If you want to be distracted from your work, give in to chatting, instant messaging (IM), phone calls or meetings. These are the ultimate productivity killers, because they suck up all your attention, break your flow and turn you mind into an enchained tiger wanting to be set free. They're synchronous communication mediums: you «need» to react immediately. Opposed to that, media like email (and letters, do you remember them...?) work asynchronously: you decide when to react.
The fourth part of this mini series on protecting your inbox shows you how to limit information that jumps on your desktop, staring at you, demanding immediate response or action.
Synchronous communication garbage
I'll deal with three common, time-wasting, synchronous types of office nags that clutter your inbox here:
- Instant Messaging (IM)
- People dropping by
- (Invitations to) Phone conferences and meetings
1. Instant Messaging (IM) receives a lot of praise, up to the point that its use gets highly recommended already for teenagers. While it's true that IM can be a wonderful tool to build your social network or to overcome barriers when your hearing is impaired, your office is not likely a good environment to use IM in the same manner as you do at home. IM creates yet another inbox, and it's best to avoid it.
Your office is your workplace. When you need a short break, spend 5 minutes at the water cooler to connect with others. Using IM at work to increase your efficiency or awareness (whatever that means) is like putting a bowl of candy on your desk to lose weight.
If an issue is urgent, make a phone call and avoid IM communication hassles like a lack of empathy, misunderstood irony, or the inability to get at the core of an issue quickly by rapid question / response feedback cycles.
If an issue is not urgent, send an email or arrange for a meeting.
In any case, uninstall your IM client from your office computer.
2. People dropping by aren't always a pain, sure. As a matter of fact, you can easily tell the performers and networkers from the pain-raising kind, the traders in gossip, people in permanent idle mode, deferrers, and oh yes: this special guy who keeps on asking you «for advice», only to counter your goodwill by his comprehensive explanations of what he tried already (including your suggestions) and what worked (nothing).
Did you ever think of your door as of yet another inbox? It is! Here's what you can do about the types of unwanted input described above:
- Remove visitor chairs from your office.
- Be straight, even blunt. Never ask them How are you? but How can I help you?
- Tell them you're quite busy at the moment and insist on making an appointment. Get specific about time, place and duration and stay inquisitive about their proposed agenda. Repeat ad nauseam, whenever that person enters your office.
- Suggest that they obtain professional help (with whatever occupies their mind). You're not a pro (with respect to their issues). Period.
3. Try to decline invitations to phone conferences or meetings. Opposed to what people think, meetings and phone conferences are not about talking. They are about decision making and planning. Brainstorming is not a tool, it's a bad idea.
Group calendars are inboxes, too. Try to block as much of your calendar as possible by scheduling repetitive tasks. You don't need to lie here, so use descriptive subjects. Any open space in your calendar is an invitation to drop a big, fat, 1-hour-default-duration meeting request there.
If somebody really needs you attending his meeting, wait for that person to call you. If you can't decline such invitations, try to make sure there is a productive (and early) end, providing you with decisions and action items.
Mark Horstman and Michael Auzenne provide invaluable advice on this issue in their Manager Tools Podcast series. For instance, listen to the episodes Effective Teleconferencing - Part 1 of 2 and Effective Teleconferencing - Part 2 of 2 (hint: the mute button is not your friend) as well as How to Handle Agendas in a Meeting (Part 1 of 2) and How to Handle Agendas in a Meeting (Part 2 of 2) (hint: a big, visible clock can work miracles).
Educate your colleagues (and yourself)
It seems some people simply can't distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Do you know somebody who always calls you up to complain that you haven't yet replied to the email she sent you, 30 minutes ago?
Tim Ferriss, author of «The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich», has a great way to highlight the difference. Since he wants to read his email only twice per week without looking rude, he set up an interesting autoresponder. When you mail him (or one of his assistants), you get an instant reply that runs like this:
In an effort to actually get work done, I am checking email once every 2-4 days. If you need a response soon and have my number, please call me. I actually prefer phone for quick decisions. My assistant will be reading your email in the meantime.
Cheers, and here's to life outside of the inbox!
P.S. I read all e-mail personally, but I cannot always reply, especially with involved how-to questions. Thanks for understanding, and I appreciate your e-mail!
OK, your colleagues might frown upon the if-you-have-my-number part, so better leave it out... Anyway: readers are told that email is an asynchronous medium and phone calls are for urgent matters. Perfect!
If you can't uninstall your IM client from your office computer, rename your accounts or set at least your status appropriately. Choose status «Busy» or «Do not disturb», instead of «Offline» (nobody believes you're offline the whole day). Name your account «EMERGENCY! John Smith» or «URGENT! John Smith» to indicate what type of contact you consider appropriate.
If you enjoyed this posting, you'll probably like the rest of this mini-series on protecting your inbox, too.