How to Batch Process Email and Manage Co-Worker Expectations

Which do you think is more productive?

The decision should be easy.

This will be the simplest how to you’ll read today.

I’m also not going to explain why you should be batch processing email (or batch-processing any other low-value, low-payoff tasks). If you need an explanation, see above. Or, check out either of these two articles (the second one also addresses canned responses, which are also incredibly useful and discussed in my other posts here).

If you work at an organization that, for almost no good reason, operates on the “did you get my email” or “why didn’t you respond to the email I sent 30 seconds ago” M.O., not checking email for greater than five minutes may feel like an occupational safety hazard.

It is absolutely not though. 

And when people understand that you’re not responding to their emails right away for good reason, they just might join you.

Here’s all you need to do:

  1. Determine when you’ll be checking your email (one, two, three times a day?)
  2. Create an out of office reply like the one below:

    Hi,

    If the email that you just sent me is urgent, please call me and let me know how I may help you (as I’m quite happy to do so). My number: 614-XXX-XXXX.

    Some background if you’re curious…

    In an effort to be more productive at work I have recently decided to batch process emails, as numerous studies have shown that productivity is severely hampered by continuously monitoring email.

    As such, I now read and respond to all emails between 3-4pm each day. If you need to reach me before or after this time period, feel free to call: 614-XXX-XXXX.

    Cheers!

  3.  Check email only at carefully chosen intervals.

That’s it! Now get out there and stop answering email… so often.

Your boss will thank you (eventually).

How to Post Horizontal Videos to Instagram Stories (No Cropping Required)

Just a tiny micropost here to help add some information that was missing from the internet.

I was trying to find a video or tutorial that would show me how to upload horizontal videos to Instagram stories. I could not find a solution that did not require downloading apps or editing things on my computer. After watching one lengthy tutorial, I realised* this can be done very simply on your phone in a matter of seconds.

Here is how you do it:

  1. Shoot an amazing video holding your phone properly (horizontal)
  2. Open the video using Google photos
  3. Click the edit icon
  4. Rotate the video left or right 90 degrees (your choice)
  5. Save
  6. Upload to Instagram

Enjoy!

*Apparently the voice-to-text dictation app on my phone is British.

How to Actually Relax on Your Next Vacation (and Return to an Empty Inbox)

If you’re interested four incredibly simple actions that can exponentially increase the quality of all your future vacations, read on.

Before we start however, a quick acknowledgement for those not yet aware of the importance of a relaxing and restful time away from work.

Bottom line: If you don’t disengage from work while you’re on vacation, you’re missing the point. There is a good reason that some of the smartest companies (with lauded culture) now require that you take vacation. Further, people that don’t take breaks from work can even become a liability. For crying out loud, Henry Ford started figuring all of this out almost one hundred years ago.

Anyhow, assuming we can all agree on these three basic things:

  1. Most supervisors are generally reasonable
  2. The tremendous value of an unplugged, stress-free vacation (i.e. not the one where you’re still working, but from the beach instead of a desk)
  3. Emails can be re-sent.

I will show you how simple it is to effectively disengage from work with a simple conversation, out of office message, and some personal courage.

STEP ONE

Have a conversation with your boss before you leave. During this conversation, explain how much you’re looking forward to this time away to recharge and think on the business (instead of in it) from a relaxed vantage point. Carefully convey how not stressing about the work that you will be missing will be a major contributor to the stress-free nature of this vacation. Politely ask your boss if it’s OK for you to count on her to either (1) delegate to your co-worker (whom you have conducted a careful hand-off with) or (2) for her to handle all the minor “crises of the day” that come up while you’re away. Or, worst case, come to an agreement with your boss that if you are absolutely needed, that she will call you and not rely on email.

STEP TWO

Use the following out of office message:

Regretfully, I did not receive the email you just sent to me, nor will I read it upon my return.

I am currently on vacation and will not be reading any emails received from 5-15 February. If your email requires action or contains important information, I respectfully request you pursue one of the following options:

  • Contact me upon my return on 16 February.
  • Contact Lukas Skarsgård at (XXX) XXX-XXXX or lukas.skarsgård@widgets.limo.
  • Forward your original email to me and include 16february@followupthen.com in the Cc line (how this works: https://www.followupthen.com).

Thank you very much for your consideration and understanding as I spend this limited but important time away from work.

STEP THREE

While on vacation, do one of three things:

  1. Pause your inbox.
  2. Turn off the email sync option on your work phone.
  3. Leave your work phone at home (but be sure to leave a personal mobile number with your boss if he expects to call you for emergencies)

STEP FOUR

This is the personal courage part I mentioned earlier.

When you return to work and you open your email inbox, do exactly the following (these steps assume that you left work with zero emails in your inbox):

  1. Carefully avoid eye contact
  2. Select all emails (Ctrl+a)
  3. Archive all emails (or move to your completed folder)

And breathe a deep, satisfying sigh of relief as the world continues to turn, just as it always has, and always will.

Finally, if what you read is 100% antithetical to your current company culture, you may need to seek employment elsewhere. Why? Because your boss won’t sneak into the cemetery and scribble, “He was a great man who diligently checked emails whilst on vacation” on your tombstone.

Do it. Do it for you. Do it for your health. Do it for your family.

Here’s to your next enjoyable vacation!

How to Avoid a Terrible Airbnb (and Pick the Perfect One) for Your Next Budget Vacation

WHY AN AIRBNB?

If you still aren’t already sold on the cost saving awesomeness that are Airbnbs, before I explain how to avoid a terrible Airbnb, I’ve taken a moment to list just a few of the reasons my wife and I have made the permanent switch.

However, if you’re already sold on an Airbnb and just need the scoop on reserving the best Airbnb for your next trip, feel free to skip ahead to the enumerated steps located just a quick scroll below.

BENEFITS

The obvious reason for booking an Airbnb instead of a standard hotel is certainly the potential for large cost savings. Depending on your source, the savings may not always be worth some of the downsides (but I disagree). It’s also important to note that although hotels generally have a few options that affect price, when searching for the right Airbnb, there are a very wide variety of options that can greatly affect the final cost of your stay. I can say this definitively from my own personal experience – having used Airbnb to save up to 50% or more while exploring Europe these last two years.

Other key benefits to picking an Airbnb:

  • Options – Pay for only the space you need (i.e. Do you need a week of luxury or just a room with a bed to crash for a night?)
  • Proximity – How close to the action do you need to be? While there aren’t always hotels close to an event or location you may be interested in, there’s generally always an Airbnb close by.
  • Concierge services – Many hosts are known for their friendliness and are more than willing to assist you navigating the city or neighborhood.

DRAWBACKS

Certainly, as with any travel situation, the risks of letdowns from a bad experience always exist. Although this can usually be avoided by carefully reading user reviews, sometimes things may just go awry unexpectedly. I’ve listed some potential drawbacks that should certainly be considered before booking an Airbnb:

  • Last-minute cancellations – Airbnb hosts are humans and things happen, so last-minute cancellations are certainly a possibility (but can also be successfully avoided, please continue reading).
  • Hardware failures – Unlike hotels, there are not rooms a plenty, so if the one and only shower head breaks, you may go a day without feeling “so fresh and so clean, clean” while a technician does their thing.
  • Extra chatty hosts – Not everyone values personal interaction, feedback, or assistance in the same way.
  • Varying comfort standards – Different people are accustomed to different standards of living across the globe. In Europe, crappy beds, extremely small showers, and tiny apartments without air conditioning are absolutely a thing – even in the summer time. Hotels know better and generally cater to the lowest common denominator (i.e. needy and/or pampered westerners). This is often not true for individuals renting out some of their extra space on Airbnb.

The good news is, if you read the simple steps I’ve outlined below, you can optimize all the benefits of an Airbnb and minimize or eliminate the potential risks that I highlighted above.

Ready? Here we go…

STEPS TO PICKING THE PERFECT AIRBNB

  1. Determine your location

This one is completely up to you (google maps FTW). Immediate considerations are of course proximity to the airport or your destination, parking requirements, public transportation options, and whatever else will make your stay the most enjoyable. Using the integrated Google map provided by Airbnb makes refining your options by location very simple. Although Airbnb will not give you an exact address (for good reason), it gives you a very good idea of the location.

  1. Determine your price range

There are several ways to go about setting your own personal price limit, and to a certain extent, the market will dictate this for you. A simple rule of thumb might be to find an inexpensive hotel in the same general area using google maps (making sure to select the same dates of your stay) and setting this as your starting price ceiling, perhaps. Sometimes I adjust my price after I’ve refined all my search criteria (step 4 below) and I see what prices are populating the map, like this:

As you can see, the prices fluctuate widely based on location, but low, median, and peak prices are easy to ascertain. All you would then need to do is pick your own personal limit.

  1. Determine your requirements

Next to location, your requirements will be the second major factor determining your Airbnb options and final price. Accordingly, if your basic expectations are not met your stay will ultimately not be enjoyable. As such, use the list below as a starting point to develop your own personal search criteria.

Some of your major considerations might include the following:

  • Air conditioning – in Europe and many other non-westernized locations, this is not a given. If you’re planning summer travel and don’t thoroughly enjoy sweating in your sleep, this might be something to make sure is included.
  • Parking – paid, free, available? These options can vary widely, and of course, can also have a big impact on price. Some locations have extremely limited parking available and asking potential hosts about the situation beforehand – or reading the reviews – are key to avoiding heartbreak in this category (if you’re bringing a rental car, of course).
  • Breakfast provided – if groceries or cereal are not your thing in the morning, make sure your host is providing a breakfast. If not, and you’re on a budget, make sure shared cupboard and/or fridge space is available instead.
  • Living space – do you need an entire house or apartment to yourself, or is a single room with shared common spaces (living room, bath, etc.) good enough? The less space and privacy you need, the more broad and economical your options necessarily become.
  • Pets – obviously a very important consideration if your best traveling companion has fur, feathers, or scales.
  • Language – if you’re traveling internationally, this could be very important. However, Google translate and voice dictation are truly breaking down the language barriers. So maybe this doesn’t matter all?
  • Treehouse – in case this is really important to you, it’s an actual option Airbnb. Beat that, Hilton.
  • Superhost – by selecting this option, you are assured that your host meets certain criteria that all but guarantee a great experience with Airbnb. Most importantly, Airbnb hosts cannot obtain or maintain superhost status if they cancel any reservations (with certain exceptions). The possibility of cancellation, of course, being one of the drawbacks I mentioned above. The entire list of superhost requirements can be found on Airbnb’s website.
  1. Last Step – Apply Filters

Using the More filters option and given consideration for the items listed above—and of course, your own personal preferences—simply update the filters to pick your perfect property. Toggling between private home, shared room, and other materially cost-affecting options will ultimately help you reach the perfect balance between price and amenities. I’ve also found that booking well in advance (2-4 months out) is key to finding gems at an affordable price.

  1. Final Notes

Some final things to consider when booking…

Beware of photos that showcase the city but are unrelated to the actual property. This practice seems rather common, as we ran into this during our Airbnb stay in Barcelona. It ultimately had no lasting negative impact, but if we were banking on a particular street view, this may have been a downer.

Be sure to confirm check-in and check-out times, as they can vary widely. This matters if you’re arriving on a late flight and your host isn’t thrilled with letting you in 11:00 pm. Some also charge extra for late arrivals. Conversely, if you’re arriving early (i.e. before check-in) and would like to drop off your bags to explore the city, make sure your host provides this option (Airbnb typically makes it clear if this an option or not).

If you book a room with a host that is not a superhost (to save money or other), I recommend reaching out to them to confirm your arrival date, especially if it’s on a holiday or an otherwise special date. I say this because my wife and I booked an Airbnb in Paris for New Year’s Eve a full four months in advance, and our non-superhost cancelled on us one month before our trip. This turned out to be fortuitous, as we ended up landing a much cooler (and unfortunately pricier), alternative accommodation. Although it was helpful and appreciated that Airbnb provided a discount on the new booking, it was not an experience we would like to repeat. Communicating with your host ahead of time could certainly mitigate your chances of enjoying a similar experience.

There you have it. These are all the things we’ve picked up from traveling Europe the last two years that I thought might be helpful to others. If you have any questions or additional tips, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a note.

Happy trails!

Perhaps Email is Not The Best Medium?

Hi,

And thank you for your email!

Unfortunately, due to my current workload and the complex nature of your email content, I am afraid that I am unable to effectively engage with you in a one-on-one email conversation. I would submit that a face-to-face or phone conversation might be both more effective, and a more efficient use of both of our time.

Perhaps give me a jingle at your next most convenient time? The best way to reach me is during normal work hours using my office line listed in my signature block below.

Similarly, I’m just as happy to call you as well. Simply let me know a few times that you are free and I will give you a call.

I really appreciate your understanding in this regard.

Cheers!


The message above is a canned response provided to you in an effort to help both of us save time, avoid unnecessary and less fruitful email activities, and execute more high leverage activities while we are at work. Feel free to copy this canned response or use this link to respond to others: http://bit.ly/je-cr-talk-instead

Take Back One Third of Your Work Day with Canned Responses

Just because email helps us to accomplish work objectives does not mean that processing emails is actual, meaningful work (unless of course, you perform a customer service function). In fact, the average office worker spends almost one third of their day processing email.  

If we dedicate one third of our time to something, shouldn’t it be meaningful?

One small slice of the email problem that I would like to help you resolve today is to eliminate any amount of time you might be spending writing similar responses to similar emails. Take a moment to think about the 100s of emails you respond to each week. How many of these would be more efficiently resolved by simply inserting a polite, detailed, but completely pre-written (canned) answer?

Company technical support departments long ago addressed this problem of repeated wheel generation with two simple solutions: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and Canned Responses (that pre-written answer I mentioned). In fact, Gmail has incorporated the ability to very rapidly insert canned responses into the body of an email as one of its basic email functions (it was a Gmail “lab” for many years beforehand).

Here is what it looks like in Gmail:

Although this exact same function is not available with Outlook, the Signatures button on the Messages tab can be used to achieve the same result with almost the same level of convenience and efficiency.

That’s it.

So the next time you find yourself ever writing the same answer to an email that you’ve already written at least once, consider creating a canned response so that you never have to manually type out the same response ever again.

Finally, as an avid user of canned responses, I’ll be spending the next few weeks posting just a few examples of some general canned responses you could use to save time time typing out lengthy responses and also help educate others that abuse their email privileges.

To access all of these canned responses, simply click the canned responses category in the left-hand dropdown menu. 

Enjoy!

How to Use Google Keep to Eat Healthy

For those trying to change up their eating habits or for those simply trying to make easier the prospect of regularly eating healthy, there are certainly a few key challenges.

Those challenges are:

  1. Figuring out what to eat
  2. Finding recipes
  3. Staying on budget (Myth: healthy food costs so much!)
  4. Remembering to take ingredient lists to the grocery store

I’ve found that one simple part of the solution to these challenges is Google Keep. Although Google Keep and myriad other “brain overflow” cloud storage apps have been around for a while (e.g. Evernote, OneNote, etc.), it wasn’t until recently that I was able to find a utility for the service and add it to my trusted systems list. I’ll explain why further below, but for now, here is the complete system I use to help find healthy, inexpensive recipes, select the best ones, and store them so they’ll be immediately available when I need them.

Figuring out what to eat and finding inexpensive recipes.

For some people, this is the hardest part. Fortunately, it’s the easiest to solve. Google “healthy recipes”, and peruse the results. Even better, use these targeted boolean searches to refine your results as follows:

  • Simple recipes:  recipes healthy ~simple
  • Inexpensive recipes: recipes healthy ~simple ~inexpensive
  • Quick and inexpensive recipes:  recipes healthy ~inexpensive ~quick
  • Minimal ingredient, quick and inexpensive recipes:  recipes healthy ~inexpensive ~quick “~limited ingredients”

And of course, just add any search terms you want, and use a minus symbol for any results you do not want. For example: -pinterest

From those results, pick a few blogs that have recipes that you like. Finally, add those blogs to your RSS feed. If you’re not sure what an RSS feed is, it’s an aggregator (collector) of blog entries. One I use and recommend is Feedly.

The result of these actions is that now, every day (or so) you have new recipe ideas hitting your RSS reader. This solves problems 1-3 from above.

Refining our options and remembering to take ingredient lists to the grocery store.

First, open your Google Keep account on your computer. Do that by clicking on the grid of nine small squares located by your avatar (picture) in the top right hand corner of your Gmail account. Or, click here.

Second, install the Google Keep app on your phone.

Next, create two tags or categories:

  1. Recipes to make
  2. Recipes that rock

Then, look at your battle rhythm (or daily routine) and determine a time to review the recipes coming into your RSS feed. This is also a cool thing to Do Instead of Facebook (DIOF, or affectionately titled “die off” — an idea I continue to explore and eventually post about).

Note: I originally discussed the concept of a battle rhythm in my blog post: Inbox Zero – You Are Doing Email Wrong (Step 1). One day I’ll elaborate on the importance of the concept, perhaps. But I digress…

As you review these recipes and discover ideas that hit on all of your particular requirements (quick, simple, limited ingredients, etc.) click the share button and share them with Google Keep (there’s a chrome extension that allows you to do this from your computer as well). Finally, be sure to tag these recipes with the “Recipes to make” category before you close the Keep app.

The results from these actions are…

1. We have taken a large array of overwhelming recipe options and boiled them down into just a few recipes we know that we are able to make,

and 

2. the next time we’re at the grocery store all we need to do is open the Google Keep app and select the “Recipes to make” tag.

Additionally, if you’re a super efficiency nerd like me and want to waste zero time in the grocery store deciding what you might want to make that week, you can pin your top selections in Google Keep and they’ll be at the top of the list waiting for you when you launch the app.

That’s it!

Bonus: When you make a recipe that turns out great that you would like to eat again, simply tag it as a “Recipes that rock” in Keep and it’ll be there waiting for you as a “go-to” or “throw down” recipe in a time crunch or other moment of decision-making weakness (hey, we all have them).

And that’s literally it.

Background (for those interested in more than just the nitty gritty how-to above)

The reason I found this topic interesting is because I’ve tried to set up numerous trusted systems for keeping recipes. Pocket was probably my first attempt, but the UI just wasn’t good for recipes. It has tags and such, but its necessarily and beautifully “stripped down” look (it typically removes images and other things for simple offline reading) don’t work for recipe making.

I’m also not sure if I tried keeping recipe ideas in Google Drive, a spot where I do all of my work and often use my miscellaneous folder as a dumping ground for brain overflow storage (i.e. things I just can’t bother with trying to remember, but can easily search with the tap of an app on my phone or computer). However, creating a Google Doc or saving a link in a Google Doc for each recipe would involve way more clicks than what I outlined above, so also not great for recipe keeping.

Finally, I think my first attempt at recipe total recall was with GQueues (heads up, affiliate link). This is my everyday super trusted to-do app that integrates with Google Calendar like a boss. It’s also highly customizable so you can employ the David Allen Get Things Done (GTD) contextual settings and location based methodology, if you so choose to do so (and I so choose). Unfortunately, the UI and resultant UX didn’t make this method a keeper either (no pun intended).

So as you can see, Google Keep wasn’t my first shot at this. Hopefully my research results save you some time and help you get on track with a healthy lifestyle. You only get one lifetime… choose wisely.

Please let me know any ideas or systems you might use for eating healthy in the comments section below!

Don’t waste your lazy Sunday on misbehaving desktop icons

So there are weekends where, instead of focused work or a healthy day spent outside, I spend almost an entire day (or more) trying to solve a problem that doesn’t matter.

This Sunday was one of those days.

I have a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, I am running Windows 10, and recently, the icons on my desktop started misbehaving. By misbehaving, I mean they started randomly arranging themselves on my desktop after a reboot. Or, when I would attempt to arrange the icons in a particular order (i.e. the correct one), certain icons would displace other icons, disallowing me to arrange my desktop icons the way that I wanted them.

So, in effort to save others with my same level of OCD from this situation that is both 100% unimportant and incredibly frustrating, I present to you, the fix (that I found on 0 of 5 self-help threads posted on the interwebs):

1. Turn off Auto arrange icons: right click desktop > view > uncheck. (I am uncertain if this relevant to my problem or not, but this was one of the first suggestions I came across as a fix. It may fix the problem for you, but it did not fix it for me.)

2. With your mouse, hold the Ctrl button and scroll up/down on the wheel so that your icons get smaller.

3. Attempt to rearrange them. If you are successful, once you have them where you want them, resize them and they should stay put (mine did).

4. If you still can’t rearrange them without them displacing other icons or relocating to their previous location, shrink them to the point that they comply. Then, arrange and resize as desired.

Microsoft, you can send the check to myfirstnamemylastname@gmail.com.

There now, go outside and play.

Cheers,
Josh

 

 

So Much Time, So Little to Read

Strike that. Reverse it… as Willy Wonka said.

Seriously though, how often do you find yourself up to your neck in piles of self-improvement, tech, excel shortcuts, Google Drive tips, food, health or myriad other to-get-to-later articles and listicles… that you’ll actually never get to.

Me too. Let’s resolve this, shall we?

OK, so I can’t offer a solution that’s sure to get you 100% caught up, I can offer a technique that will catch you up and hand back to you some of your life’s wasted time. My solution involves getting caught up on your reading during your work commute (without actually reading during your work commute) and a product that I thought was well-known to everyone (but apparently is not): Pocket.

I am not suggesting that you read while driving, so please do stay with me.

First, the tech. Pocket is both a phone app and a Chrome extension one can acquire in the Chrome web store. For this solution you’ll of course need both.

Next, you’ll need articles that you want to read later. Oh wait, we already have plenty of those… so on to the next step — putting those articles in Pocket. Do this by sharing them with Pocket on your phone, or via the Chrome extension from your desktop.

When you share articles with Pocket they become immediately available for offline reading within the Pocket app — which is primarily the point of Pocket, actually. I use this feature to catch up on reading on planes or in other locations without cell or WiFi service. Similarly, I also use this to download articles to read later so that I save even more money on cellphone data use on my already extremely inexpensive Google Project Fi service plan (keeping my bill even smaller). But back to the solution…

Pocket has a great feature that actually reads your articles to you. Out loud of course. OK yep, you see where I’m going at this point. In the event that you don’t, here’s the full math equation:

Pocket read aloud feature + saved articles + 30 work commute x 2 = 60 minutes of free reading time, back in your lap. Every. Day.

You’re welcome! And happy listening…

PS – Audible from Amazon is also a great alternative option if you’re not a huge fan of blogs/articles/online stuff. Podcasts are great too, but that’s a post for another day.