Bit Literacy — part 9 — Requiring an Email Response

One of the mysteries of managing my email has been trying to figure out how to manage follow-up email.

The scenario is well-know to users of Outlook or any other email program.

You send an email to someone who you need a response from.  To compound matters, the response is needed by a certain time so that you can get on with doing other important activities.

As I say here in the 2Time blog, the point of high quality time management is to get to the point where you don’t have to remember anything whatsoever. Sending an email and trying to remember to follow-up if there’s no response by a certain violates that principle entirely, yet it’s the option I use more often than not.

There are, however, better choices available.

One is to blind copy yourself on the email and store it in some folder or, even better, in your calendar with a reminder.

Another option is to put some kind of code in the body of the email, and use a filter to place a copy of all the emails with that special code in a special folder.

Yet another option is to use some third-party software that does all the above once you remember to active the option when sending the email.

Finally, there is a fourth option I recently discovered in Microsoft Outlook 2007 in which a reminder can pop up a set time after the email has been sent.

I have tried all these “solutions” and I find them to be inadequate.

The main reason is that it’s difficult to remember to take the extra step  just before hitting the Send button. They ALL require me the remember t odo something specific that I currently don’t  have as a regular habit.

Instead, I wish there were a way to set the extra option as the default, because most of the email messages I send do require some kind of response.

Here’s how it would work.

When I click on the Send button, the program would offer me either a chance to enter the date and time of the followup reminder, or allow me to reject the reminder completely.

An added bonus would be for the program to recognize when a response to the email comes into my inbox with the same subject line.  If it recognized the response and immediately deleted the followup reminder, I’d be ecstatic!

If anyone knows of any program that provides the functionality I described, please let me know, as I’m sure that I’m not the only person who is trying not to use their memory for this particular task.

Bit Literacy — part 8 — Newsletter

newsl-hugopardo-paloalto-digitalismo-384823-l.jpgBit Literacy has some sound advice when it comes to reading and processing  electronic newsletters (or zines.)

The first recommendation is to scan newsletters once before deleting them.

I began this practice about a year ago, and have found that it works much better then trying to shove all my newsletters into a single folder in Outlook.  As you might suspect, the newsletter folder simply became overwhelmed with hundreds of unread items.

The discipline of reading a newsletter once it’s downloaded has a variety of side benefits.  One is that it ensures that if I am downloading the newsletter, then I should only do so when I actually have the time to process and read it, along with all the other items coming into my inbox.  This prevents me from doing half-ass scans of my inbox, leaving unread and unprocessed email to sit around and accumulate into the hundreds and thousands.

Making this work requires some training, and some chutzpah.

The training takes place with the people in your life, who must come to learn that email is an unacceptable medium for urgent messages.  The chutzpah is required with people like your boss, your spouse / S.O. and your parent, as you decide that the old ways of contacting you are going to change.

Depending on your preference, you may decide that IM, text, phone calls or personal visits are the new ways to send you urgent messages.  Some people set up special email addresses (such as [email protected]) with specific instructions that it should be used for emergencies.

Millions, however, choose instead to purchase iPhones, Pre’s and Blackberries so that they don’t miss a single important email.  However, continuously scanning your email inbox is a poor strategy, as in addition to the permanent distraction that the device becomes, there is the fact that scanning for the 1 email in 1000 that’s urgent, leaves 999 to be processed later, clogging up the email inbox for a time that never seems to come.

For many, this kind of life fast becomes one that they don’t want, leading them to lose, disable or breaking their US$500 email devices so that they can untether themselves from their email.  The fact is, they lack the chutzpah that’s needed to demand different behaviour from others.

The second recommendation the book makes is to manage one’s electronic reading in a very explicit way.

One group of items belongs in the “Stars” category of items that are read on a regular basis, or from beginning to end.  Another group belongs to the “Scans” which deserve only a a once-over because only some of their content is useful some of the time.

The last group comprises “Targets,” which includes items that are read for a specific single purpose, such as forwarding them to others who are interested in the topic.

Both sets of recommendations are sound, and I’ll be trying out the latter to see how well it works for me.
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Bit Literacy — part 7 — Todo List Failure

planes-raptor-1312631-l.jpgOne of the key recommendations of Bit Literacy is that one should take todos and schedule them onto lists that belong to particular days. It argues that a single todo list quickly becomes overwhelming, and that the items should instead be allocated to lists that belong to separate days in the future.

It’s not a bad approach, and represents an improvement over the raw todo list.  For a user with a certain, low number of time demands, it could function well.

Above a certain number of time demands, however, this technique also becomes overwhelmed, especially when a user attempts to attach priorities to each item on each day, as recommended by Bit Literacy.

The reason this happens has everything to do with the failure of todo lists to cope with the volume of time demands that working professionals have to deal with in todays’ working world.

The major shortcoming of todo lists is that they force users to keep mental schedules.

This works against one of the general purposes of time management systems which is to keep as little in memory as possible, and as much as possible in some kind of system, whether it be electronic or paper-based.

If we could climb inside the mind of a user of todo lists for a moment, we would see that when they try to schedule a todo for a particular day, they actually do a mental scan of what they have to do each day, before assigning the todo to that day.

Because the scan of their mental schedule is a memory-based activity, it is likely to be faulty.

Also, when the user assigns priorities to a task, they are encouraged by Bit Literacy and other systems to work on the higher priority items first.

In other words, they are using the priority system as a rough method for scheduling.  It’s a method that’s unlikely to work for long, because it ignores many other variables such as the user’s physical location,  the length of the task, it’s due date, who else needs to be involved, what information is needed, etc. All these factors must be considered in the heat of the moment, as a user makes a decision about what to work on next.

It’s also not uncommon for someone to end up with enough high priority items to fill an entire week.  At that point, the priority system becomes useless — 100 items of the highest priority obviously means that nothing is a priority.

Some systems do try harder to make the priority approach work, and try to use all the variables it can include to derive a composite score. But at the end of all the computations, it’s easier to upgrade one’s approach to scheduling, and to move from a mental schedule to an electronic one that requires no system of priorities whatsoever. Out the window goes A’s, B’, C’s and 1’s, 2’s and 3’s.

In comes more advanced, simpler skills, and a schedule that looks like what we call here in 2Time and Orange Belt schedule rather than a White Belt schedule. (See the Article on Scheduling for more details.)

For professionals who must deal with a great number of time demands, this is the only approach that helps them to deal with a significant number of time demands.

To borrow a term from Bit Literacy, it’s also the only approach that “scales,” or in other words can be used to handle time demands at all volumes.
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Bit Literacy — part 6 — Time Induced Anxiety

reachstar.jpgIn Bit Literacy, the author makes a brilliant insight, which confirms for me that the book is probably 3-5 years ahead of its time.

He quotes a book by Richard Saul Wurman from 1989 titled Information Anxiety: “One of the most anxiety-inducing side effects of the information era is the feeling that you have to know it all.  Realizing your own limitations becomes essential to surviving an information avalanche; you cannot or should not absorb or even pay attention to everything.”

(1989???? That was before the term “internet” was coined, and only a handful of scientists had access to each other’s computers via a handful of modems and dedicated lines long before the world wide web was conceived.)

Bit Literacy and Information Anxiety have hit the nail on the head.

In Bit Literacy, the author lists all the ways that information flows to us, and due to the fact that the book was written in 2007, it hardly mentioned blogs and podcasts, and makes no mention of Twitter, Blackberries or iPhones.  In 2 short years, the volume of infromation has only increased.
He also goes on to say that the natural reactions to information anxiety are:

– to live by reaction, responding to each piece of information that appears and demands attention

– to opt out, which is to avoid the problem entirely by living in an ignorant bliss

– to practice bit literacy, by paying attention to some information, and letting the rest go

What struck me is how true the sentiment is for “time anxiety.”

After all, to rephrase the author: “one of the most anxiety-inducing effects of the information era is the feeling that you have to DO it all.”

Let’s look at that more closely.

Walking by a library does not induce anxiety in the minds of most people.  All that information in all those books does nothing except to sit there on shelves, resting on pages.

Strolling by a hard-drive filled with information doesn’t do anything either.  Carrying a number of USB drives in a briefcase seems not to add to our stress levels.

However, one letter received six weeks ago, a single unreturned phone call or 2 unreplied emails can cause more stress than 100,000 unread books.

The only difference  is a thought that we have in our heads — “we need to give a reply.”

That’s often followed by another thought — “but I don’t have enough time.”

What often accompanies that thought is a feeling of guilt coming from the notion that “I should have enough time.”

What compounds that feeling is a bit of an existential realization — “I’ll never have enough time.  My mental grasp will always exceed my reach.  I am likely to die without ever getting to the bottom of the list of things I believe I should do.”

Or maybe that’s taking things a bit too far…. or is it?

After all, the time anxiety that we feel does not come from the books in the library or the websites on the internet, it comes from us.  As human beings, we are incapable of confronting the sea of information without having some version of the train of thoughts I mentioned above.

The expectation that we place on ourselves that we should do everything that our thoughts tell us we should do, might be a useful place to look for answers.  That might be something that we can change.

According to the Work of Byron Katie, these thoughts that appear in our heads can be successfully questioned, and we don’t need to believe them.  We also don’t even need to become better at managing time demands or Bit Literate, or better at GTD®.

It would be actually be easier for us to implement these techniques if we could free ourselves from the anxiety, guilt and untrue thoughts that creep into our minds incessantly, and we could grasp the fact that at the end of it all, our thoughts are not a reliable guide to what should be accomplished in a lifetime.
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Mission Control Productivity, FranklinCovey, GTD and Getting Things Done are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company (davidco.com.)  2Time is not affiliated with or endorsed by the David Allen Company, Mission Control Productivity or FranklinCovey.

On Bit Literacy – part 5 – Todos and Scheduling

One confusing aspect of Bit Literacy is a contradiction  that I found in the discussion around ToDo’s:  the book calls for scalable solutions, while in the same chapter it describes 2 solutions that seem to ignore that sound advice, because they scale well.

The author makes the point that many emails create the need to engage in future action, and make future commitments.  In Bit Literacy, these are called “Todos” and they seem to be equivalent to what we call “time demands” here in the 2Time system.

Bit Literacy advocates assigning Todo’s to future days, and offers a software service to help get this done.  For example, an action item such as “call purchasing department” would be designated for Friday, and added to a list of actions for that day.

Neither the software, nor this approach scale well, but for quite different reasons.

First the software.

As a web-based service, it allows a user to send him/herself an email which the program converts into a todo that will be displayed only on a particular day.

It’s a neat idea, but for people who don’t have access to portable email devices, it’s hardly one that can be used unless the user has a desk job.

The good news is in a few years I can imagine that the software will be available to use all, and that we’ll enjoy access to email through devices as small as a watch.  While it’s easy to see this happening in the future, it’s not something that is very widespread today, as only a few million people worldwide own these devices.

The bigger issue is that time demands, or todo’s,  (especially in a setting like a meeting) tend to arrive faster than they can be converted into email in the average group conversation.  The same applies to ideas being generated from a brainstorming session.

The use of an electronic device as a Capture Point is a neat trick, but it doesn’t scale well as the  number of items increases.  In my experience, I have sometimes have difficulty writing down all the action items from a meeting, even when I am using only a pad and pen.

More important is the critical decision that must be made in the heat of the moment — “What day should I assign the item to?”  That is a decision that requires some reflection, especially for those who have busy days with little slack time.

As an example of where this system doesn’t scale well, let’s look at a typical todo assignment that’s made in the heat of the moment.

Imagine for a minute a typical meeting of 5 people; the kind that occurs every day in the corporate world.

At the beginning of the meeting, the convenor might announce that there will be a follow-up meeting on a day that is convenient for all attendees for one hour. Using the Bit Literacy system, users must go to their mental calendar to determine whether or not there is time on Friday the 17th to attend the meeting, given the todos they have assigned to that day.

However, whether they consult a mental list or electronic list is not the most difficult part.  They must make a spur of the moment estimate of the time it takes to do each todo, and then they must calculate the available time.  They must take into account the amount of time each item takes, and consult their mental schedule to see if they have any spare time.

This is not a problem when there are only 2 small todos assigned to Friday the 17th.  On a small scale, this can work well.

However, when I have 9 or 20 or 50 todos for that day, I have a problem.

The calculations about whether or not I can meet on that day for 60 minutes are, at some point, going to give me a headache.  The level of headache depends on the number of todo’s, the nature of the items and our own idiosyncrasies.

Bouncing Todo’s from one day to another only works if there are days that are relatively free of todo’s in the required time frame.

At the end of it, we all have our individual level of tolerance, and the approach described by Bit Literacy becomes a problem once that level is attained.

Bit Literacy implies that the answer is not to hide from odo’s, but instead to employ a system that will allow for a greater capacity to deal with these todo’s.

This very much echoes the approach taken in this blog, in which the the answer might be given in this form: move from a Yellow to Orange Belt in the practice of scheduling.

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Impressing Your Boss Article

I recently wrote an article for the Stepcase Lifehack website entitled “Impressing Your Boss with Time Management 2.0”

I got the idea when I remembered some performance reviews I had received in the past in which I could not figure out what I should do differently, if anything.

I imagined that employees who were told that they should improve their time management skills were no better off, and had no idea where to start, and whether or not it would reverse a poor perception.

Follow this link to read my recommendations on how an employee can use Time Management 2.0 principles to create a new impression: Impressing Your Boss With Time Management 2.0
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On Bit Literacy – part 4 – Letting Go

palm-947511170_dea998692f.jpgAnother one of the key ideas in Bit Literacy is that “letting bits go” is a critical frame of mind to maintain.

Letting bits go simply means that a user of an email system is better off deleting freely, early and often, rather than keeping stuff around just in case it’s needed later.  Mark Hurst, the author, makes the case that it’s the only way to get to empty.

It’s not too hard to predict that in    the future we can expect more and more bits to come our way.  The key is to develop an approach to deal with the increase.

The one thing that we do experience a shortage of is the energy and attention to engage all these bits, or pieces of information.

In 2Time terms, I’d say that we need to take control of our time management systems, and be prepared to upgrade the underlying practices once we understand that the current system is unable to cope.  As the upgrades take place, we must train ourselves to let go of more and more information, as it’s not too hard to predict that the amount of information coming at us is only going to increase.

Without any hard evidence, I’d go a step further and predict that the amount of data coming at us is increasing faster than our ability to use it.  In other words, if today we are using 10% of what comes at us, tomorrow we’ll be using 9.

This notion uses one of the principles that Bit Literacy rightly focuses on — that any approach we use must be “scalable.”  In other words, our approach to time management must be flexible enough to grow, evolve and adapt to changing volumes, technology and circumstances.

In addition to feeling comfortable letting go of bits, I would add that we must feel comfortable with the idea of abandoning old habits for new ones, in favor of upgrading our time management systems.

I think it’s pretty obvious that the time management system of a 13 year old is not suitable for a 30 year old.

Also, a time management system built for 1991 is probably not “bit-ready” for 2010.

Overall, it’s an easy concept to grasp, but in the midst of a warm comfort-zone, it’s difficult to give up the tried and true for the promise of something new.

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On Bit Literacy – part 3 – Getting to Empty

empty-step-01-empty-box.jpgAs I mentioned in a prior post, there is a great deal that I enjoyed from the book “Bit Literacy” by Mark Hurst.  In particular, the idea of returning to “empty” struck a chord with me.

If you are a frequent reader of this website you might imagine why, because I have described “Emptying” as one of the fundamentals of time management, and I have repeatedly mentioned the importance of the practice.

Even the sample chapter from a book I am working on centered on learning how to Empty properly.

What Bit Literacy, has done however, is to describe in some detail the actual goal of Emptying, which is to have an experience of being “empty.”

This is not something I have written much about, but it IS something I have experienced when my time management system is running smoothly.

It turns out that the feeling of being empty turns out to be a critical accomplishment.

Hurst reports that people who change their habits and are able to arrive at a Zero Inbox at least once each day find the experience a bit disconcerting.  We are used to looking at email in our inbox over and over again, jumping from one item to another without taking a concrete action that results in its removal from that particular folder.

Most of us are intimately acquainted with the feeling of overwhelm that comes from hundreds and even thousands of items sitting in our email inboxes, each of them calling at us to be read, or actioned in some way.

We often find ourselves responding to whatever email is sent to us, and working on whatever our Inbox “tells us” to work on.  This reactive mode is what we are used to, and it’s the reason that we glance at our inboxes over and over gain, looking to see what the next hot item might be.

When we learn to manage a Zero Inbox, however, there are several moments per week or per day when we are staying at an empty space where all the Inbox email used to be.

I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a strange feeling.  It’s a little like that strange  space that one enters after completing a final exam, giving a speech or getting married.

It’s a space filled with a “now what?” kind of question.

This empty space is the one that allows for the best kind of creativity – the kind that comes from nothing, a blank canvas, a kind of quiet in which the best decisions are made.

This flies in the face of the addictive sense of urgency that some of us cultivate.  In Bit Literacy, the author paints the picture of the “Busy Man” who moves from one activity to another, never stopping for a breath, using the continuous busyness as confirmation that, yes, they are important.

They often develop the awful habit of jumping from one task to another, never really finishing what they start.  They also will try to multi-task, interrupting their conversations to read email on their Blackberries, always busy paying attention to the thing they’re not doing.

This idea of getting to empty flies in the face of all that busyness.

In other places in this blog I talk about the importance of the flow state, and of creating the kind of single-minded focus on a single activity that is essential for high performance.  I have mentioned that one of the goals of the 2Time approach is to produce regular and frequent experiences of being in this state.

Reading Bit Literacy has made me think that I should add the momentary experience of being “empty” to the list of 2Time goals, given how hard it is to achieve, but important an indicator it is of top quality time management.

Furthermore, perhaps there is a way of describing the higher belts in terms of these states — flow and empty — and the degree to which they are accomplished  Following this logic, a Green Belt visits these states frequently, while a White Belt either doesn’t know that they exist, or has never had the experience.

This seems to make sense, and is a practical way to accomplish a powerful kind of inner peace.
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On Bit Literacy – part 2 – “Heavy Bits”

ath_ssm_librow_dumbell_row.jpgThere is a major point from the book Bit Literacy that I found some disagreement with.  The idea that “bits are heavy” is fundamental to Mark Hurst’s theory that when they accumulate, the create a burden a user’s life.

He’s right about that, but he’s missing the point that bits by themselves are meaningless.

This can be demonstrated by the fact that the heavy bits on your computer are only heavy for one person – you.  If I were to inherit your computer, the first thing I would do is to wipe it clean of all those bits that you have been working on because they are entirely useless to me.

In like manner, an accusing email from a loved one that is accidentally deleted before being read also has no weight.

Therefore, this statement at the core of Bit Literacy should perhaps be altered to say “Bits are heavy, but only because we make them so.”

Why is this distinction important?

In the first case, it puts the user back in control of their own experience.  The burden that is felt from having too much email is not caused by the email, but by the decisions made around each message, and the immediate decisions and actions taken.

For example, a White Belt will scan email and make mental note to follow up on each item, while leaving the item in their inbox.  Over time, the mental notes multiply and produce an increasing sense of stress every time the inbox is accessed.

To the White Belt, the problem is that the people in their life are sending them too much email.  Some respond by simply deleting all their email, as Bit Literacy notes, arguing that if any of them are important the person will contact them soon.

The Green Belt, however, will read an email once before removing it from the inbox forever.  The email inbox is therefore kept empty, or almost empty.  They know that the White Belt practices produce an increasing sense of stress, and have different habits to protect their peace of mind.

The power that comes from knowing that I am making the bits heavy, can give the user the impetus to go the next step and to devise a system that is built to support their particular commitments.

I can make bit heavy, but my managing them well, I can also lighten the load.
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