How Cal Newport Manages his Email Overload With Trello

Overflowing inbox — Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

Are you frustrated with your overflowing inbox? You are not alone!

In a recent podcast episode, Cal Newport expressed again his frustration with his overflowing email inbox.

As Director of Graduate Studies for his department at Georgetown University, Cal is receiving a lot of administrative emails.

His inbox includes all kinds of demands, ongoing conversations about work, various ambiguous requests, information to be learned, and others.

Sounds like my inbox — and yours!

Overflowing Inbox — photo by the author

What systems did Cal put in place to continue being productive while continuing to achieve his Deep Work goals? Below is a step-by-step guide.

Using Trello for personal project management

Most people try to execute the demands of such a complex productivity system by working inside a single, multi-purpose, over-filled, deadline-driven email inbox.

They end up being glued to their inbox and feeling despair, as this approach sucks their energy and prevents them from doing focused work.

To remain productive and manage his administrative obligations, Cal has turned to Trello.

Using Trello to organize your work — illustration by the author

Trello is a free task management system. The main feature is that it has virtual task boards, with columns and stacks of cards under the columns. The cards can have tasks, notes with information, and files attached to them.

Step 1: Create separate Trello boards for each professional role

Cal has created a Trello board for each of his professional roles:

  1. Director of Graduate Studies for his department at Georgetown University
  2. Teacher: this includes course-related work
  3. Researcher: this includes research related work and it is shared with students and postdocs he supervises
  4. Writer: this includes information about his book writing projects
Create separate Trello boards for each professional role — illustration by the author

Step 2: Process information that arrives in your inbox into Trello

Every email that comes into the inbox, that he has to do something about, is taken out of the inbox and added to a card, on the appropriate Trello board.

Columns within the board help structure the information.

He has columns for:

  1. Backburner

In this column, he adds things that he is not quite ready to work on yet. He puts them here for safe storage and reviews them every week, during the weekly review, to decide when to make progress on them.

2. Waiting to hear back from

He captures information and creates a card in this column for everyone that he sent something to or is waiting to hear back from, under the appropriate board.

Thus, this is no longer an open loop in his brain, eating away mental energy.

3. Figure out

Things of ambiguous or complicated nature that he needs to spend time on figuring out

4. This Week

These are things that he needs to act on

5. Now

Things that he is actively working on

6. Done

Completed projects that he keeps for record keeping purposes.

Process information into columns in Trello — illustration by the author

Using this system, all the work is taken out of his inbox and gets assigned to:

  1. a board for the particular role
  2. a particular column in that role, related to the status of the task
  3. all the information related to the task is captured on the digital card

Therefore, there is no searching around in an over-crowded inbox to get to the task and complete it.

Step 3: Use time-blocking and weekly planning to complete the tasks

To do the actual work, you can use the other methods recommended by Cal for planning time appropriately and executing:

  • You can use weekly planning, daily time-blocking, and auto-schedule methods for allocating work during the week and executing the work daily.
  • At the same time, you can schedule a time for Deep Work, to make sure you are making progress on your most important projects.

When the relevant time-block for email comes, the Trello boards give structure to the information and allow you to engage with it appropriately. They give a high-level overview of what’s on your plate.

Finish the tasks by time-blocking when you will work on them — illustration by the author

Benefits of using Trello for holding your tasks instead of keeping them in your inbox

There are many benefits to this workflow:
1.
It keeps him from having to constantly be watching his inbox, which depletes energy.

2.
He can focus on one role at a time.

For example, he can time-block regular daily time to work on his responsibilities as Director of Graduate Studies

During this planned time, he can open the relevant Trello board and see only those things he wants to work on during this time.

This prevents context shifts and facilitates focused work, within the scope of this role,.

3.

He can implement more efficient workflows for batch processing his tasks.

Seeing all the relevant tasks grouped also means he can implement workflows that address multiple tasks in one go.

For example, he has set up a FAQ for reoccurring student questions, such as taking care of administrative tasks, without having to send him individual emails.

Three steps to manage email overload

It is difficult to do almost any non-trivial role when all the information for that role exists in a combination of your head and one inbox. This approach leads to stress.

Following these 3 steps below, you can also manage your email overload, like Cal Newport:

  1. Create separate Trello boards for each professional role
  2. Process information that arrives in your Inbox into Trello
  3. Use time-blocking and weekly planning to complete the tasks

What about you? Which of the workflows discussed had the most impact for you?

You can also watch a narrated and animated video of this article:

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