Why it’s a good thing to be slaved to your email

This post started as a blog post, and became a talk I gave, after the talk I came back and rewrote the post with the benefit of a year’s hindsight and much better graphics. 


This post is part history (it’s about me) and part acknowledgement that change happens in levels.  Lightmatter paperwork

I used to be very disorganised, now I’m organised.

I still feel disorganised. On any given day I screw up as many things as I used to:  the difference is that my bandwidth has increased. I’m screwing things up, but I’m getting more things right, remembering more birthdays, being less of a hassle to work with.

This change happened because I  recognised that I was a slave to my email and  made use of that fact.

I was a Computer Scientist, so almost all of my life (academic, work, and social) came though my email – I checked it obsessively to see if anything had happened.

Permanent To-do List

In early 2008 I discovered that Gmail had an ‘archive’ button (Yes, Computer Scientist… I know). When something was done, I could make it vanish into the ’search place’. Overnight, this changed how I dealt with my correspondence. Things in my inbox were things that I still needed reply to. I could get rid of the junk, reply to the rest, and generally exert some control over my life (to this day, I confused as how I managed to complete a degree and a PhD without having even got a this much of a handle on my organisation).

A few months later, it occurred to me that I could send myself emails: if there was something I had to do (“Buy milk” is the classic) then I could send myself an email. That email would sit in my inbox until I did the thing and then I could archive it. Suddenly I have a permanent to-do list that I’m checking obsessively.

Because I was obsessively checking my email anyway so I could never have that experience of writing out a to-do list and then ignoring it or losing it, or forgetting what was on it. If something went on the to-do list then I saw it eight times a day until I did it.

This was a transformation. I stopped forgetting things: if there was something I committed to, then I did it. Paperwork got done in time, bills were paid. In particular, literal nice things started happening. Before, I might think “Hey, it would be really nice if you sent X one of those sweets she likes” but I’d be dealing with something else when the opportunity arose, now I’d have the thought, send myself an email, and X would actually get the sweets.

I didn’t become a better person, but it  looked like I did to everyone else.

Level 2: Calendar

Three months later I started using Google Calendar to send me tasks.  This included  both forwarding tasks “Submissions are now open so upload your paper” and reoccurring ones “Tidy house”.  They end up in the inbox, so they get done.  I’m now making all of my dentist appointments, avoiding deadline stresses because I’ve done the work, and saving lots of money on train and plane tickets by buying them in advance.  I’m also been reminded when I’m due to give blood so now I really am becoming a better person.

Something that I didn’t notice at the time but I realised after reading Getting Things Done was that I’d taken my brain out of the process.

At any time of the day I used to be thinking a half dozen things like ‘must pay that bill’, ‘must talk to Steve’, ‘must buy milk’ – as soon as I had a trusted place to put these thoughts that I knew I’d check, these thoughts all disappeared and with them much of a base level of stress that I didn’t realise I was carrying around.

Level 3: Gamification

The masterstroke was yet to come: Gamification.  Because the size of my inbox became the size of my todo list, reducing the size was the main focus of each day.  I started to play little games “Can I half the whole list today?” “How much can I make it shrink in an hour?”.

As soon as you start to play those games you start wanting some form of proper way of tracking, so that you can play them over a little more than I couple of hours.  So I wrote some code to chart the size of my inbox/to-do list.   It started basic, but I’d poke it every few months and, as it refined, so did how quickly I got into a flow state.  You can see a selection of the images that evolved into my stress chart below.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 11.28.16Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 11.28.48 Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 11.29.08 Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 11.30.01

Winning rather than working

Getting gamification right means that you are processing things faster, dealing with things, getting more free time, making more of an impact, mostly because you are looking at how you are scoring on a chart a few times a day…  It’s embarrassing to admit, but it worked wonders.  Many of the things that I’ve achieved in my life look like they were selfless or served some higher power. In reality they were caused by a borderline obsession on getting a purple line to get closer to the bottom of the screen.


There are two things that I want you to take away from this.

The first one is that if you are a slave to your email, maybe that’s okay. Maybe you can make use of it. If I hadn’t have been a slave to my email I wouldn’t have been able to free up nearly enough of my time to do the first prototype TooManyCooks book (there are now 13!) I wouldn’t have been able to commit to building the Domesday Dataset, which I think has made more of a difference than anything I’ve ever done in academia.

The second thing is that this process happened in layers. I got the hang of emails, then of open tasks, then of calendar events. There was NO way I could have put all this together in one leap. It had to be stage by stage. Sometimes I tried something new and it didn’t work, that’s okay, because I was still at a level above where I had been.  There are a lot of things that you can do to make sure that you juggle more plates without dropping them, but you have to have to do things one at a time.

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