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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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.

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