Email Systems

In my writing, speaking, and (lately) conversations, I frequently refer to the idea of having a personal system to manage email.  I tell people that it doesn’t matter what system you are using, as long as you review it systematically and ensure that it’s really serving your needs.

Here’s an example of a highly detailed system that Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, designed and uses:  You might not agree with it, but it’s a good starting point as you try to figure out what will work for you.

Blues for the Explorer

Recently I was putting the finishing touches on a column for Ed Surge (the one I’ve been writing with Reshan Richards), and my daughter looked over my shoulder and asked, “what does that button do?”

She was pointing to the bottom right corner of my the Google Doc window in which I was composing my text: the word “Explore” had caught her attention.


We clicked it together, and this happened:

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-1-37-58-pmMy first thought was, “that’s amazing, Google can read what I’ve written, understand it a little bit, and make suggestions about how I might add depth to it by looking at related research.

My second thought was, “that’s horrifying, Google can read what I’ve written, understand it a little bit, and make suggestions about how I might add depth to it by looking at related research.”

My first thought came from marveling at the ways that Google is evolving as a company, and how it is trying to partner with me as a writer, researcher, and thinker.

My second thought came from realizing that, if I rely on Google to make connections for me, it will replace an important part of what I have to offer the world — the connections that I make, based on everything I’ve ever read, written, or seen, along with the serendipity and luck that fuels my writing process.  Indeed, I feel a little bit threatened.  Writing has existed at the core of my identify since I was in 4th grade.  If a machine can make connections that are more interesting, probing, or deft than the ones that I can make, then I will have to find something else to do — and someone else to be.

Blogging Everyday, Everyday Blogging

Seth Godin writes a blog post everyday.

Fred Wilson does the same, only different.

Reshan Richards picked up the habit, too, and I’m trying it on at the moment.

As a reader, I really appreciate writers who try to share something each day.  I don’t expect these offerings to always be great, just like I don’t expect long dinners to be great for the entire duration of the meal.  You expect lulls, come to appreciate them as runways to greatness, in fact.  And a great bite (sentence) here, a great bite (sentence) there can make the whole thing memorable and worthwhile.

As writer, I’m enjoying the daily challenge of looking back over my day and asking myself a series of questions that seem, at the very least, healthy:

What did I learn today?

Where did I stumble upon joy?

What can I share that might be useful to even a single person?  

I’m finding that the simple act of asking these questions leads me to notice more of the good parts of my life.  I predict some lulls, but thanks for showing up.

Manage Yourself / Your Calendar

I usually learn a lot when I consume anything that comes from the desk of David Sparks. Two sentences from his recent newsletter have really helped me to manage my calendar.  The key move, it seems, is an old one: you can improve your management of your calendar (or to-do list / task list / project list) by improving your management of yourself.

The trick to all of this is being honest with yourself. If you set these appointments with yourself to manage big projects but don’t keep them, you lose faith in your system and the wheels start falling off (

What this means for me is that, assuming I’m not interrupted by something urgent, I’m trying to be meticulous about completing items that I put in my calendar, even if I don’t feel like doing them.  So, today, I scheduled an hour to write and email a recommendation letter.  It’s not due until February 15, so I could have brushed off the reminder when it appeared.  But I completed the task (in 5o minutes) and now I don’t have to think about it again.  My system gets stronger, according to the inversion of Sparks’ logic, when I stick to it.

Then, as a bonus, I used the extra 10 minutes in my schedule to take a walk around the building.  This move was prompted by the advice of my friend Reshan Richards, which he shared  with our Global Online Academy class via Slack recently:


Programming (little) Humans

I heard a great comment today about why we should teach programming to young children.  Coding is a way to teach children about precision — how to think precisely, how to communicate precisely.

To teach this skill to very young students, computers are optional and may even serve to obscure the key lesson.  You can, for example, teach a child to think like a programmer by asking him/her to program you to hammer in a nail.  If he/she says, “first pick up a hammer” and you grab the hammer by pressing it against your chin and chest, the child will instantly correct you and say, “no, use your hand!”  That correction, easily made, is a step toward precision and the kind of mindset that supports programming when the going gets tough, as it most certainly does when hammers and hands turn into Python and Java.

Plant an Interruption

Today was the first day of the second semester, and in English 1, a class I teach, we spent about 20 minutes going over the mid-term exam.  When we finished, I asked students to write a response to two sentence stems:

When studying for a similar exam in the future, I should . . . 

When taking a similar exam in the future, I should . . . 

The first prompt dealt with preparation; the second dealt with performance; both are important to summative exams.

I improvised a final step, though, and it’s one I want to use again, so I’m writing it down.  After the students finished responding to the sentence stems, I told them to skip ahead in their calendars until they reached the middle of May.  I then instructed them to create a calendar event that would interrupt them and remind them to return to the notes they created today, on January 23.  If they wrote the notes in a Google Doc, they could even include a link in the reminder, leading them directly back to their exact thinking.

Most teachers that I know are quite good at helping students identify the adjustments necessary to improve in a given area.  A next step, perhaps, is to teach students how to access information pertinent to adjustments at just the right time and in just the right place.