I realize that there are entire shelves worth of books on this subject, but enough people have asked me about my approach to juggling all of the email, meetings, and various deliverables at Microsoft that I figured I would add my 2 cents to the corpus in hopes that maybe it might provide one extra nugget to someone. As surprising as it may seem (it does to me much of the time), I also have a life outside of Microsoft that is pretty hectic in its own right, including training content authoring, independent consulting, church commitments, and most importantly, my wife and 3 daughters. With all of those metaphorical balls constantly in motion, I’ve had to develop some skills over the last few years in order to get things accomplished and simultaneously maintain sanity.
When I first joined Microsoft, a little over 7 years ago, I was warned by my manager at the time that I needed to develop a really solid strategy for dealing with the constant email barage or I would waste away spending every waking hour processing email. I had no clue just how on target that advice was. It seems fashionable these days to rip on email as some sort of guaranteed productivity killer. However, in my experience, the problem surrounding email has less to do with its presence or even its volume, but more to do with my consumption habits around it. Let me try putting it in more concrete terms: on the continuum of communication strategies, email is an async strategy for communicating relatively fine-grained bits of information. On the ends of the continuum, there are other strategies such as multi-page memos and vision documents on one end and IMs, phone, and open office layouts on the other.
So email’s strength is when it is used as intended - as an async method for communicating relatively fine grained bits of information. Where email becomes the blood-sucking leech that we all know and hate is when we use it for synchronous communication or for communicating extremely fine grained bits of data (e.g. IM-sized) or coarse-grained bits of data (e.g. document-sized).
For keeping myself from becoming controlled by an endless barage of email, I’ve implemented the following strategies.
Send the kind of emails that you would want to receive
You’ve problaby heard it said that you teach people how to treat you. The same is true with email - you teach people how to email you by the way that you email other people. If you send your stream of consciousness in a series of Twitter-sized emails, guess what? You may find yourself continually drowning in a sea of short, unfocused emails yourself. The worst part about emails like this (for either you or the person on the receiving end of your keyboard) is that as the receiver, it’s difficult to exit the email thread, as you’re never quite sure whether it has reached a conclusion. The converse is also true: if you send out novels in the form of email, you’ll likely start noticing an increase in the length of emails that people send to you. So start out by teaching people to use email well by using it well yourself.
Develop a triage process that you can get through in a finite period of time
I first learned about having a triage process for email several years ago in one of those office productivity books. While I’ve modified some of the tactics in my own life, the overall principle is solid. You should block out some time each day to go through your “collection points” (email is one of the largest for me) and triage all of the new incoming items. If you’re a software developer, triage should be something that you’re already intimately familiar with. If not, my process looks something like this. For each email, do one of the following:
- Respond to it immediately if this can be done in less than 10 minutes
- Create a task from the email
- Delete the email
Periodically, there’s a fourth item, which is to save the email for reference at a later time. However, to be honest, I find that the number of times I have dug through my reference folder has gotten smaller and smaller the longer that I’ve been following this type of workflow - and I suspect that the reason is that I don’t let tasks stay open long enough to become or require reference. If something truly is evergreen reference, consider turning the material into a document, either as a full Word document on disk, or in a program such as OneNote or Evernote.
Doing a daily triage process enables you to have a clear understanding on what requires action and what is noise. And as you get really good at it, you may also find that you end up with the coveted “Zero Inbox”.
This is really, really, really important. If you can’t close Outlook, it will ring it’s Pavlovian bell at you ever time a new piece of dust lands (which at my house seems to be often). I know that you can configure Outlook to not show alerts or play sounds. However, for me, this actually makes things worse in that I would suspect that there were new messages, but without knowing for sure, I would find myself constantly flipping back and forth to check. Save yourself the trouble and just close the application. If you need your calendar available, just print it off (yes, people still use paper for a few things) or rely on your phone.
In your triage process, you’ll discover many things that require action on your part and will take longer than a few minutes to accomplish. These are things that you need to turn into tasks (or forward to someone else to have them turn it into a task). Many people take advantage of Outlook’s task system. Because the ability to close Outlook is high on my priority list, I don’t like this approach. Instead, I use OneNote pretty heavily. I base my approach off of J.D. Meier’s and though it’s low tech by many standards, it works for me.
I create a new page in OneNote for each week - typically, I create this sheet by duplicating the previous week’s page and deleting the items that I’ve struck through as being completed. The sheet is divided into the following sections (you may not need all of these sections, but these are what work for me):
- Stuff to do - prioritized list of stuff to do this week
- Cut line - stuff that I don’t think I’ll realistically be able to do this week, but that should move up in the subsequent week(s)
- New incoming stuff that comes in after I’ve got the working weekly plan
- Stuff to keep an eye on - these are projects that I’m not working on directly, but am affected by
- “Big Rocks” - these are the larger goals that each of the individual tasks should contribute to in some way. Having these close to tasks is important for not losing sight of what’s really important. This especially important when doing weekly planning.
As tasks are accomplished each week, I cross them off (using strikethrough) so that at the end of the week I can see what I accomplished. Every Monday morning, in addition to processing my email, I block out some time to create the week’s sheet from the previous week’s sheet, delete the crossed through items, and look at all of the tasks, both those that were not completed from the previous week, those below the cut line, and those added to the incoming list. I conflate all 3 of these to one list o’ stuff, prioritize them based on the “Big Rocks”, then draw a new cut line. Tasks that come in after I’ve finished this process generally get added to the incoming list to be processed the following week - though understand that there are always fire drills that can be the exception to this rule. The key here is to not be so rigid about this that it becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. Use what works - don’t use what doesn’t.
On this one, I’m still trying to solve some problems. Well, one really. The biggest challenge I still face with regard to my calendar is that I actually have quite a few calendars that I manage - and they are all using different technologies that don’t necessarily play well together. For example:
- Work calendar - unsurprisingly, hosted by Exchange Server and managed through Outlook, Windows Phone, and OWA
- Family calendar - hosted on gmail and typically managed through the default Apple calendar app on both OSX and iOS. This calendar is managed by both my wife and I and is one of the primary ways that we manage family commitments.
- Personal calendar - hosted on gmail and managed with the Apple calendar app. Actually, the reality is that I can get rid of this one as anything that would go on my personal calendar is better to have on the family calendar anyway.
Like I said, I don’t feel like I’ve really figured out the consolidation piece of managing calendars just yet, so for this post, I’ll focus solely on some strategies I have with my work calendar. If you have any suggestions for consolidation, I would love to hear them.
At Microsoft, one of the biggest enemies of productivity and happiness is the fact that other people can see and drop meetings onto your calendar. The relatively obvious way to combat this is to schedule meetings with yourself in order to provide dedicated focus time. I do this as a part of my weekly planning exercise. Once I’ve decided the scope of work that I’m going to do for the week, I go into my calendar and block out all remaining time on my calendar to be used for actually accomplishing the tasks on the list. To anyone who might carelessly schedule a meeting with me, this tactic will cause them to either a) invite someone else to the meeting, b) move the meeting out by one week, or c) contact me in person to explain the purpose of the meeting and ask if I’m able to accommodate the time slot. I know some people who are even more protective of their calendars - for example, one person I know will decline any meeting invitation that doesn’t have a clear agenda and goals listed in the invitation. I tend to give people a bit more benefit of the doubt in that regard, so long as the meeting fits within my time boundaries, but do what works best for you.
While not directly related to managing the calendar, here’s one other general tactic that I have (painstakingly) adopted. You’ll get better and more focus time if you can carve out work blocks in the morning. There are quite a few studies suggesting that this is when you are biologically operating at your best, but those aside, the reality is that - particularly in the software world - most people don’t roll into the office until at least 9am, if not later. Switching your routine such that you can get in about 7 will mean that you can get a ton of stuff done before the first interruption even has a chance of happening. In my case, I have a side consulting business and I take my daughter to school in the morning. As such, I get up at 5am so that I can work on my consulting projects; I stop working just after 7 so that I can eat breakfast with my family and then take my daughter to school. I drop her off by 8:30 and usually make it into the office around 8:45. Even at 8:45, I’m usually one of the first people from my team in the office. This isn’t to say that people at Microsoft have 6 hour work days - far from it. What it means is that people will come in late and leave even later. And the more people that are in the office, the more potential interruptions that you will have to contend with.
So this turned out to be a much longer post then I was originally envisioning. I hope that in all of my verbosity, I made these strategies come off as more complicated then they are actually are. To summarize, the 30,000 foot view looks like this:
- Triage email aggressively and then close Outlook
- Manage tasks together with the larger goals using a separate document like OneNote
- Block out fixed time daily for email triage and weekly for planning
- Schedule appointments with yourself for getting focus time
- Shift your working hours so that you start the day as early as possible
Again, there are lots of ways that you can manage your life - this is by no means the only or even the best system. I’m constantly re-evaluating and evoloving it. However, at this point in time, these are some stratgies that work for me. I hope they can prove useful for you as well.