Email Overload!

Everyone I know complains about email overload. Email has become a serious problem. When we don’t control our email habit, we are controlled by it.

Email pours in, with no break to its flow. It is unyielding.  And like addicts, we check it incessantly, drawing ourselves away from meetings, conversations, personal time, our priorities, important tasks or whatever is right in front of us.

People seem to think that since we receive email almost instantly that we should reply in kind. Doing that is like waiting for the postal worker for all hours, opening and closing the door to check the mail nonstop every day. That would be a waste of time and energy. Do you do the same thing with email? Of course not! Instead, you keep your email application open, waiting for that imminent notification alert to come so you can check and see what new thing just got delivered to your inbox.

As soon as an email arrives in our inbox, we feel a compelling urge to reply immediately. Generally, we are afraid that we might miss an important message or fail to respond in a timely fashion. Many corporate cultures mistakenly exasperate this pressure to reply immediately. What if someone needs an immediate response? Worrying about that is precisely the kind of misguided rationalization that reinforces our addiction. And, in the off chance that they need a response within minutes, then they will find another way to reach us like calling, instant messaging or texting.

It’s not just the abundance of email that’s our problem — it’s the inefficiency in how we deal with it. Instead of checking email continuously and from multiple devices, schedule specific email time during the day while you are at your computer. We are most efficient when we answer email in bulk at our computers. We move faster, can access files when we need them and easily access other programs like our calendars and trusted systems. Also, when we sit down for the express purpose of doing emails, we have our email heads on. We are more focused, more driven, wasting no time in processing our inbox to zero.

I bulk process my email three times a day in 30-minute increments, once in the morning, once mid-day, and once before leaving for the day. This allows me to go thru my email faster and with more attention than before. I don’t make those I’m-moving-too-fast mistakes like copying the wrong person or sending an email before finishing it. So I’m also more efficient.

Email is no longer an overwhelming burden to me. I’m spending an hour and a half a day on it, which for me is the right amount. You may need more or less time per day to process your email. Experiment and then schedule the appropriate time on your calendar to process it.

How do you process email?

Why use GTD for CIOs?

I’ve been noticing that the stress factor at senior levels of many IT organizations is increasing. A contributing factor to this stress is an increasing number of agreements that are real, but are largely not consciously acknowledged or kept. Collectively, we are giving ourselves so much to do and we’re taking on so much of what we expect others are expecting of us, that it would be virtually impossible to do even a portion of what’s on our plates. This is unsustainable.

Most of you reading this don’t even have time to finish your current set of projects or priorities, even if you stopped the world from giving you anything new, and you had several months or even years within which to do them. You must embrace reality and acknowledge this is unsustainable. The path to making this sustainable is GTD.

We need to define the work we are doing and more importatnly what we are not doing. Unfortunately, the resulting ambiguity of just halfway assuming responsibilities and commitments with ourselves and others, or just halfway clarifying and understanding what they mean and what needs to be done about them, won’t cut the pressure in half – it actually it doubles it!

So much of what people are feeling these days is the pressure to get things done, but there is universal resistance to defining precisely what that commitment is and what the work is to be “done.” We have to clarify and define the outcomes and actions that are needed on each and every thing that we might need or want to do and what “done” is.

You can only do one thing at a time, so at any point in time there is going to be a huge backlog of “stuff” that needs to be done. Much of what we must do to gain comfort and control in our lives these days is clarifying what all that stuff is, objectively, in a format that provides an actionable format. Once we define these actionable formats in their appropriate contexts, we must continually renegotiate those commitments with ourselves and with others. That is impossible to do unless they’re captured, clarified, and organized in some systematic way outside our psyche. GTD is the only way I know khow to do that.

What are your thoughts?

Applying the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

7 HabitsSteven Covey passed away recently and it caused me to listen to his classic, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” again.  I have read/listened to this classic several times and each time I get more out of it. His simple, but profound principles or habits are particularly timely for GTD practitioners and CIOs today. Lets take a look at the 7 habits of highly effective people:

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Take ownership of your actions in life by realizing that your decisions (and how they align with life’s principles) are the primary determining factor for effectiveness in your life. Take responsibility for your choices and the consequences that follow.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

This is GTD 101! Determine what outcome do you want to be true and then work backwards until you get to the Next Action. This works at all of the Horizons of Focus (50K down to the Runway) that GTD espouses. If you begin with the end in mind, you will envision a successful outcome to whatever you are trying to accomplish and then work backwards to figure out what needs to be true to make that outcome a reality.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Prioritize, plan, and execute your week’s tasks based on importance rather than urgency. Classic GTD here, use your trusted system to execute your priorities not what David Allen calls “reacting to the latest and loudest.”

Habit 4: Think Win-Win

Genuinely strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. Value and respect people by understanding a “win” for all is ultimately a better long-term resolution than if only one person in the situation had gotten his way. This is super important for CIOs who must negotiate success with several different and most likely competing interests every day.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Use empathic listening to be genuinely influenced by a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to being influenced by you. This creates an atmosphere of caring, respect, and positive problem solving. Once again, this is an absolutely critical skill for CIOs and needs to be paired with habit 4 for long-term success.

Habit 6: Synergize

Combine the strengths of people and your staff through positive teamwork, so as to achieve goals no one person could have done alone. Get the best performance out of your people through encouraging meaningful contribution, and modeling inspirational and supportive leadership. Challenge your high performers and push them outside of their comfort zone.  Assess each persons personality and manage/lead them in the way that will elicit the best they can give you in the context of the overall team’s objectives.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Balance and renew your resources, energy, and health to create a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle. It is critical to understand “the whole” balance to success. You must exercise your body for physical renewal, find a way to relax, and get enough sleep to maintain peek effectiveness. You also need to keep investing in learning and growing. Expose yourself to new ideas and opinions. Don’t live in an echo chamber of what you currently know or believe.  Seek continual improvement thru knowledge. It is also important to “give back” with some sort of service to the society for optimal balance.
What are your thoughts or experiences with the 7 Habits?

Consuming Audio Content with Audible and Podcasts

With Apple’s release of a dedicated Podcast application for iOS, it reminded me of how much information I am able to consume via audio sources. The spoken word can be a powerful addition to your information consumption portfolio.  I use Apple’s Podcast app to consume podcasts and Audible’s app to consume “books on tape.”

Listening to content connects with your brain in a different way than reading does.  I can tell you from experience that I can, for example, work out on the Precor elliptical machine at the gym and read RSS feeds while listening to upbeat music at the same time.  But, it is impossible for me to listen to a podcast and read at the same time.  Our brains must process both of these content sources with the same part of the brain and therefore they short circuit each other.

Similarly, I can easily listen to music or a podcast while driving but I could never read and listen to a audio book while driving. And that is not just in the “no texting while driving” context of not keeping you attention on the road, it is true when I am the passenger too.  There are two primary use cases where I consume this the of spoken word content – while I am working out (resistance training and stretching as opposed to cardio) and when I am in the car during my commute.  This practice allows me to be productive in what would otherwise be “dead time” from a continual improvement point of view.

Multitasking has scientifically been proven to be a myth over and over.  What we are actually doing is context switching and it is a sub-optimal way to process information.  How then can I read RSS feeds, listen to music and use the elliptical trainer at the same time?  It sounds like multitasking but it is not.  It is called Layering.

Layering, is simultaneously performing several tasks that require different “channels” of mental functioning such as visual, auditory, mental or language.  The only time multitasking does work efficiently is when you are layering different channels.  This is why you can listen to music while driving a car with no discernible loss of effectiveness but you can not text while driving (even if you are using Siri to dictate your texts) and not lose  effectiveness.

I also find listening to an Audible book that I have read previously enhances my comprehension over just re-reading it.  Once again, this is because of the layering effect that listening to an audio source is process by your brain in a different region than reading does.  So, get a podcast app and Audible’s app on your smartphone and start listening.

Processing Information in Today’s World

How should a busy CIO get information he or she needs in today’s world?

Gone are the days where the newspaper and monthly industry magazines were the best method to get our news. The Internet has made real-time access to large amounts of news fast and the era of tablets is ushering in ease and portability.

Trying to keep current in today’s sea of information is definitely a challenge. This is especially true for the CIO who’s trying to stay on top of technology trends, many of which are changing every week.

Personally I follow about 60 trusted news sources and blogs every day. I’m likely very similar to you, I want as much relevant information as possible in the shortest amount of time Here are some tactics to help you become more efficient with your time and information processing.

Use RSS to keep up with headlines

If you aren’t an RSS user, you should be. It’s an excellent way to become efficient with your time and a good way to get through a bunch of information to find the important stuff quickly. Here is a previous post on how I process RSS feeds. Only subscribe to sites that inform you directly or entertain you. Try to get a cross section of opinion and analysis. Don’t just consume information that is an echo chamber for your point of view!

According to Clay Johnson in his book “The Information Diet”, we should be consuming information that is as close to the source as possible, then researching if it is something that we need to know. This is a good way to approach the RSS feeds that you follow. Using Feedler Pro on my iPad and iPhone allows me access to my Google Reader feeds which allows me easy access to a nice pool of headlines to scan during the day.

Every moring I spend about 30 minutes scanning the new headlines. If I see something I want to follow up on I use the “send to Evernote” feature to see it to my “unprocessed” notebook in Evernote. This allows me to review it later in the course of my normal processing to determine what, if anything, I want to do with that specific piece of information.

Information “overload” is here to stay. There is no stopping it. So, rather than be a luddite and unplug completely, use RSS to keep up with what is important to you and the things that you need to get done in a more efficient way.

The Daily Review – How to Feel Great When You Leave Work

TodayIf you follow GTD and have your trusted system up to date it is easy to leave work every day and feel like you accomplished exactly what you needed to do for that day.  This allows you to drive home and decompress by tuning out and watching TV, reading a book, or whatever activity you like to do to relax and refresh.  The ability to forget all the things you didn’t do that are still on your plate is essential to relieving stress.

Successful task management is really agreement management. At the end of the day, how good you feel about what you did (and what you didn’t do) is proportional to how well you think you kept agreements with yourself.  Did you do what you told yourself to do? What you agreed to do?  Did you accomplish what you think should have been accomplished?  Wasting time only means that you think you should have been doing something other than what you were doing. Sleep is not a waste of time if you think you need it. Taking a walk instead of rewriting your strategic plan is not a waste of time as long as you think taking a walk is the thing to do at that moment. It’s when you wind up not having done that which you’ve agreed with yourself should be done that the trouble begins.

Here is how I do this.  At the beginning of each day I reserve 15 minutes for a “Daily Review” where I look at the calendar for the day to get a sense of what my day looks like.  Then I scan my “Next Actions” notebook in Evernote and decide what I want to accomplish that day and I tag them with “Today.”  Then I filter those items with the Today tag so I only have the items I have decided I want to accomplish that day.  Then during the course of the day I delete them as I accomplish those items.  Once I have completed all the agreements I have with myself I can go home and zone out, refresh, and recharge my batteries for tomorrow.

I believe in outcomes and results not time worked or effort.  Once I have completed all the items on my Today list I can go home feeling good about myself no matter what time that is.  It is a wonderful feeling knowing I accomplished all the agreements I made with myself.

Stop Making To-Do Lists

to-doPlease stop making to-do lists.  You are simply setting yourself up for failure and frustration.

Instead, create a Next Action list that has the very next action you can do to move one step closer to completing the task.  What’s the difference?  A lot.  Typical to-do lists have a mixture of atomic next actions and much larger projects and possibly someday/maybe items that you are not really committed to doing.  The result of this is you are repelled by looking at your to-do list because you subconsciously know you have items on your list that you really don’t or won’t do.  Every time you scan your list your subconscious gives you negative feedback.

When you have a list of things that take 10 minutes, 10 hours and 10 days to do, you will invariably focus on the the shorter ones so you can get the psychological payoff and subsequent dopamine release that comes from completing an item off your list.  This leads to the longer ones staying on your list and the subsequent negative feedback.

In addition to the problem of a mixture of next actions and projects, to-do lists lack the context necessary to help you determine what you should do.  how long will the item take?  What tools do you need to complete it?  Where must it be done?  Contexts like this should be “pre-thought” so you don’t have to think about these things every time you scan your list.  What good does it do you to see “paint the living room” or “return the book you borrowed from mom” or “buy tomatoes” when you are at work?

The better approach is to put the very next action necessary to complete the task or to move it closer to completion on separate lists like “Home”, “Work”, “Errands”, “calls” etc. so that you can scan the appropriate list in the appropriate context.  This drives action which drive positive feedback and that nice dopamine squirt once you cross that item off your list.

As Simple as Possible but No Simpler

David Allen has a saying that your trusted system should be “as simple as possible but no simpler” and while that may seem strange there is real gold in that statement.

When I first started GTD I tried elaborate systems of using folders in email and categories in Outlook  Later on when I migrated to Evernote, I implemented an elaborate system of tags.  These systems tried to capture every possible situation.  I even applied this approach to my calendar and physical folder system.

What I came to understand is that the drag or friction required to process my stuff led to procrastination and ultimately falling off the GTD bandwagon.  Once I reread Getting Things Done and Making it all Work and the concept of making my trusted system as simple as possible but no simpler really sunk in.  Then I was able to simplify my trusted system to a point that capturing, processing, and doing became almost frictionless.  It was like second nature to me.  There was really no need to think when I was capturing or processing.

My advise to people who are getting started with GTD or are trying to get back on the bandwagon is to simplify, simplify, simplify.  Less is more when creating your trusted system.

A Pilot’s Take on “Mind Like Water”

This is the first guest post on GTD for CIO’s from my friend, co-worker and fellow GTD enthusiast David Freedman.

In 2008, I earned my private pilots license and bought a small airplane which I fly primarily for leisure.  I want to reflect upon 2 general aspects of my training which were fundamentally aimed at maintaining “Mind Like Water” while exercising this exciting new privilege and ensuring that I live to tell about it. They are:

  1. Do routine things exactly the same way every time.
  2. Get stuff out the way when there is no pressure to make things easier on you when there is pressure.

Do Routine Things Exactly the Same Way Every Time

In flying, there are all sorts of routine operations before, during and after flight.  We are trained to perform those operations identically every time and we use checklists to reinforce that behavior.  This rigorous routine produces predictable results.  We make sure not to cause our own emergencies by forgetting small things that make a big difference.  Further, with practice, routines can be executed very efficiently leaving the mind with time to think about those factors that are unique to a given flight.

Consider how this might apply to your daily life.  Have you ever been unable to find your keys?  Have you ever been unsure if you would have enough gas to get you to  your next destination?  Have you ever shown up to work in your suit and tie and realized you forgot to put on your belt? These sorts of situations cause a bit of anxiety at the least, taking up precious mindspace with looping thoughts and material negative impact on your results at the worst.  What sorts of routines could ensure that these mundane tasks are executed correctly every time?

Get Stuff Out of The Way When There’s No Pressure to Make Things Easier On You When There is Pressure

There are times during flight when we are cruising and it’s real easy to simply drift off and observe the beauty of the skies and colorful contours of the earth below. It’s during these times that we are trained to ask ourselves “What can I be doing right now to prepare for what’s next?”  I might tune the radio I’m not using for my destination frequencies.  I might check weather at the destination to see if current conditions match the forecast.  I might check pilot reports to see if there is any reported turbulence enroute so that I can give my passengers the heads up and reassure them that turbulence, while jarring, is normal and safe.  Why do this instead of staring and the vista above and below?  Landing is a high workload phase of flight.  In other words, a pilot must do many things simultaneously.  The more I can get out of the way ahead of time, the more I can focus on flying the plane and therefore landing safely.  What times during your life are high pressure and which are low?  Can you shift workload to make those high pressure situations a little easier?

My Implementation Of These Two Concepts

The following are a few of my personal routines which are geared toward producing predictable results, reducing workload during high pressure situations and ultimately freeing up mindspace for the present moment.

1.  Pack my work cloths and gym back the night before – My brain is mush at 5am.  I’m likely to make mistakes.  When I pack my things the night before, I increase the probability of making it to the gym to about 90% and increase the likelihood that I have everything I need to 99%.
2.  Fill up my gas tank on Sundays – I don’t how much gas I do or don’t have in my tank, this ensures that I’ll never run out of gas or need to make a gas stop during the week when my time is scarce.
3.  Carry a Murse (Man Purse) – I carry a Tumi man bag.  This may not be for everyone, but here’s how I use it.  I have a set of items that I use at least once a week.  I ALWAYS keep these items in the same pockets and I always put them back after I use them…100% of the time.  I can find those items without even looking down because I can visualize exactly where they are.  My Murse is always in the same location as me and on my body if appropriate.  At home and work, I always put my murse in the same place. The contents are:
  • Car Keys/Airplane Keys – Outer pocket #1
  • Wallet/Cash – Outer pocket #2
  • Pen – Inner pen sleeve
  • Pocket knife – Inner pocket next to pen
  • Flash light (typically for walking dogs) – inner pocket next to knife
  • Business cards – inner pocket next to pen
  • Paper items going to/from work/home – large inner pocket
  • Motorola Xoom (I’m an Android Guy) – Main Pocket

4.  Arrive at work before 7:30am every day – My first meeting of the day is typically at 9am.  Given myself 90 minutes in the morning allows me to eat, -re-review the day’s calendar and do any last minute meeting preparation, review my next actions and return emails that came in late.  I begin my official workday feeling calm and organized. On the rare occasion that there is some catastrophic delay on my commute, I’m still not late to my first meeting.
5.  Food everywhere – I keep snacks in the car, at work and at home, which I buy on the weekend.  There is no bigger productivity killer than low energy and no better way of ensuring adequate energy than making sure healthy food is available the moment you need it.

The Negative Effects of Multitasking Revisited

I feel compelled to revisit this topic because so many people I encounter either don’t believe the research or more likely, are unwilling to give up their multitasking habits.

Please read my previous post on the subject to get my take on the subject.

The New York Times had a great series on the subject called “Your Brain on Computers” and McKinsey and Company had a great article called “Recovering from Information Overload” where they detailed the “perils of multitasking” and concluded “always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.”

Need further evidence that multitasking us sub-optimal?  Researchers at Stanford University concluded multitasking kills attention span, focus and memory.  Their research challanges today’s executives by stating “Think you can talk on the phone, send an instant message and read your e-mail all at once? Stanford researchers say even trying may impair your cognitive control. Serious stuff.

The bottom line is it is fine to watch TV and surf the web on your tablet at the same time because it really doesn’t matter if you are less productive in this non-thinking entertainment mode.  But if you are at work and need to be on top of your game, you should only do one thing at a time.

This means close all windows except he one you are working on and turn off all your beeps, buzzers, toast, etc. that notify you of a new email, text, call etc. and block out uninterrupted chunks of time to focus on specific tasks.  This is why I schedule several 30 blocks of time to process email each day.  I get more done in less time with higher quality.

“Addressing information overload takes enormous self-discipline,” the McKinsey article reads.

I recommend all executives 1) Focus (do one thing at a time), Filter (delegate so that you don’t take on too many tasks or too much information) and Forget (read, walk the halls, take breaks, clear your head) to maximize productivity.