This article was originally printed in the Jamaica Gleaner as one of my columns.
When the excitement of a promotion wears off, newly elevated managers sometimes struggle. Often, they blame their new responsibilities, but this limited view dooms them to failure. Instead, success comes from expanding specific skills which were once suitable but are now inadequate.
Email is a case in point. All of a sudden, as a newly promoted manager, you need to stay late or work on weekends just to keep up with a mountain of discussion threads. When you don’t stay on top of them all, your competence and readiness are quietly questioned.
Given the fact that email takes up 20% of the average manager’s day, the sad truth is that you weren’t trained to analyse your email practices with a view to making improvements. Today, the prevailing notion is that you can learn just as fast as Millennials. They change apps faster than they change their clothing.
However, even these twenty-somethings struggle when they experience a boom in email volume. Like everyone else, they blame their circumstances, a grave mistake.
It leads companies to launch projects to cut the number of messages people are receiving. Unfortunately, this rarely makes a difference as two recent, counter-intuitive studies explain: overwhelm isn’t caused by the number of messages we receive.
The first research, by Mary Czerwinski and her team at Microsoft show that the more time you spend checking messages, the less productive and more stressed you feel. Some firms have noticed this effect, leading them to curtail email in favour of other channels such as Instant Messaging or Whatsapp.
The second study shows why these efforts are in vain.
A paper by Victoria Bellotti and her XEROX research colleagues shows that it’s not the volume of email that makes us anxious and ineffective, but the number of unresolved tasks that are buried in these messages. For example, if you routinely receive 1000 messages per day and a high percentage are newsletters or spam which require no action on your part, your peace of mind isn’t affected. On the other hand, if you receive five high-impact emails per day which spur 30 new tasks, you are more likely to feel pressured.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned the Zeigarnik Effect: the mental weight of these incomplete tasks. You can’t complete them all at once – that would be impossible to do as a newly promoted manager. Instead, you must manage them effectively, thereby relieving your subconscious mind of its role as Reminder-in-Chief, disrupting sleep, conversations, and quiet moments of prayer or meditation.
How do you take care of these unwanted disruptions, keep your peace of mind and avoid overwhelm in your new position?
1. Handle email in an all-out sprint
In this paradigm, you must think of email differently. Instead of fitting it in between meetings or other activities at your leisure, do the opposite. Schedule two or three times each day to get through your Inbox as fast as possible in standalone, focused efforts. These sprints need total concentration. Execute them ruthlessly, punting protracted responses until later – you are in “emptying mode”, not “execution mode”.
This is also no space for distractions. Cut them all out and ignore the smartphone. Treat this time slot as the single most important recurring activity you perform each day that should only be interrupted if there’s a bonafide emergency.
2. Get your own training
Unfortunately, few Human Resource departments are bastions of high tech efficiency. Most have little to do with employee productivity in its modern sense and therefore don’t offer new managers the kind of training required to manage email overwhelm.
On your own, cobble together the fresh skills you need, using a combination of resources such my past columns.
3. Manage other people’s deliverables as your own
Complicated email threads involving several people, plus weeks of going back and forth, reveal that you are totally dependent on others to do their part. Unfortunately, some of them can’t be trusted.
While most new managers continue to store email in their Inbox, highlighting important ones for later, you shouldn’t. Eventually, you will be buried by unresolved tasks which require a follow-up, but get lost in these threads.
Instead, you must strip out these tasks and manage them elsewhere. This usually means picking up a task management software and learning the self-taught behaviours required to make them work.
The good news is that if you follow these prescriptions, your subconscious mind may reward you. Its endless pinging should stop and overwhelm will disappear.
But be vigilant: your next promotion may cause you to revisit all your methods just to maintain your peace of mind. Consider it to be the price of success in the modern workplace.