Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Slow Me Down (a work-related post)

One of the things I got from Brain Rules was the idea of "switching costs" - that multitasking is a fallacy and really to do multiple things requires several distinct steps. I don't have the book handy as I write this, but you basically need to re-orient yourself to a particular task, recall where you were, perform the action, and then wind-down that activity and choose the next one. And so as you move from a phone call to an email to an instant message and then back to the Excel report you're working on, you're performing all these discrete tasks for each switch. And while you feel like you're being productive, if you were to do each task -- start to finish, without interruption -- it would take you half as long. And also, by multitasking, your chances of making an error doubles.

This seems to dovetail nicely with something that's been rattling around in my brain, ever since I read a recent Seth Godin post.
While making the trains run on time is a good thing, making them run early is not. If you define success as getting closer and closer to a mythical perfection, an agreed upon standard, it's extremely difficult to become remarkable.
Still mulling that over, Seth had a few additional insights along those same lines that really spoke to me.
If it’s important today, it will be important tomorrow. Far more productive to do the work instead of monitoring what’s next.
and then
What's scarce? Good ideas, not just fast ones. I'd rather you think and instigate. Get back to me tomorrow, that's fast enough.
Having all of those in my head at the same time while on vacation (when I wasn't checking my email), brought me back to the office with a bit of a different mindset. Especially when I factor in what I've been reading in the book assigned as part of my mentoring. I didn't get a chance to read any more of the book while I was on vacation but I've been trying to keep the principles and concepts in the forefront of my mind. I actually bought the book today on Kindle because there have been times when I've been ready and willing to read it only to have the book be in another part of the house or at home when I was at work or at work when I was at home. So now I'll have a copy handy whereever I am. It was inexpensive and I have a credit on file with Amazon. I am quickly becoming a convert of ereaders. I need to start trying this out with the library as well.

Anyhow, the ideas that have struck me and that I've tried to apply... that faster and faster responses don't actually help. That zero inbox is a fallacy. That the quicker I respond, the quicker someone else responds. That I may be setting a bad example for my staff. For me, I could write a bunch of emails and be relatively undisturbed doing that. But for them, email could very well be an interruption. But I may have set the culture/expectation that I need fast responses from them. Or my own fast responses may signal to them that I value a fast response from them. Not to mention just the overall sense of urgency always present in this environment.

So, I'm trying to intentionally slow down the unimportant. I've talked before about holding unimportant meails and sending them late at night. I had originally sent them at the end fo the workday, but I'd find that by the time I arrived home 20 minutes later that people had already started to respond. So I was sending them late at night, but discovering that by the time I woke up, I'd already be receiving responses. So now I have a bunch of emails responded to that are of lower priority. They're all saved into draft and I've just gone in there from time to time and sent 1-3 out, making sure that the recipients are all different so that I'm not dumping on anyone. It is truly amazing when I look at it how much of the email isn't time sensitive. This has also on occasion allowed me to later delete an email because I ended up talking to someone in person or just realized there wasn't enough value in it to even send the email.

I've also tried to be more open. For me, that means not pulling out the iPhone when I'm walking. While tripping hasn't been a hazard for me (that happens normally on a flat surface without any distractions present), by not having the phone out, I'm able to make eye contact and recognize people sooner.

Names. The bane of my existence. I'm very afraid of addressing someone by the wrong name that I don't call out people by name. I need to get over that fear. It's something I've talked about before and I continue to work on.

In person. Also something I've talked about. On my first day back, I read (but didn't respond) to 100 of the 450 emails in my inbox. By the end of the day, it had climbed back up to nearly 450, but instead of hunkering down in email, I met with people. I was amazed at how many people wanted to meet with me. And more importantly, when I did finally look at my email, how much I was able to delete without any further action - either because we'd covered in person, or because of how much my team just handled on their own while I was gone. (On Tuesday and Wednesday I did put a little more effort into email and got it down to less than 20 that still needed help. But I swear this was definitely quicker than just trying to wade through the email.)

Less email. Zero inbox is a cruel joke. Not only is it impossible, but it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It may be productive, but is it the end game? No, because your mailbox will always fill up again. But what if not responding to that email until tomorrow gives me the time today to think about something new and exciting that could be highly beneficial to my company? Yes, must escape the trap of the zero inbox response. (And must train those sending me emails that they might not get a response right away. Plus, maybe they get a better response because I've had a chance to think about it more.) I applied a version of this yesterday - I went to a meeting, heard what they wanted to do, promised to respond to them today. Gave me some more time to think about it. I like that... if it's important today, it will be important tomorrow.

This feels like a big turning point. I've always felt like I was uniquely qualified, having a pretty good handle on both the marketing, technological and customer service worlds (even if math is a challenge for me), but if I can get better at the social side while still doing well at the process side, this just makes me even more valuable and versatile. I had earlier seen this as a bit of an either-or -- a critcism of who I was -- but now I'm starting to see I can embrace the AND and suddenly this isn't a betrayl of who I am or a requirement that I change, but instead an opportunity to grow.

And it feels good.

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