A Lonely Lighthouse

With our vacation coming to an end tomorrow, thought I’d write a little about some of the places we visited. For fun, I’ve decided to write about these places in no particular order. And I wanted to begin with a lonely lighthouse: the Presque Island Lighthouse.

The Presque Island Lighthouse, Est. 1873

One of the first thing I learned upon entering the lighthouse was that I’d been mispronouncing Presque Isle. This is what happens when your only experience with the name is through maps. I’d been pronouncing it “Press-key”. Actually, it is pronounced “presk.” The lighthouse rests along the southern shore of Lake Erie. It is amazing how much like and ocean the lake looks like from the shore.

Canada is about 26 miles across the lake, which I think is the same distance as the English Channel, but I am too lazy to check this at the moment. The light from the Presque Island Lighthouse can be seen for 13 miles. As it happens, a companion lighthouse on the Canadian shore to the north can also be seen at a distance of 13 miles. So ships in the middle of the lake can see both lighthouses as they pass by.

The first lighthouse keeper felt that it was too lonely out there by himself on Presque Isle. The longest resident lighthouse keeper lived at the lighthouse for 26 years, from 1901 to 1927. Interestingly, he retired when the island became too busy with tourists. Apparently, he enjoyed the lonely lifestyle, the mile long walk to the bay, and the canoe ride to shore when he had to reach the mainland. (Today, the island and lighthouse is reachable by road.)

Without it ever being tacitly agreed, visiting lighthouses has become a theme of our road trips. We’ve visited several lighthouses in Maine (most recently the Portland Head Lighthouse), a lighthouse in upstate New York, the St. Augustine Lighthouse in Florida, a lighthouse in Mystic, Connecticut. It makes for a nice little collection that we look forward to adding to on our trips, a special kind of souvenir.

We all made the 78-step climb to the top of the lighthouse to see it demonstrated. (Today it uses an LED bulb.) There was a spectacular view of Lake Erie from up there.

Lake Erie, looking north

I like visiting places like the Presque Island lighthouse. It didn’t seem that lonely to me. It seemed peaceful.

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Carefree Days

Sometimes when I need to relax, I think about the last carefree days that I can remember. When I think of these days, it is the summer after high school graduation that comes to mind. For me, these were the in-between months. My time in public school was finally over. Homework was over. (In college, we never called it homework, it was “studying.”) Standardized tests were over. I had gotten into a decent college and I never had to think about SATs and ACTs and AP tests again. I had earned my high school diploma and I had about three months of carefree living before heading off to college.

Those were great months in my memory. It was the summer of 1990 in Los Angeles. Everything seemed bright. The world seemed simpler and safer. It was more than a decade before 9/11. It was before the first Gulf War. I had a great summer job, working in a pharmacy just down the street from my house. I had the whole summer to spend with my friends before we all headed our separate ways for college. And then, of course, there was college itself. I was excited to move out on my own, and lived through the carefree days of that summer anticipating the day I moved into the dorms the way I anticipate an upcoming vacation.

I remember taking a drive out to Westlake Village, where we went to a bike shop, and I got brand new bike as a graduation present, a bike that would accompany me to college a few months later. I can picture that day so clearly, that has come to represent the pinnacle of carefree days in my mind. I had no anxiety, no worries, only possibilities that opened up before me like and endless highway. Driving back from that bike shop, on the 101 freeway heading east, I remember my grandfather in the passenger seat, commenting on how well I was driving. (“You’re not a white-knuckle driver,” he said.) The skies seemed unusually blue for summer in Los Angeles.

That summer, I worked during the days, daydreaming of being off at college when thing were slowing the store. In the evenings I spent as much time as I could with my friends, knowing that we’d soon be separated. Certain songs that came on the radio back then trigger some of these memories. Hearing Living Colour’s “Broken Hearts” reminds me of driving to Corbin Bowl in the evening to meet up with my friends. Phantom of the Opera was at its height in Los Angeles at the time, and hearing “The Music of the Night” reminds me of that drive back from the bike shop.

I’m sure I had worries, but they were still the worries of a teenager, and they didn’t register in the way that adult worries do. I imagine I worries that I wouldn’t see my friends as often, and wondered if we’d drift apart. Indeed, for a few years, we did drift apart, but only for a few years. I am writing this piece early in the morning, sitting at the dining room table of my friend Eric’s house in Albany, New York, one of my best high school friends from those carefree days. Our days aren’t as carefree anymore, and neither of us have lived in Los Angeles for years, but here we are, still hanging out, and our kids are also hanging out, and they are getting to the same age that we were when we first met.

Thinking about those last carefree days before college always helps to put me in a good mood. I may not experience days as carefree as those were (as a parent, you never completely stop worrying about your kids), but I think my kids might still have some carefree days ahead of them. This road-trip vacation we are on, for instance. If we can help give them a few days like that in the years left before they head off to college, then it is almost like having a few more carefree days ourselves.

My friend Andy and me at our high school graduation.
My friend Andy and I at our high school graduation, the peak of our carefree days.

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Unposted Writings

For every 25 posts I publish here on the blog there is probably one that I write and never post. Looking at my Drafts folder (where all of these posts begin their lives, and wait their turn until they are scheduled) I see two of these unposted writings sitting there, waiting to be posted, and knowing they likely never make it to the front page.

The current contents of my drafts folder.

The first of these is a post called “What to Say to WETA?” The second is the post titled “Show Off How Smart You Are.” I had actually gotten so far as to schedule these posts for this week, when I decided to pull them and replace them with other posts (this very piece you are reading is one of the replacements).

Why not publish the posts?

There are generally two reasons that I write a post and then decide not to publish it:

  1. The piece just isn’t very good.
  2. Something about the tone of the piece bothers me.

Before a post goes into the world, there is really only one person who can judge whether it is good enough to be posted and that is me. This blog is a one-man operation. I play the role of writer, editor, and marketing department all by myself. And sometimes I write something and think, nope, that just isn’t very good. It used to be that I’d post the bad stuff anyway, but over time I realized that I wanted to show the very best of what I write. So I’ve gotten better at weeding out the bad stuff.

The bad stuff, incidentally, doesn’t always even make it into the draft folder. Sometime I’ll have an idea, write a paragraph or two, and realize it is no good then and there. I’ll just delete it instead of completing it. Why waste the time? Other times, I’ll complete a draft, but upon re-reading it, I’ll decide that it is a second-rate effort, or that someone else has said the same thing much better than I have. In these instances, I’ll take a deep breath, and let the piece die in the drafts folder.

Less frequently, I’ll write something that I like, and that I think is pretty good, but that I don’t think has the right tone, or that I think comes off sounding to haughty, too whiny, too petty, or too sarcastic for no good reason. These posts often make it to the scheduled stage, and after a night or two of consideration, I’ll pull them. The posts on “What to Say to WETA?” and “Show Off How Smart You Are” are examples of this variety.

In the first example, I am complaining about receiving too many requests for money from a charitable organization that actually does a lot of good for people. I knew as I was writing it that it fell into the category of too whiny and too petty, but I wrote it anyway, and I even scheduled it. Indeed, it was set to be published today. At night, as I drifted toward sleep, I began to worry that that post would do more harm than good. I mean, so what if the charity seems to constantly ask me for money? Does that really hurt anyone? The post was more sarcastic than my usual, and upon reflection, it seemed completely unwarranted. So I pulled it. That was fine. It wasn’t a wasted effort. Indeed, writing the post was very much like writing an angry letter, one in which I stuff into an envelope, stick on a stamp–and then toss into a desk drawer, knowing I’ll never mail it. Just writing the letter burned through whatever emotional frustration it held on me. Having written it, I felt much better.

In the second example, “Show Off How Smart You Are,” I went off on a pet peeve of mine, equating trivia with being smart. I’d seen an ad for a trivia contest, part of which read “Show off how smart you are…” and that pressed some buttons of mine. I wrote a post filleting the ad in rather caustic terms. But once again, my cooler head prevailed. People enjoy these contests, and who am I to say what is “smart” and what isn’t. This was an example of people having fun, and I was raining on their parade. So I pulled that post as well.

In the early years of the blog, I was not so selective about the quality or tone of my posts. But over the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve fallen more and more into this process where I write posts as drafts, schedule them, and then consider them before they are actually published. More often than not, I don’t give a post a second thought once it is written. But when I do, that’s when my radar goes up, and I start to ask myself why I wrote the post and what I hope to gain by publishing it. If I feel that the primary reason for the post is not particularly good, I’ll pull it.

This is why you are reading about unposted writings today, instead of me ranting about a harmless charity that maybe puts the touch on me a little too much.

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Where In the World Is Jamie Todd Rubin?

I’m interrupting these regularly scheduled posts to drop a quick note from our road trip vacation. Today, we are here:

I’ll have more to say about our trip in the days to come but so far we are having a great time.

Now I’ll return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

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Job Titles, Numbers, and Levels

I was watching The Bourne Ultimatum and in one scene, the person in charge of the command center interrupts everyone who is trying to do their job with, “This is NSA priority level 4…” He is so serious when he says this. People are trying to do their work, and this guy comes in and reminds them of something that they already know, assuming they have regular security refreshers. This always makes me laugh. That bureaucracy is so ingrained in our culture that it makes into an action movie like this seems almost absurd. In the real world, I can’t imagine people working this way. It is just too inefficient. It is the kind of language I’ve seen in science fiction novels from the 1950s and 1960s.

But then, I got to thinking a bit. We do have some convoluted ways of labeling things. Take job titles, for instance. A simple description is never enough. It has to be narrow and focused, and reflect not just the job, but the level of experience. It is never “plumber” but “journeyman plumber” or “master plumber.” It’s never just “doctor” but “chief of surgery.” Even in baseball, you are not a pitcher, you are “middle relief.” In my own world, I am not a “coder” or a “project manager” but an Application Developer IV. I don’t know what the difference between an Application Developer III and an Application Developer IV is, but there you have it.

Why is it that the number that follows a job title is always written in Roman numerals? I never see “Application Developer 4”; instead, the four is written as “IV”. With the way Roman’s wrote their numbers, this translates to “one less than five” so right there in my title is the fact that I am not as good as an Application Developer V. In a profession that strives for efficiency, that extra byte of data gnaws at me. The federal government takes this to an extreme with its GS levels. There are 15 grades, from GS1 to GS15. Within each of those grades are ten “steps.” That is 150 units of distinction in just levels alone. I thought I had it bad with my Application Developer IV!

I suppose if I were to talk to an HR Specialist (III) they might tell me that the numbers provide a way to compare one job type to another. I’m not sure of the value in that. It seems like comparing apples and oranges.

Some job titles don’t have numbers, but try to be cute in other ways: things like “Chief Happiness Officer” and “Linux Guru.” These may be cute, but they are not particularly helpful.

What makes a job title exempt from Strunk & White’s elementary principles of composition?

  • Be clear
  • Omit needless words (or numbers)
  • Avoid fancy words
  • Do not overstate
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat

I think if we applied these principles to our job titles, we’d have a much better idea of what we are supposed to be doing in the first place.

When I have a leak in my house, I want a plumber. I don’t need to know if the person is a “master plumber” or not. The most important piece of information to me is how soon can you get here?

There are some good, simple titles that still exist in the world. “President of the United States” is self-explanatory, although POTUS sounds ridiculous to me. If John Adams had gotten his way, it may have been a lot worse. “Author” is a good one, although “Bestselling Author” breaks the rule of “avoid using qualifiers.” Besides, I prefer “Writer” to “Author”. I can’t say why, but “Author” sounds pretentious to me. I like “Reporter” over “Journalist.” Biologist is a good title. Lawyer is better than Attorney for the same reason Writer is better than Author. I’ll make an exception for Barrister; it is better than both.

My current (old) personal business card
My current (old) personal business card

As for me, I prefer the title of “Writer” since it encompasses everything that I do. My old business card has a title of “Writer, Blogger.” This breaks the rule of “omit needless words.” It is also redundant. I think when I get new business cards I’ll change it to “Writer” which is, after all, just right.

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My Favorite Story I’ve Written (So Far)

Occasionally I am asked what my favorite story that I’ve written is. I assume this means my favorite story that I’ve sold and has been published. This is not an easy question for a writer. It is like asking a parent, which of your children is your favorite. A common response, and one that I’ve used often, is: “The one that I’m working on now.”

Since it has been several years since I sold my last piece of fiction, and since I think of that initial period of about a dozen stories as Phase 1 of my writing career, I think can now admit to a definite favorite.

My favorite story from Phase 1 of my writing career (2007-2015) is “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown.” It is currently freely available at Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show and I urge you all to go read it, if you haven’t already done so. The story received my all-time favorite review in Tangent Online. There, reviewer Ryan Holmes wrote:

All the little strings by which Rubin weaves the characters to each other and to the game itself create a tapestry even a non-baseball fan would enjoy, but this story isn’t about baseball. It’s about loving something more than ourselves and sacrificing everything for that love. It’s about family, the distance that can separate us from our loved ones, and yes, it’s about how baseball can bring us together

This is one of those stories that wrote itself. All I had to do was sit down at the keyboard and take dictation. The science fiction is secondary–a vehicle to sell it to a science fiction magazine. It is a story that could be told without the science fictional element, something that was more and more common with my later stories.

It is the first time I ever received the cover of a magazine, and Eric Wilkerson’s artwork for the story just blew me away. It was better than I could have possibly imagined. He captured Gemma from my words and turned her into a living, breathing person that really brings her to life.

There is a reason this story is on my mind today. Back in 2005 (pre-blog days) I went on a road trip with my brother to Cooperstown. We spent a few days there, touring the National Baseball Hall of Fame. My brother played baseball in college, and then played semi-pro ball after graduating. It was such a fun trip. It was also the last time I was in Cooperstown. (I’d been there at least twice before that as a kid.) Today, I am returning to Cooperstown, this time with my family. It is the second stop on our summer road trip, and I’m probably the only one looking forward to this particular stop. Mainly, I’m looking forward to standing in the Hall, among all of the plaques of the greatest players of the last 150 years or so, and imagining Gemma’s plaque in that space.

I’ll have more to say about my visit to the Hall of Fame in the days to come, but at least now you know why “Gemma Barrows” is on my mind. If you read it, I think it’s pretty easy to see why it is my favorite story of those that I have written so far.

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Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon Whiskey

Yesterday while visiting friends, my old high school buddy, Eric, brought out a two glasses and a bottle of Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon Whiskey. He poured us each some whiskey, and said, “You have to try this.”

Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon Whiskey

I had to oblige so I tasted it. And it was amazing. I’m not a bourbon connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve tried my share of bourbons over the years. This one blew them all out of the water. It was buttery and sweet, and hot some kind of spiciness to it at the same time. It is a dangerous whiskey. I couldn’t get enough of it. I slowly sipped at the glass, and when I finished it, I poured myself a second (much smaller) glass, just to keep the delicious moment alive a little longer.

I took a photo of the bottle with no intention of posting it here. I took it so that I could go looking for it at the local ABC liquor store one I am back home. This will be something I’ll be keeping around the house from now on. It is fantastic!

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Reading versus Sleeping

There is a battle I engage in each night: whether to go to sleep, or read. I get up pretty early. Usually I’m awake between 5:15 and 5:30a, and I am out on my morning walk between 5:50 and 6:00a. During the summers, the kids don’t go to bed until 10p and I usually start to drag around 8p. If I could, I’d probably go to bed around 8p each night. Usually, I end up going to bed closer to 10p.

By the time I get into bed, I am usually tired. I have a small window in which I can fall asleep quickly and if I miss that window for some reason, it usually takes me much longer to settle down and fall asleep. The problem, for me, if the constant battle that goes on in my head between reading and sleeping. There is rarely a time that I don’t want to continue reading for as long as I can. At the same time, I can often feel myself slipping outside the boundaries of that sleep window. So: do I continue to read, knowing it will be difficult to fall asleep? Or do I set aside the book knowing I’ll fall asleep quickly and feel well-rested in the morning.

nightstand book stack

As much as I need a good night’s sleep, I almost always opt to continue reading. Usually, when I am on the fence, the thought that goes through my head is: At the end of my life, I’m not going to say, “I wish I’d slept more.” And then I imagine that I am on the verge of reading a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long time when the lights go out. That usually puts off sleep for a time. Some nights I’ll read for a while, and the book will keep sleep at bay. Other nights, I’ll get another 15 minutes before the laws of physics make it impossible for me to keep my eyes open any longer.

On some nights, much more rare, I just can’t put a book down. I’ll keep reading and reading, past midnight, past one o’clock, two o’clock… I know that I will regret this in the morning, but some books are just so good I can’t put them down.

Occasionally, I will give in to my need for sleep. I’ll get into bed with the thought that maybe I’ll read for a few minutes, and then reconsider, close my eyes, and be right off to sleep. Usually when this happen I tell myself that I’ll pick up the book first thing in the morning, or in the middle of the night, if I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. That never happens, probably because I am so tired from reading late in the first place.

When I really want to read, but am just too tired to keep my eyes open, I become envious of the “sleepless” in Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain,” people who have been genetically modified so that they don’t need sleep. I wonder just how much more reading I could get done if I didn’t need to sleep between 6-8 hours each night?

Actually, it wouldn’t be that hard to estimate. Say it takes me 10 hours, on average, to read a book. And suppose that, by being sleepless, I could get in an additional 5 hours of reading per day. (I say 5 because even at my best, I can’t read for 7 hours straight without breaks.) That would mean an additional 35 hours of reading per week, or about 3-1/2 books. There are 52 weeks in a year so I would read an additional 182 books a year. Without that time, in my best year, I read 130 books. Usually I am for 100 books/year. Being genetically modified to not require sleep would increase my reading by 182%. If I lived to be 90, I might be able to read an additional 4,000 – 5,000 books in my life. Without sleep, that number jumps to an additional 7,300 – 8,300 books in the last 40 years of my life.

I know that people are wary of genetic modification, but being able to go without sleep sounds like a real superpower when I consider how much more reading I could do. I wonder if this is something Jennifer Doudna is looking into?

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100+ Days Caffeine Free

This week was so busy that I completely missed that July 27 was my 100th day caffeine free. I gave up caffeine back on April 18, 2021. This isn’t the first time I’ve given it up (I gave it up for 7 years from 2003-2010), but I think it is the furthest I’ve gotten since. I’m well past the point where I even crave caffeine. I can watch other people drink it and be happy with my own caffeine-free drink. About the only think I miss is the boost it gave me in the mornings. But my morning walks have replaced that, and I enjoy them more than I did the caffeine.

This is me patting myself on the back, and congratulating myself for being caffeine-free for a little over one hundred days. I will return you now to your regularly scheduled programming.

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Knowing When To Say When: On Giving Up On A Book

Well, I’ve done it again. I have failed to make it through Cryptonomicon. So far the third time has not been a charm. Interestingly, I stalled at almost exactly the same place as I did during my last attempt, right around page 600 in the paperback edition. I’m somewhat ashamed giving up on the book, especially since I made a big deal of announcing my third attempt to get through it. So I am giving myself one more chance at redemption. I’ve got a long drive today and I plan on listening to the book the entire way. I should be able to come close to finishing it. But this is really the last chance. I can deal with shame. What I can’t abide is spending time on a book that just isn’t doing it for me, when there are too many other books I want to read.

Most of what I read these days is nonfiction and it is unconscionable for me to spend as much time on fiction as I have on Cryptonomicon. I spent at least 10 days trying to get through it. During that same period of time, I could have made it through three nonfiction books. I made the sacrifice because the themes in Cryptonomicon would seem to be right up my alley. It’s got late 1990s tech, so there’s nostalgia from the dot com boom. It’s got crypto; it’s got information theory, which I ate up this summer. It’s got World War II history, which I enjoy reading. So why can’t I get through it? I don’t have an answer.

Actually, I broke my own rules this time. Long ago, I learned the importance of knowing when to say when with regard to a book. If a work of fiction doesn’t catch my interest after a few pages, I’m out. With nonfiction, I like the rule I once heard: give it 100 pages minus your age. This year, that means giving a book 51 pages, and then I bail. Time is too precious to waste it on books that aren’t good fits. This is by no means a slight to the authors. In just about every case, I’m sure the fit is bad on my end. Cryptonomicon is teetering on joining a cadre of eight other books I’ve failed to make it through this year, including:

To be honest, the pressure was already on even before I started reading Cryptonomicon. I should have had 50 books read by June 30. As of this moment, I’ve completed 48 books and I’m about 9 books behind my pace for the year. I gave Cryptonomicon far more time that I should have. I didn’t trust my instincts, and that always gets my into trouble, where books are concerned.

So, with Cryptonomicon finally set aside, what is on tap for me? Here’s some of what I am looking forward to reading over the rest of the summer:

My usual caveat about the butterfly effect of reading applies here. But this is the list that I am currently looking at tackling the rest of this summer.

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How To Remap Cmd-I To Avoid Opening the Mail App on a Mac

Something changed recently with respect to keyboard mappings on my Mac. A few days ago, I was writing a post, and hit the Cmd-I key to put my editor in italics mode. Instead, the Mail App opened up and a copy of what I had written had been pasted into a blank email message. That was odd. I closed the mail app, and tried again but the same thing happened. So I highlighted the text I wanted to italicize and clicked the Italics icon. That was a bit of a pain because I am a keyboard guy and have been using a form of Cmd (or CTRL)-I for decades to start and stop italics mode in editors.

I forgot about this until the next time I wanted to italicize text. The same thing happened. Instead of putting the editor into italics mode, the Mail App popped up again. Over the next several days, this continued to happen, and I eventually expressed mild frustration on Twitter:

Over the next five days, I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened. Clearly something has changed, either in a recent update of MacOS, or a recent update of Safari. In any case, I was frustrated enough to try to figure out how to stop this from happening this morning since the post I was writing (you’ll see it Saturday) had lots of italics. After some searching and trial and error, I figured out how to prevent this from happening. Here is what worked for me in case anyone is having the same problem. (Note: this applies to Safari):

  1. Open System Preferences
  2. Go to Keyboard preferences
  3. Go to the Shortcuts tab,
  4. Click App Shortcuts on the sidebar
  5. Add a new App Shortcut by clicking the + icon
  6. Give the shortcut the following name: “Email This Page”
  7. Assign the shortcut a keyboard command that you are unlikely to use in the future; I gave mine the following: Shift-CTRL-OPTION-CMD-I
  8. Restart Safari

After I did this, whenever I hit Cmd-I in my WordPress editor, it actually went into italics mode, instead of launching the Mail app. Somehow, something in Safari changed to use Cmd-I to open the Mail app. By remapping that function to another key combination, it eliminated the problem.

The article I found that pointed me in the right direction was for MacOS 10.15 (Catalina), but I swear this just began happening on my system in the last few weeks, and I think it was after I updated to 11.5.

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Weekly Playbook #5: Handling Email

For an overview of this series, see the debut post on my morning routine.

Background

I’ve been using email for more than half my life. While it was available to me in college, I didn’t begin to use it until I started at my job a few months after I graduated. That was 1994 and I was 22 years old at the time. Nearly 27 years later, I think I’ve done a pretty good job with handling email. My inbox rarely contains more than a dozen message at any given moment. I frequently hit “inbox zero.” I’ve been through a variety of models for managing my email over the years, from an elaborate folder structure to the minimalist structure I’ve used for the last fifteen years or so.

Until recently, I kept up with my email more or less in real time. I’d clear out messages as they came in, respond as they came in, prune and refile throughout the day. As I developed my morning routine, one of the things I wanted to try was to see if it was possible to handle my email once a day, in the mornings, after I’d finished my writing. This playbook is what has come out of that experimentation so far.

Playbook

  1. Reply to email messages I flagged the previous day. Use canned replies, if possible.
  2. Move the replied-to message to my Archive folder.
  3. Scan my inbox for messages that can be deleted without being read. Update filters to weed these out in the future, if possible.
  4. Delete the unneeded messages.
  5. Read the remaining new messages
  6. Take action on the email if action is quick. If it takes more time, snooze the email for a later date/time.
  7. Move messages that don’t require a response to my Archive folder.
  8. Flag messages that require a response and leave in my Inbox. I use the Pin function in my mail client for this.
  9. Compose any new messages I need to send

Commentary

Example: Handling this morning’s email

My basic philosophy here is to try to deal with email once per day. So far, this doesn’t work out quite this way in practice, but I’ve found that it means I am checking email much less frequently during the day. And it does help me to make sure I am replying to email only once each day. Here is what my inbox looked like as I composed this post:

My morning inbox, before running through my playbook.

The first thing I do is to reply to any email messages in my inbox that I flagged the previous day. If possible, I’ll use a canned reply. I have a few of these. One common example is when I get unsolicited requests to do a guest post on my blog. If I find that I am writing the same reply over and over, I will also use this time to compose a reply that I will turn into a canned reply that I can use in the future. Once I’ve replied to a message, I immediately move into my Archive folder. This morning was nice. I had no email that I flagged for reply.

Next, I look for email that can be deleted without being read. Often these are newsletters I didn’t subscribe to, or notifications from service I use that I don’t need to see. For the former, I’ll see if there is an easy way to unsubscribe. I’ll also use this opportunity to improve my inbox filters so that messages like these never make it to my inbox in the first place. The MetLife Dental Claim email is a good example of a message I can just delete as I know it contains no useful information (just a link to the site).

Next, I’ll read through what is left. I always enjoy Melanie Novak’s posts which is why I subscribed to her blog. No action other than to read. For blogs, I’ll use the email as a reminder to go to the blog itself to read so that the blogs get the views. Besides, I prefer reading on the blog than in email. It makes it easy to comment. Once I’ve opened the blog in a browser, I’ll delete the message from my inbox.

The Ring message requires an action on my part, but it is not something I want to do now, so I’ll snooze that for Friday when I know I will have time.

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates, a great company I’ve worked with in the past, and from which I have received some of the most practical project management training I’ve encountered, to say nothing of their outstanding customer support training, which focuses on moments of truth. I saw that Dan is starting a podcast, and the action here was to get more information about the podcast and when it drops.

The message from Capclave (my local science fiction convention) has been sitting in my inbox for almost a week now, which is rare for me. Since it is going to take more than a few minutes to handle this, I’ll snooze it until Friday.

The nice thing about this morning is that I have no email that requires a reply, so there is nothing to flag (so far). This is where I tend to dip into email throughout the day, checking to see if there is anything I need to reply to and flagging it so that I can reply tomorrow. I also don’t have any new mail to send out, so it was a quick and easy morning for me. At the end of the process, my inbox looked like this:

My morning inbox after running through my playbook: inbox zero achieved!

I don’t achieve inbox zero every morning, but as I said, I usually don’t have more than a dozen messages in my inbox at any one time. One nice side effect of this is that people can expect to get a reply from me first thing in the morning, the day after they’ve sent me a message. First thing in the morning is also when I sent out my new messages, if I have any.

Filing my email

When I began using email in 1994, I was using a Unix-based email system that allowed for the creation of folders in the same way you could create folders in a file system. I had a fairly elaborate scheme for organizing my email into folders. back then, but about fifteen years ago, I moved to a much simpler scheme, consisting of four active folders. The four folders are:

  • Inbox – where I process new email.
  • Archive – where I store all email that I want to keep
  • Sent – where I store copies of email that I sent, including replies
  • Upcoming Travel – where I store current messages related to upcoming travel (confirmations, tickets, etc.)

It occurred to me that the power of search made it simple to find pretty much anything I needed without spending a lot of time figuring out where to file a message. So if a message doesn’t go into the trash, it goes into the Archive folder. Travel-related messages take a detour to the Upcoming Travel folder until they are no longer needed, at which point they go into the archive folder as well.

If I need to find something, I just run a search and can usually find what I am looking for within a few seconds.

My mail apps

Currently, I am using the Spark mail app for handling mail on my computer. On my phone I use the Spark mail app for iOS. I just like the simplicity and functionality of Spark better than the native Mac mail app.

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If so, consider subscribing to the blog using the form below or clicking on the button below to follow the blog. And consider telling a friend about it. Didn’t like it so much? Let me know why, either in the comments, or by reaching out to me directly. I’m always looking for ways to improve. Already a reader or subscriber to the blog? Thanks for being a part of this community!

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