The UnProductive Time Games that Employees Play

istock_000011427285xsmall.jpgIt happens in every company.  Within a few months, the top notch  recruit from one of the best schools joins in the time management games that their colleagues have been practicing for years, and  before long they are operating at a mediocre level of productivity, and sometimes they are even rewarded for it.

What’s remarkable is that these games are invisible to all but  the most astute observers, and even fewer are willing to “unplug themselves” from the Matrix-like state they find themselves in.

Here are some of the unproductive games that employees quickly find  themselves sucked into that undermine corporate productivity.  I  am using the definition of a game used by Amy Jo Kim at — a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.

The Main Game: Do what you can to stay out of trouble.

While this game is one that we learned from our earliest days in school, it is one that operates  powerfully in most companies and influences every single person.

The fact that there is a competition of sorts between employees means that most are competing by trying to stay out of trouble,  which is exactly the behavior that executives and managers say they don’t want.

Yet, few companies are able to create an environment that enables employees to overcome the habit of “keeping your head down.”

When it comes to time management, it’s easy to see that there  are certain games that are important to play and win in order to move ahead.  Here are the ones I have seen.

The Ping-Pong Email Game

One of the popular games played is what I call ping-pong email. The goal is simple – make sure that you have the quickest email response time in the company.  After all, how can one do better than to make sure than people get a response in  minutes?

There are some who firmly believe that the employee who responds to email quickly is one who is sensitive to colleague’s needs, a  good team player and demonstrates excellent time management skills.

I predict that one of the tools that’s coming soon is some kind of method to quantify email responsiveness. Luckily, it  appears that no such tool exists at the moment, but I am sure that some geek somewhere is crafting the required code.

Of course, the person who wins this particular contest is also  likely to be contender for the “Most Email” title.

Some companies will take note of your prowess at these games by making note of it in your performance appraisal, and salary increase.  Heck, you can even get more money from being good at the game of Email Ping-Ping!

The C.Y.A. Email Game

This is an older game in which employees cover their ass by  “capturing” conversations in email.  Instead of walking over to have a conversation or using a phone, they use email.  If they are caught unawares and someone has a conversation by the water cooler, they simply send an email when they return to  their desks that says… “as we discussed, you are not going to do your part on the ABC project.”

The game is easier to play when everyone has a Blackberry, of course. The goal is to establish a trail of emails that establishes your  clear innocence when the s**t hits the fan.  It matters not that email takes longer to write, process and read, and that issues are  harder to resolve via email.

Email that is used to convey strong emotions inevitably creates more  problems as mismatches occur between sender and receiver.  This  produces further emails in order to resolve the new issues that the new email created.

This game reaches its crest when an issue does get raised in an  emotional way, and you are able to pull up the email trail that clearly  shows that you are not at fault.

The Head-Fake Email Game

This game is played by those who are checking email on their smartphones.  The objective is to check for email, read and  respond so quietly that no-one else notices – even if you are talking with them one-on-one.  This is a fun game  to play on dates, in weddings and in meetings.  Earning a  comment of disapproval means instant disqualification.

An important skill to learn in this game is how to nod one’s head to give the listener the appearance that they are being heard. This head-fake will work with some, but not all — only the most skilled will get away with it every time.

Ardent players of “Ping-Pong Email” eventually migrate to the “Head-Fake” Game.

The true thrill of this game is playing it successfully with  executives at higher levels of the company.

The Hide Behind Email Game

You have to conduct a difficult conversation with a prickly  colleague.  More than anything else, you want to stay out of  trouble, with him or anyone else in the company.

Rather than talk to him directly, you simply send him email. The best times are after 4pm, so that he can’t find you in  person — you have already left the office.  Hopefully, he takes the night to think about things, and any desire to do you bodily harm  has dissipated by morning.

Success is marked by getting a weak response or no response at  all.  Whether or not anything actually changes is beside the point, because you have the email to prove that you made an attempt but “he’s just so difficult to work with — not a good team player.”

You win this game when you can add this item to your performance review in the form of a kudo — e.g. “coached subordinate  successfully.”

You lose points if he pins you down in the hallway and actually succeeds in having a live conversation!

The CC: Email Game

This game has lost favor in recent years, due to its over-popularity.

It’s a simple one — conduct an email argument with someone, and  intimidate them by CC’ing additional people with each reply.

The game has been spoiled by overuse by those who add others  either too early in the conflict, or in numbers that result in lots of important people being pissed off.  Some have been known to include entire companies in their exchanges, grinding actual  work to a halt as everyone pauses to watch a public battle that  is more compelling than any game ever played on World of Warcraft.

The fun in this game comes when someone higher up in the food-chain jumps in the fray and publicly smacks down your adversary, even mildly.  (You can tell this happens when the emails stop.)

You lose major points if someone smacks you down, and minor ones if someone complains about the conversation itself.

It’s a high-stakes game that has become harder to win in recent times, so smart employees carefully use their BCC: button to achieve the same effect.

Bottom Line:  Many of these games have innocent origins by employees that are trying their best to do a good job, but have gotten lost in companies that end up with lo productivity because no-one has intervened as these  games have spiraled out of control.

Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 4

outlook_icon.gifSo far in this series, I have addressed the idea that Outlook could be improved by re-building it around the fundamental practices of time management.  The fundamental, Emptying, is the most important one for many users, and it also could be improved in Outlook if it were redesigned.

In this particular fundamental, a user goes through each of their capture points and moves each item to a different place in their time management system.  The word “Emptying” is used because that is it’s goal — to leave behind an empty space in each Capture Point that allows it to accept new items.

There are several ways that Outlook could facilitate this practice as it pertains to email.

One is to prevent the user from reading an email and leaving it in the Inbox.  Outlook could force an opened email to be placed elsewhere, and offer the user a software-assisted means way to Empty with ease.

Also, while Emptying is occurring, the user could be given the option of turning off the receipt of new email, in order to focus the activity.

Another would be to prompt the user to check other Capture Points once the Inbox has been emptied.  These could include the voicemail inbox, a paper pad and incoming paper mail that all represent new time demands.

As Emptying is being done, Outlook could make it easy to decide what to do with a piece of email by presenting a standard set of options that correspond to the choices that they have when they Empty, according  to the 2Time approach.  When an email is read, the program could ask the user how to dispose of it, giving a list of options such as the following:

1.  Delete It?

2.  Store It?

3.  Take 5 Minutes to Act On It Now?

4.  Schedule It in Calendar?

5.  Add It to a List?

These are all actions that are possible to accomplish in Outlook, but they are all hidden way in the program’s functions rather than given a prominence that underlies the fact that these are the ONLY options a user can exercise at that moment of decision.

Microsoft designers might argue that they don’t want to constrain users.  Perhaps, what they fail to realize  is that the current design actually already prompts the user to do what most do, most of the time — which is to leave their email in the Inbox.  While this may seem like an innocuous option when it comes to managing email, from a time management perspective it’s the start of real trouble.

When Emptying is not done effectively (i.e. frequently and completely) the eventual result is an overflowing Inbox — the greatest complaint that email users have world-wide.  The fact is, Outlook’s design makes it easy for this outcome to occur — call it an unintended by-product of its design.  It contributes to a user’s feeling of overwhelm that hits them when they open their Inbox and have the thought that “something isn’t right” when they see the number of items they have sitting in various states.

In the future, it would be powerful if Outlook could become the single location for all Capture Points, but the technology isn’t advanced enough for that to occur.  It would mean routing voicemails, faxes, incoming mail, email plus all the items written in a paper pad to one grand Capture Point in the program.  At the moment, that’s not easy to do.

Until then, one of the major changes that Outlook could make is to facilitate the user’s process, or workflow.At the moment, Outlook offers no interface that acknowledges that most users follow a set pattern of activity each day.  It also fails to help users to create patterns for themselves that optimizes their flow of activities.

At the moment, the way that Outlook is designed is that it “prompts” users to use it as an email-retriever.  When users open Outlook, they are directed towards their Inboxes.  Regardless of the number of items they contains, read or unread, the system leads them to download more email.

As users sit, their system pulls down every piece of new email, regardless of whether they have 1 minute, or 100 available at that moment to deal with them all.  It’s no surprise that many feel a growing sense of overwhelm.  Outlook’s design as an email management program inadvertently produces problems in the area of time management, and this is especially true when the goal of a time management system is to maximize peace of mind.

If Outlook’s interface were re-designed as a process, or wizard, it might take a user through a series of screens, with each on representing a phase.

If I had the freedom to design a series of screens to represent my regular start-up activity, it might look like the following:

Screen 1 — Clean up from yesterdayTake out items from yesterday that have not been processed.  Some might be in my inbox, or sitting in my calendar.  I’d be discouraged from moving to the next screen until I’m done with the first.

Screen 2 — Download emailBefore downloading, the system would tell me how many unread emails I have.  I’d tell it how many to download, in order to balance the time I have available with the number of emails I choose to work through.

Screen 3 — Process Email to EmptyOn this screen, I’d be prompted to dispose of each item in the way I described above.  At the end of my processing, the Inbox would be empty once again, apart from those I have not yet read or clicked on.

  • Screen for Tossing — this might just be a prompt to make sure I want to delete the item
  • Screen for Storing — this would offer me a set of folders in which to place the item
  • Screen for Acting Now — this would just be a timer that pings at the appropriate time interval
  • Screen for Scheduling — the calendar would be immediately offered
  • Screen for Listing — a screen showing the user’s lists would be offered as a starting point

These choices would be ideal, and would allow me to balance incoming email with the time I have available to process.The result might be a greater peace of mind, and all it would take is a reshaping of the Outlook interface.  Of course, this new design could be applied to any time management software, and I strongly believe that the first software company to build proper time management software could produce an iPod-like winner.


Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 3

outlook-ms-office-2003-outlook-256x256.pngIn my prior post I brought up the notion that Outlook was designed to solve user’s problems with email, rather than the bigger problem they have with time demands.

I also mentioned that the company that understands this shift would be able to produce radically different software.  Not just different, but better.  It would help users do the job they are really trying to perform.

I would call this a change in “philosophy,” and not just clever marketing or repackaging.

Having a  philosophy about how people manage time, and how they learn time management skills is also important, because this also influences the way software is designed.

For example, in the 2Time approach, there is a clear path that users take as they advance from one skill level to another (as measured by belt levels.)  One skill that changes over time is the way that the practices of Listing and Scheduling are used, with the higher belts doing much more scheduling than the lower belts.

A decision to develop software that reflects this progression in skills would have to contend with this particular philosophy, and not just for intellectual reason, but for practical reasons.

The current philosophy that underlies Outlook seems to be “more features are better than less.”

I’m not a software expert, but I suspect that the reason my Outlook 2007 runs so slowly is because this philosophy has run the show for too long.

An unfortunate by-product of this particular design decision is that a White Belt is given the same interface as  a Green Belt, even though they use the software differently.  It also has meant that the interface is cluttered with bells and whistles that a user must navigate, and always be selecting from.

Many of them have nothing to do with time management, making the interface (to repeat the mantra) a clumsy one.

Perhaps a better  philosophy might be “give the user only what they need to manage their time, and produce peace of mind.”

My point here is not that this particular philosophy is better, but it IS that Outlook seems to have stumbled into becoming a time management tool with the addition of lots and lots of features.  For all I know, it may have stumbled into other things as well (a dashboard, contact manager, etc.) but I am convinced that a different philosophy would yield different (and better) design.

This much I know — starting with a particular, and well-defined time management philosophy would help Outlook to become a better tool for time management.

I think Gmail’s success has not come because Google employs smarter people, but instead it comes from teams working with a different philosophy about email. (Plus, they were able to start from a blank sheet of paper.)

I suspect that  a company that does the same for time management will also produce a breakthrough of sorts.


Converting Email into Scheduled Items

Ever since I learned that I could take an email and immediately transform it to an item in my schedule with its own start and end time, I have engaged in the habit almost daily.

In Outlook 2007 it’s a simple matter of dragging the item to the day in the calendar.  Outlook automatically opens up a new appointment on the given day, and from there it’s a simple matter of entering the appropriate times.

In other applications, the task is a much more difficult one to undertake.

In Gmail, doing this simple task is no mean feat — in fact, I’m not sure how to do it at all.  Google calendar is a different but related program that opens into a different window altogether (I’d love a reader to answer the question of to convert a Gmail item into an appointment for me.)

In like manner, stand-alone calendars might by useful but their lack of connection to daily email is a big no-no.

Good software should mimic the way a user processes items that enter their time management systems, but they seem to be thinking about each function in isolation, which leads to good software for calendars (e.g. Leader Task) and good software for email(e.g. Gmail) and only Outlook that even attempts to link the two… in a clumsy way that seems to have been added as an afterthought.

The new internet PDA’s such as the iPhone and Blackberry seem to be great at email, but weak at the full suite of 11 practices that make up a time management system,and especially “Scheduling.”  (I can’t admit to knowing a lot about either PDA, and am willing to be educated by reader who can let me know if I’m wrong.)

Hopefully the day will come when someone builds an integrated system starting with the 11 Fundamentals.  I think it could be quite powerful.


New York Times Article on the Empty Inbox

An article in the New York Times that reiterates some of the points that I have made in this blog can be found here:An Empty In-box or With Just a Few Email Messages.The writer shares the practices he uses to work his email down to zero, but unfortunately doesn’t address the fact that his set of habits can’t be picked up and used by many people, simply because they are  product of his own idiosyncracies.  Not that this is wrong – it’s just that people who want to achieve a Zero Inbox generally need more than a list of one person’s habits in order to achieve the goal.  In other words, they need to craft a set of practices that work for them, and them alone, and perhaps more importantly, a way to change their own habits reliably.Most people, however, are convinced that they need to just get less email, and that somehow throttling communication in some way is the right approach.The fact is that spam filters and email rules do help for  a while, but they don’t resolve the underlying problem that created trouble in the first place — personal habits that were never intended to handle the number of emails being received.Ultimately, only a smart change in habits will produce the desired end-result. 

In Emergencies – Forget Email

istock_000002386483xsmall.jpgI am working on a project in which almost everyone around me carries a Blackberry.  My observation as one of the few non-Blackberry users is that many have developed habits that thwart their productivity.

One sad habit that has developed is that Blackberry users have trained people around them to elevate email to a level of urgency that it simply was not designed to achieve.

What does that mean?

Pretend that you are the user and I need to send you an important message.

Because I know you have a Blackberry, and check it continuously, I’d prefer to send the information via email because I know that you are likely to read it. In other words, you have trained me to take the path of less resistance in my communication with you, and to avoid the built-in risk of making a confronting phone call.

For example, all over the world, I am sure, there are people being advised by their bosses that they are being “let go” via an email to their Blackberrys.  if i were your boss, I would also give you feedback on the latest meeting in which I got upset at your remarks via email, before telling you that I am taking your pet project away.  I might even announce the reorganization that places you in charge of the wasteland of “special projects” via an early morning message to your ‘berry, knowing that you’ll get it while you are in the car on the way from work.

I send the message, you get it and (presumably) read it a few seconds later, regardless of where you are.  Communication complete.

Or is it?

The truth is, critical communication should never be handled via email.  None of the examples given above should involve electronic messaging, unless they are limited to simple requests to “meet at 3pm in the office.”  The very nature of critical communication is that it evokes an instant reaction that must be dealt with quickly by both parties.

Email communication is simply no substitute for live communication.  We all know people who have sent mildly critical emails that were interpreted as outright attacks by the recipient.  Those mistakes have been happening for years.

We now have people who feed the addiction that other have to their Blackberrys by sending them important emails, knowing that they’ll read them between messages from their cousins, theViagra people and Nigerian heiresses promising millions of dollars. They also know that they’ll be read at 6 in the morning and at 11:30 at night, right before the teeth get brushed.

Blackberry users need to be firm, and insist that they be contacted via phone or in person for all messages that are neither positive nor neutral. They also need to train their colleagues that urgent messages sent by email will be stale by the time they are read, so it’s a better idea to call immediately.  They can start the “training” by letting people know that they check their email/Blackberry on a schedule, and that for them, there is no such thing as “urgent email.”

The save time for themselves and others by adopting good technology, but more importantly, sophisticated habits.

A Zero Inbox in Outlook or Gmail?

magnifying_glass.pngI just read a great post over at the Web Worker Daily Blog.

It essentially has to do with Capturing in one’s inbox, and how using Outlook has lead to very different ways of maintaining a Zero Inbox than using Gmail.

The post makes a distinction between Filers and Finders, and how people use each of these email tools.  Filers (predominantly Outlook users) put email in folders, while Finders (Gmail users) use tags to change the way email is displayed to them through different filters.

Ultimately, I think both get the job done (although Gmail’s method is more efficient, but less intuitive.)

The bottom line is that both methods can be used to maintain a zero inbox, which is (in my mind) a sign of superior efficiency.  In the case of Outlook, the folder is “empty”while in Gmail the tag or filter is “void.”

In the experience of the user (if not in the case of bits and bytes) the effect is the very same.

The full article can be found here:  Email — Are you a Filer or a Finder?


Downloading Email — Caution!

email-icon.jpgA critical strategy in achieving the goal of a Zero-Inbox is to gain control over the flow of email into one’s Inbox.  This is accomplished by turning off the auto download feature, and scheduling times in the day to review email.

That makes sense.

But when should a user decide to download his/her email?  Should it happen when the Inbox is empty?  Or should it happen before?

From my experience, what I have noticed is that making the request to download email is a significant act to take.  That insignificant-looking click leads to a number of things happening very quickly, that leads me to think that it should only be taken when the time management system is stable, if at all possible.

When the Send/Receive button is clicked, here is what happens.

Time demands from all over one’s life come tumbling into one’s consciousness.  Right alongside the junk mail is a message from the friend who is undergoing chemo, the request for early payment on the invoice, a bill from your credit card company, an interesting newsletter, a request for information you think you already sent and your itinerary for your next business trip that contains two errors that need to be fixed before you fly out tomorrow.

Downloading email is like going to a meeting and passing around a blank sheet of paper, asking people to write down stuff for you to do once the meeting is over. It is an action that is essentially a request for new time demands.

One thing we learned from grade school is that it’s  a good idea to finish what you are doing before starting anything new.  In other words, while it may be impossible to complete all time demands residing on your lists and on your calendar before downloading email, it is possible to delay the download until your time management system is in a “steady state.”

What does a “steady state” mean?

This is that very temporary state in which all your time demands have been processed and placed exactly where you want them.  Some are on lists.  Others are in schedules. A few have been tossed.  Several have been stored.

The point here is that none of them is sitting around in place it shouldn’t be — namely, in one of your capture points, waiting to be emptied.

It’s a mistake to put more items in your capture points while it still has items to be processed. While new email is convenient to download, and only a click away, it has the potential to disrupt a user’s peace of mind with each click when their time management system simply isn’t ready to receive the email.

The next thing that happens depends on us.  Before requesting the download, do we set enough time aside to process each of the time demands?  (This isn’t the same as completing them.)

Peace of mind comes when time is set aside after the act of downloading to process each item, in the practice of what is called “Emptying” in 2Time.

When a user decides to download email, for example, just before leaving the office, they possibly deal their peace of mind a  blow.  The act of pulling down new time demands throws their time management system off-kilter by placing new items in their Inbox,  and their decision to leave it with items sitting and waiting to be emptied could get them in trouble.

The result is that their mind is likely to be thinking about the email they received later that evening, when they either cannot or should not be doing anything about it.

It’s important in the goal of maintaining a Zero-Inbox to see the act of downloading as inseparable from the next step of processing each and every item, and returning the Inbox to zero. The user starts with it empty, and after the sequence is complete, they return it to the null state.

If this sounds like “batch-processing” then it should, because that is exactly what it is.

Our minds, we learn from the experts, are quite weak at switching from one task to another if both require deep thought.  The flow state that is needed takes some 15-20 minutes to enter after a disruption or switch.

The habit of jumping from one task to another in order to check email, answer the cell phone and reply to an instant message destroys peace of mind and wreaks havoc with our productivity.  In other words, it’s far better for us to set aside time that is dedicated to not just reading email, but processing each time demand until the Inbox is empty.

The fact is, the process of emptying an Inbox is one that requires devoted, concentration effort.  The act of “Emptying” is a practice that many users execute poorly, leading to Inboxes that are overflowing and increasingly burdensome.

A user must appreciate that their peace of mind and productivity is deeply affected by the state of their time management system, and that their habits are the key to making sure it’s being run well.


Using Your Inbox as a List of To-Do’s

I came across the following quote which is taken from an article in the New York Times from June 26th entitled “E-Mail Etiquette for Public Figures.”

I once read a popular book called “Getting Things Done” (you can read about its philosophy on Wikipedia), ( in which author David Allen maintains that you should empty your Inbox at least once a week. An Inbox with zero messages, he implies, is important for maintaining your sanity. Reply to everything you can deal with in under two minutes, he says, and file the rest into mail folders (or delete them if you can).

You know what? It sounded so great, so satisfying, that I gave it a try. And I couldn’t do it. I just could not get my Inbox empty. I’m in the habit of treating my Inbox as a “to do” file; whenever I get time, I work through some more of the items there. It occurred to me that all you’re doing in Mr. Allen’s system, really, is hiding your unprocessed Inbox items by shuffling them around. What’s the difference between using my Inbox as a “to do” folder and just putting its contents into a “To Do” folder?

This gave me pause for thought.

If you are reader of my blog you might be familiar with the idea I have that:

— while a user should design a time management system that works for them, users with more advanced skills do more scheduling than users who don’t, and are therefore able to carry less information in their heads, be more productive and enjoy greater peace of mind  than they would otherwise experience (whew… long sentence…)  Click here for the post entitled More on Scheduling.

I think the author of this piece, David Pogue, has made a point that reinforces my observation.

His current system works fine for him as long as the number of emails remains manageable.  In the future, I expect that the number of emails he receives will increase, following the trend that we all have experienced since email was popularized in the early 1990’s.

His current process is as follows, I imagine:

1.  Read email

2.  Make a decision to keep it in order to act on it later

3.  Mentally assign it to a time-frame (e.g. by 2pm today, by Friday net week, etc.)

4.   Move on to another task

Time elapses…

5.  Re-open email (hopefully within the mentally assigned time-frame)

6.   Revisit initial decision after perhaps re-reading it

7.  Act on it, or  go back to step 2.

Nothing wrong with this process, as long as the number of new emails each day is relatively small, and the user has a good memory.

For all of us, however, there is a limit to what we can remember, and over time our memory is likely to get worse, even as the number of email increases.

Then, the user would experience the creeping feeling of being overwhelmed as the following take place, in no particular order:

  • get mental calendar confused in some way, perhaps under stress
  • revisit email when the mentally assigned time-frame has past  (too late!)
  • scramble to fix the problem, if possible
  • mentally commit to “doing a better job of remembering stuff”
  • get mental calendar further confused because of recent “scrambles”
  • complain of overwhelm, having too much to do and getting too many emails to anyone who will listen

The source of this problem, of course, lies in the user’s habits.  The alternative at this point is not to try to remember better, but it might have something to do with using an electronic schedule effectively.

In 2Time, one of the underlying ideas is that users must be careful to notice when their habits start to fail — they might indicate that their habits are simply inadequate for a new, greater number of time demands.  Some practices and habits just do not “scale up” — in other words, they start to become a part of the problem, rather than the solution and trying to intensify them only makes things worse.


(The rest of the New York Times article is interesting, but not related to this particular topic.  It’s a good read!)

When Will the Email Explosion End?

I recently realized that every single email user on the planet is heading towards a problem of the exact same kind.  We are all going to have the problem of email inboxes that challenge our time management skills, and threaten us with becoming overloaded.

Here’s why.

It’s likely that with the deepening of social networking that email use (plus other kinds of messaging) will only increase.  Also, as more people migrate to portable email systems, we’ll all get used to sending email at hours of the night and weekend, and will become more comfortable with sending an off-hours response.

These trends serve to encourage the use of email as a communications device, thereby increasing the volume of email that we each receive.

There is some talk, however, of creating intelligent  autoresponders that tell a sender the likelihood that a sent email will be read and responded to.  These tools will scan a receiver’s inbox and send back an immediate estimate.

While this kind of tool may reduce the volume of email, I doubt it will have much of an effect.  I imagine that email users will merely turn the feature off, once it starts to broadcast a message to the world that indicates “how poor a time manager I am.”

It’s more likely, I think that there will be some that manage email well, and the majority that don’t.  Perhaps there will be a revolution in the way we manage email in which we all learn a set of habits (such as the 11 fundamentals presented in 2Time) that help us to deal with the upcoming deluge.  Perhaps methods of managing email will be taught in schools and time management will be understood as a critical skill to any kind of success, much in the way that math is seen as essential.

I hope!