Monday, February 23, 2009

Getting the email monkey off your back

Email has an insidious grip on its users. It's time to take stock and give yourself a break. Acknowledge some realities!

  1. Acknowledge that there is no way anyone can actually deliver on all the requests made of them via email. There is no shame in not being 'perfect' when perfection is completely unachievable.
  2. Understand that less is more. Communicate, don't lecture, when composing emails.
  3. Recognise that everyone has this problem. No-one 'loves' email so don't feel guilty that this technology has gotten out of hand; it's hardly your fault. The solution is within you; you are not the cause of the problem.
  4. Change your attitude to email. It is not a panacea; it's a powerful communication tool – no more and no less. Use it; don't let it use you.
  5. Make the technology work for you. Identify the 10 standard things you consistently request or reply on, and create a signature template to supply the information you need to communicate (thank you's, responses to FAQs, admin requests etc.).


  6. Ditch, ditch, ditch. Why keep the electronic equivalent of every supermarket receipt, bus ticket, scribbled Post-it note or mildly interesting information flyer about some event you know you're never going to attend? Re-reading old emails over and over again adds nothing to your ability to turn them into productive output.


  7. Go to your inbox reluctantly. If something is uber-urgent you'll find out quickly enough when the person calls you. Treat each visit to the inbox as a distraction from your real work, and when you do go there triage all the mail you find, plan and organise the resulting work and then get back to the fun stuff that you're actually paid to do (no one's job description begins with 'spend 2-3 hours sending and receiving email').
  8. 'Always on' emailers usually ascribe more value to getting an email than actually doing something as a result of receiving it. Recognise email for what it is: almost always an interruption to something much more important that you could be doing. (Weekend Blackberry users take note: Why do you allow your employers to have you work for no pay outside of already extended business hours?)
  9. Recognise that there are only 10 things you can do with an email, and use the triage method to take the next action to make one of those decisions.
  10. Realise that most email is ephemeral. It is relevant only for a very short period of time and so can be dispensed with aggressively, either by planning the work, putting the email away or ditching it forever.
  11. Tell people you've changed your habits. Ask them to call you more; define when it's good for you to be contacted by mail; let them know how you'll handle emails, plan your work and schedule their responses, and tell them how your system works for you (a signature template is a good technique to use here). Set, then change, people's expectations, and then live your new email work style.
  12. Value your time properly. At work, it's all you've got and there's never enough of it. Recognise all of the time you are losing to email; your health, career and family will all benefit. Email has robbed you of your time; take it back.

Harold Taylor has identified five 'laws' or effective guidelines for maximising the use of time.

Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion (otherwise known as the 'I've got a deadline' law). Deadlines become a goal to work towards: the closer you get, the more effective with your time you become. Unrealistic deadlines cause stress.

The Pareto Principle: Also known as the 80/20 rule, meaning that 80% of your results are achieved from 20% of the things you do. It's therefore vital to focus your energies (and time) on the 20% of the work that delivers 80% of the results that progress you towards your goals.

Law of Diminishing Returns: The closer you get to finishing a task, the time taken to 'perfect it' increases exponentially. The extra value created by doing near-perfect work mostly doesn't justify the cost of the extra time spent on it. For most work, close enough is good enough.

Law of Comparative Advantage: Do only the work that is valued at your worth. Assign, delegate or outsource any task that can be done for less than you earn or desire to earn. Put a value on your time and be guided by that value in deciding whether or not to undertake a given task.

The Pleasure Principle: We avoid pain and seek immediate gratification. This explains why we procrastinate over the tough work and prioritise the fun work, even if the 80/20 rule is being broken. Recognise this and plan for it.

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