Hidden in plain sight, e-mail is one of the worst productivity offenders in the workplace. Professional culture dictates you check – and respond – to it frequently, if not continuously, which is detrimental to actually getting work done. Here’s how to conquer your Inbox.
All things equal
The first rule of e-mail is to remember that it is, essentially, an electronic version of crack. Getting involved with it has a tendency to avert your attention from everything else, and cloud your judgment with regard to what’s important or not. As a result, there’s really only one way to get a grip on your Inbox, and that’s declaring a state of attention independence: every single notification or indicator, audible or visual, that indicates you have new e-mail or that one e-mail is more significant than the other (read: unread), must go. That’s right: all of them. The lot. The whole kit & kaboodle.
Depending on your e-mail client of choice, hit up Google for advice using phrases such as ‘remove notification’ and ‘mark all e-mail as read’ in conjunction with the name of your e-mail client, and you’ll be on your way in no time.
And how, exactly, will I keep track of what I’ve attended to now, you might ask? That’s easy: you use productivity software or services, since your e-mail inbox is just one of the many places people communicate with you. Instead of trying to keep track of a myriad different inboxes, using productivityware lets you gather everything on your plate on… well, one plate, making it easier for you to choose the right things to work on.
Bonus points: as a side effect, this is one of the best starting points for removing your stress goggles.
In the zone
The next step is to set up a routine where you prune your e-mail for 15 minutes in the morning to remove the usual garbage and spot anything that needs to be handled immediately. The next 90 minutes should be spent working on something important, and although it’s preferable to simply close your e-mail client to avoid distractions, you may have to keep it open to retrieve reference information; at any rate, having taken care of the notification and read/unread issues will nonetheless have minimized it’s pull on your attention in order for you to improve your focus.
Incidentally, this is the challenging part, where you have to excercise willpower in order to keep from delving back into your e-mail. You’ll want to do so for a number of reasons, including being anxious about missing something important, procrastinating when the task at hand is something you don’t want to do, or diverting yourself if you hit a creative roadblock. If you feel the onset of any of these, just get up and move around a bit. The alternative is to pretend you’re doing something important, and fall further behind on things you should already have done or should be doing.
Also, depending on the nature of your workday, you could be well served by repeating this exact pattern after lunch; your mileage may vary and soforth.
Cut the copy
Last, but not least: stop copying people unnecessarily. Nobody likes a copier. And, more importantly, you’re aiming a metaphorical shotgun at your foot if you want to get proper work done. The more people you copy on an e-mail, the more people will reply to you. You know it, and I know it. That means more e-mail for you to handle. And what happens when more people join the discussion? Well, they either tend to prolong or complicate it, or delve into fragmented subdiscussions – quite possibly because they’re using their e-mail in the exact manner you’re trying to avoid.
If you’re old enough to remember the movie Critters, you’ll remember that the apparently harmless creatures starring in the 80s classic were anything but – and chances are, more than a few items on your task lists harbour an equally destructive potential.
A dreadful duo
Quick, answer me this: when are you most likely to get the least done? When you’re checking things off your task list at an alarming rate, all the while thinking you’re doing great. You see, unless you’re very – very – good at managing your task list the right way, odds are you’re pelting down tasks quicker than you can count them due to a dreadful duo: you favour efficiency over effect, and you’re letting your dopamine receptors get the better of you.
Let’s focus on effect first: most people have a rather insane number of items on their task lists if they have managed to master the aspect of universal capture – that is, to write down everything between “I should have done this ages ago” to “I’ve gotta do this right now” and “I might want to do this in the future”. If you do this already: bravo. Now, your next step is to make sure you prioritize the tasks that will bring you one step closer to achieving your goals and dreams.
Alas, it’s much easier to spend time knocking one little thing after another (efficiency!) off the task list – which leaves you feeling accomplished as you’re doing it, but is in truth an implosion of your productivity: you’re getting things done, but you’re not getting any further. It’s a ravishing tango between our lizard brains and the ghost of willpower lost.
Doing important tasks is almost always hard: that’s why you should force yourself to focus on them to the exclusion of everything else, as belittling their value is effectively handing control of your life over to someone else. By the way: never confuse urgent with important. If your car is blocking traffic and causing a riot while you’re convincing your girlfriend not to run off to Paris with that well-chiseled bloke from art class… well, let’s just say the car can wait.
What to do about it
The next time working with your task list feels like playing a game of Duck Hunt (along the lines of this is too easy), chances are you’re right. Stop. Contemplate. Simplify. Trust your gut. Work smart, and bend the world to your will.Read More
If you want to learn a new language, there’s no substitute for actual application – for which a critical requirement is the presence of someone to interact with. As it turns out, language isn’t the only case in which fellowship does wonders for progress.
Pride and prejudice
Some times, we’re a bit too insistent on doing things on our own. Often, our pride gets in the way; we want our accomplishments and achievements to be our own, rather than share credit. Then there’s prejudice, in the form of believing you can do a better job than others. Naturally, there are also a whole host of other reasons for why people choose to go it alone, but these two to crop up fairly consistently whenever I partake in honest discussions on this subject.
What’s worth remembering is that despite the fact that you may very well be entitled to prejudice, there are enough humans on the planet to conclude that it’s well worth applying a few shades of gray. No matter how good you are, you need only take a look at the field of sports to discover that while someone may indeed reign supreme, they are inevitably replaced by someone else in the passage of time.
As for pride? Well, it’s a tremendous feeling to have accomplished something entirely on your own – except that there are extremely few cases where it can be argued that an individual is solely responsible for his or her achievement, since elements from our past will always influence and enable our future achievements – and unless you’re from Mars, there’s a fairly good chance you’ve spent some time interacting with others.
It’s all about the synergy
The key to extracting value from fellowship is finding someone with an equal – or greater – passion for your subject of choice, and the effect you’re looking for is called synergy:
“Synergy. The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual.”
By finding someone whom shares your interest and your level of skill, and is willing to work with you towards common or overlapping goals, you can drastically speed up your progress at pretty much anything. One simple guideline should be observed: the parties involved should be brutally honest about their level of engagement and their expected outcome – if one has been defined. Add equal doses of communication and passion, and you have a killer recipe for achieving more, faster.
Fail to heed this advice, however, and you could quickly be faced with a bit of turmoil as people tend to get rather emotional about subjects for which they are passionate.
It really does work
But how do you start? If you don’t already have someone in mind, the web is littered with a million different forums, newsgroups and websites dedicated to every imaginable topic under the sun; all you have to do is invest time in finding the place which offers the best combined ratio of quality to quantity. In other words, you should be avoiding the wastelands of eternal newcomers and the hunting grounds of know-it-all elitists and seek a place where the atmosphere is welcoming and helpful. It’s worth a few hours of research.
Whether it really works, you ask? One word: Wikipedia.
There’s a perfectly good reason for why, even though we try our very best, we end up falling back on our brains when we try to remember something about something instead of just making a quick note of it. It’s called accessibility.
Are you Getting Things Done?
Disclaimer: unless you’re familiar with David Allen’s productivity methodology dubbed Getting Things Done, or GTD, you might lack some context for the theories laid forth herein. In brief summary, a key concept of the GTD is to note down every thought which may at some point either become either something you would want to remember or do something about – for then to process it later at an appropriate time and place.
As it happens, I fervently concur with Mr. Allen, as my view of this is that our brains are not storage facilities – they’re factories.
And it’s always with you. Nothing beats your brain for quick access to information – if only you were able to infallibly access every scrap of information you needed at any given point in time. Which I’m sure you’ve noticed is simply impossible. Our brains are good, old-fashioned analog tools which do an exceptional job of many things (although not simultaneously, despite our deepest desires to marvel at multi-tasking), but they’ll never outperform even a simple scrap of paper for the act of total recall.
Still, it’s so easy to try and store something there. Just like kicking off your shoes right inside the front door and throwing your jacket on the post by the stairs. It’s accessible. It’s easy. It’s quick. It lets us be lazy. And us humans really do want to be lazy – at least when it comes to things we don’t care very much about, which can be said about a great many recurring tasks and chores on both personal and professional levels.
It’s not boring
The second part of the reason is that it’s not boring to use our brains. It’s second nature in a way that taking notes will ever be – because taking notes is boring. Sweet Moses, it’s boring. In fact, you will most likely only learn to partially enjoy taking notes when you’ve been burned a sufficient number of times for not taking them.
And so, your brain becomes Plan B, since Plan A is less accessible, a little harder, a little slower and takes a little more effort.
Deep inside, though, you know Plan A is the one you should be using, so what can you do to stop from reverting to your brain? That’s easy enough, but it still requires some practice to make a habit: get yourself a smartphone with either voice recording capabilities or a note-taking app (preferably with a hardware keyboard for speed, if you can), and carry it in your pocket at all times.
Or, you could try a Hipster PDA, which may very well do the trick for you, but on a personal level I prefer the ability to synchronize the notes I take from my smartphone to a PC where I don’t have to manually copy them. Still, there’s no denying the charm of the Hipster PDA.Read More
Some times, the simplest things are those we most often forget – such as the power of voluntarily bludgeoning our minds and bodies with information and practice until something becomes second nature. Yes, practice does indeed make perfect.
The magic number
The world is full of experts, and they all have something in common. They’ve been repeating. Remove every other variable from the equation of becoming an expert, and with the exception of some highly uncommon – well, exceptions, every single human being who is an expert at something has been repeating it. Relentlessly so, in fact, until it has been hammered into their minds and bodies for a sufficient periode of time to make it second nature.
Malcom Gladwell argues in his book ‘Outliers’ that across various fields of expertise, there is one signifying trait: the best practitioners in the world have spent 10,000 hours to reach a threshold where they join the global elite. Who knows for certain- it might be more, or it might be less depending on the talent of the practitioner and the nature of what is being practiced.
Regardless, it’s an interesting excercise to put that number into perspective. If we divide 10,000 hours by, say, 280 workdays and again by 9 hours, we get a time span of approximately four years. Assuming someone is capable – and not to forget, sufficiently passionate – of practicing his or her chosen subject of interest as part of their professional career, that means you could potentially compete on a global level after just four years of working.
Taking the number for what it is – a simplified statistical derivative stemming from a very complex field of study – one can hardly blame anyone for leaping at the notion of simply working in the same position for on average four years will mean you’re an expert. On a global level, at that. Still, most of us will realize that there’s more to it than that, yet the fact remains that there are some things we have been practicing at for inordinate amounts of time.
What exactly have you been repeating?
Chances are that if you’ve been repeating something for a very long time, you have either had to do so or have very strongly wanted to do so, as humans generally tend to quietly dispose of all recurring yet non-vital tasks for the benefit of having plain, simple fun instead. Just ask yourself when you last found yourself whistling while doing chores – which, incidentally, is a rather ripe opportunity for a learning experience about perspective – and you’ll understand what I’m referring to.
Me? I’ve played the accordion for more hours than I like to admit (particularly when around members of the opposite sex). Same goes for the cornet. And watching TV, writing professionally, sleeping (at which I am, judging by spousal remarks, a global champion), reviewing consumer electronics, doing chores and surfing the Internet.
Of these things, more than one represent a personal interest for which I’ve been sufficiently passionate to make me repeat doing it for untold hours. And, although I don’t plan on becoming the world’s best accordion player any time soon, I can still recognize the value of the investment I have made in something which may or may not be convertible on a financial scale – yet gives me great personal satisfaction.
What do you want to be repeating?
Perhaps the most important question of all, however, is to ask yourself what you think you would be passionate about to repeat for 10,000 hours – or more. Now there’s a challenge.Read More