GPSOLO June 2008
The Answer to Your Digital Prayers
I found it! No, not the fountain of youth. But something almost as valuable. I’ve discovered a way to deal with digital overload—the endless stream of e-mails, thousands of document files on your computer, those digital photos with which you don’t know what to do, and more.
Bit Literacy (Good Experience Press, 2007), a book by Mark Hurst, will show you the way, the way back to a simpler time when the most that you had to fit into your schedule was Gilligan’s Island, and you didn’t need a BlackBerry to do it.
Well, perhaps I am exaggerating just a little bit. But this book really does lay down a methodology of how to deal with the digital bits of information that come flying at us each day in various formats. One of Hurst’s most brilliant concepts is his simplest, that your e-mail inbox was never meant to be a repository for anything, not documents, not reminders for work to be done, not even funny jokes. When e-mail comes in, you read it, move the e-mail’s information to where it belongs, and then you delete the e-mail. Simple, right? Well then, why didn’t you think of it before?
The author suggests a rather scary and disturbing action: Reduce your e-mails to zero. Yes, you read that correct, zero, as in nothing, nada, nichts. Makes one feel queasy just thinking of a completely empty e-mail box. But it makes a lot of sense.
When Janis Joplin sang “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” I don’t think she was singing about e-mails, but it applies here. Think of how much less tension there would be in your life if every time you opened your e-mail box there wasn’t a mountain of e-mail there waiting to greet you. Not only that, but the information in the e-mails would be intelligently filed away so that it could be found and used when needed, instead of all crowded together in your e-mail box.
Changing your habit of using your e-mail box as storage for documents, to dos, photos, and whatever else you’re trying to keep track of is not easy. But here are a few tips to get you to that magical zero state:
- Start small. Rather than attempting to empty your entire e-mail box in one shot, start by making sure that all of your e-mails for each day are deleted by the end of the day. This is not too overwhelming, and it will get you in the habit of sending the information contained within each e-mail to the proper place before moving on to the job of emptying out your entire e-mail box.
- Try shortcuts to accomplish your cleanup efforts. Rather than going through all 2,000 of your accumulated e-mails one by one, click on top of the “From” column or “Subject” column to group e-mails together by sender or topic, respectively. This way you can delete a whole bunch of e-mails at one time because certain topics, such as “New Year’s Eve Plans,” are no longer relevant.
- Be ruthless. When in doubt, delete. If you agonize over each e-mail, you will never get the job done. Remember, the phrase “you can’t take it with you” also applies to e-mails.
But what about e-mails that have action items in them, things that you need to get done? If you take them out of the e-mail box, you’ll forget all about them and never get them done. So how do you deal with them?
A Heavenly To Do List
Enter Gootodo, Hurst’s web-based to do list application, a remarkable tool that I now use every day. Located at www.gootodo.com, it is a straightforward to do list without a lot of bells and whistles, but with some pretty handy features.
The application’s main page consists of the list of your to dos for the current day and a small monthly calendar with a drop-down box that permits you to move around the calendar quickly to see or enter other to dos for other dates. Click on “New Todo” and you are presented with a “Summary” box, the information from which is displayed on the to do list, and a larger “Details” box for more information. That’s it.
Well, I did leave out Gootodo’s coolest feature. You can also make a to do entry via e-mail from the approved e-mail address that you provide (you can have up to four of these approved e-mail addresses). So if you receive a request from a client and you respond that you will get back to her
on Wednesday, simply cc’ing or bcc’ing wednesday@
gootodo.com will enter the e-mail in your to do list for the next Wednesday. The subject line of the e-mail will be the to do’s “Summary,” and the body of the e-mail will be the “Details.” The to do item will also include the e-mail’s attachments, if there are any.
Pretty cool, eh? There are many other date formats that you can use. Sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org will enter it as a to do on August 28. Today@gootodo.com and email@example.com will add e-mails to today’s and tomorrow’s to do list, respectively. Use 5d@gootodo.
com for five days out, firstname.lastname@example.org for two weeks out, and email@example.com for three months out (you can use any number from 1 to 12 for the “d”, “w,” and “m”
You can subscribe to a daily list of your to dos, which will be e-mailed to you once each day. You can export your to dos and, for those more security-minded, you can establish a PIN that must be at the beginning of an e-mail’s subject line for it to be entered as a to do item.
Besides using it when responding to a client’s request, the e-mail feature also is useful for times when you have access to e-mail but not to the web. For instance, if you are at a meeting, you can set up a to do with your BlackBerry by simply creating and sending an e-mail to your to do list. (Please do not attempt this while driving!)
Gootodo’s daily format means that you only view your to dos for that day instead of being overwhelmed by a list of to dos stretched out from here to eternity. (Never happens, right?) You can also redate a to do to send it into the future or send a future to do to today if you run out of to dos for a particular day. (Please contact me if you manage to accomplish this so that I can learn how you did it.)
There is a 30-day free trial period, after which the service costs $3 per month, charged in six-month increments, which should put it within reach of every solo attorney.
Other Digital Pearls of Wisdom
Mark Hurst also provides a file naming scheme in his book—I don’t completely agree with his particular system, but the important message here is to use some file-naming scheme so that files are easier to find and identify. One of the things that I do differently is my naming scheme for e-mails, which you can read about in my December 2002 Being Solo column ( www.abanet.org/genpractice/magazine/2002/dec/beingsolo.html).
Hurst lays out a folder organization system in his chapter on storing files, and he has some good suggestions for storing digital photos in a way that actually lets you find them again one day. One important tip that he makes: Although you can take as many pictures as you want with a digital camera, the job of organizing photos will be a lot easier if you delete the bad ones before storing them on your computer.
A Word from the Man Himself
Impressed by the breadth and detail of Bit Literacy, I decided to look up the author. I asked what inspired him to develop this system in the first place.
“As a computer science graduate,” he recounted, “I had to work efficiently. Other efficiency experts don’t write about digital efficiency, so I developed this system over about 13 years.”
As to what made him write his book, Hurst explained, “I knew that I had a system that people could learn, and our company has doubled its productivity through the use of the Bit Literacy system.”
Any special advice for lawyers? “The challenges that lawyers face are the same faced by business people, teachers, and even geeks writing blogs.” It’s nice to know that we have something in common with blog-writing geeks.
Go Forth and Conquer Your Digital Demons
Solo attorneys do not have an IT department to help them manage all of their digital detritus. More often than not they do not have a secretary, either. So it is even more important that you get a handle on your digital bits before they overwhelm you—throwing your computer out the window is not an option. I suggest that you start by going to http://bitliteracy.com and plunking down $15 (free shipping!) for a book that finally will make dealing with e-mail and the rest of the digital deluge somewhat less painful than a trip to the dentist.
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. In his spare time he blogs at staringatstrangers.com. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.