Monthly Archives: December 2012

Achieving Email Bliss

I’ve recently gone from receiving too many (unimportant) emails and checking email frequently, to receiving only about 5-15 emails per day and checking it just once each day at noon. All of this was due to great tips received from others, so I wanted to share what I’ve collected from various sources. I’m going to assume you already use Gmail or otherwise have a good spam filter, but if not, that’s step 0 minus! For the past year or two, I’ve also already been aggressively unsubscribing from emails I didn’t really need to receive (an information diet), and practicing a fairly literal Inbox Zero, both to great effect. Those are both great steps if these aren’t for you.

Turn off all email notifications

Turn of all email notification sounds, lights, and indicators on your phone, computer, and any other device. As obvious as this seems to me now, it took this tweet from David Siegel for me to even question their value. They are great attention and context stealers, and while addictive, are a drain on productivity and concentration. Instead, you could check your email in between periods of work, even if that has to be every 15 minutes when at work. In the “push notification” world we live in, this can sound like blasphemy to programmers taught to avoid polling; however, we aren’t computers that can store our previous context losslessly while we process something else, nor can we process that email in just a few milliseconds and move on.┬áBe a queue, not a stack.

Don’t check email when you can’t process it

I used to check my email first thing in the morning, but then I’d get distracted and be late to shower or not have enough time to grab breakfast before work. Similarly, I’d check email before going to bed and get distracted, staying up too late. Another bad time for me personally was on subways, as I couldn’t click unsubscribe / RSVP links without internet access, and if something needed a longer reply or attachment, it would take much longer on the phone if it was even possible. Then I’d just have to go home and re-process half of the emails, while thinking the whole way that I couldn’t believe that person needs me to re-send an attachment because they don’t know how to search their email. Now I read on the subway, or just relax.

A great tip from The Four Hour Workweek, and one the author recommends to take if you only take a single tip from the entire book, is to not check email for the day until you accomplish your most important task[s] for the day. Giving it a shot, I decided not to check email until 11AM, after I’d showered, made breakfast, and meditated. I had a much easier time following these morning habits!

Aggregate non-urgent emails with Use Unroll.me

Unroll.me is a great service that provides a single digest for all your non-urgent email. Emails from mailing lists, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, your bank, and basically all automated emails don’t need to steal your attention at random periods throughout the day, so Unroll.me takes all of these out of your Inbox and sends you one daily digest, allowing you to click through to the important ones as needed. This about halved my daily email count, and I was really surprised at how many things actually made sense to receive grouped together at one time, after I gave it a try. You can always add and remove things to the digest, based on your preferences.

Batch Email with Inbox Pause

Once you are used to receiving a set of emails at a specific time each day, enjoying less frequent distractions, give it a shot for all emails with Inbox Pause. This is a browser extension that adds a “Pause” button to your Gmail inbox, temporarily redirecting all mail to a Label until you Unpause, optionally creating an auto-responder. The benefit of this approach is that your phone and any other device will also stop receiving email, not just your current browser session.

I started using this to only check email twice a day, or to make it easy not to check email until a specific time of day. For example, this made it a lot easier for me to not check email until 11AM, or late at night, as sometimes I’d need to pop into Gmail to search for a message, send a quick email, or use Gchat or Tasks, and I didn’t get distracted by the new emails in my inbox.

After trying Inbox Pause for a bit, I made my default state “Paused”, and every day at noon I’d click “Unpause”, the emails from the last 24 hours would pop in, then I’d click “Pause” again for 24 hours.

Going Further: Automated Daily Batching

Inbox Pause is a great stepping stone to batching, but as it requires manual work for each email batch, it isn’t ideal for enforcing batched email. After realizing how simple the Inbox Pause approach was (creating a filter that sends all email to a label, and move them back when desired), I wrote a simple service using Gmail’s OAuth + IMAP that holds emails in a label, moving them to the Inbox once daily at noon. It also handles Unroll.me emails as expected.

This has made such a huge difference for me. I’m no longer wondering what’s in my Inbox or if I should check it, because I already know the answer: nothing. No more distractions throughout the day to keep me from the next task at hand. I just check it once daily at 12pm, ideally clearing it out completely in 5-15 minutes, and being done with email for the next 24 hours.

Introducing Mike’s Goals: Simple Goal Tracking

Earlier this year, I started using http://www.joesgoals.com/ to keep track of my goals. The idea was that if I 1) defined the habits I wanted to have, and 2) looked at it daily, then I’d be encouraged and more likely to do them.

Based on a year of use, it definitely worked! I kept it as a pinned tab in Chrome and looked at it daily. If a checkmark was missing, it was a reminder to act. If a lot of checkmarks were missing, it was a reminder to change my schedule or behavior.

However, as I used Joe’s Goals more, I found it had a few problems: visual clutter, frequent downtime, functional complexity, and lack of perspective for infrequent (weekly / monthly) goals.

To address this, I created a very similar application, simplifying the UI, removing features I didn’t use (negative goals), and adding the ability to have weekly, monthly, and yearly goals in addition to daily goals. This last point was a big one for me; I wanted to be able to say that I want to do yoga weekly, and be able to see each box as a week so I can see trailing weeks to review performance.

Here’s an example screenshot with some different goal types:

Mike's Goals

Mike’s Goals

It’s been living happily and stably for some time now at http://goals.rowk.com/, and you are more than welcome to sign up and give it a whirl as well. Don’t worry, it has great uptime and I keep daily backups!

I’d love any feedback, or better yet forks! Or, if you are happily using something else, please do share.

5 Things I Didn’t Know About Sustainability in NYC

When I initially moved to NYC, I didn’t really understand how / what to recycle, and how to reduce my impact on the gigantic amount of trash NYC processes. I just threw everything away.

Here are some tips I learned in the past two years that are not only ideally helpful for the environment, but also benefit the local community, your apartment, and even your wallet.

  1. Many Greenmarkets accept compost materials.

    Farmer’s Markets in NYC, “Greenmarkets”, often have a stand that allows you to drop off your food scraps. This allows you to save your food scraps in the freezer until you make it to a market (I use a plastic carton that was previously a container of spinach). This has a couple great benefits: your apartment smells better without food scraps in the trash and you don’t need to take it out in a hurry (using less trash bags), you contribute nutrients to local gardens / farms, and it is less material releasing methane in a landfill.

  2. …and textiles.

    Most markets also have textile recycling, which allow you to get rid of clothing in any condition. They sort it and donate the things in good condition for reuse, and claim to have some means to recycle the rest.

  3. You don’t have to use ConEd (sort of)

    There are alternative energy providers, often at Greenmarkets but also online, that provide sustainable energy, including a company that is 100% New York State wind powered. Local wind! The prices are often very similar, if not cheaper, than ConEd, so it can be a no-brainer. It is trivial to switch and you don’t have to change anything, and you still get a bill from ConEd.

    The way they set it up (which seems very elegant in some respects, if you can get over the abstractness of your usage), is that ConEd still monitors your usage, delivers your energy, and bills you at the new rate, but then they are required to purchase your kWh usage from the alternative company you choose.

  4. For plastics, NYC only recycles bottle-shaped #1

    If your plastic doesn’t have a number “1” recycling symbol on it AND have a mouth less wide than the main component (a bottle shape), it gets sorted and thrown out by the city. However, it is still great to recycle these as the city sells what it does recycle, making a profit, instead of having to pay to remove trash.

    However for metals and glass, I think pretty much anything (hangers included) are fair game.

  5. Whole Foods and Co-ops allow recycling / reusing of many things the city doesn’t.

    If you have non-bottle-shaped #1s, as well as plastic bags, #5 and #6 plastics, Whole Foods and some food co-ops have bins you can deposit these in. I believe Whole Foods also has a book donation bin!

While managing all of these may seem like a lot of work, it is fairly simple once you get into the habit. For example, there’s a Whole Foods adjacent to the Union Square Greenmarket, so you could bring your frozen compost container and recyleables in a reusable bag, drop them all off, and fill up the bag with fresh goodies (at the market, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s), accomplishing composting, recycling, and shopping in one trip!

Tax Deductions for the Self-Employed

Since becoming self-employed at the beginning of 2012, I’ve been doing a fair amount of research into the tax deductions I’m able to take. While taxes aren’t intrinsically exciting, the money they save generally is; see below for how they can add up to a million dollars for retirement. For those not self-employed, I’m sorry that this post is totally useless to you :)

One caveat before I start: I’m not an accountant and hardly an expert, so don’t take my word for it, especially since this will be my first year filing as self-employed. These deductions should apply to most business structures including Sole Proprietorships and S Corporations, though C Corporations get more complicated.

I’m going to do a really shallow overview here, as this is all covered in great detail in the book “Deduct It! Lower Your Small Business Taxes”. If you are interested in learning more or taking any of the following deductions, the appropriate chapter in “Deduct It!” has everything you need to know.

Tax Deductions are (Probably) Worth More Than You Think

Before doing research, I was previously only thinking about tax deductions as being worth 20-30% of the deducted amount, as that was the percentage of my salaried income that went to taxes before. However, a deduction is likely worth 40-50% (the higher end in places with a local income tax like SF and NYC) because:

  • the deduction comes off the top of your income, meaning it saves you money at your marginal federal, state, and local brackets.
  • being self-employed, you no longer have an employer covering half your medicare and social security taxes, so that’s another 6-7% that doesn’t get taken from what you deduct.

Also, let’s not forget the “time value of money”: if you are able to use deductions to end up with $5,000 extra dollars in your pocket each year (roughly what I’m expecting) from age 25 until 65, and invest that at 7% in something like a Roth IRA, you’ll end up with a cool tax-free million dollars (that’s $1,000,000) by age 65.

So if that has your attention, I’ll go over some of the top deductions I plan on taking for the 2012 tax year.

Home Office Deduction

This is perhaps one of the most powerful, but also most complex and controversial deductions, so I’ll grossly oversimplify it: if you work from home and can dedicate a portion of your home solely to a home office, you can deduct a percentage of your rent. For example, if you use 25% of your apartment for your home office, you can deduct 25% of your rent. This is definitely my biggest deduction, living in NYC.

You can also apply this percentage to utilities, renter’s insurance, cleaning services, and other things that benefit both the home and home office. For things that benefit just the home office (paying someone to clean just the office, repairs to just the office, and such, are 100% deductible).

Health Insurance Premiums

Health insurance premiums are 100% deductible, though not (in practice) as a business expense. This is instead a special type of personal deduction which doesn’t require itemizing, but also isn’t a deduction for self-employment tax purposes. If you file correctly, you should be able to avoid paying any federal/state/local income taxes on your premiums.

You can also look at setting up a medical expense reimbursement plan, which just requires a document kept on-record, and will allow the company to reimburse you for a very wide range of costs you’ll incur, deducting them as expenses.

Office Supplies & Equipment

Any office supplies and equipment are generally fully deductible, and often without requiring depreciation over time thanks to Section 179. This means if you purchase a desk, monitor, and laptop solely for your home office, you can deduct the full costs of these as a business expense. This also applies to smaller things such as stationary, postage, et cetera. As consumers used to paying for things post-tax, it is quite profound to be able to pay for electronics pre-tax, and effectively pay 40-50% less for them.

Don’t forget to deduct the cost of things like web hosting as well!

Independent Contractors & Services

You should also deduct the cost of any sub-contractors you might hire, or lawyers and accountants you hire to help you with your business, including tax preparation. This also includes the cost of any accounting / bookkeeping software, as well as SASS such as Freshbooks.com.

Start-Up Costs

Generally, costs you incur to bootstrap your business are deductible, though it gets more complicated if they exceed $5,000. This would include any incorporation costs (including the CA ~$800 fee), costs of using something like legalzoom.com, and accounting / consulting services used.

Okay, that’s essentially a whirlwind tour of some the most useful deductions I plan on taking! While I don’t need a vehicle here in NYC, if you have a car or travel to meet clients or perform work tasks, you should also definitely look into car and travel deductions, as those can be huge as well.

Certainly let me know if I have any misunderstandings, or if I’ve missed anything important.