Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Want to spend LESS time on email? Give it MORE attention!

Does this sound familiar?   

You wake up at the crack of dawn, reach for your smart-phone from the bedside stand, and scan your email.  You note a few messages that will need immediate attention, and then you are ready to move to the next part of your day: coffee.  While you sip, you take another look at your email, this time deleting some, opening/reading/closing several, and replying to one or two.  A few, based on the subject heading alone, leave you either silently fuming or stressed at what you think you'll have to deal with later.  

Finally you arrive at work, and your first step is to open your email on a bigger screen (tablet, laptop or desktop).  You revisit (for up to the 3rd time) the messages you have previously scanned, plus the new arrivals.  On this pass, you respond to some messages (often the "easy" or urgent ones); flag the ones that "need to be handled TODAY!";  and leave quite a few untouched as you think don't have time to address them, or you don't know what to do, or you don't want to do the thing that needs to be done.  

These two patterns, scanning-but-not-acting-on messages on your phone, and incompletely dealing with messages when on your bigger screen, repeat themselves throughout the day, often while you are in between meetings or patients, or during meetings and conference calls.  

By the end of the day, you still have dozens (or more) of messages in your inbox, and you are sick and tired of email and the fact that it sucks up every free minute of your day.

There is a solution:  give your email more of your undivided attention.

Much has been written about how to best manage email, including folder structure, volume reduction, composition practices,  and various processing strategies.   I have a particular affinity for Merlin Mann's "inbox zero" method of processing.  I've written a short piece about that method here.

However, my point today applies method or structure is used, and whether you process your email all by your self, with the help of an assistant, or by using a filtering app such as SaneBox.   

If you re-read the scenario at the beginning of this post, you'll see the common theme:  looking at messages -- skimming subject lines or opening and closing messages -- without doing anything to move toward completion.

To make matters worse, all this scanning and skimming is often happening while we are trying to do something else:  attend a meeting or conference call, work on a project, and so on.

Put yet another way, rather than ATTENDING to messages, we are AVOIDING messages.  The productivity blogger Craig Jarrow calls this "playing with" our email , as in the way children play with  food - moving it around on the plate, but not eating.

If you are ready for a change, try these guidelines to operationalize the "magic potion" of attention.

  • Don't look at any email (either the subject line or the message itself) without taking at least one concrete step toward completing what needs to be done.   Processing even one email through to completion is better than skimming twenty.
  • Process email in intermittent batches through out the day, and fully focus on email.  No more email-while-on-a-conference-call!
  • A batch can last 5 minutes or an hour, based on the amount of time you have.  The number of batches per day depends on the volume of messages you need to deal with.  
  • If you are worried about urgent messages, do "emergency scans" in between batches aimed at looking just for those messages, and ignoring the rest.  You can do this.
  • Is your access to email during most of the day on your phone?  It may be difficult to fully process messages, especially long replies and filing.  Use your phone for these two actions only:   DELETE or  answer URGENT messages.  Leave everything else for your fully set up device.

I have been using this method successfully for nearly 10 years, with a daily email volume of  200+ messages per day.   

What do I mean by "success?"  I spend less time processing, the time I spend is more pleasant, and I don't worry about email when I am not processing.

I hope you will give this method a try -and let me know how it goes.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Get more sleep!

Sometimes a trivial, transient personal experience can illuminate a greater truth.

This happened to me last week.  About 3 weeks ago I caught one of the many respiratory viruses going around this winter, and I had the usual 3 day acute illness followed by the usual long full recovery period.

For me, my "recovery" typically involves 2 or 3 weeks of yucky intermittent coughing episodes (and yes, I have been evaluated for asthma...).  This week, I noticed I was fatigued at work, which is unusual for me, and I realized it was due to the sleep disruption from the cough.  I could do my work, but my enthusiasm was limited, and I did not make much progress on discretionary projects.

After making an effort - involving appropriate over the counter drugs - one night to get an extra full night's sleep, I was like a new person the next day.  My feeling was confirmed by my family and co-workers who commented on my upbeat, zippy attitude.

Now let's get to the greater truth.

Many (most?) of us simply don't get enough sleep on a regular basis to either be productive or have a happy life. Even worse, we put ourselves at risk for poor health outcomes and bad work decisions.

Sleep has been in the news a lot in the last few years, and some of you are familiar with the empirical studies looking at the effects of long resident hours.  But there is much more evidence that supports the bad effects of too little sleep. The Economic Times posted a blog today that summarizes many of these.  One not mentioned in that post is the association between sleep deprivation and abrasive behavior on the part of bosses toward their staff.

Really, the problems of not-enough-sleep are pervasive.  A CDC report details prevalence data, and one of the objectives of Healthy People 2020 is to "Increase the proportion of adults who get sufficient sleep."

The National Sleep Foundation recently released (slightly) revised guidelines for the optimal amount of sleep based on age group; these are in line with the most recent NIH guidelines for adults. Take a look at these if you are unsure what you should be aiming for.

If you think your are doing fine with less than the recommended amount, pay attention to how you are faring on the daytime energy and enthusiasm scale - and maybe check with trusted co-workers or family members about your mood - to check your thinking.

Now, its time for bed...  good night!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Goodbye to my faithful old bag, hello to the New Year

I've had this bag for 10 or maybe even 15 years. It was the first one I ever liked, because it was small, black, sturdy and had lots of compartments.

And then it developed a hole.

It was just a small hole at first, but then I noticed that quarters were at risk of falling out.   

Soon thereafter, I noticed the strap was fraying.

My teenage daughters started making increasingly pointed comments about finding a replacement.   ("MOM....!")

And then I started noticing that it was often stuffed to the gills, making it hard to find things, and get them out.  

And most sadly of all, my wonderful new phone - the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 - did not fit easily into its appointed compartment.

What was  my problem?  

Easy.  I never thought I'd find another one I liked.

But I did, and it's actually better.  The new bag is also black and sturdy, but it is larger, lighter, and holds everything in roomy comfort - including my ginormous phone.  And it has even more compartments than the old one.

You know what's coming next:  The metaphor!

When a habit, hobby, volunteer activity, work assignment, or even a career, develops signs of no longer working, it's time to consider moving on to something new.  

And what comes next is often better.

Productivity blogger LG Earnest offers a free guide to help you figure this out:

Earnest, LG (2013).   ReclaimYour Time: A Guide to Editing Your Life

As you look ahead to the new year, ask yourself:  What is no longer working for me?