Tag Archives: time management

Coping with the E-Mail Tide

Image: Kevin Phillips
                              Image: Kevin Phillips

For most of us something like a “rule of 10” applies: for every 10 messages in our inbox there may be one with some relevance to our lives.

Nearly everyone is overwhelmed with too many emails.  Those that work in large organizations are especially likely to face the same daily high tide that rushes in at a rate of one or two every few minutes.  So this requires a daily routine that includes clearing out our inbox, which means getting rid of a lot ‘fishing’ emails from outside groups, not to mention missives from fellow workers who use the “send to all” button as an easy claim to institutional relevancy.

The simple problem is that the system feeds on itself.  The more emails we answer the more we get. And for most of us something like a “rule of 10” applies: for every 10 messages there is one that may have some relevance to our lives. Sometimes the ratio seems more like 100 to 1.  The bigger problem is that email is usually a distraction that keeps us from doing more useful things.

How can we deal with this sponge on our time?  The strategies vary, none of them perfect. Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian recommends a solution tried by Tony Hsieh, the President of Zappos.

He calls it “Yesterbox,” because the premise is that you should stop focusing on email received today, except when urgent, and instead try to deal with everything that came in yesterday. It’s an idea so simple, your first response might legitimately be, “Huh? What difference could that make?” A big one, it turns out.

The logic is that a “closed list” of yesterday’s emails is easier to get through.  Burkeman notes that “in your Yesterbox, you’re no longer on a treadmill: one email dealt with means one fewer to deal with; the target you’re aiming for isn’t receding constantly into the distance.”  That may be true, but it’s small comfort and a minor psychological advantage gained over working from the most recent to the oldest.

Here are some additional suggestions that can result in spending less time each day on stuffed in-boxes, even within an organization that treats email as the “official” channel of communication.

  1. Turn off the audio email notifications on your computer.  They feed our curiosity and can break the rhythm of more significant work.
  2. Check email only once or twice a day.  Give it the lower priority it usually deserves.
  3. Save email for the low part of your daily productivity curve.  If you are the most creative and energetic in the morning, don’t waste your time on it then.  The tedium of going through it can probably wait until that after-lunch miasma kicks in.
  4. Don’t substitute texting for email.  The norm of instant response for texts can be a major time-killer, intensifying the problem you are trying to solve.
  5. Spend more time in “airplane mode,” even when you are on the ground.  Our addiction to screens is real and growing.  In order to tame it, set aside sizable segments of the day when you are more available in real space more than virtual space.  Anyway, you look smarter when not seen by friends and coworkers frozen into a “screen thrall,” which looks only slightly better than drooling in public.
  6.  Like most most forms of communication, emails from co-workers usually have an expressive purpose that outweighs the need to respond.  For these a simple acknowledgment is enough.
  7. Some groups are serial offenders in over-sending messages.  Attempts to unsubscribe or block them will probably not work.  Learn to be fast with the delete key for these groups.  And if you do reach a live body at the organization, express your displeasure with their abuse of your inbox.

Now, if I can just get with the program myself. . .

Additional Suggestions? Comment at Woodward@tcnj.edu
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In Praise of the Linear Mind

Sherlock_Holmes_wikimedia
Sherlock Holmes      wikimedia.org

This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find.

By definition, a distraction is a detour. It happens when the continuity of some effort is broken by the need to shift attention elsewhere. Since this website is dedicated to communicating in “the age of distraction”—be it advertising clutter, too many texts and e-mails, or the frenetic pace of overscheduled lives—we should have an interest in persons who resist all the cultural noise.

One answer to this problem is to discipline ourselves to follow a more linear pathway, even though cultivating this kind of thinking cuts against the grain of the culture.   And it’s not easy to tell the world to take a hike while we muse alone in our own self-made bubble.

Linear thinkers take many forms:  avid readers content to devote large chunks of time to a single work of fiction or non-fiction, artists happily left alone to work through decisions that will end up on canvass or as musical notation.  And of course we’ve enshrined the image of the “mad scientist” as a loner following the threads of their research with long hours in the lab, leaving family and friends to fend on their own.

George Frederick Handel wrote the great oratorio Messiah in spurt of nearly unbroken concentration, finishing in just over three weeks.  And imagine the sustained effort required by William Lamb’s architectural firm, who designed and prepared drawings for New York City’s Empire State Building in an incredibly short two weeks. The iconic skyscraper was completed in just over a year.  Such dedication to a single task can be scaled down to what many writers sense when they notice the time that vanishes when they are absorbed in their work.

The linear thinker looks forward to clearing the decks sufficiently to be able to see an unobstructed view of the horizon. Undisturbed concentration gives them power. This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find. Unbroken attention to a task allows a first effort to build on the synergies that begin when scattered thinking  begins to see connections and consequences that others may miss.

This is more or less the reverse of the kind of segmentation of effort that is now embedded in our work and so much of our media. A reader’s time on a single web page is usually under a minute.  And we are getting cues from all over that we’re not noticing our preference for hyper-compression. Consider, for example, the New York Times reporter who recently noted in passing that an individual “argued” a point “on Twitter.”  Really?  Can a person “argue” in the traditional sense of the term—which includes asserting a claim and it’s good reasons—in a verbal closet of 140 characters?  Twitter imposes absurd limitations on the expression of  thoughts, matched by political ads that “argue” public policy in 30-seconds, television news “sound bites” from policy-makers that average around eight seconds, and the de-facto editing style of commercial television that cuts individual shots into lengths of two or three seconds.

We now think of a Ted Talk with a maximum running length of 18 minutes as an “in depth” discursive form. No wonder some of my students think of a 70-minute lecture or a 40- page chapter as the functional equivalent of a long slog across a vast desert.

Interestingly, one of the features  sometimes seen in a person at the higher end of the autism spectrum scale is a consuming and total passion for one thing. Subjects with Asperger’s are especially known for their laser-focused interests, making them a challenging fit in a culture that rewards frequent pivots to completely different activities. Psychological historians believe we can thank mild forms of autism for the achievements of Mozart, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, and Lewis Carroll.  And it’s surely Aspergers that seems the dominant psychological trait of the world’s favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.

Given the misplaced importance of multi-tasking across the culture, it makes sense that there is building interest in novel ideas like the self-driving car. Negotiating a ribbon of open road is a linear process that seems increasingly beyond the capacities of distracted drivers. It’s probably better to let a computer take care of a task many are less equipped to manage themselves.

If we think we have identified a significant problem here, we probably should be more humble and note that these few words on the attributes of linearity are maybe more useful in illustrating non-linear thinking. The concept deserves a book more than a blog.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

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