Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: How I’m Taming Email and Tab Overload

12 October 2015 · 9 comments

After nearly two weeks, Kim and I are finally feeling settled here in Savannah. We’re learning the layout of the city, and discovering how to get around our neighborhood. (I like to walk almost everywhere, which is a challenge in the South. But I’m making it work.)

Both of us have started working on our respective online projects too. Kim is taking Steve Chou’s online commerce course, and last week placed her first order for sample products from China. I’ve been learning my mailing list software, and last Friday sent out the first test email for Money Boss. (Here’s the online version of that test email.) If all goes according to plan, I’ll send out my first real Money Boss email later this week. And once the designer is finished with the website, we can launch the darn thing!

I’ve been disconcerted, however, to find that I’m struggling at times to get work done on Money Boss. I’m making great progress, sure, but not as much as I’d hoped. I get distracted. Blame it on my ADHD or blame it on simple lack of willpower, but I have too much email to wade through and too many open tabs in my browsers. I feel overwhelmed.

Because of this, I’m actually getting more work done when I leave my computer and go for a walk. I carry a notebook with me so that I can scribble down stuff as I stroll through the nearby marsh/forest. (I’m not sure what to call this sort of terrain.) But this isn’t an ideal way to work. I want to be able to sit at my computer and get stuff done. The fact that I can’t has been very frustrating.

So, yesterday morning I decided drastic measures were in order. I sat down at my computer and gave myself a workflow makeover.

Too Many Tabs

You see, part of the problem is that I’ve been doing things the same way for years. In some cases, decades. And nothing about my workflow has been thought out. It’s all just sort of evolved over time in a haphazard sort of way. It’s less than ideal.

“How can I improve the way I do things?” I asked myself. “What are the things that frustrate me and slow me down? What are the things that make me feel overwhelmed?”

The first thing I tackled was my problem with tabs. I’m the sort of guy who has dozens of tabs open in his browsers (yes, plural) at any given time. Yesterday morning, I had nine browser windows open between Chrome and Safari, and each window had 8-12 open tabs. You do the math. No wonder I always feel overwhelmed by my browser! This seemed like a good place to start my workflow makeover.

When I thought about why I had so many open tabs, I realized that the pages fell into a handful of categories:

  • My email and social media tabs.
  • The sites I read regularly.
  • Articles I want to read when I have time.
  • Articles I’ve already read and want to save for later.
  • Pages I’m actively using to complete my work.

Obviously, the latter group of tabs is acceptable — but they could all fit in a single browser window. But the other pages? There’s no reason I should have all of them open on my computer. I set about finding ways to keep them closed.

Taming Email and Subduing Social Media

Long ago, when the internet was young, I managed my email with a stand-alone program called Eudora. When Eudora became defunct (2007? 2008?), I switched to Mac Mail. Mac Mail was terrible, so I opted for web-based email. The problem with this? For one, more browser tabs. (I have three email accounts that I use regularly.) For another, I have a bad habit of checking my email tabs over and over and over again.

My best bet, I decided, was to return to a stand-alone email client. I bit the bullet and set up Mac Mail again. We’ll see how it goes. I don’t love it, but it helps me get email out of my browser. (For a program that’s been around for so long, it has some severe problems.) If it doesn’t work well, I’ll try to find another option. Anyone have recommendations?

At the same time, I tackled social media. I’m not a huge sucker for Facebook, but it does drain time now and then when I ought to be focused on other stuff. So, I installed the Kill News Feed Chrome extension. I can still see notifications and I can still post to Facebook groups, but I can’t look at cat photos are read about what my friends have been up to. Now I need to pull out my iPhone or iPad to waste time in this way.

Plus I set up a Buffer account, which will allow me to schedule posts to Facebook and Twitter. Now I can batch-process my social media work once each week. Yay!

My Reading List

Next, I had to refine the way I read the web. Instead of browsing to my favorite sites and leaving open tabs with articles to read later, I decided to relegate most of my reading to my iPad. (I don’t do work on my iPad. I use it purely for entertainment at the end of the day, which is a good time to read the interesting articles I’ve found.)

I divided the sites I read regularly into three groups:

  • For the sites I value most, I subscribed by email. I don’t like getting swamped with email updates (which is why I intend to keep Money Boss emails to a minimum), but I don’t mind getting occasional messages from places like Nerd Fitness, James Clear, Afford Anything, and Mr. Money Mustache.
  • I subscribed to other sites I like by RSS. Yes, I know RSS seems to be dying, but I think it’s still a great way to get updates. Because I already had Reeder installed on my iPad, I downloaded the desktop version of the app. Now I can sync sites between devices.
  • Finally, I banned Reddit and Wimp and similar sites from my browser. I don’t know a way to actually block myself from these time-wasters, but I found iPad apps for each and will do my best to train myself to not open them on my laptop.

Once I’d set up my reading list, the next problem was figuring out what to do when I find articles I want to read later. I find interesting stuff all the time that I can’t (or don’t want to) read at the moment. In the past, I’ve just left these articles in open tabs — tabs that sit there for weeks at a time. (Or months! As I was cleaning things up yesterday, I realized I’d had one article open since late May. Yikes.)

I remembered that I once downloaded an app called Instapaper, which was designed to do exactly what I wanted: save interesting articles for later reading. A quick search revealed the app still exists and that there’s a desktop client that syncs with the iPad. Perfect. I installed the Chrome extension and quickly archived all of my open tabs. (I’m not sure if I can tag or categorize the articles I save. It’ll be nice if I can, but it’s not a dealbreaker if I can’t.)

Lastly, I had to find a way to save websites and articles for future reference. The obvious solution was Evernote. I’ve had an Evernote account for five yeas, but have never been able to incorporate it into my workflow. Now, however, I see that it fits perfectly into what I’m trying to accomplish. Whenever I need to save something (whether on the web or in Instapaper), I’ll simply funnel it to Evernote.

In theory at least, this new workflow should keep my open-tab problem to a minimum. Best of all, it lets me offload my reading lists to my iPad, which is where I prefer to consume this sort of stuff anyhow.

Writing with Purpose

The final problem to solve? How to write.

I’ve been using BBedit (and/or Text Wrangler) since the 1990s. It’s great. Except that it’s a Ferrari when all I need is a Honda Civic. So, I looked around at other text editors. I found Sublime Text 2.

Why a text editor?I use a text editor for all of my writing. People often ask why. “Because I can’t use a typewriter,” I sometimes joke, but it’s not far from the truth. When I write, all I want to do is write. I don’t need the fancy stuff that comes with a word processor. And I don’t like composing in a web browser (too many things can go wrong). A text editor lets me focus only on writing. It’s just what I need.

Surprisingly, Sublime is, well, sublime. In fact, it’s almost perfect for me. The interface is clean clean clean. I’m able to customize the display (I prefer light text on a dark background). It has handy HTML syntax highlighting. And there’s a distraction-free mode. I’ve only been using it for about an hour — to write this article — and I love it already.

Back to Work

There you have it: In just a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, I managed to overhaul my entire workflow. I upgraded my computer to the latest version of the operating system, changed the way I read articles on the internet, and — I hope — made myself a more productive writer.

I’m not sure if these changes will stick, but I suspect they will. It’d be awesome to stop getting distracted and frustrated, and instead get more done!

(Obviously, if you have any suggestions for how to reduce distractions and improve productivity, I’d love to hear them. What’s worked for you? What hasn’t?)

1 Kathryn October 12, 2015 at 08:45

Consider these tweaks:

Email: Use either Google’s Inbox (http://inbox.google.com/) if you use a gmail account, or Mailbox (http://www.mailboxapp.com/) if you don’t. Being able to snooze mail until a date/time you specify will really help you (A review of this functionality: https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-ways-gmails-new-inbox-will-make-your-email-life-infinitely-better).
Social media: try the StayFocusd Chrome extension.
RSS: consider feedly instead of Reeder; feedly can send your read RSS items directly into Evernote with a click (although it’s a pro feature).
Best text editing software: Q10 (http://www.baara.com/q10/). It has everything you want. It even has typewriter noises. I kid you not.

Good luck getting your digital act together. :-)

2 Mike October 12, 2015 at 10:28

If Instapaper doesn’t work out for you, I use Pocket which sounds much the same. What I like about Pocket is that on top of Chrome extensions & iPad apps, my iphone & twitter app allow me to enable save to pocket using the same bot with an up arrow that I use to text a link. Instapaper may have that feature as well, its pretty nice for Apple users.

http://www.getpocket.com

3 Kerry October 12, 2015 at 17:39

I just started using the Pocket app as well. It does allow me to tag the articles as I save them, which is great, but I wish It also had an rss-like feature or would allow me to adjust the “recommended” list more to my interests or specific sites I follow.

4 dh October 12, 2015 at 18:19

Ever notice how fat people turn to various tools and equipment to loose weight, and all they ever get is fatter and fatter and fatter? Maybe it’s all these tools themselves, and the questing for these kinds of things, that are interfering with your production? I run two very successful businesses using index cards and pale green ledger sheets. Many of my favorite writers still use manual typewriters or notebooks. Maybe the *real* problem is that you truly believe that you need products called “Instapaper” and “Evernote.” I suspect most the super high producers of the earth don’t know what a “Kill News Feed Chrome Extension” is. When Steve Wynn was recently asked the secret to his success and billion dollar fortune, he said, “I don’t have a Facebook account.”

5 jdroth October 13, 2015 at 02:10

It’s an interesting thought, David, but in this case it’s not accurate. In the past, I haven’t really used a lot of tools. I’ve had my browser and I’ve had my text editor. Not a whole lot to stand in my way. But I’ve always managed to allow myself to become overwhelmed by digital “stuff” — email, webpages, social media, and so on.

Yesterday was my first day working with my new setup. It was awesome. It felt good knowing that the only windows I had open in my browsers were those directly related to the work I was doing. It felt good not being able to jump directly into email or waste time on Facebook. And I love the new text editor. I got two solid articles finished.

In the evening, after the work was done, I shifted from my computer to my iPad. There, I had all sorts of articles waiting for me, both new stuff I’d found during the day and the older articles that had sat as open tabs on my computer for days or weeks or months.

Obviously it’s too early to see if this new workflow will stick. But I suspect it will.

You’re right that tools aren’t necessarily the answer. Sometimes they can get in the way. In this case, however, I think that adding a couple of utilities to the mix is going to help, not hinder…

6 JoDi October 13, 2015 at 08:59

I think he was suggesting getting rid of some of the digital clutter instead of acquiring more tools to corral it. ;-) It’s a good suggestion, but as a writer, I think you probably need to manage more digital information than a lot of the rest of us so you’re going to need more tools to do that.

It sounds like you’ve found some good options! I manage the blogs I like to read by subscribing to posts by email if the option is available. If the email option isn’t offered, I add the site to my Bloglovin feed, and I get a daily email with a list of new posts from all the sites I subscribe to. Basically, if I can’t get something to come to my email account, it’s not getting read! I’ve never gotten into RSS readers because I want to be able to check everything in one place, and email is the perfect place because I check it at least daily.

I use Internet Explorer as my browser, and I manage tabs by using the Favorites bar. If I’m researching something, I’ll create a folder on the Favorites bar for it so I can drag URL’s into it to refer to later. So, for example, if I’m looking for a new fridge, I might have a folder labeled “New Fridge” on the toolbar, and as I find articles with good info on choosing a fridge, sites with reviews of models I want to consider, and product pages for the models I’m considering at various retail sites, I’ll drag them into the folder instead of leaving all those tabs open in the browser.

I’ve tried EverNote, but I prefer OneNote. OneNote just functions more like the way my brain organizes things than EverNote.

I enjoyed your first Money Boss email. Looking forward to the next!

7 benrobb October 13, 2015 at 09:23

I started using Byword for writing. Mobile and desktop versions, and it uses iCloud or Dropbox to sync between them, so if you have ideas when you’re not at your desktop, you can jot them on your phone and fill them out later. Very minimalist interface, distraction free mode, I like it a lot.

8 Josie October 16, 2015 at 05:04

Another +1 for Pocket to save readings for later.

And a HUGE recommendation for Kiwi for Mac as an email client. It’s truly the best email client got gmail on Mac. By leaps and bounds. There’s a free version but it’s definitely worth the $10 for the pro version.

9 Carl October 28, 2015 at 19:36

Great post. I don’t have an iPad, and have always wondered where they would fit into my digital life if I had one. What you have put together actually makes sense to me.

You didn’t mention to-do lists, but if you are looking for a good to-do app that syncs across devices and ecosystems, I highly recommend Google Keep. There is plenty of overlap with Evernote, and there are some things that Evernote does much better, but I like Keep for its simplicity, and the easy ability to share notes with friends and family (the ease of keeping our Publix list updated makes this a winner in my book).

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