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Reclaiming My Attention – Part 2

I have always been a productivity nerd. When I was in junior high, my father would buy books on cassette by authors such as Stephen Covey to listen to on his daily commute and, at some point, I started listening to them as well. I had a Franklin Day Planner in high school. And as I’ve pointed out before, I have long been a practitioner of David Allen’s GTD.

So when Cal Newport’s new book project was announced, I immediately pre-ordered the book. Newport’s approach to productivity is one evolutionary step beyond Covey and Allen. It’s less about how much you get done or how you prioritize your tasks, and more about how you create the space and attention for doing your work.

As the title of his book implies, email is the villain of the work (or our work). It’s important to point out here the somewhat click-baity title. It’s not just email, it’s also Slack, Teams, IMs, text messages, meeting requests, and all the various unstructured, unsolicited communications that come our way at breakneck speeds every day.

The hyperactive hive mind and distraction

To understand why email et al. is so detrimental, Newport asks that we accept two premises: (1) that context/attention switching hurts productivity and creativity; and (2) that the “hyperactive hive mind” is the default mode of internal communication for most workplaces today (though, as he shows later, it is neither inevitable nor the best way to work).

The hyperactive hive mind, another key character in the narrative, is defined as “a workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services” (xvii). You need an answer to something? Send that person an email. You need an update on the status of a project? Send a Slack message. Need to schedule a meeting? Send several back and forth emails. Unstructured, unsolicited, unplanned.

The problems with this mode of operating are numerous, as Newport spends much of the first half of the book detailing. For one, it produces anxiety: frequent context switching between tasks, emails, and IMs never allows the brain to fully feel as if a project is completed. There is a mental residue that lingers every time you switch from a project, to an email request, back to a project, to a meeting invite, and so on.

Conversely, long stretches of focused, uninterrupted work allow you to mentally “move on” from one project and make it easier for you to give your full attention to the next. The ability for anyone to email you at any time, regardless of how full your plate may already be or the amount of attention you have available to give makes it impossible to properly focus on doing the work you’ve been hired to do.

This frenetic approach to professional collaboration generates messages faster than you can keep up […] and while you’re at home at night, or over the weekend, or on vacation, you cannot escape the awareness that the missives in your inbox are piling ever thicker in your absence. (p. 43)

With longer stretches of attention, projects will be completed faster and more creatively.

Email/IM is too easy and too frictionless, leading to increased work that would not be necessary with more intentional, careful project management. Asynchronous communication is not more efficient, and it does not scale up against either human biology or the fact that time actually exists (and is not infinite!). We shouldn’t be trying to do things faster, we should be trying to do them better.

Our lack of pre-defined processes for how we do our work, what Newport calls “just rocking and rolling with email,” is not nimbleness: it’s just laziness on the part of managers, directors, and organizational leaders. (Note: As others have pointed out, in most cases, burnout is more likely to be a symptom of failed organizational leadership and not an individual’s inability to manage their work.)

A key takeaway from Newport’s book is understanding the difference between workflow and work execution. Talking about work (which is what usually happens over email and IMs) is not work. We need to create processes that reduce context-switching and the need for constant asynchronous back and forth communications. A project management approach to daily processes would allow us to spend less time talking about creating something, and actually creating something.

“If you design workflows that allow knowledge workers to spend most of their time focusing without distraction on the activities for which they’re trained, you’ll produce more total value that if you instead require these same workers to diffuse their attention among many different activities.” (p. 226)

I’ve only touched on a fraction of Newport’s recommendations and the ones that were most salient for me. I highly recommend checking it out or purchasing a copy for yourself.

Illustration of two women sweeping letters
So that’s where I put those emails…

New practices to try out

I can’t change how others work outside of my own team, but I can change how I process their expectations of how I should work. And perhaps, in doing so, I can encourage others to adopt similar practices. So here are a few practices detailed in Newport’s book that I would like to try and implement.

Office Hours: This is the most radical of the ideas presented that I feel I could adopt. One of the arguments against reducing a team’s reliance on email is “But how will I get your attention when I need you!?” One solution is to set up open office hours: a standing, weekly time when you make yourself available in-person or virtually for drop-in conversation. This is already a common practice in academia so the idea wouldn’t be seen as too far beyond the pale.

I think I could probably set this up 3-4 hours per week. “But, what if I need your input on something and you don’t have office hours until tomorrow!?” Well, then you wait until tomorrow. As Newport points out, greater efficiency comes with a little overhead and inconvenience in the short term, but pays dividends in the long run.

Canned Messages: “Hi X, I would love to hear more about this idea. I have “open office” hours every day from 2-3p. During that time, feel free to drop-in via Teams (DM, phone or video) and we can talk in more detail. Or, if you would rather schedule a meeting (so I can give you my undivided attention!), here is my availability [link to bookings site]. Use the form and book the time that works for you.”

In addition to this simple message, I want to review my inbox for frequent requests that could be converted to forms that collect all the information I need and allow me to more productively use my time, as well as my colleagues. For example: “Thanks for contacting me! My team meets weekly to discuss potential new ideas and programs. Fill out this form and I will add your idea to an upcoming meeting agenda. You’ll be contacted within 2-3 business days about when we plan to discuss your idea. You’ll then be notified before the end of that week about next steps.”

As Newport points out, even though this is a slower response than what might happen if the conversation about the proposed idea happened over email, it sets up a timeline with clear expectations and outcomes. No one has to continuously check their inbox waiting for a response. It’s a scaleable solution regardless of whether I receive one new proposal a week or twenty.

Planning Boards: I didn’t need to be sold on this one. I’ve been using Trello for over 5 years. My team uses Microsoft Planner since our place of work lives in the Office ecosystem. It’s not as versatile or flexible, but even as a “poor man’s Trello,” it has dramatically reduced the amount of email and messaging my team needs to do.

Need an update on where we are in a project timeline? Look at the Planner board. Need to add a link to a project file so we don’t forget it? Add it to a Planner card. Need to assign a task? Add it to the board. Once a week, my team meets to review the board and see where things are at. Almost no email or IM necessary.

Blocking Off Lunch: I’m bad about this, so I’m going to block this time off. Time zones and health restrictions permitting, no one should have to sacrifice lunch for a meeting. As I’ve said before: a working lunch is neither working nor lunch.

Service Quotas: Like many in academia, I spread myself too thin, especially with regard to service work. One way to counter this is to set up (in consultation with your director or department chair) a quota. Ask your director: how much of my time should I be setting aside for service work? Once you both find a number you agree on, you have your quota. This gives you leverage to say no to new projects without the guilt.

For example, I currently chair three committees and serve on six others. If I am consistent in keeping my service load to 10% of my workload, that allows up to 4 hours per week, about 200 hours per year. With this in mind, it’s relatively easy to determine my bandwidth based on meeting frequency and expected workload. My current committees’ meeting schedules amount to 106 hours this year, meaning for every meeting I attend, I can contribute no more than 1 hour of additional work. Any additional service projects will deplete that admittedly small inventory. The same quota system could be applied to other areas as well: research projects, mentorship, speaking gigs, time spent managing vs. creating, etc.

Email and instant messaging aren’t bad and I’m not under any illusion that they will disappear completely from our lives (although, if there is a library or university out there willing do that, please call me). Yet, we need to regulate all this unstructured communications to smaller portions of our attention. As knowledge workers, our greatest skill is what we can make when we give something our full attention. How much latent creativity is being suppressed by the constant ping of our notifications? If Newport’s conjecture is right, our current hyperactive hive mind workflow is simply a phase. I for one am looking forward to the next step.

(Image citation: Okumura Masanobu, Sleeve-Letter Takasago (Sodefumi Takasago), no. 2 from a series of 12 prints depicting parodies of plays, 1711–1740, Clarence Buckingham Collection.)

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Another post about email, but this time with recommendations

Introduction

As the head of outreach for an academic library, I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to communicate with other people. Most of my job involves bringing people together, managing projects that involve multiple units, and keeping the right people in the loop at the right times.

Determining the best method of communication is worth a little extra time and hand-wringing: do these people respond well to meeting invites? does this person prefer a phone call? when is the best time to reach them? do they typically reply to email quickly or slowly?

Like most modern offices, email is the predominant form of communication in my place of work. I’ve come to dislike email more and more over the years but I’ve also spent considerable time developing a very particular style of emailing that, for me, tends to produce the best results.

I created the following best practices document for my team. I hope you find it useful as well. A list of sources for many of these ideas is at the end.

Email tip #1: Lead with your ask 

Determine what action you want the recipient to perform or what piece of information you want them to provide. That request should appear within in the first three sentences (and end with a line break). For example:

Thank you for meeting with me today to review the draft of our event poster. Can you confirm by Friday if we are OK to print?  

Email tip #2: Keep it short 

The shorter your email the more likely it is that someone will respond. If you need to include a lot of information, consider creating an “appendix”. For example: 

Thank you for meeting with me today. Here is the draft of the document we discussed (below). Can you confirm by Friday if this is Ok to print? 

Email tip #3: Use formatting to highlight the most important info  

Recognize that many people will be powering through their email as quickly as possible. The easier you can make it for them to scan your email, the better. Use bold, bulleted text (lots of bullets), hyperlinks (for additional info), frequent paragraph breaks, and headers to make it easier for your reader to identify the most important information.  

Email tip #4: Use clear subject lines  

Cryptic or unclear subject lines cause more anxiety and confusion than interest. A good subject line summarizes your email so the recipient knows the gist of the content before it’s even opened. Is your email an invitation? An ask? Just an FYI or “for your records” type of email? I prefer to always lead with context and end with an action or ask. For example:  

  • Common Book: Selecting our shortlist nominations – deadline March 1 
  • For Tom Jarvis: An invitation to be a 2020-21 Faculty Pub Night Speaker 
  • LNAP 2020: Where are we on the donations from housing? 
  • FYI. Lali has approved the following events. No action needed. 

Using unique phrases, dates, and proper names also makes it easier to find later. 

Email tip #5: Don’t make your recipient do the work 

Give your recipient clear outcomes or expectations about how you want them to respond to your email. You might even consider giving them a list of options. For example:  

Hi Matt, 

I’m so glad you’re on board with being a participant in our workshop next week. I need to finalize the catering so can you please let me know which of the following options you prefer?  

A) Light fare and tea 
B) Coffee and dessert 
C) Champagne and cake 

You should also offer a “default” option in case they don’t respond, e.g. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll go with Option A.

Email tip #6: Be thankful of their time and attention 

This probably goes without saying, but always recognize that email sucks our attention away from more impactful work and thank people for taking the time to consider your request. 

Email tip #7: Move people to BCC when they need to be dropped from the chain 

If someone is on the CC line and they no longer need to be on the message, move them to the BCC line and note that you’re doing it in the email. For example: 

Since Javier and I have this covered moving forward, I’m going to drop James into the BCC line (thanks James!) … 

Email tip #8: Edit ruthlessly 

If you can cut anything, cut it. If you can make it shorter, make it shorter. Realize that many people will hastily read your email or possibly read it on a mobile device (30% and growing at mpow).

Email tip #9: Tell people what you plan to do next 

Always let people know what your next action will be once they respond to your message. For example: 

Tom, can you confirm that this class is coming to our event tomorrow? Once you confirm, I’ll let our event planner know so we can reserve their seats. 

It’s also good to let people know when you will follow up. It puts pressure on them to respond sooner. For example: 

Tom, can you let me know what the next steps will be re: the website migration? I understand you’re busy with other projects, so I’ll follow up with a phone call in a week if I don’t hear from you. 

Other things to note 

Email is not chat (Pick up the phone or use chat) 

If you have more than one ask, if you expect your email to generate a lot of replies back and forth, if your ask is time-sensitive, or if you have an ask that is sensitive or complicated, consider using the phone instead. If it’s simple enough, use chat. If you have anxieties about calling someone, ask yourself: What anxieties do I have about this ask? The answer might be revealing. (Note: that same question can be asked whenever you hesitate about sending an email… the answer can help you clarify your ask) 

Email supports our work, but email is not work.  

If you’re spending most of your time emailing people, you’re probably not focusing on the right things. (This may not be true for all work in higher ed, but most of it). You might also be unnecessarily making more work for other people rather than doing the work yourself. Most of all, emailing doesn’t count/matter until you’ve closed the loop on the issue. 

Avoid emailing after hours. 

This one is tricky because not everyone works the same hours. For sure, don’t email after hours and expect a response. If I do find myself writing email outside normal business hours, I usually save them as drafts and send them during the next business day. There is some evidence to show that emails sent late morning are the ones most likely to get a response (because by then people have had a change to clean out their inboxes). More importantly though, emailing after hours sets up unhealthy expectations within your team and with your colleagues.

Recommended Readings

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The opportunity to breathe

“The right to disconnect isn’t necessarily an obligation … but it’s an opportunity — to claim a little breathing room; to realize that the world won’t stop turning, or even producing words or widgets, without one person’s constant vigilance.”

Source: The French Counterstrike Against Work E-mail – The New Yorker

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I would be perfectly fine with getting rid of email

“Email, as a technology, is not intrinsically bad. But the unstructured workflow it engenders is disastrous. We need to fix it.”

Source: Harvard Business Review

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We’ve been doing it wrong for a long time

Personally, I think email would be a lot better if we treated it like chat: no salutation or sign off (except maybe in the initial email) and definitely no signature. Also, character limits.

Source: You’re Ending Your Emails Wrong, Bloomberg