I started treating work email like mail, and the universe did not implode

Recently I attended a corporate training session about time management. The course was less a source of new ideas and more a reminder of good habits from early in my career that I’d dropped, like writing down weekly goals and daily prioritized tasks.

Much of the course focused on distractions from our most important work. Technology is a tricky thing: it does exactly what it’s told, sometimes with consequences contrary to the original intent. Email at work, for example, meant to make us more productive by reducing the delays in correspondence. It has done that, of course, to the extreme: most people spend each day in a state of partial distraction as new message notifications pop up on computer screens and mobile phones, dinging and flashing through meetings, and demolishing concentration. Instead of proactively tackling the most difficult and important projects, technology trained us to react to the most urgent requests.

So I decided to start an experiment. I treated work email like mail: reading and responding once per day, not letting it interrupt my work or meetings during “office hours.” Here are the specific steps I took:

  1. Blocked an hour of my calendar each day from 7:30am-8:30am to read and respond to email messages, and make a prioritized list of daily tasks. I support both the Inbox Zero and three.sentenc.es philosophies. Each Monday and Friday session is 30 minutes longer, so that I can reflect on what I achieved that week, reflect on lessons learned, and set objectives for the coming week.
  2. Shut down all the notification features of my desktop and email clients, so that I can choose when to check my email. I did make one exception: my mobile client has a VIP feature that allows notifications from certain contacts (e.g., the C-suite at my company) and domains (e.g., a key customer account). I use Nine Folders and other clients may have similar features.
  3. Added a note to my email signature reminding internal recipients that while I don’t monitor incoming email during office hours, I do maintain a “SLA” to read and respond within 24 hours. The signature also reminds them to contact me through another channel if their message is truly urgent. My company has at least three chat platforms, and the corporate directory lists my mobile phone number, so plenty of alternative digital channels exist.

The result? Simply put, success. I feel so much less frantic and distracted throughout the day. I’m present and participate throughout meetings. I start and end tasks at my desk without interruption. I often send emails during the day, e.g., when shipping off a deliverable to complete a task, but I suppress the urge to pour through my inbox until the morning. My attitude towards the daily task of inbox maintenance is somewhat childlike with anticipation–anything good today? A handful of my coworkers made supportive comments; no signs of snark or frustration. In weeks, no one has come after me, angrily demanding a response to an email they sent a few hours earlier.

This experiment reinforced that the heightened sense of urgency I attached to email messages, and the feelings of anxiety I felt towards being responsive to those messages, were entirely self-imposed. And therefore I had complete power to remove the anxiety by changing my attitude and my daily habits about my inbox. If you’ve felt the same, try the experiment and see if you can replicate my results. Please leave any comments or questions below.

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A problem best left unsolved

I’ve never been particularly good at planning my future. Especially before age 30, I was content to follow the path that others suggested. What I studied, where I worked, and my hobbies arose more by not saying no to a suggestion than by my own design. I believed this lack of foresight was a complex problem, compounding my discomfort.
Two recent revelations came as welcome surprises. First, my unexpected actual life is more rewarding than attaining the expected life would be. If 18 year old Ryan opened the mail one day to find a biography of 38 year old Ryan, he would laugh and call it impossible. If I had obediently checked the boxes of personal and professional achievement my elders set before me as a teen, the best I could feel is a sense of relief. Instead, I experience moments of wide-eyed disbelief at the wild path I followed to today.
Second, less concern about the future leaves more attention to invest in the present. Every moment of worry or wonder about tomorrow is a moment of today that escapes unnoticed.

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Choose to make fresh tracks…on and off the snow.

With such a wonderful current life, I can be certain of troubling, sad, and difficult times ahead. At least one recession, war, or pandemic will occur in my lifetime; or all three. The death of my parents’ generation will disrupt the current equilibrium of my family. Accident or acute illness for my wife or children is inescapable. I also expect to make mistakes as a husband, father, and employee. But with vigilance not to repeat the mistakes of my past, I can extend my fulfillment into future “todays.”
So in hindsight, it’s better that I never figured out how to plan my life. Each day, my intent is to demonstrate the values my wife and I wish to instill in our children. Perhaps they too will find that not over-planning the future will lead to a happier present.

 

image: groupon.com

Is Seasonal Fasting Right For You?

Usually this blog sticks to topics of leadership and personal development in the realm of business. Occasionally, posts will stray into the realm of Coffee Table Books, or dogs as role models. In this post, I’ll relate my experiences with seasonal fasting. The intent is to inform the reader, to make a better decision about whether to start the practice.

Why fast every season?

The person who suggested the idea to me claimed that it gave his immune system a “boost” and helped him avoid getting sick during the change in weather. I have no way of proving this. I have, however, maintained good health since starting the practice of seasonal fasting.

The more important benefits to me are mental stamina and empathy for starving people. It doesn’t take many hours without a meal to notice that we are completely surrounded by food and food messages. Advertisements–TV, print, billboard, internet–bombard us with temptations. Magazines declare which dietary choices will lead to culturally valuable body shapes. Going a few hours without a meal puts hunger right in the front of your consciousness. Cravings for every flavor and texture of food will crowd out other thoughts.

g2ORiZiAnd for most of us, satisfying (or preventing) these cravings is easy. Grab some food from your well-stocked home pantry. Snacks and treats decorate office desks, conference rooms, and break rooms. For city dwellers and suburbanites, a restaurant, supermarket, or convenience store is rarely less than 10 minutes away. Duck inside, grab something delicious, swipe/tap/pay, and you’re sated. That convenience can cause us to forget that as of 2016, 795 million people, or 1 in 9 globally, suffered from chronic hunger. In every city, homeless and impoverished families can’t buy food. The problem is most severe in developing nations, but the problem exists everywhere.

Yes, I also tend to lose about 5 pounds with each fast, but that is an ancillary benefit. The main benefits of each seasonal fast are honing my mental discipline to overcome cravings, and developing a deeper sense of empathy for people who have no choice but to suffer through the effects of hunger.

What is a seasonal fast?

Other methods are possible, but my technique is to:

  • drink 3 pints of cold pressed juice each day; 1 green, 1 red/blue, and 1 orange/yellow
  • drink up to 12 fl. oz. of almond or cashew milk beverage
  • drink unlimited cool water, decaffeinated tea, and lemon cayenne water (1 T lemon juice plus 1/4 t cayenne powder per pint of cold water)
  • eliminate alcohol and caffeine
  • sleep and meditate more than usual
  • reduce volume and intensity of exercise, e.g., walk instead of a daily run, gentle yoga instead of dynamic yoga, etc.

I follow this routine for four days at a time, three times a year around the change of seasons. My fall-into-winter fasts have been delayed until January, after the holiday chaos, but I tend to skip that season. Disclaimer: this is not medical advice, consult your doctor before changing your diet or exercise, etc.

What is my experience during a seasonal fast?

Day 1 is transition: Headaches from caffeine withdrawal. Rumbling stomach and initial cravings. The juice is novel but not particularly delicious.

Day 2 is the worst: shorter attention span, shorter temper. Cravings can stop a stream of thought or cut off a sentence. Practice acknowledging the craving, picking it up (in my mind), and putting it aside. Need to rest often, physically and mentally. Juice is a welcome respite from the cravings. Drink it slowly and taste each mouthful.

Day 3 is quiet: No longer hungry, sometimes forgetting to drink juice. Energy levels are stable and lower on average. I speak less, but my mind is more active. Bowel movements have ceased. Sense of smell has sharpened: all smells (food or otherwise) have turned up to 11. Each mouthful of juice has intensity and depth of flavor, making me wonder if it was the same juice I drank the day before.

Day 4 is boring: I don’t crave food, I miss the act of eating and the variety of tastes and textures. Juice is satisfying and I feel that I could continue the fast for a few more days, if needed. Normal personality and cognitive function, but still tire more easily than normal.

Breaking the fast: I like to have a “favorite” meal with family if possible. I often tour the kitchen, taking one bite of every type of food we have, again not out of hunger but the for joy of experiencing tastes and textures again. I am more cautious about my meal selection, and tend to drink less caffeine and alcohol for a few weeks after the fast than I did leading up to the fast.

Seasonal fasting: is it right for you?

If you seek to hone your mental stamina and develop more empathy for starving people, then seasonal fasting might be a good fit for you. If you are primarily interested in losing weight, don’t fast but try modifying your diet (for example: eat food, not too much, mostly plants) and finding an exercise routine that you can sustain. If you have questions or want to relate your own experiences with fasting, please leave a comment.

image: http://daylesfordabbey.org/

What’s the difference: policy, process, procedure, standard?

As any organization grows, there’s a point where the you can no longer manage finances on a spreadsheet, no longer manage priorities on a whiteboard, and no longer manage the team by looking around the room. Usually this starts by compiling a list of principles that the team agrees to uphold while they do stuff (like at Amazon or Google). Then, the team gets big enough that there are enough smart people who can find enough grey area within the principles, that rules need to be written down. Also, “go ask Steve how to do that” doesn’t scale. Steve can’t do his own work when he gets interrupted 50 times a day to explain something, and the other 49 people aren’t getting anything done while waiting for Steve.

At this point the organization needs to formalize its Business Process Management (BPM) and governance structure. Joy!

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Transitions from informal to formal systems are hard (image: xkcd.com)

Most people resist structure of any kind when the administrative burden (the squeeze) is greater than the perceived benefit (the juice):

  • sales guy: “Ugh! Expense report? Why can’t you just give me a company credit card?”
  • product marketer: “Ugh! Creative services request? Why can’t you just give me edit permission on the company website?”
  • my kids: “Ugh! Chore chart? Why can’t you just give me cookies?”

As you get started deploying (or overhauling) the BPM system in your organization, remember to keep the system as lightweight as possible while still achieving the intended benefits. All the principles of Leading Change, such as “there is no such thing as over-communication,” still apply. Now let’s get to the definitions.

There are four essential components to a BPM system:

  1. Policy: a collection of related principles and guidelines that explain “why” an organization does stuff a certain way. Policies sit in the background and define the rules that should not be broken when following the processes and procedures built on top.
  2. Process: a sequence of actions and decisions that describe “what” happens to achieve an outcome. Processes can fit within or across organizational boundaries (functions, geographies, business units, etc.) and define the work that humans or IT systems perform.
  3. Procedure: instructions describing “how” to complete a certain step in a process. Highly detailed procedures are often called work instructions.
  4. Standard: a “definition of done” that sets the level of quality for work defined in a procedure or process. Standards can also set boundaries around the time our resources consumed when completing work.

Notice how this structure mirrors the why, what, how structure seen elsewhere, like in sales, and explained in Sinek’s classic book (check out the TED talk video, too). These components are modular, meaning that your team can make revisions to one part in response to new business goals or requirements, without necessarily changing another part. Remember, however, to check the implications of a change before implementing it, for example if a change to a standard would push the required level of quality outside the capabilities of the existing process.

Here’s an example most people have experienced:

In a restaurant kitchen, the goals are clearly defined: make consistently delicious food that customers will enjoy every time they visit. There are a number of policies in place that establish guidelines and rules to govern work in the kitchen. For example: everyone will wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, raw food will be stored in certain containers at a certain temperature, cutting boards for fish won’t be used for fruit, etc. Next, there are processes in place to achieve specific outcomes. For example the process to receive an order from the dining room and deliver the ordered dishes to the pass. For each step in that process, there are procedures that the kitchen staff to execute the work, for example the method to cook spaghetti carbonara. Lastly, the steps in the process to deliver the food that was ordered must conform to standards. These standards include the taste of the sauce, the temperature of the dish when it hits the pass, even the type of plate it’s served on.

If the restaurant is a local, family run place, maybe none of this information is every written down. Cambridge, MA legend Clover Food Lab has posted its employee training documentation publicly since opening, which includes policies, processes, procedures, and standards. Ferran Adria posted a sythesis of elBulli cuisine: great example of a policy document in the context of avant garde cuisine. Watch his team’s system of creativity and service excellence unfold in the movie el Bulli: Cooking in Progress.

With a better understanding of the difference between policy, process, procedure, and standard, you can help your organization achieve it’s goals with just enough structure, not more.

Key Concepts: Sales EQ by Jeb Blount

Key Concepts from the book Sales EQ by Jeb Blount

51kGfoyWJJLRecently I published a Quick Take on the book Sales EQ by Jeb Blount. Below is a table listing the key concepts that Blount introduces in the book.

Many of these concepts will be familiar to readers of other books on the subjects of personal development and effective communication. What makes Sales EQ such a compelling read is the way Blount introduces these potentially complex or intimidating concepts in a concise manner, all within the context of the unique relationship between a seller and his or her stakeholders.

Concept What it means Why it matters
Emotional scripts Patterns of communication between two people in familiar situations, reinforced by subconscious signals Buyers and sellers will repeat previous experiences, even when the individuals have never met, unless the seller can disrupt the conversation by using language that forces conscious engagement instead of reflexive response
Cognitive dissonance Discomfort felt when a person’s words and actions don’t align Reversing the micro-commitments made throughout the buying process is emotionally uncomfortable
UHP ultra-high-performance Blount’s term for the successful group of sales professionals who apply the book’s techniques
Heuristics Mental shortcuts that reduce the cognitive load in decision making Buyers make irrational choices, and instead use logic in hindsight to justify their emotional decisions
Cognitive bias Thought patterns that support people’s irrational choices Understanding how patterns like hindsight bias, attribution bias, and egocentric bias work can help sellers avoid direct challenges and increase engagement with buyers
Sales Intelligence Blount’s framework to describe what enables UHPs to outperform their peers Helps sellers identify areas of personal development for themselves and their sales teams
Innate intelligence (IQ) Raw cognitive capacity (“mental horsepower”), as determined by genetics, not trainable Behavioral traits common in sellers with high IQ can also make forming relationships difficult
Acquired intelligence (AQ) Knowledge acquired through training, study, and learning experiences Whether applied to the seller’s own capabilities, the deal, or the industry, working hard to increase AQ provides a competitive advantage
Technological Intelligence (TQ) The extent to which sellers use “adopt, adapt, adept” toward new technology in their roles Remaining open to the role of technology in sales, and learning how to use it effectively will give sellers an advantage over their peers who label themselves as “not savvy”
Emotional intelligence (EQ) Adapted from Goleman’s research; Blount’s definition includes empathy, self-awareness, self-control, and sales drive Sellers will positively differentiate themselves and gain a competitive advantage when they invest in developing high EQ
Locus of control Belief as to whether a person’s success or failure in life is his/her own hands (internal) or determined by outside factors (external) Internal locus of control often enables people to achieve high EQ
Win probability Likelihood that a seller will successfully close a deal Headline metric that UHPs focus on, which motivates their behaviors when prospecting, qualifying, and developing opportunities
Dual process Balancing relationship building with sales outcomes (i.e., winning deals) Sales-specific EQ means making equal investments in these objectives
Murder boarding Objectively evaluating win probability of opportunities in a seller’s pipeline by a peer or manager By removing biases caused by overconfidence or desperation, a seller can focus on the right deals
Micro-commitments Small steps forward in a deal, demonstrated by investing time, emotion, or action A buyer’s small agreements throughout a deal create positive psychological patterns and reduce the effort to close in the final stage
Take-away Seller makes a sincere offer to stop deal discussions based on a perceived lack of buyer engagement Stops wasting effort when the buyer is truly unengaged; creates scarcity effect in a buyer who is bluffing or following subconscious scripts
Next step Mutually agreed action or scheduled follow-up meeting Absolutely essential for a seller to secure a commitment to a next step in each buyer interaction, otherwise the win probability plummets
Self-disclosure loop The act of sharing personal information releases dopamine in the brain, causing pleasurable feelings and lowering inhibitions, which continues the cycle By asking open questions, using active listening techniques, and becoming comfortable with silence, the seller can gain control over the conversation and learn about the true needs and intentions of the buyer
Dual process discovery Questioning technique that builds empathy while revealing important details about the deal UHPs develop their own repertoire of questions that move from broad open-ended, to probing, to clarifying questions, while maintaining positive intent and empathy
Bridging Messaging technique that links the buyer’s stated (or implied) problem, to a personalized recommendation, to a planned result Avoids “pitch slapping” and increases buyer’s affinity for the seller, which positively influences decision making

Next up on leadertainment.com will be a downloadable summary of the major sections of the book Sales EQ by Jeb Blount. Looking for more great books? Check out the essential reading list.

image: amazon.com

Quick Take: Sales EQ by Jeb Blount

Quick Take on the book Sales EQ by Jeb Blount

Yes, this is a psychology book: it helps you understand human emotions, cognitive patterns, and communication styles in order to build more effective relationships. Jeb Blount’s book, Sales EQ, explains these concepts in the context of the very specific relationships that exist between a seller and his or her stakeholders.

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Most popular sales books focus on the sales process, qualification techniques, and the mechanics of closing (Sales EQ adds a few of its own, also). Let’s call these “the what” of selling. Other sales books define common personas, found in either buyers or sellers, exploring the attributes of each persona and how they lead to higher or lower win rates (Sales EQ also contributes to this category. Let’s call these “the who” of selling.

What sets Sales EQ apart, and what makes this such a unique and profound work when compared to other sales books, is how concisely and comprehensively it covers “the how” that sits behind both the what and the who of sales effectiveness. Blount takes the framework from Daniel Goleman’s research on Emotionally Intelligent Leadership (HBR, 1998-2001), and expands it to include concepts on decision making and communication introduced by authors spanning Cialdini, Pink, Heath, Carter, Ekman & the Dalai Lama, and more.

  • Has your team burned through a stack of sales methodology books and acronyms, from SPIN Selling, to The Challenger Sale, BANT, DISCOVER, MEDDIC, WOLFE, and everything in between, yet still struggles with low quota attainment and high turnover?
  • Have you sat in the room with a top-notch seller–either as a peer or a buyer–and been mystified with how effortlessly they get to “yes”?
  • Even more acutely, have you listened to a recording of yourself on a sales call and wondered “who is that monster and why in the world did he/she say that?”

For anyone who nodded to the questions above, or would simply like the convenience of finding 12 books on human emotion and communication condensed down in one volume, Sales EQ is a must-read.

Interested? Review my list of the key concepts from the book Sales EQ by Jeb Blount. Look for a downloadable book summary soon, here on leadertainment.com. In the meantime, check out other highly recommended books on the essential reading list.

image: amazon.com

Precise and consistent use of language is a requirement of any effective organization

The contemporary social convention of expecting people to believe what you mean, not what you say, was epitomized by Peter Thiel’s fascinatingly distorted explanation how different groups take Trump seriously or literally, but not both. This has disturbed me at a visceral level since I first encountered the phenomena years ago in certain individuals’ speaking styles, then more broadly in (social) media through the recent US election cycle. Only recently, while re-reading one of my favorite books (Jacques’ Requisite Organization), was I able to articulate why.

Canadian Jazz + Politicized Snoop = Genius.

The first failure of imprecise and inconsistent language is to place the cognitive burden on the listener, rather than the speaker. In a world where discretionary leadership bandwidth is the scarcest commodity, this puts a severe constraint on the growth of any team – large or small. Whether you are speaking to a peer, a manager, or a subordinate, it benefits both parties for the listener to spend the least amount of time and mental effort deciphering your message from among your words. Furthermore, in any role where you expect the listener to convey your message to others, or support your ideas when you are present to defend them personally, any lack of clarity that leads to misinterpretation introduces an unnecessary risk. In short: don’t be lazy when you communicate.

The second failure is to undermine trust, the fundamental component of a functional team. The strength of any team starts with the strength of the one-to-one relationships between its members. Fans of Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team will recognize trust as the starting point towards results. If my team member, let’s hypothetically call him Donald, expects me to “take him seriously, but not literally,” can I trust that Donald is going to be consistent in his communications (or even his reasoning) from one conversation to the next? That he is going to represent my ideas and values accurately after he walks out of the room? That he is a reliable source of information for me from elsewhere in the team? These scenarios are just a few of the myriad of examples that will inhibit trust in our relationship, and therefore prevent our team from engaging in constructive conflict, strengthening commitment and accountability, and ultimately focusing on results.

Precise and consistent use of language is a prerequisite of any effective organiation. And it starts with you. Choose your words carefully, use them consistently, and take the time to seek positive confirmation of mutual understanding in your conversations. Nudge your teammates to find a common vocabulary — even if “your” words aren’t the ones that the group ultimately favors. Be brave enough to stop a group discussion if you observe inconsistencies between what people say and what they mean. Investing a few minutes early on will pay back with enormous dividends, as clarity brings efficiency and trust brings results.