Time Management Training: A Waste of Time

I found this article interesting, but it had way more bark than actual bite.

It argues that time management training doesn’t work because most people get inundated by email when they get back to their desks.

At the end of the article, the author backs off the startling claim he makes in the title, because that’s not really the point he’s trying to make.  Instead, he’s right about the need for companies to change the expectations around email, and the importance of creating alternate methods for communicating urgent messages.

Time Management Training; A Waste of Time.

Crazy email ideas: Don’t read your email

This is one crazy article…

The idea is to simply read the email that you want to read, and ignore the rest.  Instead if the Zero Inbox, allow it to grow infinitely big.

It says:

don’t bother emptying your inbox. Don’t worry about reading every message. Don’t organize anything you don’t feel like organizing.

I guess every idea should have it’s opposing post someplace on the internet, but the very premise of the email is incorrect.  Zero Inbox doesn’t come from willpower, it comes from learning the right habits.  When they are mastered, it’s no harder than brushing your teeth.

Click here to read: Inbox Infinity:  the Passive Approach to Getting Things Done.

Maybe that should be changed to “a few things…”

Email Etiquette

There’s a whole school of thought that says that better email would mean less email.

I agree that there’s a lot of wasted email but I think it’s important to distinguish the raw volume of email from the number of time demands embedded in them.

That’s way more important, IMHO, and here are some email pointers that actually might help your time demands for others stand out like a sore thumb where they can see ’em.

Click here: Email Etiquette for the Super Busy

A New Mindset for Your Email Inbox

As I mentioned in a prior post, the Zero Inbox has become a part of the new Gold Standard of productivity. Without it, for example, it’s impossible to earn the higher belts described here in 2Time.

Most of the methods described to accomplish this target focus rightly on the new habits that are needed to maintain it.

However, they are likely to bear no fruit if the mindset held around email Inboxes never changes.  What’s sometimes needed for Zero Inbox to work is a radical change in the way the Inbox is seen and understood.

In industrial engineering terms, the Inbox needs to be seen as a buffer – a place of temporary storage for incoming email.  (Buffers are important because they act as a kind of staging area for further action.)

Here are some analogies we can be used to help us imagine what this means.  They are all everyday buffers that can be compared to the modern Inbox.  These are all temporary points of storage that are never meant to become permanent:

your kitchen sink — a temporary location for dirty dishes that is meant to be small enough to store a few items, but big enough to wash them.  It’s also a point of decision, as stuff that gets put in the sink is routed to different points such as:  the garbage disposal unit, the garbage can, the dishwasher, the drain-board, the cupboard, etc.  Your Inbox is like a kitchen sink.

a loading dock at a factory or warehouse — a temporary location for incoming goods and raw materials.  After they are received, a decision is made about where to put them next.  Problems occur when items aren’t removed fast enough to allow new incoming items to be received

a mouth – a temporary place of storage for food, smoke, gum, mouthwash, etc.  When something finds its way into your mouth you have to make a decision about how to dispose of it.  There is limited space, and you certainly don’t want too many items to stay there permanently, as they can cause problems e.g. fragments of food

your desk – a temporary place to store papers.  Many people violate this rule, and turn their desk from a place of active work to a dumping ground for half-finished projects, hoping that by keeping them in their line of sight, they won’t forget to work on them

a traditional snail-mail postbox –  the post office stops delivering once the postbox becomes full, and it’s a buffer that’s clearly designed to be cleared frequently

Plus others… a garbage can, driveway, car trunk, jeans pocket, etc.

There are many other everyday examples that can be used to paint a mental picture of how the Inbox should be understood.  The point here is simply to pick a favorite a single mental image, and stick to it.

If you have been abusing your Inbox and the result is a feeling of overwhelm, then the chances are good that you got to this place innocently.  You might follow the popular practice of skimming you email, looking for emergencies.  You delete the spam, and other irrelevant messages, and leave those that you need to get back to later in your Inbox.   You continue to act immediately on the emergent time demands throughout the day, and sometimes remain in perpetual motion as email pours into your Inbox faster than you can handle it.

You are hoping that by leaving email messages in plain sight (i.e. in the Inbox,) you’ll remember to come back to them later, and that they won’t fall through the cracks.

Most people make things even worse for themselves, by setting their Inboxes on auto-download, which produces a continuous and never-ending stream of messages.  Many also have audible and visual notifications via beeps, pop-ups and flashing colored lights.

When an email Inbox is abused it places a burden on you, the user, who must remain a mental picture of the items that it contains.  This is less of a problem when the number of items is small.  This practice doesn’t scale well, unfortunately, and things start falling through the cracks once the numbers increase, bringing on feelings of overwhelm.  Research indicates that problems start happening once the number of emails stored in an Inbox gets into double digits.

It’s at this point that you started to complain about getting too much email.

The answer, however, is not to cut the number of email by changing jobs or declaring “email bankruptcy.”  The only thing that works in the long-term is to develop new habits for working with email to prevent the Inbox from becoming overloaded and abused.

Users who want to take control of their Inboxes can start by turning off the auto-download and auto-notification features.  Instead, they should download email on a schedule, and then Empty the Inbox immediately, making use of folders and filters to store emails that contain time demands.  Time needs to be set aside each day to process email Inboxes, and it needs to be carefully allocated so that it consumes neither too much or too little space in the day.

Those who maintain the Zero Inboz are the least likely to allow important stuff in emails to fall through the cracks and get buried in tons of messages.  Creating a visual image in the user’s mind is an important step to implementing the right practices.


Why Emergencies Should be Handled Outside Email

A few weeks ago, I visited The Bahamas and mentioned to a NewHabits-NewGoals class that it’s becoming clear that companies need a way to communicate emergencies outside of email.

We had a discussion about the different reasons why email doesn’t work for immediate notifications and emergency requests:
1. not all email is delivered
2. sometimes email is diverted to a spam folder
3. too many people read email and don’t let the sender know that it was received
4. email messages are difficult to craft well and often result in mis-communication, especially when the content is emotional in nature
5. urgent messages can get lost in the hundreds of other pieces of email sent each day
and the biggest reason of all….
6. the practice of sending urgent email trains all employees to keep checking their messages continuously, just in case something important has just come in — making them all slaves to email – a pernicious and unproductive habit

The fact is, companies to establish alternate ways to communicate urgent messages, and avoid using email wherever possible.

Some have decided to use face to face conversations, phone calls, Skype or instant messages instead. The one thing these methods have in common is that they are synchronous communications that allow for immediate responses, and some degree of negotiation back and forth about how quickly an issue should be addressed, and whether it’s more important than every other time demand someone might have.

It would help the millions of people who waste time checking their email tens and even hundreds of times per day, just in case something juicy has come in within the past few minutes. Too many companies are encouraging their employees to become “more responsive” via email, and fast responders to urgent email, even as they damage their own productivity and that of others.

Lessons from GMail’s Priority Inbox

You may have read my prior post on the reasons why GMail’s Priority Inbox doesn’t deliver on the promises it makes (even though it is a _very_ nice innovation.) If not, click on my article entitled: Why GMail Priority Inbox Won’t Work.

I wrote a followup article for the Stepcase Lifehack website that goes a bit further, and shares some of what I have learned from looking at new technologies and how they should be incorporated into one’s personal system.

Click here to be taken to:  Lessons on Email Processing from GMail’s Priority Inbox.

Why GMail Priority Inbox Won’t Work

It seemed like good news at first — GMail has come out with a new way of helping its users to manage their information overload using a handy innovation called Google Priority Inbox.  Here’s what the GMail page describing the service has to say:

Get through your email faster

Email is great, except when there’s too much of it. Priority Inbox automatically identifies your important email and separates it out from everything else, so you can focus on what really matters.

It sounds impressive.

According to the Nick Bilton over at the New York Times, he found that it “definitely eased the pain.”  (How it did so was not detailed.)

If these claims were true, we’d be pretty lucky, because the volume of messages that the average corporate user receives averaged almost 150 per day in early 2010, and many people now get a lot more than 150 emails, text messages, Facebook messages and tweets.  Many are complaining that they they get too many message, and that they need help.

The number of late or un-returned emails testifies to the fact that users are unhappy with their email inboxes, and have complained for years that the problem must be that they get too much of it.

This new tool promises to fix that problem.

Using a new algorithm, GMail will identify which mails are more important than others and tag and categorize them in a way that allows a user to process them first.

That’s it.

I have no problem with Google’s algorithm, which I’m sure will work fine, and get better over time as the algorithm learns one’s preferences.

The problem I have is that this will do nothing to reduce email overload.  It also won’t help anyone to “get through their email faster.”

It’s not the fault of Priority Inbox, and what it’s designed to do.  It will certainly add some convenience that’s kinda nice, as all the urgent-looking email presents itself at the top of the Inbox in its own category.  I could imagine that some users will even choose to forward that high priority email to Outlook or their Blackberry so that they can process them immediately.

Certainly, important email that appears as a higher priority will receive a quicker response.

The problem lies in the rest of the email that is sitting in the Inbox — the “low” priority stuff.  The “Everything Else” that Google says is below the line in the graphic from the video. What exactly should be done with all that other email?  After quickly dispensing with those high priority items, what’s next?

The burden of low priority messages

In the beginning, ,ost users won’t trust GMail Priority Inbox to properly sort their email into high and low priority items perfectly, so the service will be of little use to them.  They’ll be forced to glance at every piece of email at least once in order to make sure that they aren’t missing something important. That’s what they do now — triage — in order to focus on the highest priority items first.

As the program gets better, (or even perfect,) they may decide that it’s so trustworthy that they don’t need to look at their low priority items at all when they are short on time.  After all, isn’t that the purpose of the program?  It encourages a new habit of working on the high priority items immediately, and punting all other messages until later… when the user has more time.

You may guess what happens next.

More time” is one of those things that has a nasty way of never coming along.  (Or maybe we just have a habit of filling up “more time” with more stuff!)  In either case, the low priority email does what is often does — it up piles in our Inbox.

As it does so over time, it creates a psychic burden as the mind starts to wonder to itself… “What’s in that pile of low priority email?  Is there something that might get me in big trouble because a low priority has become a high one due to the passage of time, or my lack of response?”

The only way to know this is to process each piece of email.  The single method that works is to deal with the time demand and/or information embedded in each and every message in a way that allows it to be removed from the Inbox entirely.  This can be done in GMail by properly tagging it so that the essential time demand or information is embedded safely in other locations in the user’s time management or filing system.

In other words, each message that is received requires a certain amount of time to deal with it, and there is no avoiding the fact that putting that time off over and over again, leads to an overburdened Inbox that people find stressful.

Unfortunately, Google Priority Inbox is actually making it easier for a user to put off processing the low priority email.  Each day, as the number of unread low priority emails increases, stress increases.  The sense of information overload expands.  Overwhelm deepens.

Google Priority Inbox will actually do the opposite of what it’s intended to do because the problem it’s trying to solve does not lie in the software that GMail or Outlook has created.  Instead, it lies in our habits.

It appears that Google does not realize that by attempting to get into the time-saving business, it is now working with people’s habits, and that the innovations that lie in Priority Inbox will encourage bad habits rather than good ones by giving them a good reason to ignore low priority messages, until they become a mountain that cannot be ignored.

Complex time management problems don’t lend themselves to simple software solutions.

While I admire this attempt, it won’t work.

P.S. I do have some quick ideas of how Google could reshape GMail so that it actually promotes the right habits, such as the Zero Inbox. I’ll summarize them in a new post.

Is HR Doing Enough to Protect Worker Productivity?

istock_000000217921small.jpgStart with managerial anxiety.  Add in some new technology in the form of smartphones.  Toss in some employees that don’t know how to say no.

Watch as bad habits develop around email, text messages, voice calls and IM’s.

Or… perhaps… do something about it , as I suggest in this article targeted at Human Resource professionals.

Here is the link to my article:  “Is HR Standing By While Corporate Culture Changes?”

It describes a new challenge for human resource departments, who have never quite been held accountable for worker productivity.  Now, the time is right to speak up against the bad habits that are helping to create corporate cultures of un-productivity.

The Productive Moron

I just published a provocative article over at the Stepcase Lifehack blog entitled “Are You Becoming a Productive Moron?”

In the article I make a tongue-in-cheek prediction based on some of the behaviors I see today… the most simple-minded employees will come to be seen as the most productive, simply because they reply to their email quicker than anyone else.

It’s a bit of fun, with a serious side.

You can see the article here: A You Becoming a Productive Moron?