, I could barely look at a computer, let alone forge thoughts on an entirely new industry with any authority, or even a fake it till you make it scenario.

When the CEO put time on my calendar, I knew it was a wrap. Startup CEOs don’t make house calls; they swing the ax. When you’re the lone creative in a company trying to survive a nearly company-killing event, you’re the head on the block. Creatives are expensive, and we’re expendable. Site copy, content, media placements, all that can kick rocks when developers need to keep the business moving, even if it’s at a glacial pace. When I was given my walking papers, it was an exhale, on one hand, I’d been professionally empty, but at the same time, I needed consistent money. My personal life was a minefield and I’ve got kids.

I got severance. Unemployment took forever to hit. The state of Texas authorized amount makes me cringe. Punishing Americans for losing their jobs during a crisis is appalling. Millions are without safety nets, and it’s totally ok with elected leaders.

There are deferments available. I had to get them on my credit cards, which I jacked up thanks to spending $8,500 on an amicable divorce, along with a new MacBook Pro that was the price of a used Nissan. I got a deferment on my car note, too.

I’ve applied to over 100 jobs, both remote and local. I’ve applied for jobs I’m overqualified for in hopes they’ll hire me as a freelancer. There are lots of rejection letters. I get to round two interviews. References or the round three interviews haven’t happened yet. I get told I’m too experienced or too expensive. Sometimes, recruiters won’t even show up. And then there are the Zoom meetings. Can we all agree we’re over Zoom? Sometimes, you don’t want to comb your hair.

I’ll get promised the much needed “next steps” and then a rejection email, “thanks but no thanks.” Could you at least tell me what the X-Factor for this decision was? Was there a typo? Did you check my Facebook? The ambiguity kills me. Being a broke senior creative person kills me. I interviewed President Obama and have written for Apple, but ask myself: Can I afford that falafel wrap for lunch? Do you think springing for the fries is worth that extra $3? You’ve got soup at home, you know.

I’m not unique. This is the American Experience. We’re stuck in this self-perpetuating hell. We keep looking for jobs. We want to work. There are only so many gigs to fill when there’s constant rollercoaster news on unemployment recovery. And as long as unemployment sucks, there’s going to be a lot of people bracing for impact come Christmas. Hopefully, the brass in Washington can pass a few bills and get us back to work. At least get Americans out of the breadline by pumping up what we’re surviving off of – across the board. Working people shouldn’t have to face getting sick to bring in an income, while casualties of the Corona War should be able to look at their bills and not feel like the assistant on the knife throwers wheel.

I’m about to be a line cook to make extra cash till an intrepid manager hires me. Who doesn’t want a writer working the grill who reads French existentialist essays for enjoyment? I’d rather sit on park benches and day dream, but that ain’t reality. I’ve got bills to pay in a broken America. Who wants a burger? Deep thoughts come free but an extra slice of cheese is extra.

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Opinion Editorials

7 ways to carve out me time while working from home

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) It can be easy to forget about self-care when you’re working from home, but it’s critical for your mental health, and your work quality.

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Woman in hijab sitting on couch, working from home on a laptop

We are all familiar with the syndrome, getting caught up in work, chores, and taking care of others, and neglecting to take care of ourselves in the meantime. This has always been the case, but now, with more people working from home and a seemingly endless lineup of chores, thanks to the pandemic. There is simply so much to do.

The line is thinly drawn between personal and professional time already, with emails, cell phones, and devices relentlessly reaching out around the clock, pulling at us like zombie arms reaching up from the grave. Working from home makes this tendency to always be “on” worse, as living and working take place in such close proximity. We have to turn it off, though.

Our brains and bodies need down time, me-time, self-care. Carving out this time is one of the kindest and most important things you can do for yourself. If we can begin to honor ourselves like this, the outcome with not only our mental and physical health, but also our productivity at work, will be beneficial. When we make the time to do things we love, our body untenses, our mind’s gears slow down that constant grinding. Burnout behooves nobody.

Our work will also benefit. Healthier, happier, more well rested, and well treated minds and bodies can work wonders! Our immune systems also need this, and we need our immune systems to be at their peak performance this intense season.

I wanted to write this article, because I have such a struggle with this in my own life. I need to print it out and put it in my workspace. Last week, I posted something on my social media pages that so many people shared. It is clear we all need these reminders, so I am paying it forward here. The graphic was a quote from Devyn W.

“If you are reading this, release your shoulders away from your ears, unclench your jaw, and drop your tongue from the roof of your mouth.”

There now, isn’t that remarkable? It is a great first step. Let go of the tension in your body, and check out these ways to make yourself some healing me-time.

  1. Set aside strict no-work times. This could be any time of day, but set the times and adhere to them strictly. This may look like taking a full hour for lunch, not checking email after a certain hour, or committing to spending that time outdoors, reading, exercising, or enjoying the company of your loved ones. Make this a daily routine, because we need these boundaries. Every. Single. Day.
  2. Remember not to apologize to anyone for taking this me-time. Mentally and physically you need this, and everyone will be better off if you do. It is nothing to apologize for! Building these work-free hours into your daily schedule will feel more normal as time goes on. This giving of time and space to your joy, health, and even basic human needs is what should be the norm, not the other way around.
  3. Give yourself a device-free hour or two every day, especially before bedtime. The pinging, dinging, and blinging keeps us on edge. Restful sleep is one of the wonderful ways our bodies and brains heal, and putting devices away before bedtime is one of the quick tips for getting better sleep.
  4. Of course, make time for the things you absolutely love. If this is a hot bath, getting a massage, reading books, working out, cooking or eating an extravagant meal, or talking and laughing with a loved one, you have to find a way to get this serotonin boost!
  5. Use the sunshine shortcut. It isn’t a cure-all, but sunlight and Vitamin D are mood boosters. At least when it’s not 107 degrees, like in a Texas summer. But as a general rule, taking in at least a good 10-15 minutes of that sweet, sweet Vitamin D provided by the sun is good for us.
  6. Spend time with animals! Walk your dog, shake that feathery thing at your cat, or snuggle either one. Whatever animals make you smile, spend time with them. If you don’t have pets of your own, you could volunteer to walk them at a local shelter or even watch a cute animal video online. They are shown to reduce stress. Best case scenario is in person if you are able, but thankfully the internet is bursting with adorable animal videos, as a backup.
  7. Give in to a bit of planning or daydreaming about a big future trip. Spending time looking at all the places you will go in the future and even plotting out an itinerary are usually excellent mood-boosters. It’s a bit different in 2020, as most of us aren’t sure when we will be able to go, but even deciding where you want to go when we are free to travel again can put a positive spin on things.

I hope we can all improve our lives while working from home by making time for regenerating, healing, and having fun! Gotta run—the sun is out, and my dog is begging for a walk.

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Opinion Editorials

Improve UX design by tracking your users’ eye movements

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Research shows that the fastest way to determine user behavior and predict their response is by watching their eyesight. Use this data to improve your UX design.

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UX design being created by a designer on a laptop.

By design, an ice cream truck is meant to entice. It is colorful, stupidly loud with two whole songs from the 30s (usually off key because no one is left alive who can service those bells), and lots of colorful stickers that depict delicious frozen treats that look nothing like reality. If you need an off model Disney character that already looks a little melted even when frozen, look no further.

This is design in action – the use of clever techniques to drive engagement. Brightly colored decor and the Pavlovian association of hearing The Sting in chirpy little ding dings is all working together to encourage sales and interaction.

These principles work in all industries, and the tech sector has devoted entire teams, agencies, companies, groups, and departments to the study of User Experience (UX) explicitly to help create slick, usable applications and websites that are immediately understandable by users. Tools to improve utility exist by measuring user behavior, with style guides and accepted theories preached and sang and TED-talked all over.

The best way to check behavior is to observe it directly, and options to check where someone clicks has proven invaluable in determining how to improve layouts and designs. These applications are able to draw a heat map that shows intensified red color in areas where clicks congregate the most. An evolution of this concept is to watch eyesight itself, allowing developers a quicker avenue to determining where a user will most likely go. Arguably the shortest path between predicting response, this is one of the holy grails of behavioral measurement. If your eyes can be tracked, your cursor is likely to follow.

UX design can benefit greatly from this research as this article shows. Here’s some highlights:

Techwyse completed a case study that shows conversion on landing pages is improved with clear call-to-action elements. Users will focus on objects that stand out based on position, size, bright colors, or exaggerated fonts. If these design choices are placed on a static, non-interactive component, a business will lose a customer’s interest quickly, as their click is meant with no response. This quickly leads to confusion or abandonment. Finding where a person is immediately drawn to means you should capitalize on that particular piece with executable code. Want it boiled down? Grocery stores put Cheetos front and center, because everyone want them thangs.

Going along with this, Moz found that search results with attractive elements – pictures and video – are given much more attention than simple text. We are visually inclined creatures, and should never undervalue that part of our primal minds. Adding some visual flair will bring attention, which in turn can be leveraged usefully to guide users.

Here’s an interesting study – being that we are social animals, follow the gaze of others. If you’ve ever seen kittens watching a game of ping pong, they are in sync and drawn to the action. Similarly, if we notice someone look to the left, we instinctively want to look left as well. While this sounds very specific, the idea is simple – visual cues can be optimized to direct users where to focus.

The Nielsen Group says we look at things in an F pattern. I just think that’s funny, or at least a funny way to describe it. We follow from left-to-right (just like we read, and as websites are laid out using techniques first developed for newspapers, it naturally makes sense that we’d do the same). Of course, cultural or national differences arise here – right-to-left readers need the opposite. Always be sure to keep your target audience in mind.

Of course, there are several other findings and studies that can further promote idealistic layout and design, and it should always be the goal of designers to look to the future and evaluate trends. (Interestingly, eye tracking is the first option on this list!)

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