4 Tips for Basic E-mail Management

Is your email killing your productivity? Then it’s time for some basic e-mail management. With a few simple steps, you can maintain control over your in-box:

  1. Use the software: Set up your e-mail client to manage as much of the incoming mail as possible. Create filters to route unnecessary messages past your in-box and into a folder. Make sure your spam settings and databases are active and up to date. The more you automate your e-mail, the less time you spend reading and deleting.
  2. Turn off your new mail notification: You don’t have to read every piece of e-mail the moment it arrives. Pop-ups, beeps and “you’ve got mail” notifications can be too distracting to ignore. Turn them off!
  3. Don’t read and respond to each incoming message: Dealing with each e-mail as it arrives can create constant interruption to your work-flow. Set aside time each day where you deal with your e-mail. Have a process —such as this one— for clearing your in-box.
  4. Manage e-mail during times of lower energy: Don’t deal with e-mail during your most creative or productive times of the day. Processing e-mail doesn’t require much energy. Don’t waste your creative periods on something as routine as e-mail.

Keep it All in Balance

A corporate executive on holiday in a small Greek seacoast village was strolling by the docks and drinking in the local colour. He complimented one fisherman on the quality of his catch.

“How long did it take you to get all those fish?” he wondered.

“Not very long,” answered the Greek. “An hour or two.”

“Then why didn’t you stay out longer to catch more?”

Shrugging, the Greek explained that his catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.

The executive asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a nap with my wife. In the evening, I go to the village to see my friends, dance a little, play the bouzouki, and sing songs. I have a full life.”

The executive said, “I have an MBA from Harvard. I can help you. You should start by fishing longer every day. You’ll catch extra fish that you can sell. With the revenue, you can buy a bigger boat. With the extra money the larger boat will bring you, you can buy a second boat and a third one, and so on, until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middleman, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can ship fish to markets all around the world. In time, you can then move to New York City to direct your huge enterprise.”

“How long would that take?” asked the Greek.

“Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the executive.

“And after that?”

“When your business gets really big, you can sell stock and make millions!” exclaimed the executive with zeal.

“Millions? Really? And after that?”

“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a small village near the coast, sleep late, play with your grandchildren, catch a few fish, take a nap with your wife, and spend your evenings singing, dancing, and playing the bouzouki with your friends.”

11 Golden Rules of Time Management

  1. Understand the value of your time: We may all value our time differently, but we all have the same number of minutes in a day. Once they are lost, they are gone forever.
  2. Plan: You don’t plan failure, but you have to plan for success.
  3. Do tomorrow’s planning today: Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of the day to figure out what you need to accomplish. Determine that before the day starts.
  4. Identify your “prime time:” What part of the day do you have more or less energy? Plan high-energy or low-energy tasks accordingly.
  5. Work from an action list: Create lists from which to work.
  6. Schedule tasks as needed. Check off completed items. Revise the list as needed.
  7. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing what I’m doing right now?” and ask it often: Always evaluate what you are doing to ensure the most productive use of your time.
  8. “Delete” whenever possible: Eliminate clutter, file the completed, delegate wisely, learn to say NO.
  9. Check your calendar: Have a good system to track time-sensitive events.
  10. Be flexible: Have the ability to accommodate the unforeseen. Sometimes the urgent will have to override the planned.
  11. Take a day off now and again: Have days for unplanned relaxation and spontaneous activity.

5 Tips for Handling Unwanted Workplace Visitors

You’ve got a full hour between meetings. Plenty of time to put the finishing touches on the month end staffing report. You pull up the spreadsheet, print off your boss’s e-mailed comments, dig out your notes from the last meeting and settle down to work. No sooner do you start to enter data, than Jane wanders in, sits down and asks if you’ve heard the latest rumour about Bob down in purchasing. Before you know it, your full hour has dwindled to 17 minutes.

Controlling drop-in visitors who interrupt your workflow requires both tact and judgement. The office culture where you work can have considerable influence on this practice. If yours is an organization that encourages less-formal communication, you may find people dropping by to discuss anything from last night’s big game to next week’s big presentation.

For those days when you need a block of uninterrupted time to work on a project, here are five tips to help you control drop-in traffic.

  1. Be the visitor. If you have to speak with someone, go to their office. That way, you can control the length of the visit. When your done, excuse yourself and leave.
  2. Turn away from the door. If your work space is arranged so that you sit with your back to the door, visitors can see that you are working and they might be less likely to disturb you.
  3. Close the door. If you have a door. This isn’t workable in a cube farm. In that case, you might have to resort to the Les Nessman solution.
  4. Stand up for visitors. If a visitor comes into your office, stand up to greet them and don’t invite them to sit down. This will often shorten the length of their visit.
  5. Tell them politely. If you’re busy at the moment, ask them to come back. Set a specific appointment time if necessary.

The most extreme solution I’ve ever come across was someone who sawed an inch off the front legs of the chairs in his office. Trying to keep from sliding off required just enough effort to discourage people from staying long. With a little courtesy and the above steps, you shouldn’t have to resort to such drastic measures.

How to Stop Wasting Time – External Factors

There are many behaviours and practices that get in the way of our productivity. These time-wasters fall into two types: internal, those things we generate and external, those things that come at us from outside. Both types can be controlled.

There are four external factors that can waste our time:

  • Unwanted Visitors – Controlling drop-in visitors who interrupt your workflow requires both tact and judgement. The office culture where you work can have considerable influence on this practice. If yours is an organization that encourages less-formal communication, you may find people dropping by to discuss anything from last night’s big game to next week’s big presentation.
  • Incoming communication – You should work to manage of your incoming data with the fewest possible moves; including e-mail, voice mail, real-time phone calls and regular mail. It’s doesn’t take long for incoming data to constantly demand your attention and drain your day. Good workplace habits come from working smart and with control.
  • Unproductive meetings – Peter Drucker said, “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better.” Many would think the concept of a useful or productive meeting to be something of an oxymoron. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for an organization to function without having meetings.
  • Waiting – As much as you would like to avoid it, there’s no getting away from having to wait. You wait on hold on the telephone, wait for meetings and appointments, wait for hockey practice to end, a spouse to finish work, and wait and wait and wait. Waiting can eat up a fair portion of your time.

So, how do we control factors that seem out of our control?

Unwanted Visitors

  • Be the visitor. If you have to speak with someone, go to their office. That way, you can control the length of the visit. When your done, excuse yourself and leave.
  • Turn away from the door. If your work space is arranged so that you sit with your back to the door, visitors can see that you are working and they might be less likely to disturb you.
  • Close the door. If you have a door. This isn’t workable in a cube farm. In that case, you might have to resort to the Les Nessman solution.
  • Stand up for visitors. If a visitor comes into your office, stand up to greet them and don’t invite them to sit down. This will often shorten the length of their visit.
  • Tell them politely. If you’re busy at the moment, ask them to come back. Set a specific appointment time if necessary.

Incoming Communication

  • E-mail
    • Use the two-minute rule to process your e-mail. If it takes less than two minutes to answer a message, do it then file or delete the message.
    • Use folders to organize messages.
    • IMMEDIATELY delete any messages you do not need to keep.
    • Use follow-up flags or dated calendar alarms to bring forward e-mail when it needs attention.
  • Voice Mail
    • Review your voice messages, take notes and delete them.
    • Respond to those that fit the two-minute rule.
    • Schedule the others for follow-up, as appropriate.
  • Postal mail
    • Open your post once a day.
    • Toss the junk or the unneeded paper into the bin.
    • Use the two-minute rule.
    • File those that are just for information. Delegate what you can. Place in rest in a follow-up system so that it comes to your attention when you need it and not before.

Unproductive Meetings

Five ways to optimize meetings:

  1. Make sure the meeting is necessary.
  2. Make sure you need to attend.
  3. Work from an agenda.
  4. Stick to the start time.
  5. Have measurable outcomes.

Waiting

Good time management puts waiting time to use. Whether at the office, out and about, or at home, here are seven ways to make use of waiting time:

  1. Work your lists: Check your to-do lists, your shopping lists or other reminders; add, subtract or rearrange, as necessary.
  2. Work your calendar: If you’re not on the phone, set-up, confirm or reschedule items on your calendar.
  3. Sort mail: E-mail, paper mail —whether at work or at home— can be organized while on the phone or watching T.V.
  4. Personal/professional development: Read an industry journal or a school assignment. Carry a media player and listen to speakers, trainers or podcasts.
  5. Use the phone: If you’re not waiting on the phone, use the time to make or return calls.
  6. Work on hobbies: Carry needlework with you. If you draw, carry a sketch book. Carry a digital camera and snap off a few pictures.
  7. Structured relaxing: It doesn’t have to be all about efficiency; read a book, solve a crossword puzzle, or play a game on your PDA.

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How to Stop Wasting Time – Internal Factors

There are many behaviours and practices that get in the way of our productivity. These time-wasters fall into two types: internal, those things we generate and external, those things that come at us from outside. Both types can be controlled.

There are four behaviours/practices leading to wasted time:

  • Disorganization – How much stuff do you have sitting on your desk or in your work area? A few years ago, Coopers & Lybrand (now Price Waterhouse Coopers) released data from a poll on personal organization. One statistic found, “The average desk worker has 36 hours worth of work on their desk and wastes up to 3 hours a week just “looking” for STUFF!” Finding stuff on my messy desk bears out that statistic. Being disorganized is responsible for a lot of wasted time.
  • Procrastination – We all put things off. We hope to avoid tasks that are boring, difficult, unpleasant, etc. When faced with something we don’t want to do, we can find a dozen tasks of no consequence to fill our time. We secretly hope that, by procrastinating, the unpleasant task will shrink and go away. Unfortunately, the reverse is often true; the deferred job just gets bigger and more difficult
  • Inability to say no – There are periods when the demands on our time exceed our ability to handle them. Learning to say “No” is a critical –yet difficult– skill needing to be mastered. Taking on more than you can manage only leads to frustration as nothing gets done very well.
  • A poor attitude – Your attitude represents how you feel about something. Many features of working in an organization can cause you to have a poor attitude about your job and employer. Perhaps you have a poor attitude as your way of life.  If you feel poorly about yourself, it will affect your attitude about work.

How can we overcome these behaviours?

Get Organized

Evaluate your work area. Is it organized efficiently to minimize effort? Can material and movement flow freely? Have you optimized the placement of your tools and supplies?

Focus on your desk. Is your workspace cluttered? How much time do you waste looking for things you know are there but can’t find? When was the last time you used items on your desk? Perhaps it is time for some housecleaning.

“A place for everything and everything in its place.” Make sure you filing system reflects this axiom.

Organize your work style. Complete your tasks. Don’t jump from one thing to another. Don’t multi-task. Assess the priority of interruptions before pursuing. If you can’t avoid the interruption, return the the task you were working on as soon as possible.

Stop Procrastinating

Overcoming procrastination requires strategy. The next time you’re tempted to put off something you don’t want to do, try some of these tips:

  • Set a deadline – a task without a deadline can be put off indefinitely. Set a date and stick to it.
  • Set up a reward system – make it commensurate with the task. An afternoon cleaning out the garage is worth dinner out, while a 14 month software roll-out might warrant a tropical vacation.
  • Arrange for a follow-up – assign someone to be a “nag-buddy”. Give them permission to check in periodically to make sure you’re staying on track.
  • Do it first – tackle difficult jobs early in the day, when you have the most energy.
  • Break the task into small pieces – if the whole seems too big to tackle, break it into manageable sub-tasks.
  • Do it now – don’t put if off any longer. Sometimes you just have to jump in and get it done.

Just Say No!

Ken Blanchard offers three steps to saying no:

  1. Know what your goals and priorities are.
  2. Be realistic about the consequences of doing one more thing.
  3. Offer alternatives and solutions

Improve Your Attitude

If your care-less attitude is in the way of accomplishing what you need to do:

  • Look for creative ways to make your current tasks more interesting.
  • See if it is possible to trade or share tasks with a coworker.
  • Ask for more challenging responsibilities.
  • Schedule your work to best manage routine or tedious tasks.
  • Worse case: look for a new job.

RecommendedThe Zen Habits Handbook for Life!

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