June 09, 2014

One step towards better contact management

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Simple answers can take down big problems.

It's hard to fix bad habits in one fell swoop. The last couple of months, I've been getting ready to dive back into a recreational basketball league, and amazingly, after not really playing basketball for nearly two years, I have a few holes in my game. Holes like... shooting a basketball, which I used to be pretty good at.

I know you can't tell if it went in, but I was there. It did.

Since the weather has gotten better, I've been trekking over to the park near my house to try to fix things. My first approach was just to practice a lot, but unfortunately, I'm an adult with a job and a family and other things, and that makes it harder than you might think to live life as a real-life Karate Kid training montage. In a montage, you basically decide it's time to "get serious", and then you work hard and things get better.

I did this for a few weeks, and things... well, they did not get better.

Apparently, throughout the course of my busy life, I developed a fundamental problem with my shot. If I didn't fix it, I could practice as much as I wanted, but I was pretty sure my results were never going to be very good.

I'm telling you this story because this is the place a lot of new Contactually users find themselves when they first start using the service. They have a TON of contacts, and their system for managing them is fundamentally flawed (either it takes too much time, it doesn't scale to thousands of contacts, or they simply don't have one). If contacts are a big part of your life or job, it's very common to respond to this problem with a combination of frustration and self-loathing, based on the idea that things are only such a mess because you're lazy, or because you've let things slip.

For most people, this isn't the case. You just have too many contacts, and you acquire new ones too quickly, to manage them one by one with your current system (or lack thereof).

Contactually may be your first real attempt to fix your contact management problem, much as reinventing my goofy, playground-tested shooting form was the first real attempt I'd ever made to fix my basketball-not-going-in-the-hoop problem. From that vantage point, things can get very intimidating, very quickly. There are just so many potential things to change, rules to make, tools to apply to the problem -- and on top of it all, just thinking about the situation in any kind of systematic way is new, and not ingrained in your daily workflow.

Something I realized very quickly when trying to fix my shot was that it's very easy to overthink things. Anybody who has played golf, or something similar, can probably empathize -- it's tempting to see a million different magic bullets as the secret to reaching previously unreachable success. In reality, trying to address all of them (or even a couple) at once is often paralyzing and ultimately counterproductive. Much like you already know how to communicate with people and build relationships, I already know how to shoot a basketball. I've been doing it for most of my life. My problem (as is the case with many new Contactually users) is simply a lack of consistent results.

How I fixed my shot.

So, here's my secret, which conveniently applies to both shooting a three pointer, and using Contactually.

Fix one thing at a time.

According to the internet, there are approximately thirty million things you need to take into account during the time between the moment you decide to shoot a basketball, and the point at which you have successfully completed the task of trying to shoot a basketball. They are all supposed to happen within about a second and a half, and frankly, that is not something I'm capable of doing without panicking.

Yes, I probably should do all of them. I should bend my knees, release the shot at a certain point, make sure the ball is rotating properly, follow-through, and all of that. But given that I really only have the time and focus to think about one thing before I shoot, I chose one.

Aim for the basket.

Yeah, yeah, yeah -- laugh all you want. It sounds overly simple (to the point where I've heard some people say it's actually a bad idea), but it's simply a basic, fundamental thing I wasn't doing consistently anymore. Maybe I was more careful about it in the past. Maybe I take it for granted now. Maybe I just have more things to worry about these days. But when I actually focused on this one little thing, it was amazing to see how badly and inconsistently I was managing it, and how quickly a simple application of focus could change things.

How to fix your contact management.

So as you stare at your thousands of unsorted contacts for the first time, with their duplicate IDs, social media connections, and dubious relevance to your current priorities, don't try to fix everything at once. The whole point of using Contactually is that you don't have to do that -- it's specifically there to process the small steps you take each day, or each week, towards a more organized, productive network. And what do those small steps look like?

    • Make a single bucket, called "stay in touch", and just put a handful of key relationships in it.

    • Bucket ten contacts a day. If you only have one bucket, this is just a matter of playing the bucket game for about 20 seconds, which you can probably do while you wait for a YouTube video to load. Remember, if it's hard to figure out where a contact belongs, just skip them for now. They're not going anywhere.

    • Reduce some repetitive work. Design a general, all-purpose "how have you been" email template (you'll be sending a lot of these). It doesn't take any longer than writing an actual email, and then you have it forever.

    • One of my old-workers used to brag about his two-folder system for organizing emails and tasks, which consisted of "ASAP/Important" and "Trash". Try this with contacts and buckets, except maybe change "Trash" to something a little more friendly, and give it a longer follow-up time.

And remember, perfect-looking contact databases are not the definition of success -- better relationships are! So be patient, and don't worry so much. If you use Contactually, and follow the tips you get from the grade system, you'll be more active, and more organized in your follow-ups. It's really that simple. Just keep at it, and your messy contact network will simply stop being so messy.

Shoot for the A+. You can do it.

As for my basketball career -- well, every time I look to shoot now, I literally say one thing out loud -- "line it up". That's it. When I miss, I ask myself, "did I line that shot up?" If the answer is yes, I move on, and try again. If the answer is no, I refocus on that one priority, and try again.