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 you should run your business process like a refinery

Regardless of your position on fossil fuels, the sheer scale, complexity, and ferocity of a refinery will strike you with awe. At a refinery, as with any other process manufacturing facility, the best days are the boring days–ideally without any “unplanned pressure releases” similar to those experienced in the rocket industry. The cost of mistakes, in terms of operating income without considering the employee or environmental risk, can easily reach millions of dollars per day.

So, as we examine our own careers in search of fresh ideas and inspiration, an important performance metric from the process manufacturing industry called OEE can help.

OEE stands for Overall Equipment Effectiveness and is measured on a scale from 0% to 100%. While I will avoid an extended discussion of how to establish the 100% level, understand that OEE is the product of three terms: availability, utilization, and yield. Let’s explore how any business process owner can benefit from getting these three terms as close to 100% as possible, typically in that order.

Availability: when I push the green button, does it go?

Availability measures what percentage of total time a process or asset is ready to run when called upon. Avoiding the nuances of this calculation, let’s look at why availability matters in a business setting. Perhaps you are responsible for an email marketing system, or a database, or even human assets like a sales team. How much downtime does this asset experience? How often do the emails fail to send? How often is the database offline? How often does a sales rep call out sick or no-show for meetings? Clearly to make any significant improvement in overall performance, the availability of an asset or process needs to reach a moderately high and sustained level. Furthermore, the people responsible for the asset or process won’t gain the trust of the rest of the organization or have the credibility to advise on more complex issues until they get their availability in order. So, for most leaders, improving availability is a critical first step.

Utilization: when it’s available, is it running?

Utilization measures the percent of available time that a process or asset is operating. Any time spent idle, either waiting for inputs from an upstream process or waiting for a downstream process to take away its outputs will penalize both utilization and OEE. If availability is about solving maintenance and reliability issues, then utilization is about planning, scheduling, and load balancing across assets and between departments. Your database job schedule might need a closer look, or your lead flow process might need tweaks to keep a steady pace of calls and meetings in front of your sales team. Step back from an individual asset or process to look for gains in utilization at your “bottleneck” in order to reap the largest overall results.

Yield: when it’s running, is there zero waste?

Disciples of the Lean movement will readily rattle off the seven flavors of muda, or waste. Generally, yield losses occur when running at less than 100% speed and/or producing less than 100% first level quality output. Whether comparing the results of your asset/process to an external benchmark, an internal best, or a design capability, you will likely find yield opportunities easily. Typically yield optimization is the most interesting type of problem to solve because it requires delving into the unknown. For high availability systems, it is also the most frequent problem to solve–if it ain’t running, you can’t work on yield! So whether you are looking for a higher email conversion rate, lower error rates on database jobs, or higher win rates on sales opportunities, yield optimization is likely a well-trodden path for your team, and the harder you look, the more you will find.

Where to start? Follow the money

An optimist will see a low OEE system as a playground full of valuable and interesting opportunities. When looking across the areas of availability, utilization, and yield, it’s likely that different people will have different opinions on where to start. A straightforward and non-confrontational approach is to value each opportunity with a common metric, like $. With a straightforward spreadsheet you will be able to value what a 1% improvement in availability, utilization, and yield–above the current baseline values and holding the other two constant–will be worth on a per day or per year basis. This should not prevent your team from making improvements in all areas, instead it should inform prioritization in a resource-restricted world.

So whether you are a database administrator, marketer, or sales manager, take a page from the refining world and think about how to maximize your OEE. And you won’t even have to put on fireproof coveralls to do it.

Buried by your Outlook inbox? Try this productivity tip

Too_Much_MailWe all get dozens–or more–of new email messages each day. Most of us have a routine, either at the beginning or end of the day, when we look through the new arrivals, make some assessments on urgency and importance, and either deal with the messages right away or label them for follow-up. On a normal day the time we spend on inbox triage can be just a few minutes. But at busy periods, or after a few days away from work, the backlog can be painful.

Wouldn’t you rather put your time towards more valuable activities? Have you noticed any patterns in your inbox triage? What I’ve found is that often messages from the same few people get dealt with right away (or deleted), messages with attachments take more time to review, some things are interesting without being urgent. So, using Categories and Rules in Microsoft Outlook, it is possible to train the software to perform this basic triage to 80% of new messages, freeing up precious brainpower for work, or reading online comics.

Below are the steps to follow, which should take less than 10 minutes to complete. You can also download a simple set of instructions with screenshots.

  1. Create categories into which the majority of your new messages can be sorted. Examples:
    1. Action required
    2. Read and respond
    3. Interesting, not urgent
  2. Create a search folder to view categorized messages in one place.
  3. Create rules to sort incoming messages into your folders.

Maybe this is Outlook 101 for many of you, but I hope you find that investing a few minutes to set up these rules will help.

Image: timebackmanagement.com