Skip to main content
power points

Be quick with that delete button!

That’s the standard dictum from information overload expert Nathan Zeldes. But few people heed his advice.

“What’s keeping them from deleting with a vengeance is the mortifying fear that they will accidentally delete an important message. Oh, the horror!” he said in a 2014 post on his blog.

Behind that fear is the feeling that it will hurt the sender of the missive. By this thinking, we have a duty to read every message sent our way. Mr. Zeldes notes that this is curious, given the sender is intruding, often uninvited, into our life and, more specifically, our list of priorities. Yet it seems selfish to go on with our own life and priorities without carefully addressing the e-mail and its contents.

Another feeling, harder to overcome, is that it might hurt us. We might end up in trouble because the message had some importance. Maybe, he teases, we won the lottery or will be warned that the building we are in is on fire.

But Mr. Zeldes feels that just because there is some legitimacy behind our fears, we shouldn’t succumb to them. “It makes sense to brush your teeth daily, but not when a hurricane is approaching your home. Everything depends on the context!” he writes.

And the context is that many of us are receiving so much e-mail that we will never read all of it. It’s like a hurricane, overwhelming our ability to do our work and, not incidentally, to lead a sane life.

He says if your computer server was programmed to delete 50 per cent of incoming mail completely at random, you would likely be better off than you are today. “In this extreme scenario we definitely would lose a few important messages; it’s just that with 300 a day we are missing important ones anyway because we’re too distracted to even see them! Meanwhile, the benefit of becoming sane again, of being able to actually focus on creative work, would offset any harm done,” he writes.

Your unwillingness to delete an e-mail after only a cursory glance at its subject needs to be weighed against what he says is the “disastrous” context of your e-mail overload.

And what if you miss an important message? Not much will happen. If the building is on fire, someone will contact you. If the message is not quite that urgent but still important, the sender will resend it or call a few days later. He admits that’s regrettable but not a disaster.

Mr. Zeldes urges you to set up a competition for your time through this novel approach: Buy an excellent book in your field of work, renowned around the world, but that you would never have the time to read. Now delete the messages and promise yourself that if you ever have the time to read such messages, you’ll read the book instead. “It’s sure to be better, right?” he says.

If that seems a bit aggressive, at least look more deeply into software tools that he says can work impressively, taking a glance at e-mails and classifying them into urgent, worth reading later, and trash. Outlook and Gmail can help, or he lists other tools in his Solutions to Information Overload guide.

It will move you along the delete route.

Visualize your week to prepare for big moments

Many athletes visualize what their next match will be like in order to prepare. It might be something to consider for your own big moments.

“Whether it’s a writer preparing to draft a story, an athlete prepping for competition, or a businessperson heading into a high-stakes presentation, great performers don’t just hope they’ll be on the top of their game,” Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness write in Peak Performance, calling the practice “priming.”

Shaun Francis, who splits his time between Toronto and London, England, as CEO of preventative health organization Medcan, suggests in his own book Eat Move Think that you should start by identifying the most important part of the week. It won’t be a world championship, but chances are there are some pivotal events. Then set aside your phone, close your laptop and office door, and try to think of what’s to come.

“Let’s say it’s a meeting. I’ll visualize myself going in, shaking hands, meeting the various people I’ll encounter. I’ll think about chitchat and remind myself to maintain my posture. I’ll go through potential problems. … Ideally, I’ve thought through each scenario and come up with a plan,” he writes.

You may even want to conduct a physical warm-up before the meeting. A brisk walk or climbing some stairs will elevate your heart rate and prime your brain to be more agile. Get your blood sugar up by eating a meal if possible an hour or two before the meeting’s start time.

On Smart Brief blog, LaRae Quy, who was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, also encourages the practice. She says you need to begin by clarifying what you want and make it specific – your end goal should be something you can see. Visualizing the outcome of an event will trigger the production of dopamine, a powerful tool that guides you toward success.

Respect uncertainty but consider how to remove it. “Uncertainty can sabotage your best efforts to move forward unless you nip it in the bud. The more familiar you become with the situations, conversations or events that produce your uncertainty, the calmer you will be able to approach the situation,” she says.

With this, try to establish a positive emotion through the visualization. Warm thoughts can carry you to success. Ms. Quy quotes Viktor Frankl, the Nazi concentration camp survivor who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning: “There’s one reason why I’m here today. What kept me alive in a situation where others had given up hope and died was the dream that someday I’d be here telling you how I survived the concentration camps.”

Finally, visualize massive success but never fantasize. “Your brain is smart enough to tell the difference between peak performance and fantasy,” Ms. Quy concludes.

13 things to give up to be successful

Content creator Zdravko Cvijetic on offers 13 things you should give up to be successful:

  • Give up on an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Give up the short-term mindset and focus on long-term goals.
  • Give up on playing small: voice your ideas instead, and don’t be afraid to fail.
  • Give up on your excuses.
  • Give up on the fixed mindset that will mislead you into believing that your intelligence or talents are pre-determined, unchangeable traits.
  • Give up on believing in a magic bullet – overnight success is a myth.
  • Give up on your perfectionism, since nothing will ever be perfect no matter how hard you try.
  • Give up multi-tasking.
  • Give up on your need to control everything.
  • Give up on saying yes to things that don’t support your goals.
  • Give up the toxic people.
  • Give up on your need to be liked.
  • Give up on wasting your time.

Quick hits

  • Productivity consultant Mimi Bishop says it’s vital to know the difference between a project and a task – and stick to tasks on your to-do list. A task will take one or two steps while a project is more cumbersome and complex than that.
  • The No. 1 essential that every office should have, says Gen Z’s Cameron Sackett, is a water machine with properly filtered water. It’s more vital to this generation than elaborate coffee makers or vending machines.
  • Revisit goals daily, says performance consultant Malachi Thompson.
  • Don’t turn down an opportunity because the situation seems too messy. “Being invited to fix a messy situation is like receiving an engraved invitation to success on a silver platter,” says consultant Art Petty.
  • Take time to write thank-you notes. Research shows senders of thank-you letters consistently underestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt, and underestimated how warm and competent recipients perceived them to be.

We’ve launched a new weekly Careers newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe