Declaring email bankruptcy

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There’s something distinctly unfunny about writing a whole blog post on managing emails, only to make a monumental error and lose the whole post. That just happened to me!

So, this feels a bit like having to re-do a piece of homework, but I hope that – on reading this post – you’ll feel it was worthwhile topic of conversation.

Simplifying your inbox

So much of our working lives revolve around composing, reviewing, reading, forwarding, saving, filing, retrieving – or even recalling – those little electronic postcards we call email.

Like me, if you have already been successful in simplifying other aspects of your life, applying some organisational principles to electronic mail is another step towards minimalism.

Emails falling like raindrops

On Bank Holiday Monday (Memorial Day to my lovely US readers), I spent some time that morning sitting at my breakfast bar, catching up on work emails.

Whilst it could be argued that I shouldn’t be doing this, the reality was that I’d had a very full diary during the preceding week, so there were quite a few emails that needed even just a little attention. This quiet couple of hours, with a lovely cup of coffee at my side, meant that I could regain a sense of overall control and feel positive about resuming work the following day knowing that I was on top of things.

Is email ‘real’ work?

If you listen to Laura Vanderkam’s Before Breakfast podcast, you may have heard the episode in which Laura suggests allotting specific time slots during the day for handling email correspondence.

This is a good idea, as you can then close your mailbox when undertaking other focused activities and avoid the lure of dealing with a quick message as soon as it arrives. In my case, I have switched off notifications and I try to make sure I’ve retrieved anything I need from my mailbox, before embarking on a non-email task.

Interruptions are sometimes welcome, but the reality is that they are such a distraction that we can take some time to recover and re-focus on the task in hand.

That said, email isn’t just ‘noise’. In my organisation, it is “real work” so we can’t ignore it.

Managing the inbox

I’ve written about this before, but when I’m having a proper sprint through my inbox, I’ll intentionally sort received items by Subject. This way, if there’s been a conversation on a particular topic, I can delete all but the very latest message and see the whole trail in one email.

I’m now also much more inclined to press ‘delete’ on as many messages as possible and don’t need to file anything that’s just a casual ‘thank you’ or acknowledgement.

Surely, there are other ways to communicate?

I work in Higher Education, so some of my colleagues with teaching-focussed roles find that handling email becomes even more of a challenge for them, as they aren’t seated at a desk all of the time. Recently, we’ve been discussing how we can improve internal communications to this group of staff, so that they perhaps receive a digest of items on a regular basis, rather than a drip-drip-drip of regular emails.

For my own part, wherever possible, I pick up the phone to speak to someone, rather than sending yet another message.

What do you do in your workplace?

What about personal emails?

I use gmail for personal mail, but I want to avoid it becoming ‘grrr-mail’. I want to read ‘good-mail’!

So, I have deliberately and very intentionally unsubscribed from practically all the marketing emails that I used to receive. This way, the only mail that comes through my virtual letterbox is genuinely useful, informative or necessary.

Listening to one of my favourite podcasts recently, I was struck by a suggestion that a great happiness hack would be to ‘declare bankruptcy’ on a mailbox that had simply got out of hand. Surely, this is the ultimate digital declutter?!  I find the financial analogy amusing but could we (dare we) go that far?

Have you ever done that? However tempting that may be, I don’t think I’d delete an account (or walk away from it), unless I’d really wound it down properly.

P.S.

Of course, the irony of this is not lost on me; I know this post is likely to be coming to you via your own inbox (and I’m glad you’re there!). So drop me a line via email (ha ha!) or reply to this post by clicking on ‘reply’ below. I’d love to hear from you.


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How do I get started?

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For the next two or three posts, I’m going to be doing a mini-series of quick-fire posts in response to questions I’ve had from readers and friends.

This week’s post is all about getting started.

The home office

Over Sunday morning coffee at The Almanack, my friend admitted that she needed a serious sort-out in her home office but really didn’t know where to start. Her daughter was using the space to do her morning make-up routine, plus the room was rammed full, but not necessarily with items that belonged there.

So, here are some handy tips if you’re keen to declutter a space like this; I’d be keen to know what works for you, too!

First, sweep the room

I don’t mean getting the sweeping brush out for this one! Simply, swoop in and remove anything from the room that shouldn’t be in there.

Take out the rubbish, the empty cups and the non-office items that have settled there. Immediately throw away, shred or donate things you don’t need. Do this as quickly as you can. Where possible, don’t relocate the items to another space unless you really have to. Let them go!

Second, re-home the misfits

Relocate things whose rightful home is elsewhere, including your daughter’s mirror, brushes, foundation, eyeshadow and so on. If they are going to share a corner of the office, make sure there’s somewhere for them to go when not being used.

If you’re finding it hard to be decisive about whether or not keep specific items, box them up. If you don’t retrieve them from the box within 21 days, let them go.

The key here is that you don’t want to be organising your belongings until you’ve done these first two stages.

Now organise

Once you have let go of the items that don’t live in the room, you can arrange your belongings. Try my solution for paperwork if you’re not sure what approach to take.

By all means, make use of fabulous storage systems that are readily available from places like IKEA. If the room is small, make sure you’re using the height in the space in the form of shelving.

Finally, make room for things that you’d enjoy having in the space. In my office at work, I have a bit of greenery (not all real!) and some artwork on the walls that makes the space a little more inviting. I have also softened my empty shelving with some bunting, attached to the front with drawing pins.

And if the view isn’t quite as dramatic as the one in the above picture, make sure your screensaver is the loveliest it can be.

Up next: How to get rid of things I don’t want to sell.


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How to avoid decluttering going too far

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In my most recent Community newsletter, I described an interesting article in the New Zealand Herald which had recently caught my eye.

In anticipation of The Minimalists‘ ‘Less is Now’ tour dates, journalist Chris Schulz had decided to explore if espousing a minimalist lifestyle might make a difference in his life. Did he need stuff that had been lying around in cupboards untouched for years? Of course not. But Schulz’ article does sound a cautionary tale: it is possible to go too far.

Schulz realises that you might get so carried away with decluttering that you potentially let go of items that might be of value in future years. So, here are a few ideas on how to avoid taking your enthusiasm for decluttering going a step too far.

Take it slowly

You’re less likely to relinquish a valued treasure if you take things slowly. Always start with the non-contentious, non-emotive stuff: the easy to declutter. As you peel away the layers, you’ll become increasingly intentional and deliberate about what you keep and what you get rid of. Take your time to decide on the things that may have sentimental value.

Don’t unclutter other people’s stuff

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Don’t unclutter other people’s stuff. You can model decluttering behaviours and will – undoubtedly – inspire those around you. But don’t make decisions about belongings that aren’t yours. For shared items, you can certainly moot the idea of letting go, but this has to be a joint decision.

Create a treasures box

For years, I dragged around a plastic trunk with my so-called treasures inside. Shaped like a treasure chest and in bright primary colours, this storage container was so heavy that we had to heave it into our loft when we move into our current home. I seldom looked inside it.

As part of my final decluttering, I got to grips with exactly what was in that container. What remains is a very small (shoe-box sized) collection of some lovely sentimental items that I will never part with. Our daughter keeps a similar box; again, this is very small.

Become your own curator

Adopt the mindset of a curator. Your home isn’t a museum, but imagine you have the role of the creative lead on a fabulous project. What selected items would mean the most to you? Which items would form a part of an artistic or historical collection were you to create a display about your own life? What has meaning and adds value in your home? What is frankly just a collection of miscellaneous tat? Keep and enjoy the former; declutter the latter.

Consider your loved ones

We all know that grown-up children don’t want their baby boomer parents’ stuff. But is there a particular item you’d like to keep to pass onto your daughter or granddaughter in future years? On my mother’s side of the family, we love a pretty ring. Keeping a ring (or another small piece of jewellery) may be a lovely thing to do; it might give someone pleasure in the future.

Store and save virtually

An image of something will spark a conversation or trigger a memory that you may enjoy in the future. As I’ve said previously, your treasured possessions aren’t memories. But images of items you once owned may suffice if you want to recall a piece of art you created as a teenager or remember something crafted by a loved one.

Bring some of your personality into the workplace

I’ve recently joined a new department to take up a new post within the organisation where I work. I am privileged to have my own office, so this provides an opportunity to display one or two decorative items that wouldn’t otherwise have a place at home.

My maternal grandmother was a prolific craftswoman. Among her creations are a number of small pictures, intricate and beautifully crafted with embroidery. I have had 3 of these little pictures hung on my office wall; they are a talking point for people who come to see me and they provide a little visual reminder of family, as I work at my desk.

Another friend uses her grandmother’s favourite china cup and saucer as a scented candle, which she keeps on her kitchen table.

Stop when you’re not sure what to unclutter next

Unless you are staging your home for sale (when home life takes on an artificial impression of familial perfection), it’s fine to take some time out or to stop altogether. You might take a pause or cease decluttering completely. Good for you. After all, it’s worth harking back to the reasons we started this in the first place – our ‘why’ or purpose. Living with less allows us to be so much more. So, get out there and enjoy! That’s why we do it in the first place.


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How minimalist environments can help people with ADHD

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This is a guest post by Jane Sandwood.

We all know the minimalist movement emphasizes removing clutter from your life; clearing spaces of unwanted distractions that can make one feel drowned by the effects of consumerism.

However, for people with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), decluttering is not simply a choice, but a necessity. For many with the condition, it is the only way to feel secure, relaxed and safe at home.

How clutter affects people with ADHD

Imagine that you have a big exam coming up, and you have problems concentrating. You are immersed in your books, but every time you look up, you see furniture piled up, glasses and crockery on your desk, or loud colours that seem to bore into your brain; you would be tempted to leave to go to a quieter spot, wouldn’t you?

ADHD manifests itself in different ways, making children and adults with the condition more impulsive, disorganized and easily distracted. They may also have more trouble doing ‘boring’ tasks such as tidying up, which is why it is important that the areas they live in are well organized.

A room full of unnecessary furniture can lead to frustration. Only essential pieces should be present; there should always be enough space in a home to balance out any furniture items.

Specific tips for home design

Strategy and storage space are the key elements of good design for an ADHD household.

Organisation

When planning a kitchen, for instance, the person preparing a meal shouldn’t have to run to another room to access items from the pantry, or have to find items they need for a meal from drawers on opposite sides of the kitchen.

Breakfast items, for instance, should be in one ‘space’ – cereal, bowls and cutlery could all be in one drawer. Additionally, all cooking utensils (chopping boards, knives, ingredients) should be more or less in the same corner of the kitchen.

Storage

All rooms should have adequate storage furniture, even bathrooms. Consider having a separate ‘space’ for each family member, somewhere they can keep their robe, rubber ducky (if they are kids), special soap, etc., which is easily accessible and most importantly, out of sight until they need it.

Quiet spaces

A minimalist ‘quiet space’ works well for both children and adults with ADHD. It might just be a small room with lovely natural light, and just a soft seating area and sound system, so they can put on their earphones and disconnect, feeling grander in the space rather than overwhelmed by the clutter that surrounds them.

Minimalism is more than a design choice

Minimalism embraces the dialogue with our inner selves but also drowns out the maddening outer ‘noise’ that exists when too many things vie for our attention.

In the case of people with ADHD, decluttering is more than a design choice; it is a life line that makes the difference between a prison and a home.

Jane Sandwood is a professional freelance writer with over 10 years’ experience across many fields. She has a particular interest in topics relating to health and wellbeing. When Jane isn’t writing, she is busy spending time with her family. She also enjoys music, reading and travelling whenever she can.


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Do you know the difference between pleasure and happiness?

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Do you understand the difference between pleasure and happiness? Can you explain how reward differs from contentment? Robert Lustig certainly can and his latest book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science behind the Corporate Takeover of our Bodies and Brains, has something powerful to say about happiness and wellbeing.

About Robert Lustig

Robert Lustig MD is perhaps best known for his bestseller, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease.

These are not minimalist book titles!

Lustig is a professor of paediatrics, as well as being chief science officer of EatREAL, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to reversing childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. His latest work argues that the corporate world has manipulated us specifically to get us to buy junk we don’t need. It’s an argument you may have come across before, but here we are offered the science behind the message.

We have been ‘manipulated’

Lustig argues that business has conflated pleasure with happiness and “with clear-cut intent” to get us to engage with behaviours that result in society feeling, “…fat, sick, stupid, broke, addicted, depressed and most decidedly unhappy.”

Recognise that rush of pleasure when you:

  • bite into something super sweet and delicious?
  • purchase something shiny and new?
  • see a notification on your smartphone?

That rush is one of dopamine, bringing fleeting reward or pleasure, but this is only ever short-lived and ends up with you wanting more. These things are genuinely addictive.

There is another way

By contrast, Lustig argues that the ‘happy chemical’, serotonin, provides longer-term contentment. He explains the difference between the dopamine effect, which creates, “That feels good. I want more.” versus the seratonin effect that brings about a sense of, “That feels good. I have enough.”

As Lustig says, it’s about understanding the difference between chasing fleeting reward and longer-lasting contentment.

How do we achieve this?

With clear scientific evidence to back up his argument, Lustig argues that real contentment is to be found through his 4 C’s, which increase serotonin in the brain to promote well-being. 

They are:

  • Connect
  • Contribute
  • Cope
  • Cook

I’ll use these themes as categories on future blog posts, so be sure to look out for them.

What it means in practice

Connect

Actively participate in actual social interactions. Social engagement or emotional bonding correlates with contentment, says Lustig.

Facebook (by way of an example) does not count here. Lustig explains the more people use Facebook, the less “subjective well-being” they experience. Just as a diet of processed food fails to support our well-being, so our daily “digital diet” is also doing us harm.

Contribute

By contributing to society (perhaps through work, volunteering or other activities), this (again) increases contentment through feelings of self-worth. Ever read stories of people who gave up their Christmas Day to help at a shelter for the homeless? These volunteers’ feelings of well-being can be directly attributed to the feel-good factor associated with contribution.

Cope

This is mega important. Sleep better, be more mindful, exercise more. These coping strategies are essential to our well-being.

Simply:

  • Get your 8 hours
  • Don’t multi-task
  • Be more mindful or intentional in how you approach your day-to-day activities
  • Take exercise

Cook

The JERF (Just Eat Real Food) message has been around for a while but Lustig makes a particular case for cooking for ourselves, for our friends and for our families. If we do this, we’ll not only be eating foods that can boost that happy chemical, serotonin, but we’ll also be contributing and connecting as well. And sugar is a no no. Period.

All together now

Taken together, these 4 C’s provide the essential support we need to move away from transient moments of reward (pleasure) to a more contented state (happiness).

As a minimalist, reading this book gave me an insight into why we know – instinctively – that more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness. When it comes to more, it’s more of the 4 C’s we really need.

Lustig’s work is based on solid science; it’s not an easy read, but if you’ve ever battled with overcoming negative habits or been concerned that your time spent on social media isn’t adding to your subjective well-being, this book explains why.


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Simplify your…. inbox

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‘Technostress’ is not a new term, but I only came across it recently when used by a colleague who is doing a study on it for her master’s thesis.

It’s easy to infer the meaning of the term but not so easy to know how to respond when, we are required – especially in our work – to interact constantly with new technologies. It’s likely that all of us experience technostress at some point in our working lives; I’d suggest that email has a role to play in this.

Email as tool not torment

Email can be a mixed blessing. Since 1 November 2016, I have received over 2500 work-related emails and managed many more in my personal account.

When I wrote about Minimalism and the workplace, I offered the following tip on managing email:

If you’re using MS Outlook, on managing email, sort by ‘subject’ so that all threads relating to a particular email clump together. You can quickly see the ‘reply all’ threads and just keep the ones that matter.

This is a great way to deal with the bulk of incoming mail. You’re then left with the things that are truly ‘work’ as opposed to things that might just be ‘noise’.

By doing this, you’re filtering to what’s essential, which makes things simpler to start with. Email then becomes a useful and efficient communication tool rather than a stressor.

To sort or not to sort? That is the question

Once I’m down to the essentials, I organise incoming emails using the ‘Categories’ feature in Outlook . It’s much easier to pick out messages of a particular type if you have colour-coded them.

Categories

I am also a committed user of folders. In Outlook, I find it’s a lot easier to retrieve a message if I’m able to narrow down what I’m looking for by topic. Gmail, which I also use, seems able to retrieve anything you search for; I find Outlook less helpful in this regard.

Both categorising and using folders take time, but I find both of these really useful.

One could argue that it’s simpler just to leave emails unsorted but if your email volumes are anything like mine, you need a system that is consistent, memorable and straightforward. That’s where we go back to the meaning of the word ‘simplification’ from my last post: the process of making something simpler or easier to do or understand. I’d argue that the approaches described above do make the management of one’s inbox much easier.

Inbox zero?

I don’t aim for ‘inbox zero’ but, most days, I leave my work with (on average) around 20-30 emails remaining in my inbox. These are my ‘work in progress’.

I review incoming email first thing in the morning, then return to it as the ‘sand’ in my day, only when the ‘rocks’ (the important things) have been dealt with.

The typing pool

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If your work setting is office-based, you may sometimes wonder if you’ve gone back in time and joined a typing pool, as everyone spends significant amounts of time intensely working away at the keyboard.

Vary this routine by picking up the phone to communicate with someone else or go and have a face-to-face conversation. It’s good for you. You can have a stretch, move your body and engage with people in a way that you can’t when you are typing at your desk.

Remember, just because you can (email) doesn’t mean you have to. In her book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington describes organisations that instigate ‘no email’ days. Could you suggest this?

Annual leave as borrowed time

I have often thought of annual leave as ‘borrowed time’ because you have to work twice as fast when you return to catch up because the emails keep on coming whilst you’re away.

What about the idea of writing the following message in your automatic reply when you are on vacation? Dare you? How would that be received within your organisation or by those with whom you work?

Thank you for your message. I will be on annual leave from X to Y dates and will have no access to email during this time. If your email remains important to you after Y date, please do resend it.

A word on apps

Apps designed to support productivity can help move work out of your inbox and into a project management tool.

There are lots of apps from which to choose and more being developed all the time. According to Statista, there were 2.8 million apps available via Google Play in March 2017 and a further 2.2 million in the Apple app store. So, how do we discern what’s useful?

I have about a dozen apps that I use regularly but I am judicious in my choices (and have previously written my essentialist approach to the social media apps I use).

A small number of websites with related apps really do help me manage work tasks and maintain my sanity. This means I can file related emails away, as I can manage tasks through the tools I use.

Some are more sophisticated than others, but I’ve settled on Producteev as my tool of choice. Although aimed at teams, it’s also ideal for individuals. I can list any number of tasks (each with sub-tasks) and am able to categorise these and set date reminders. Once scheduled, the technology does the work of remembering so I don’t have to. I also love Evernote and use Dropbox for long-term document storage.

Carve out time

If you use email in your workplace, it’s a fallacy to suggest that it isn’t ‘real work’ and that, somehow, your actual work lies outside your inbox. However, if you have sufficient autonomy over how you manage your day, carve out space for ‘time out’ to provide a counter-balance to email if you can. When you do return to it, you’ll be more likely to resume your work with a little more energy.

So, how do you manage your inbox? Have you developed any top tips that you’d like to share? Please do comment below!

Next time

In the next post, we’ll move away from discussing virtual paper to talking about real paper, as we look at simplifying our approach to the management of ‘goods in‘ of the paper variety.

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Simplify your….?

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Now that the beautiful month of May is upon us (May the Fourth be with you!), I’m going to start a short series on simplification.

Since minimalism and simple living go hand-in-hand, I’ll explore some aspects of our day-to-day life that could all benefit from a bit of simplification.

simplification
ˌsɪmplɪfɪˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/
noun
the process of making something simpler or easier to do or understand
What do you wish was simpler in your day-to-day life? Is there something that you wish was easier to do, simpler to understand or more straightforward?

TechnoStress

This compound word is new to me, but I’ll bet you don’t need me to explain it!
Let’s explore strategies for simplifying in the area of technology. How can we make tools such as email work for us, not the other way around?

The battle at the front door

Writer and friend, Rae Ritchie, suggested we consider ways to deal with all that stuff that still comes into the house: magazines, paper, post and random carrier bags. It’s what Rae calls ‘the battle at the front door’. We’ll dive into the seemingly never-ending war on ‘goods-in’ clutter.

Household chores

Whether or not you work outside the home, you’ll recognise the benefits of having straightforward systems in place for laundry, meal-planning or cleaning.

We’ll take a look at ways to minimise the impact of – and time devoted to – these necessary tasks.

What do you wish could be achieved more simply? Do comment below or get in touch!

Let’s simplify!

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