Category Archives: Workload

Email Bankruptcy Continues to Spread

Today’s Washington Post carries an article about an increasing number of people who find themselves having to declare email bankruptcy.

The article is full of sad cases of people who think that declaring email bankruptcy will solve their problem. It won’t. I’ve talked about why email bankruptcy is worse in some ways than financial bankruptcy, and this shows why email bankruptcy is not a solution.

Just as people without financial skills may find themselves bankrupt, people who lack email and time-management skills will find themselves wanting to declare email bankruptcy. People are usually restricted from starting businesses immediately after a financial bankruptcy. In a similar manner, people who suffer from extreme email overload should ensure they get some training in how to handle their workload before they get back in the game.

It’s not just a skill these people are lacking, though. It’s a way of viewing their inboxes and the place the inbox occupies in their life. I’m always saying that email overload is a state-of-mind, and David Ferris puts this very nicely:

“A lot of people like the feeling that they have everything done at the end of the day. They can’t have it anymore.”

I speak from experience. I once declared “job bankruptcy” — my inability to cope with my workload, in which email played a major part, prompted me to tender my resignation. My boss did not want to accept it, but I was determined. During the time that I worked out my notice, I adopted the Getting Things Done method. All of a sudden, I had more than doubled my productivity and reduced my stress tremendously. GTD worked for me because it solved both the practical and psychological sides of the problem. I found that I could do the job well after all, and I continued working there for another 18 months!

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Nagless Reminders — Get the Recipient to Respond On Time and Cut Through their Email Overload

ReminderHave you ever had to repeatedly nag someone to deliver on a commitment? What if it’s a commitment that is voluntary, i.e. you’re not the other person’s boss, and you cannot force them to do it? The classic case is trying to get your own boss to deliver on a commitment s/he made to you.

Imagine that you have asked David to review a report, and that he has responded by committing to a self-imposed deadline:

“I’m extremely busy right now, but I’ll have time to review your report on Monday.”

Where do you think your request will be at the beginning of next week? Like many managers, David suffers from chronic email overload, so by Monday it will probably be buried under a few hundred emails in his overflowing inbox. There’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that he’ll see it and be reminded that he committed to send his feedback.

You will therefore need to remind David of his commitment. But if you become too much of a nuisance, David might not deliver. So, how do you remind him in a nice way, without becoming too much of a nag?

All you need to do is say, “Thanks!”

However, it’s not what you say, it’s when you say it. Don’t reply to David’s message until the time arrives when he promised to work on it.

On Monday, your reply will arrive in David’s inbox, and will subtly remind him of his commitment at exactly the time that he planned to work on it:

“Thanks, David. today will be just in time to fix the document up before the final draft is due. I await your comments eagerly.”

I have used this tactic on many occasions, and have found it very successful. Sometimes you need to help those around you to be a little more productive!

Email Newsletter Study: Surprising Initial Results

I’ve been tracking my newsletter intake over the past week, and I must admit to being rather surprised at the results.

I received only 55 messages from 37 sources that can be described as newsletters, and it took a total of only 72 minutes to read them, including any associated links I was tempted to click on.

Six of these contained at least one piece of information that helps me do my job better, and thirteen messages (from nine sources) managed to pique my interest on subjects that have little bearing on my job.

According to this, approximately 34% of the messages contained something useful or interesting. Does that mean I’m wasting 66% of my time reading useless newsletters just on the off-chance that I’ll find something valuable? Apparently not: 62 out of the total 72 minutes (86%) were spent reading messages from sources that gave useful or interesting information. So I wasted only 10 minutes on useless newsletters. 

This is rather surprising, as I had assumed that I would be able to save a significant amount of time by unsubscribing from the less valuable newsletters. I’m still going to unsubscribe from some of the newsletters, as it will considerably reduce unnecessary inbox clutter.

I’m going to continue measuring for another few weeks, as I need more data points from the newsletters that I receive only once a week. I’m hoping to develop some rules of thumb to help decide what to keep and what to cut.

Email Newsletters: Time Wasters or Valuable Information Sources?

Newsletters seem to take up an incredible amount of space in my inbox. There are some I just can’t bring myself to unsubscribe from, even though I can’t remember the last time I got anything useful out of them. The fear of missing something important is just too great.

In order to help me reduce the amount of rubbish in my inbox and to reduce the time I waste on reading messages “just in case”, I’ve decided to record various statistics about the newsletters I’m subscribed to. I’m then going to analyze the results and see if I can devise a more effective newsletter subscription policy.

I don’t quite know what to measure — this is what I’ll be tracking to start with:

  • How long does each newsletter take to read? If I am tempted to click on any links, I’m going to include the time taken to read those web pages too.
  • Does it help me get my work done or do it better? If not, does it at least provide information that will probably help in the near future?
  • Is it interesting? Is there at least one tidbit of interesting information in it? If I click on a link — it’s a fair sign that it caught my interest.

I’m going to keep this up for a week, and report back here with my findings.

How many emails to set up a meeting?

You want to meet. The other party wants to meet. You have a common interest in meeting. You’ve agreed to meet, but now you have to work out the logistics. How many emails and/or phone calls will it take to set it up?

A recent 90-minute meeting with someone from another company took a total of fifteen (15) emails back-and-forth and two phone calls to set up, over the space of a few days.

I won’t bore you with details, which included working with both of my counterpart’s personal assistants, each based in a different country, and reacting to changing travel plans. This was an extreme case, but not by much. Continue reading

Use Your Email Signature To Set Expectations

Bob Walsh includes the following line at the bottom of his email signature:

(I usually check email every few hours during the day.)

What a great idea! People who correspond with Bob now know that: 

  • he does not allow incoming email to disturb what he’s doing (he practices GTD), but
  • he’ll definitely read your message within a few hours.

I’m going to adopt this idea with a slight tweak, and add the following to my email signature:

I usually check email every couple of hours during the day, and I reply to most messages within 24 hours.

This won’t stop the odd idiot from calling up to ask if I’ve seen the email he just sent me, but I am confident that it will help to train the rest of my environment to interact with me more efficiently.

How to turn a smart person into an idiot, in one easy step

I’ve talked about the effects of overload on the quality of work, and here are some great quotes that seem to agree:


Idiotic Workload

“You can turn a smart person into an idiot just by overworking him”

Prof. Peter Capelli, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania [via Fortune]

Continue reading