Time SavingIt’s the first real week of 2014 (no one actually got anything done last week, right?) and now that the holidays are behind us and we’re settling in for the long, cold haul until Memorial Day, it’s time to start thinking about what we can do better in the new year. Sure, the usual things all apply. We should all spend more time in the gym, spend less time staring at screens, and eat less glutens, but what about some simple New Year’s Resolutions you might actually keep?

1.  Be Less Bad at E-Mail.

In a time before computers, people were obsessed with things like which bugs were good bugs and what a blue moon was. Then humans invented Wikipedia and the only thing left to talk about was how we were going to solve a problem like e-mail.  Everyone’s got a theory for how to best conquer your inbox, and a Twitter search for #inboxzero reveals a ton of people who are pretty proud about reaching that arbitrary milestone.

Maybe that’s the goal you want to shoot for and maybe there’s a system out there that’s going to help you reach that goal. All the talk about “doing e-mail better” really boils down to one thing, though. Are you seeing the messages you need to see, when you need to see them? If you are, you probably don’t have an e-mail problem after all.

If you’re not getting everything you need, here are some small steps to help you handle e-mail a little more efficiently.

  • Finally white-list that one co-worker, client, or contact who keeps having their messages wind up in your spam folder. (Unless you’re using this as a convenient way to avoid dealing with them.)
  • Schedule a time to check your e-mail, then turn off new message notifications. If you assume you’re seeing every message as it shows up, it becomes incredibly easy to forget to actually check your e-mail. By scheduling a few times a day to sit down and get caught up, you can make sure nothing’s slipped through the cracks.
  • Add one more filter. Chances are good you’ve got some filters set up already. Maybe it’s just the default spam filter, or maybe you’ve got folders and folders full of customized destinations for incoming messages. However, a filter designed to highlight messages received at a certain time, from a certain sender, or containing a certain phrase might be exactly what you need to get your e-mail blind spots under control.

2. Take Cover in the Cloud.

2013 was a big year for cloud-based computing, storage, and backups, so you’ve probably already moved some of your information to the cloud. There are obvious benefits to transitioning to the cloud, but it’s one thing to throw your files into SkyDrive or Dropbox and a very different thing to really take advantage of the cloud. If you’re using the cloud as just an off-site hard drive, building a Working Folder can be a great way to start using the cloud more effectively.

  • Create a top-level folder, outside of your usual cloud file structure. Hopefully, you’ve got your cloud files set up in a way that makes sense. Maybe they’re in files based on project or client, or maybe dividing your documents by file type works better for you. For this, forget about all that. By putting a new folder outside of that structure, you can make sure it’s incredibly easy to access and that’s about to become very important.
  • Add 5-10 documents you’re actively working on to the folder. No matter how complicated your job, you’re probably only actively working on a handful of projects or documents at a time. Since those are the ones you’ll need to access in a pinch, move them to this new folder. When they’re completed and you’re done tweaking them, you’ll slide them back into your file system and add any new documents you’ve started.
  • Figure out how to get to this folder, everywhere.  This new folder offering easy access to everything you’re working on isn’t super helpful if you don’t know how to access it. Take a few minutes and figure out how to get into this folder (and edit the documents inside) on all the devices you regularly use. By keeping all your working documents in one folder, you minimize the number of locations you’ll need to access.

Once you’ve got your working documents in an easy-to-find cloud folder and you know how to access that folder on your desktop computer, laptop and mobile devices, you’re fully prepared to take advantage of the cloud if inspiration (or disaster) strikes at any moment.

3. Figure out what works… then get to work.

The idea of making New Year’s Resolutions is closely tied to the idea of taking stock of the previous year. If you don’t know what disappointed you, how can you know what you want to change in the new year? It’s human nature to keep trying to improve the way things work, but unfortunately we tend to take this a little too far. That’s especially true when we’re talking about technology.

There’s always a new program, a new app, a new system for getting work done. It’s great to have those options when you’ve got a problem to solve but once you’ve solved that problem, a constant parade of possibilities can be paralyzing.

  • Be really specific about the problem you’re solving. With tech problems, if you don’t have a very specific idea of what you’re trying to do, it’s easy to find yourself tackling things that are way outside your original scope. By defining exactly what success looks like, it’s easier to ignore distractions that look like they might be solutions.
  • Find a solution. The solution to your problem might be new software, it might be a new way of doing business, or it might be as simple as rearranging your office furniture. Do your due diligence and when you discover an option that seems like it might solve your problem, implement it.
  • If that solution works, unplug. Everyone’s bought a new phone or new computer only to have an updated model come out in the next week, month or year. There’s always a newer, shinier thing right around the corner, but the dirty little secret is that if last year’s solution still solves your problem, you don’t need the new thing. Of course, that desire to always have the latest and greatest thing is hard to avoid, so it’s not a bad idea to avoid knowledge of the Next Big Thing for as long as you can. When you’ve got a new problem, figure out how to solve it. Until then, get back to work.

You might be the sort of person who’s already bought their new gym membership. If you’re not though, there’s a good chance you can make 2014 a better year just by adding another e-mail filter, creating an easy way to access the cloud documents you need, or learning to ignore the greatest, best new thing until you really, really need it.