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What’s the next action?

That’s productivity guru David Allen’s favourite question, whether about an item in your inbox or an issue on your to-do list. What specifically will you do next?

Instead, we often want to think about it. Not real thinking, he says – hard thinking, which would be a good thing. But pretend thinking, replaying the history and possibilities of the item, over and over again, to avoid acting.

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Many times Mr. Allen’s workplace-productivity clients want to give him “long, involved stories about an e-mail sitting in their inbox,” he writes in his newsletter.

“It’s as if they’re defending a doctoral thesis, going to great lengths to explain why it showed up, what it means, and why it’s still sitting there. They want us to know their thinking. They seem to feel that if they tell us enough about it, it justifies the space it’s taking up in their physical and psychic world.”

His response: What’s your next action?

That stimulates a different type of thinking, about moving forward to resolution on the e-mail or issue. But it can be scary, he admits: “When you start to move on making anything actually happen, you confront an angst that it might never be as wonderful, as perfect, as solid and as safe as in the sanctity of your imagination. It’s like stepping off the end of the pier – and how deep is that water anyway?”

Still, it opens up the possibility for intelligence and creativity to occur. “The water’s deep, but it’s an ocean of possibility,” he notes. He backs it up with this quote from Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce: “Unless a capacity for thinking be accompanied by a capacity for action, a superior man exists in torture.”

But it may be that there are times you need to wait before acting on e-mails. That’s different from endlessly pondering what to do. Productivity consultant Prasanth Nair created the Stack method because if e-mails are actions waiting to happen, as he told Fast Company’s Stephanie Vozza, an inbox isn’t good at sorting and prioritizing them. So he recommends three to six folders be created as parking lots, based on distinct action you do every day on e-mail:

  • Reply: E-mails that need a direct response;
  • Forward: Actions that need to be delegated or offloaded to others;
  • Meet: Any event or meeting that needs to be scheduled on your calendar;
  • Review: Newsletters or e-mails you’re cc’d on, that are not immediate or critical;
  • Do: Tasks that have to be done. (He will e-mail himself a reminder for something he needs to do).

That list is not definitive but a general guideline; figure out what works for you. He recommends starting the day by zipping through the e-mails that have accumulated overnight and very quickly assigning them to those folders. “He then works through his action folders, which are stacked in order of importance. He handles e-mails in the Reply folder first, then Do, Meet, Forward and Review,” Ms. Vozza explains.

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Another option is to “snooze” e-mails. Holly Reisem Hanna, who also recommends filing e-mails in folders in her book Time Management in 20 Minutes a Day, says if you’re worried you’ll forget about an e-mail you can choose from different snooze helpers. Gmail has a snooze function, and on Apple devices you can download the Spark app, which will remind you at an appropriate time about the e-mail. SaneBox, a paid e-mail management system, has the same function.

So file e-mails in folders and snooze them, but not in order to ruminate – instead as preparation for acting.

Quick hits

  • People who take all of their vacation time have a 6.5 per cent higher chance of getting a promotion or raise than people who leave 11 or more days of paid time off the table, according to research by author Shawn Achor and the U.S. Travel Association.
  • When a new leader takes the helm, consultant Alan Kearns says focus on doing your own role and not on the fuss surrounding the change. Pay attention to what you control and mastering any opportunities that are presented by the situation.
  • Most of the dashboards that presentations consultant Dave Paradi sees are a confusing overload of data and poorly designed graphs. Don’t include all the data the user might want to look at; select the most important factors with a clear visual representation.
  • Applicants with work gaps have a 34 per cent lower chance of receiving job interviews, research by ResumeGo writing service found. But don’t ignore the gap – address it. On average, applicants who provided a reason for their work gap on their resume and cover letter had a callback rate of 6.8 per cent, which is 58.1 per cent higher than the 4.3 per cent callback rate of applicants who didn’t talk about it. When education or training was the reason for the gap, they fared even better.
  • Portion control is critical for smart eating. But entrepreneur Seth Godin says it extends elsewhere in our lives – such as the endless buffet served up by the digital economy, where it’s easy to overeat. Also applicable to meetings: He suggests if a meeting is scheduled for an hour, you’re allowed to leave after 10 minutes if you’re done.

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