Email is Not My Job

Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to do my job. At least, that’s what I tell myself. And yet, more and more often, I find myself spending most of my time writing, answering, filing and deleting emails. It has gotten absurd.

I’m not alone. The problem of email overload is so bad, my college is drafting policies to try and define who can email who and the rules for using email in the workplace. The policy won’t help. Email is a useful, but limited, communication tool. We overuse it and try to make our emails do things for us they were never intended to do.

The problem with email is that messages are wickedly easy to send and, on the receiving end, wickedly difficult to deal with. Handling my email inbox usually feels like hand to hand combat with somebody else’s to do list. Every email brings with it a decision. Do I reply? Do I delegate this? Does this person really need my response? Is the sender really a person anyway or is it just a semi-clever software program spewing invitations to review someone’s latest [fill in the blank]. Many messages get deleted. Others get flagged. Some get answered or delegated. Every email is a decision. It is exhausting.

Enough is enough. I’m building some new rules for myself regarding email. I want efficiency. I want clarity. I want control.

My brother manages manufacturing workflow processes. He treats his inbox like a project. Everything that comes in gets immediately color coded. Certain senders (his boss, his boss’s boss) are colored special colors to help them stand out. Every message is quickly reviewed for action type and given a color category using Outlook’s category options. One color for urgent. Another color for not urgent. Anything that doesn’t deserve a color is deleted.

I’ve been working with this idea for a week now. I already have my most important email senders pushed into a priority, VIP email folder. Messages from my boss, my staff and my related work teams get pushed to the VIP folder. Messages in this folder can be viewed as a group. They also display on my iPad as a special alert to help me keep track.

All incoming messages are quickly scanned for possible action. Easy things get answered or addressed right away. Most things aren’t easy and require a color. Red for urgent. Pink for important but not urgent. Green for waiting for an answer or more information. Purple for things to read.

My new rule: every message gets scanned and immediately answered, deleted or categorized. I then use Outlook category filters to view my urgent emails all together. This helps me prioritize my work for the day. After those are gone, I will view the important, but not urgent set. Some day, in theory, I will read the purple items labeled to read.

It isn’t a perfect system. I’m still not entirely in control of my inbox but, after a week of using categories and filters, I already find myself less stressed about the hemorrhaging inbox. I’m dealing with the things that need my attention most a little more quickly. At least, I think I am.

I still need to fine tune the system. Today, I added another step. I close my email software when I’m not actively using it. Today, I read email first thing in the morning, again mid-morning and then right before lunch. I opened email midafternoon and then once more before I left for the day. The rest of the time email stayed closed.

From time to time, one of my VIP senders showed an alert on my iPad. I glanced quickly over to determine if the message was urgent, knowing that truly urgent things always arrive via phone call or text message.

It felt good to close my email when I wasn’t actively using it. I felt more in control.

I have written about my personal struggles with email before. You may think I’m daft. You may think I’m making things too complicated. The truth is I’m just trying to feel more in control and capture that feeling that email is a tool I use rather than a tool than uses me.

You may be reading this and feeling upset because you’ve sent me an email or 5 and haven’t yet gotten a response. Try not to be upset. There’s a good chance your email to me has a pink cast, in which case I’ll get to it.

There is also, of course, a chance that your email(s) have been deleted. If that’s the case, you are going to need to decide how many emails you want to send me to try and get my attention. My new rules are still young so I’m not sure how they will play out. I am declaring a kind of war here. Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to help me do my job.

I need your help. What rules or processes do you use to manage your email? Comments most welcome.

Vacation Ritual for the 21st Century

No one can stay connected all the time. It isn’t healthful, and it isn’t practical. You don’t have to travel to put healthy distance between yourself and your work. Sometimes, you just need to unplug.

My work life has been pretty hectic the past few months. I love the work that I do and I have recently had the chance to take on new, complex, interesting challenges. Still, I have run myself a little ragged. The term “overclocked” keeps passing through my head lately.

So today I am starting a much needed vacation, one week plus a few extra days to carry past my daughter’s sixth birthday. When I leave work for more than a day, I leave good people in charge and trust my team to make good decisions. I try to make myself available by phone and/or email in case of emergencies. Emergencies don’t often arise in the library. Still, I often monitor email while on vacation just to “”keep up with things”. This is crazy. I don’t need to keep up with things while on vacation. Not keeping up with things is pretty much the point of taking a vacation.

When I got home today, I decided to try something new. I disconnected my work email account from my phone. I can still scroll through my email once  in the evening, if I want. But the act of physically disconnecting my phone from work email felt really good. When email is too accessible, there is an irrational urge to check it often. Unplugging my work email from my phone prevents me from feeling the temptation to check it. Making work email inconvenient while on vacation makes “checking in” or “staying connected” feel less necessary.

I know I’m not that important. My team gets along fine without me. I know they will call if something  important actually happens that needs my immediate attention.

In the meantime, disconnecting for a little while is the only way to really get the benefit of time off. Do what you can to stop thinking about work when you aren’t at work so you can actually rest. Then, you can return more vital and focused, ready to pick up the work you left off, accomplishing stuff that matters.

See Farther, Work Faster: A Workplace Prayer

At some point in your career, I hope you are asked to work at the edge of your limits. I hope someone needs you to offer up more than you believe you are able to provide. I hope you are asked to see farther and work faster than you ever thought possible. That’s where growth happens. That’s where you make yourself vulnerable. That’s where you discover your limits. That’s where you surprise yourself by what you are able to accomplish and by what others around you are able to accomplish because of your support.

You will find yourself failing. You will find yourself falling behind. Keep at it. There’s no prize for taking it easy. There’s no prize for doing what everyone knows can be done. Do hard things. Help other people do hard things. Rest when you must but do not stop. Be more than you already are. Be what is needed. Be what is required. See farther. Work faster. Be ready.

No News is Bad News

People often say, “No news is good news.” I have said it myself many times. It’s a  lie. This is a thing we tell ourselves when we aren’t sure where we stand or how a  project is really going. This is the credo for the path of least resistance. This is the motto for the path of greatest avoidance.

I run an academic library at a mid-size community college. If you think libraries are drowsy, dull places where routine is revered and nothing ever changes, you are flat wrong. Everything is changing. My library is wrestling with eBooks, eJournals, iPads and other mobile technologies. We are building chat-based reference services and piloting embedded course librarians to more effectively teach our students good information habits. We are reshaping our print collections and working with other departments to develop online learning objects to be used in the classroom. One of my favorite projects at the moment is piloting the delivery of  real-time telepresence research assistance at a satellite campus via the use of a Tandberg hi-definition video conferencing unit. My library is a busy, interesting, and challenging place.

I want these projects to succeed. I want them to solve somebody’s problem. I want them to address a need.

Anytime a team starts a new project, the effort receives the benefit of the team’s full attention. Everyone is paying attention and watching to get to the project off the ground. Quickly after launch, the immediacy wanes and the project becomes a normal part of life. Once the initial vigilance fades, we begin to shortcut our assumptions about how the project is going. We lose touch with reality.

In those first few months of life, we are continually searching for flaws in the project so we can fix them and improve. Eventually, the search for flaws becomes an assumption of strength. In the absence of negative feedback, we convince ourselves that things are going well. If things were going poorly, someone would tell us. Ergo, no news is good news.

The truth is opposite. No news is bad news.

If things are going well and people are being well-served by your product or service, they will tell you. If things are going poorly and people believe or expect something better from your product or service, they will tell you. In either case, clients, customers or patrons are engaged with your service and are willing to invest their feedback into making your product stronger. If no one tells you anything good or bad, then no one is really engaged by your product or service and you are operating in a void. You aren’t meeting a need and no one cares enough to tell you.

Complaints are a sign of health. When people complain and point out flaws, it is a sign that they have a greater expectation of your product or service. Since nothing is ever perfect, some manageable volume of actionable complaints is a sign that people value what you are offering. Act on all reasonable complaints and you can only grow stronger.

When people praise your product and point out strengths, celebrate and work to preserve and increase the specific value they have recognized.

Listen. Be patient. Don’t be defensive. Feedback, both positive and negative, is a sign of engagement. In either case, be grateful.

Silence is the enemy. Silence is deadly. Silence means nobody cares.

No news is always bad news.

Event Horizon: My Vacation is Over

I took 3 three weeks off from work for the holidays. That probably sounds pretty libertine but I needed the time. I let my battery get too low. Work has been pretty manic the past few months, and I made the mistake of not budgeting enough time for myself to reflect and rebuild. The mind needs spaces to process information, place things in proper perspective and make plans for future action. This doesn’t have to be a big deal. For me, this requires half an hour or more every day doing something creative, a few runs a week and a few days off every few months.

I don’t have to travel. I don’t have to spend money. I don’t have to do wildly interesting things. I just have to budget my time and spend according to that budget.

Now I can feel the pull of work. I have started sorting through my emails, scheduling meetings, and sifting through a dozen conflicting priorities to put projects in their proper place.

I am fortunate to have a job that I love and a measure of control over what and how I do while at work. I like what I do and enjoy my time at work. Still, the weekend before the first day back to work has heavy gravity. It has a powerful, familiar drag that draws me ever closer to Monday. Time gets strange in this last weekend of vacation and everything slides toward the event horizon – that place beyond which no return is possible. No light escapes and we are committed to the guidance of gravity.

One Thing You Need to Know: Marcus Buckingham

I’m a big fan of Marcus Buckingham. If you don’t know about Marcus Buckingham, you should probably start by watching this:

So much about the way we measure ourselves is based on our personal weaknesses rather than our personal strengths. In school, a student who is really great at writing but not so great at math is usually given more math and less writing. This is done to help remediate the deficiency. Helping students get better at math is a good thing, but the remediation often comes at the expense of time spent practicing areas in which the student is naturally gifted. The student is frustrated because all of the school time is spent doing things he isn’t good at and by the time the remediation drills are done, he is so tired he doesn’t have energy to dig in on the other stuff. The problem here is that the amount of time and energy working on weakness control probably yields small gains. Not very efficient. A person who is naturally bad at drawing is never going to be an artist. Mediocrity is the best outcome that can be expected. The problem is that this mediocrity in an area of weakness detracts from time spent becoming excellent in the only area a person can become excellent — in an area of personal strength.

Job evaluations are most often designed and delivered to help call attention to areas where the employee can pick up the slack. I can think of many job evaluations where I walked in expecting to talk about the things I wasn’t doing and the areas in which I needed to contribute more. The problem here is that I am naturally limited in some areas, like organization. If I am told to focus more time becoming highly organized, then I am also, in effect, being told to spend less of my time developing and sharing new ideas (a personal strength).

Time and energy are limited. Poor performances need to be addressed, but time and energy are most usefully invested in developing on existing strengths.

That’s the core concept of One Thing You Need to Know. Marcus tries to provide one central organizing insight for successful managing, leading and personal success.

Great managers discover what is unique about each member of their team and capitalize on it.

Great leaders articulate a clear, common understanding of what the team’s better future will look like. Being clear about the future is way more important than being correct.

Successful individuals discover what they don’t like doing and figure out how to stop doing it.

This probably sounds rather trite, but the discussion of each of these elements is quite profound in its simplicity.

My biggest takeway: as we grow older, we become more of what we already are. A strong, satisfying career is built on a person’s ability to focus almost exclusively on developing excellence in areas where natural strengths already exist. Successful careers are also built on a perpetual, allergic avoidance of doing things that do not express one’s strengths. Don’t throw your time and energy into developing your weaknesses toward mediocrity. Partner with people who can do things you can’t. Be passionate. Be relentless. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t love what you are doing, you should probably be doing something different.

This is the kind of controlling insight I want my work team to have. This is the kind of experience I want every student I work with to develop. This is the kind of confidence I want my daughter to carry with her into the world.

Every one of us is limitlessly strong so long as we don’t dwell unnecessarily in our areas of weakness.