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How to: Managing Your Email Inbox

In Digital Communications, Personal Development on June 26, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Remember when keeping your email inbox tidy was easy? When you only received a few emails a week?

26 June 2012–It is not uncommon to receive upwards of 50 emails per day, which means digital organization is paramount. Your inbox does not have to be an untamed storage device or a detriment to your digital communications. With Gmail and some personal training, your inbox can be a source of happiness and productivity. There is only one requirement: learning to use the Gmail tools to your advantage. Before engaging these tools, it’s best practice to sift through your inbox and delete unnecessary messages as you see fit.

  1. The Label. Labels are comparable to the standard folder. You can personalize labels with colors, names, and nesting or subcategories.
  2. The Filter. Using filters in Gmail is the single greatest organizational feature, IMO. You select an email address in the filter settings and click “create filter”. Once you establish labels, they can be applied to inbound messages to easily automate inbox maintenance. This is also done in the filter settings when creating or editing a filter. Google provides step-by-step instructions to create a filter. Play with the settings to achieve desired results (e.g. auto-archive).
  3. Control your contacts. Keep a complete list of completed contacts, with at least names and email addresses. Add notes to provide relationship context. This automates a step in compose email, specifically: recognizing your email contact by filling out the “To” field.
  4. Outsource your inbox. Google offers more to its users than Gmail. Have you ever used Google Documents? Google Calendar? These two G-tools, in particular, are very valuable when managing your inbox. Instead of holding emails in your inbox to remember dates or emails containing files, upload them to the appropriate Google tool.

A common task in email management is properly storing information and archiving. Create a routine digest for archiving your information and you will keep your inbox trimmed and lean. The “important” tab and “starred” email are great for managing more ephemeral issues—such as bookmarking important emails, in the moment, which may not carry significant weight in the long-term.

5 Methods To Participate In Digital That Lead To Personal Growth

In Personal Development on June 6, 2012 at 8:00 am

This is the 2nd of two follow-up posts to #MakeItCount: How You Can Change The Digital Landscape. The 1st follow-up entry is: 5 Communities to Begin Your Digital Research and Participation. Below are 5 ways to participate in digital that lead to personal growth:

  1. Socialize. Join social networks to witness [and partake] in the value of sharing and distribution of information. On a very basic level: conversation will open up doors for you. Here, I would like to focus on Twitter. I follow people that are related to new media and popular culture. Yesterday I mentioned delving deeper into a news culture. Enter Twitter. Follow the guys and gals that make it happen, not just the organization itself. Just search a contributors name on Google. Here’s an example query for one of my Twitter crushes: Tim Carmody The Verge Twitter Account. Twitter is a great resource to aggregate content as a news source specifically tailored to your needs.
  2. Give Praise. This simply means to join the blogging conversation. Once you find your niche, start commenting. You do not need to be a kiss-ass but comments are gold for writers. Share your perspective and ask questions—just make sure it’s relevant. When posting comments be sure to provide an identity marker. Most blog platforms allow you to link your name to a website or social network account. A final note: if you haven’t started blogging, it’s a good idea to start.
  3. Subscribe. After you have found your sweet spot, subscribe to your favorite material. It’s conveniently sent to your inbox so you don’t have to go looking for it each day or however often you browse sources. This also increases your exposure to a different medium in how people connect digitally. Again, Copyblogger has great info on this.
  4. Network. Begin building your online presence with services like LinkedIn or Instagram. Focus on your brand when connecting with people. This does not mean promote yourself. This means connect with others, especially with mutual interest. Building a digital identity puts a “face” to your work, progress, and goals.
  5. Help Others. This is a form of paying your dues. Building a portfolio of content featured on prominent websites and organizations in your industry is a huge plus. I am building my portfolio by guest posting and blogging (“free”) for larger organizations. These are [in a way] like freelance internships. And it shows you are savvy in establishing business contacts, communicating clearly, and you have the talent to be featured for an established business.

Summary of the content featured above:
These five methods seem like they are promoting others, and not your personal brand, but it is quite the opposite. Money isn’t the only currency available to promote yourself. Larry Stybel, writing for HBR, offers further insight in How to Get a Job Without Experience. Surrounding yourself with people who are successful and making it count is a reflection on you and your character. Please share your methods that have brought you both success and failure in the comments section. There’s room to grow from experience in both ends of the spectrum.

The Ultimate Guide to Acing Your Job Interview

In Personal Development on May 26, 2012 at 6:48 pm

I recently had a meeting with the Assistant Dean of Admissions & Recruitment at Binghamton University Graduate School to discuss potential job interests. In what I thought was going to be an interview turned out to be more of a coffee shop roundtable or personal assessment. These meetings are just as important as a direct interview, and the miscommunication was my error. It’s easy for me to toss it up to a poor judgment call, but what benefit would this serve? After close inspection, this mistake suggests: there is no value to inaction—only blindness. And going into an interview or meeting blind illustrates a lack of preparation. (I thought I was prepared.)

Researching and Developing Your Strategy
There’s an overwhelming amount of information on the Web that attempts to prepare you for job interviews—entertaining specific questions, grooming and what to wear, paying attention to body language, overcoming your fear of public speaking, etc. They’re important to read-up on, but what should you read? I recommend the Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal. Both organizations have excellent blog networks.

I address the job interview concerns listed above with a single method that I call interview cross-training.

Defining Your Strategy.
Cross-training is: to engage in various sports or exercises especially for well-rounded health and muscular development. You can see why this concept applies nicely to the approach required to land your dream job. Think about your favorite professional athletes. They talk to scouts, attend columbines, workout, practice, study tapes, and simulate real-time experiences—all in preparation for the one thing that matters: making it count in the recorded game. Find ways to be like the pros: talk to employers, attend webinars, read articles, practice speech in a mirror, and study the behaviors of others. Don’t be like Allen Iverson …. Practice, practice, practice.

Embrace the present, as this is where your virility lives and breathes, to project the future. Your track record will make clear its value and defense.

Implementing Your Strategy
Common knowledge suggests knowing your resume inside and out, and being prepared to talk about past work experiences and how they apply to the opportunity at hand. The difference is in how you gather your ingredients to create a recipe for success. What’s frequently overlooked is the mentality of a successful applicant. The mind is at the center to building a quality recipe. And tracking your goals, with concrete measurements, is one of the nine things successful people do differently as Heidi Grant Halvorson explains.

Here’s an example:
Rehearsing lines ad nauseam is a common misconception in successful interview planning. You’re flogging a dead horse. Why? Because this method encroaches on the ‘prepare for the worst’ or ‘work as hard as you can, that’s all you can do’ mentality—an underdeveloped call to action. A caveat of this mental process is: there isn’t a limit or end in sight. There’s no documentation for your efforts—you’re just running in one direction, which makes you think you’re going somewhere. Fact: you are, but it’s not only about how far you can run. Personal trainers recommend keeping a progress log to people who are serious about losing weight or gaining muscle mass.

Are you serious about your interview?

Then the same goes for your job. To get in better shape, you must measure and keep track of your development. So keep a detailed record of your definition, progress, and growth. It’s OK to rehearse, but act with purpose. This proved to be my downfall: I was ready to talk but I didn’t know how to apply it. (I will talk more about voice and presentation in the roadblocks section, later on.)

One way to curb over-rehearsing, or figure out how to apply your experiences—what I think is the best approach—is to ask for direction. I could have created a better experience and saved some time with a simple inquiry. But you live and you learn. (Also, more on this later.)

With regards to my higher education meeting, I jumped right into analyzing my Curriculum vitae, researching their web presence and goals, reviewing job specifics, and tailoring that information to the interview opportunity. I missed a critical step in the process: to simply ask for direction. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask questions as the interview approaches—just give them enough notice to respond and enough time for you to cross-train. Rather, it’s insight into more than what your qualifications or a piece of paper can offer the interviewer. Directly asking for details concerning the interview process tells them what type of person you are.

  • You have a keen eye for detail
  • You are direct
  • You are results driven

These values have a rightful place in any work culture. The attributes listed above are particularly valuable in the marketing and business industries. Note: consider the industry, your relationship with the organization and contact, and job specifics when using the direct approach.

Analyzing Your Strategy.
My close friend Pete, who works for the New York State Senate, said to me, “Regardless of how it goes you should treat every interview as a learning experience.” This optimism is another character of successful people. They analyze and engage experiences to measure results. Your primary concern may not always be getting the job as long as you’re improving, developing, and growing. Michael Schrage offers a fierce perspective on this in Projects Are the New Job Interviews.

Being a sour grape will only hurt you, and the fruits of your labor will continue to spoil—seek the value. Lastly, even if you don’t land the job it is a good idea to stay connected. People who interview generally have a higher level of authority in the organization. Keep casual contact for idea-sharing and development, and future offers.

Overcoming Roadblocks in Your Strategy.
Overcoming roadblocks is the key to unlocking a powerful cross-training regimen. Discover what your roadblocks are and overcome them–nothing will be able to stop you. An umbrella topic of this discussion is fear, specifically the pressure people feel from interviews. It’s a difficult fear to escape. I really enjoyed JD Schramm’s article How To Overcome Communication Fears. In his assessment he writes:

Jerry Seinfeld made famous the line about funerals and public speaking: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Move over fear! Here are some tips of the trade you can practice to frame the situation, internally, and push fear to the side. If not genuinely, you can “trick” your mind and still provide a great performance:

Live The Culture. Successful job applicants know their craft inside and out, which comes from immersion in the culture. Peter Bregman provides sage insight in The Interview Question You Should Always Ask. A great applicant is passionate and obsessed with the ethos and innovation of a particular niche. It’s about possessing insight that’s greater than prepared answers can drub out. It’s easy to develop responses; it’s difficult for people to be (or appear) honest, sincere and passionate in the boardroom when this roadblock is applicable. Living the culture comes from deeper places.

Hone in on your presentation skills. Remember that it is easy to talk, but in an interview you need to persuade and captivate. My favorite way to explore voice, meter, and style is to look at those who have had success before me. Motivational speakers and keynote speeches are great resources. Personally, I enjoy stand-up comedy. Gather a wide range of perspectives, but pay attention to your field and how to convey those best practices in your area of expertise. At the 4 Hour Blog, Tim Ferris shares two of my favorite speeches in Neil Gaiman – The Best Commencement Speech You May Ever Hear. Communication skills are necessary to participate in any workplace, digital or physical. Always work on pushing your presentation skills forward. And don’t be afraid to endorse your brand. You want to present a vibe and aura during the interview—a subset of behaviors—not just experiences.

The interview process is a conversation, not an interrogation. The structure of the interview is a daunting proposition that promotes fear in the process. The interviewer-interviewee relationship promotes an uneasiness because it is interpreted as a catch-and-release function of conversation. The same can be said for the question-answer paradigm, which is a stale thought process. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself–it’s reductive and crippling. It’s best to remember: this is a conversation and conversations are fluid and dynamic. Approaching an interview as a conversation presents a more comfortable environment with mutual goals and objectives. The best way to do this is to get out there and gain experience. Nothing satisfies this point more than exposure to the process.

Don’t practice specific questions. This is a subset of the two previous tips. (Remember: optimism is paramount.) The question/answer strategy will prepare you for specific situations of greatness rather than projecting greatness. And this will only get you so far, with luck as a crutch. Don’t succumb to a single thought process. It’s possible—and I know first-hand—that you won’t address the question to the best of your abilities when taking the Q&A approach. Familiarize yourself with your experiences, with Q&A as a component of the process.

Offer an insider perspective. Discuss experience as an insider, but take the outsider approach, to see how the person you will be talking with will view your experiences. This also prevents mundane details from spuriously making their way into the conversation. It’s a nice tip to make sure you run a tight track in applying your past experiences and current developments to the job opportunity. Remember: a great job applicant won’t have competing interests–a common deal-breaker. Here are some questions to help discover mutual interests shared at the beginning of your relationship:

  • Who is the organization looking for to fill this position and to help achieve their goals?
  • What knowledge does my interview contact gain from learning about my experiences?
  • Where does my role start and stop in achieving their goals?
  • Why are you and the business (we) a great match?
  • When should I apply my experiences to the conversation?
  • How can I remove interpretation from the process?

Inject passion every chance you get. One thing I do during my job hunt is inject my passions into conversations, which comes naturally to some but not for all. Talk about current projects that you are working on with friends or colleagues. Or better: random strangers. This will get you into the carefree habit of talking about yourself …. And how to do it well! You will develop: (1) transparency in your voice, (2) authentic confidence in your delivery, and (3) understanding for where your voice needs to be to capture the listener—without sounding like you’re trying to pull a fast one, intentionally or not.

The cross-training interview strategy is a microcosm of a larger concept: lifestyle design. Beginning preparation only when you know you have an interview is the most common cause of injury and performance deficit. Preparing for an interview is about consistently carrying out a regimen to promote your lifestyle. Use routine workouts and exercises that bulk-up your strengths and target your weak muscles to improve performance. So when the job interview does come around you won’t break a sweat–unless the A/C is broken in the building where your interview takes place. Still, you’re already in shape to throw down the gauntlet. How do you stay lean?

Personal Development Tip: The Inspiration Pyramid

In Personal Development on May 23, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I recently explored strategies to combat writer’s block, a form of stasis that addresses overcoming the blank slate. I hope those tips nailed a cease and desist letter into WB’s front door. If they didn’t, the symptoms of writer’s block might be due to a lack of inspiration. I’d like to visit a similar point here: developing a lifestyle design that garners inspiration.

You don’t have to be a writer to make use of the following strategies, but this will be my focus because this is my area of expertise. Writing, like any passion, requires a balanced diet of inspirational sources. Think of inspiration as a food pyramid. There is a recommended daily value of parts to consume, to address the needs of the host. And each host requires different DVs. This means the source of inspiration comes from many groups. It’s important to eat the fats, proteins, fruits, vegetables, etc. in the inspiration pyramid. Here are some tips to help you stay lean and inspired:

Avoid carbo-loading. It’s easy to pick on the base of the pyramid, as we do with our actual diets. If carbohydrates are the only source of inspiration, you may begin to feel sluggish. An example of inspirational carbs could be a significant other or dream job–the rocks that you rely on to give you joy every day. They are a very important part of your daily value, but this category really begins to flourishes when supported by other forms of inspiration. The smaller inspiration groups, such as a hobby or interest, generally give the inspirational carbs their diamond status.

Say your dream job growing up was to be an actor. Assume that you are an actor, today. And you do all of the things actors do. If you studied combinatorial mathematics and analyzed stock trends, instead of voice, art history, and stand-up comedy along the way, your construction of “dream job” would probably be a little different.

Go shopping for new groceries. In my experience one of the best ways to break an inpirational dryspell is to experience something new, that’s raw. Growing your experience base, means you are seeking new knowledge. You don’t need to taste the forbidden fruit nor does it even have to be something you like or an experience that costs money. Just find something to shake-up your current perspective that’s momentarily holding you back.

While you’re out, stop in at the nostalgia shoppe. There’s always a juicy sleeper here. The goal is to rekindle the flame in your writing. There are times I have looked back on my writing and laughed, or even better: being proud of a piece. It’s fascinating how a few turns of the page can loosen the valves and pour on the inspiration.

Did you notice anything new in town? My favorite strategy is to seek environments–old or new. People naturally leave a footprint in their travels which means environments are always changing. Think: a flux pavilion of culture. If you think you know everything about an environment, take a second look. There’s an infinite number of perspectives. Consider these parent categories: people, objects, nature, location/vantage point, geography, and history. (Break them down from there.)

The inspiration pyramid is a frame to foster your own inspiration. Use this as a guideline to identify and interpret unique points of inspiration. What inspires you on a daily basis? Have you tried the inspiration pyramid? Share your thoughts below.

Personal Development Tip: Finding Your Dead Zone

In Personal Development on May 23, 2012 at 3:08 am

I went off-roading yesterday with my b/f/f Mike. He has a red Jeep Wrangler 4×4 and it’s as much of a joyride as it is a chick magnet. Trekking through rocky back roads and dense forestry in Pennsylvania is a vivid excursion I recommend experiencing first-hand. Not knowing what’s to come at each turn, searching for the next “deep kick” was the best part.

We hit a lot of dead zones in Pennsylvania, and this really allowed us to get lost. I started thinking about the benefits of living out here and how wonderful it would be to get away. Technology fills a “space” in our lives, and if it is removed something else most likely will take its place to fill the void. This is the perk of living in a dead zone.

I had my Droid ready to roll so I could share my journey and relive the action, but my connection to the outside world was completely severed. (How often can you say that?) My world was reduced to three things: Mike, the Jeep, and the mush between my ears. It was liberating.

The benefits of being disconnected began to present themselves, clearly. I could explore my thoughts freely without feeling the constant tug of email alerts, text messages, (previously) draw something notifications, and phone calls—to name a few.

Imagine the creative royalties that would come with this freedom. This is my dead zone. I’ll help you explore your inner dead zone below. Sure, the Internet and people sending me these “interruptions” have their place and there’s certainly value in both parties, but try and recall the last time you had a nice cut of time for your thoughts to marinate. (A time and place for you to retreat.) The dead zone is a healthy way to cope with all of the data that is sent our way each day.

We usually have a room of our own, but there are devices that can be distracting. We’re bred to be connected, as this is human nature, and we create culture hubs to unite one another. It just so happens that our hubs are made up of wires and signals. Wireless carriers pitch this to you every day: Zero drop-offs. No more dead zones! Who’s in your top-5? are forms of keeping you on the grid. The same can be said for social networks (e.g. G+ circles) and various tech-social platforms. We thrive on being connected and we assign value to being connected.

News flash: there’s [also] value in being disconnected. The reasons and benefits to escape are up to you, and you need not go far to make this a reality.

Discovering your dead zone

It’s not rocket science–all that it took for me to discover my dead zone was a joyride in a Jeep. The ah-ha! experience is nice, but here are three simple tasks you can do to discover your dead zone:

  • Define your dead zone. Make a list of conditions that constructs an appealing state of being for what you wish to accomplish.
  • Identify what distracts you and seek to eliminate the stimuli. For example, I have 9 tech toys that have a screen—all of which require active participation (no matter how small or large).
  • Execute the plan. Manage the little things and draft a call to action.

I understand relocating to a remote island or even to a place with bad service (like spots in PA) as a call to action isn’t realistic for most people. It’s easier to set up some hoops for the outside world to jump through, first, in order to reach you. Creating your own dead zone is also a chance to marshal self-control, which in practice has its own perks.

Here are some suggestions to discovering your own dead zone:

Know your limits. Think about what facilitates progress [in a project or organization] and what inhibits production. I assess the risks and rewards of opening up to the digital matrix because this is something I struggle with. Use a style that you’re familiar with, like the pros and cons approach. If you have difficulty assigning limits, ask some friends or colleagues.

Create a routine. This is a long-term objective to accomplish two major goals: (1) develop consistency and (2) manage the expectations of others. Having a set schedule is an easy way to do this. Regularly allotting time for yourself or something you would like to pursue in a controlled environment sends a firm message: Interruptions are only to occur when urgent. You don’t have to disappear for hours, but if people know you like to take a walk or workout at 1 p.m. they’ll generally leave you to your business without taking offense to it.

Keep your vices in check. If you really want to create a dead zone, make sure your vices are accounted for. If they help you work, entertain them properly. (E.g. cigarette breaks.) But if you identify a vice as harmful, perhaps it’s better to check that one at the door. It’ll be there when you get back.

Know your environment. Having an environment that is built for you, to entertain all of your senses, is a plus. Sight, sound, taste, smell, touch – these are all sources of inspiration and development. So make the most of them and have fun with it. If the smell of coffee arouses you, set up a mini coffee bar. (I have a soft spot for vinyl records.) The aesthetics should not be overlooked when making your dead zone.

Turn off the cell phone. I mentioned limits in the first point, but this deserves its own section. Some applications like foursquare have a Mute button that disables push notifications, when you need a break. That’s beautiful. (Thanks Foursquare.) If this isn’t an option, search through an application’s settings menu. Here, you can curb unwanted interruptions or at least control them. (E.g. change what you receive notifications for.) There’s also airplane mode which turns off most of your device’s signal transmitting functions. You’ll still be able to use the device locally. If all else fails, turn the phone off.

These practices work for me, but they may not work for everyone. The beauty of the dead zone is that each person has their own unique idea. What are some things you do to break away?

How to cure Writer’s block, and other forms of stasis

In Personal Development on May 15, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Writing is a process.

You are probably thinking: Gee, how many times have I heard that one? We all know it’s true: writing is a process. It’s a nice laconic phrase that doesn’t disclose any obvious wisdom which can create a costly experience for the thinker—especially when writer’s block kicks in. We get jammed up over this saying because it summons the power of observation, not inspection. I have been stuck before, either staring at a blank piece of paper or blinking cursor in a text field, with no end in sight—everyone has. Delusion will only lead to more empty pages and rainy days. Here are three strategies I use to make this aphorism work for me and jump-start my mojo:

The binge and purge approach. This method is the most-straightforward and cures most common symptoms of writer’s block, like over-thinking or conception. Remember: writing is a process. So get cracking. Sometimes getting the words down is more important than the quality of the words themselves. Then revise, revise, revise. Don’t get hung up on a single detail, peer too far into where the story is going, or stop to research syntax while writing. You can revisit all of this later.

The mindcasting approach. This strategy begins with physically mapping out your thoughts, and has proven to be especially useful in developing content for non-print mediums, like blogs or presentations. First, select writing materials that suit your groove. The traditional pen and paper is sufficient, but sometimes I enjoy using construction paper and a colored Sharpie. It’s good to shake things up. Start by thinking about what has captured your interest lately or recent events and experiences. I recommend only choosing one or two things. Once you’ve decided, write it down wherever you want on the page and put individual bubbles around them. The key here is to break your thoughts down into simple structures, so exercise brevity. Begin branching out, using each original idea as a locus, in your mindcasting session. Circle the new thoughts and connect them to the previous bubble. Soon you’ll have a visual network of ideas to flesh out, with built in relationships and contexts.

The fragment approach. Shares concepts with the mindcasting approach. A quotation from H.G. Wells inspired this strategy: “I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.” Write in short bursts, only focusing on the words. Disregard grammar and sentence structure. Fill in the blanks. Connect the dots. And don’t forget the tittles and other diacritical marks to complete your writing.

If you try any of these approaches, come back and tell us about your experience. I hope these methods help you break the occasional spellbound funk or cure your writer’s block altogether. What methods do you use in a bind?