Reclaiming Monday Mornings

I’m a big believer in weekends.

Rest, recovery and unplugging allow us to clear our minds of the dross and stress of the previous week. If we truly let ourselves recharge, we find ourselves with both more energy and creativity on Monday mornings.

However, work still happens on the weekend: emails still arrive, questions need to be answered, calendars get shifted around, Slack channels come alive.

It’s tempting to wake up Monday morning and see this influx as a weedy undergrowth that needs to be hacked away immediately. With this mentality, we choose to start our Monday morning with a few hours of routine, mindless tasks.

A great trade is to find just one hour over the weekend for simple, menial work: delete spam and respond to spam-like work messages; check over to do lists for the week and add/delete items; look at and adjust calendars. These tasks carry a light mental load and ticking them off lets us start the week calmer and more grounded because we are on our front foot.

Then, the payoff: use the first two hours of Monday morning for something creative, important, scary, or fun. Maybe it’s a project you’ve been putting off, or it’s one you’ve not yet discovered. Perhaps its lying hidden on a blank sheet of paper, waiting for you to find it.

This small, stolen hour of catch-up work can recast Monday mornings: instead of “here we go again” we start the week with “finally, a few precious hours to do important work before I get sucked into the week.”

LIFO, FIFO, or NIFO?

There are lots of different email strategies out there (and it’s quite a reflection on the world we live in that mastering email is a key element in becoming more professionally productive).  You might file or search; you might believe in an empty Inbox or not; you might leave your email on all day or disconnect your email program for part of the day.

(I happen to be: search not file; no empty inbox; on all day.  You?)

The big question is, what exactly do you DO when you open up your Inbox?

The FIFO philosophy (first-in, first-out) has you digging from the back…you start with your oldest email and work backwards.  I suspect this is an uncommon strategy for all but the most avid empty-inboxers.

LIFO (last-in, first-out), conversely, has you start with whatever came in most recently.  It’s tempting and rewarding and, I suspect, a terrible strategy most of the time – instant gratification disguising itself as productivity.

I’d propose a NIFO strategy instead: none-in, first out.  That is, you open your email because you have something specific to get done, someone you want to reach out to, a very important action that you want to initiate.

Since you have many very important things to do (customers to call on, projects that you are moving forward, etc.), starting with these, rather than starting with replying to whatever everyone else wants you to do, allows you to own your agenda rather than have your agenda own you; it ensures that when you run out of “email time” (as you inevitably will) that the things that are left off the list aren’t the five most important things you have to do; and if you’re disciplined about this you’ll never dive into email just to empty your inbox…you’ll start with actions you want to initiate and then (and only then) will get to “replying all.”

Free Kindle book – save your meetings

A few years ago, I started a depressing Excel spreadsheet to track how many hours a day I was spending in meetings.  It was sobering.  Four, five, sometimes six hours a day.  When was I supposed to do real work?

It seems like an impossible problem to solve, but there may be a way.  Al Pittampalli has a new manifesto on how to save your company by rescuing it from death-by-a-thousand-meetings.  It’s called “Read this before our next meeting: The Modern Meeting Standard.”  You can read it in less than an hour, and it just might turn your company around.

Even better, it’s free for the next five days on Kindle, no strings attached.

Download here.

The first paragraph of the book:

Someone asked me the other day what I do for a living.  I found myself hard-pressed for an answer.  If he wanted to know my job title, or what industry I worked in, then all I had to do was recite what’s on my business card.  But he seemed sincere.  He honestly wanted to know what I do most of the day, so I was honest, too: What I do for a living is attend meetings.  Bad meetings.

Sound familiar?  Download the book for free.

Why are you staring?

Why are you staring all day at your computer?

Is it because you’re working or because you’re trying to figure out what to work on?

They’re not the same thing.

90% or 5%

I recently heard a speaker who suggested, to a roomful of hyper-productive multitaskers, a radical reorientation of how to spend time.  This speaker, a successful investor and investment adviser, doesn’t write emails, doesn’t multi-task, and doesn’t have a Pavlovian response to a Blackberry’s red blinking light.   Based on his own experience, he suggested that successful decisions come when we create space for deep contemplation and reflection – when we create the time that allows us to we walk around and look at our problems with the curiosity and reflection of a poet who studies a rock, or a beach, or the morning sky.

A lovely idea that is easy to dismiss, to be sure – and many in the audience had just that reaction.  One person went so far as to give an impassioned argument in favor of the efficiency of multi-tasking (while conceding that he agrees with Clifford Nass’ research showing that multi-tasking doesn’t work).

Why are we all so defensive?  Perhaps because we kid ourselves into think that we’re almost getting done 100% of what we need to get done.  We’re super-busy, but, we tell ourselves, we’re probably completing 90% of what we absolutely must get done, and the other 10% probably isn’t all that important anyway, right?  And if we’re getting 90% done, then cutting out half of our meetings or not responding to half our emails sounds impossible.  It feels like a move from 90% to 60%.  Imagine the impact!

But I wonder if the 90% is an illusion.  What if I’m doing 15% of what I could do, or even 5%?  What if I’m nowhere near doing everything I could do that would be productive, because “everything” has gotten so big that I’m never anywhere but the tip of the iceberg.

If I’m only doing 5% of what I “could” do, then a radical shift becomes easier.  By acknowledging that I’m the one deciding how I spend the time, and by recognizing that my criteria might be really good or really bad, I just might create the space for that radical reorientation.

Am I ready to make a big change?  Not yet.  But I do think that doing away with the notion that I’m doing “almost everything” will allow more space for doing what I really need to do.

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An email tax

It’s pretty well-established that we have an email free rider problem.  Since there’s essentially no marginal cost for each additional person I email….voilà, SPAM represents more than 90% of all email sent.

But what about inside your organization?  I suspect you have a lot of email threads involving a back-and-forth conversation with 8 people copied.

What if you had to do the math?  30 seconds to read an email, another 30 to think about it and maybe respond x 8 people = 8 minutes of organizational time spent.

On average the people copied on your email earn $0.50 – $1.00 per minute (some more, some less, but let’s keep the math simple…and never mind that everyone’s supposed to be producing much more than they cost the company).  So each time you Reply All, even if just to say, “Thanks, Cary,” or “This will be great!” it’s cost the organization $8.  That doesn’t sound too terrible until you figure 50-150 emails/day/person in your organization…thousands and thousands of dollars per person per year because we’re lazily copying people.

Plus all the time people spend wading through emails instead of thinking.

Some ideas:

  1. Disable the “Reply All” button for emails
  2. Or if that’s too technical to implement, create norms that makes replying all unacceptable
  3. When a chain gets going, after the second note it’s someone’s job to write the group and say, “We’re taking this offline, I’ll update everyone on where we ended up.”
  4. Reply All and type “Remove me”.  Short term this increases email traffic, but pretty soon people will start thinking twice.
  5. Create an email tax: charge people $0.25 for each reply all, with a 3x match by the company ($1 total per Reply All).  Give the money away to a charity, and have a “Reply All” volunteer day to boot.  Everyone wins.
  6. Pick up the phone instead.

There are some conversations that whole groups need to follow by email, but not nearly as many as we think.  Make it cost something to send to everyone, and you’ll have more time left to do…just about anything.

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How busy should you be (the 125% rule)?

Whatever amount of time you set aside for work, you don’t want to be 100% busy.  You don’t want just enough work so you can get it done in the time you’ve set aside.  You want more.

How much more?  Lately I think the right amount is around 125% – that is, having 25% more work to do than you could really get done.

If you handle this in the right way, it forces you to work both smarter and faster: smarter comes from being forced to triage and put the most important things at the top.  Faster comes from learning to spend the right amount of time on things, which means less time for things that are less important (without throwing quality out the window).  Faster also comes from learning to say ‘no’ politely to things that you should say ‘no’ to (e.g. meetings you don’t need to attend); and smarter comes from making time for new things that could be great, knowing that something will be sacrificed in the meantime.

There’s a limit, of course.  200% busy is a disaster…it means the end of your personal time and your sanity, and it’s completely unsustainable.  I started my career as a management consultant with a 200% job.  I learned a ton, but I was always exhausted, I essentially sacrificed my personal life, and I never could have kept that up for the decades it takes to build a career.  And 25% is mind-numbingly boring (it’s possible – I actually had a job that devolved into this), not to mention you’ll never produce enough to get anywhere professionally.

So if you’re at 100% and have been asked to do more, take advantage. Don’t be afraid to work hard. And if you haven’t been asked to do more, find somewhere to jump in and do more.

What does 125% feel like?  It feels like (usually) controlled chaos…”usually” because there are always ebbs and flows, so if you’re normally at 125% you’ll have some 150% peaks that are very hard to manage.  125% is a little overwhelming, but it’s also exciting.  You’re stretched, you’re pushed, you’re learning.   And you’ll discover that you can get a lot more done than you thought possible.

(Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, this is part of the reason that having a job you hate makes it very hard to be very successful.  Success comes from a lot of things, but hard work is part of the answer.  Think about how painful it is to work really hard for 10, 20, or 30 years at something you basically dislike or don’t care much about.)