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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Why do so few employers check references?

This isn’t going to be a post in which I pose a deceptively simple question in the title, and then blow your mind with a concise, insightful, yet counter-intuitive answer (ha!), like I’ve attempted with interview questions, career choices, or long hours. I am genuinely stupefied, mortified, and mystified, as is Jackie Chiles.

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Personally, I have not given a job offer without calling references. I have, however, been offered a job without having my references called. And, much more often, I have been asked to stand as a reference and not received a call from the candidate’s employer–even when “my” candidate received an offer. That pattern leads me to believe that very few employers are like me and follow through with reference checks.

But a sample size of one is weak, so I did some quick research. I found a good piece from SHRM describing how to perform background and reference checks, that references a CareerBuilder survey from 2014 revealing that in many industries more than half of applicants falsify their employment history or qualifications, among other statistics about the problems unearthed during checks.

That CareerBuilder survey got a lot of mileage on other sites describing HOW and WHY to check, but even top-of-the-funnel marketing guff from recruitment automation vendors like SkillSurvey (in Fortune) and Checkster (on their blog) didn’t provide any more primary or secondary research about HOW OFTEN employers actually follow through with checking references.

So I am sticking with my original conclusion that employers are not checking references often enough, and exposing themselves to huge financial and productivity risks. While you’re at it, why pick up a pack of cigarettes and leave your seat belt unbuckled during the commute home?

The authors below have done a fantastic job explaining how to perform effective reference checks, while reinforcing why you must be either indecisive or bad at hiring if you don’t:

If you can answer or refute my original question, “why do so few employers check references?” with some convincing data, please do! Otherwise, I hope the resources above enable you to join the proud and effective minority of employers who do.

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.

When your colleagues say “now,” what do they mean?

Here is a quick and lighthearted post that may or may not be based on actual experiences working with folks in different functional teams.

How would different people in your company answer the question, “when you say ‘we can do that now,’ what exactly do you mean?”Modern-Clock-Wall-clock-by_D0D60BD6

Product Manager (in a software business): I need another week for the fifth revision to the user story before it’s done.

Software Engineering (in a software business): There are a ton of bugs, we are still testing, and if you’re lucky it will ship in next month’s release.

Maintenance (in an industrial business): We finished the repairs last week and the open work orders are in my queue somewhere. Have you not been running that equipment?

Process Engineering (in an industrial business): I’ve reviewed the data set and it’s got a few outliers…I’d propose another 5-6 weeks of baseline study before we make any moves.

Sales: I’ve had one meeting with him/her, but I sold to his/her boss three jobs ago so we can probably push the contract through before the end of the quarter.

Finance: Once we verify those transactions, you’ll see them post to the accounts in the next 30-90 days.

Legal: You can’t do that; it hasn’t been approved.

image credit: thisnext.com

Five Ways to Make 2014 Your Worst Year Ever

Lance has put many of these year-ruining tips into practice
Lance now serves as a very different type of inspiration to millions

Tired of all those inspiring, motivational ring-in-the-new-year articles by happy, successful people? Had enough of all that pressure to make next year arbitrarily “better,” just because the Earth has finished another lap as defined by a very clever, very dead pope? Tell me about it. Follow these five simple steps to make sure that your 2014 feels like Blackberry plus JC Penney, raised to the power of Kozlowski. Maybe we’ll see you soon on the outside, Dennis!

  1. Surround yourself with people who share your worldview and skill set, but are less capable. Along with shielding you from any diversity of thought or challenging new ideas, this tactic will minimize the risk of receiving any feedback that could result in a beneficial learning experience.
  2. Sleep briefly and erratically, after consuming way too much fried food and beer. Not only will this strategy reduce your life expectancy, you will also put many others around you in harm’s way by increasing your accident risk.
  3. Devote a few hours each month to making random strangers feel frustrated. Buck the trend of increasing volunteerism in America by performing random acts of savagery. Push yourself to go beyond driving rudely into the realm of vandalism, and see how many bad days you can leave in your wake.
  4. Publicly humiliate your family and alienate your longtime friends. Take a page from the Book of Spitzer or channel DSK to see if you can flush your professional and personal relationships through a series of short-sighted, self-indulgent choices.
  5. Clean out your savings and destroy your credit to speculate on cryptocurrency and foreign exchange trading. After ruining your health, family, friendships, career, and community, the final step in ensuring 2014 is your worst year ever is to gut your financial standing. Rely on your deeply rooted mammalian instincts to chase returns, sell in a panic on price dips, and get cleaned out by well-researched, professional traders on high speed platforms.

No matter how 2013 treated you, this advice will guarantee 2014 feels like moving to Greece in comparison. Thanks to everyone who has followed Leadertainment so far, and have a terrible year!

Don’t be “that guy” at the gym this winter

bush_doing_it_wrong_1The essence of getting constructive feedback is finding out that you’re doing it wrong. If you read my recent post on soliciting feedback, you’ve probably got a bunch of great ideas about what to do differently around the office. A handful of folks have asked me for ideas on how to work off a few extra holiday pounds, so I’m switching gears with this post and sharing some of my accumulated fitness insights. The main message is that for winter workouts, find something that burns a high number of calories per hour, keeps you mentally engaged, and most importantly learn the right form so you don’t get hurt and end up being “that guy” who has to explain his gym injury at the office.

  1. concept 2 strokeMy number one winter workout is indoor rowing because it allows you to burn calories and build strength from hands to toes. It is equally impressive because >80% of people who sit down on a Concept 2 are going to hurt either themselves or the machine. Watch this video to learn the basic stroke; never set the resistance to 10 and never lift the handle over your knees. Fun personal note: I competed in the 2009 C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s as a “lightweight” and was a raging pile of adrenaline all day. I’m sorry, Suzanne.
  2. Number 2 on the list is cross-country skiing (specifically, skate-skiing). If you are lucky enough to live in a part of the world with the right conditions for XC skiing, you probably don’t own sunscreen. Skate-skiing, nonetheless, is a great cardio workout, and way more fun than nordic. Check out these videos to learn how. Fun personal note: I learned to XC ski on the Ptarmigan Ski Trails during my 4 winters in Fort McMurray, AB. And in 4 years, the number of times I skied in daylight: once.
  3. corpse poseFinally, I’m going to recommend yoga to round out your winter workout. There are many, many styles of yoga to choose from, and if all goes wrong, you can just do some deep breathing with your eyes closed in Shavasana (corpse pose). Fun personal note: Just this week during my overall favorite yoga class, the instructor (Marc St Pierre) stopped the class to call everyone over to see how terrible my shoulder posture was, and offer some remedial help. I was absolutely doing it wrong! And I will be back tomorrow for more yoga with Marc…