Report on “Promoting workplace wellbeing – Handling Information Overload”, the talk given by Tom Heron, 24 and 25 October 2011.
The Business Matters Trust is very grateful to McGrigors for hosting the 24 October talk and providing a buffet lunch and to the City Chambers for hosting the 25 October repeat of the talk and providing refreshments.
Iain Archibald welcomed guests to this third in a series of lunchtime talks under the umbrella title “Promoting workplace wellbeing”. He introduced Tom Heron, Director of Priority Management, Scotland. Being the IT expert and management trainer that Tom is, he angled in on how to deal with the large amount of information that comes into our inboxes. He shed a lot of light in a short lunch-hour.
Tom supplied a PowerPoint and also a sheet called Creating a Communications Charter. You can also hear a 38 minute recording of Tom’s talk. All are available using the icons at the foot of the page.
“Anyone know who James Hargreaves was?” he began, and with that he immediately got my attention because my first career was in textiles. Sharp Carole Reid of Baker Tilly knew the answer: “The inventor of the spinning Jenny.” That machine, said Tom, was an example of “a disruptive technology”, an invention which radically changes a whole economy. Well, in our time a certain Ted Hoff of Intel can be said to have kick-started another disruptive technology. Exactly 40 years ago he integrated a lot of functionality and power onto one piece of silicon, one chip – the first microprocessor. Today we see amazing resulting phenomena – the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter. A disruptive technology heralds a new era. It also puts a lot of people out of work. Seen another way: it also multiplies work possibilities, creating whole new industries. So, in the late 1700s one operative could supervise 120 spinning Jenny’s, and one manager 40 years after Ted Hoff… well, what can he or she do with IT? In one sense, the sky’s the limit. There are new opportunities and capabilities. There are also challenges and complications. We are still coming to terms with these.
Tom then told us about Moore’s Law: in a semi-conductor device you can double the number of transistors on the same die every 18 months. Memory has become cheaper and cheaper. 5GB of data in 1980 cost $1m ($200,000 per GB). Now memory is almost free. Result: we value it less and spread around information all too easily, and much of it is of questionable value.
So, moving from 1971 to 2011, here’s the problem: corporate culture is playing a game of catch-up and organisations have done relatively little to help us adapt our habits and behaviours to the new technology; and secondly, personal effectiveness and productivity have by no means yet been assured.
Research tells us that the average UK employee is using email for 2 hours a day, but that half that time spent on email is wasted. Tom calculates that means a 1000 strong organisation with each employee earning the UK average salary of £24K is wasting half of £6m per annum, i.e. wasting £750K per quarter/£250K per month. Astonishing sums. What does the wasted time look like? People often read the same email several times. They also spend quite a bit of time looking for “lost” emails. It is common for people to dip in and out of email, an inefficient use of time.
What gets in the way of personal effectiveness and productivity? The above poor practices, but also: the sheer volume of incoming emails – not to mention drop-in visitors, phone calls etc. Just think: 20 years ago a manager was receiving 10 memos a day and had a day to reply to each. Now they may be receiving 100 emails and be expected to reply to most within a couple of hours.
Tom’s key message 1 is: in the midst of this availability of information we have forgotten how to FOCUS, PRIORITISE and ORGANISE.
We suffer from “continuous partial attention”, also from giving ourselves to small, easy tasks ahead of dealing with the big matters we are supposed to work our way through. You only have to think of the ways many of us handle the flow of incoming emails. Focus is key. However, if you wanted to disrupt our propensity to focus, you could hardly design a better tool than email, especially on a PC that has been set to ping or throw a pop-up every time an email comes in (more on this below).
Tom referred to the 80-20 rule: 20% of our activities produce 80% of the valued results. We need to focus on that 20%. Within that, we have to prioritise, i.e. choose to do the things we’re supposed to do, and say “no” more often.
Revisit your job description with its responsibilities, goals and targets. Allow it to shape afresh how you focus and how you prioritise. Then: organise.
Most of us use Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes. These have four functions: Calendar, Email, Tasks and Contacts. But how well do we use these? Are we using them in an integrated way? Who uses Tasks for more than just keeping a list of to-dos? The Tasks function is designed to be much more – an integration of Calendar and Email.
Tom’s key message 2 is: use Tasks to get control of Email. Here’s how (in Outlook):
- highlight the email in question
- right click
- drag it to the Tasks folder and drop it in there
- copy or move as a task with an attachment
- your PC will automatically allow the heading of your email to become the name of your task
- now use the task box to give a date when you will action this erstwhile email, now changed into a task
- save and close
- idea: after the subject name and in brackets put the amount of time you think the task should take
- now to reassure yourself: in your Calendar go to the day on which you have scheduled to do the task and there under the column for that day you will see the very task you have posted yourself to accomplish (Outlook 2007 or 2010)
- a bonus: wonderfully, on that new day you can reply to the original email from within Tasks.
All that to say: manage your work in terms of tasks and no longer in terms of juggling lots of different emails and replying to these in an all too often haphazard way.
Tom’s key message 3: only check your emails 2 to 4 times a day. This will free you up to focus on your major activities / pieces of work, giving them your undivided attention, e.g. in some cases for a full hour. Don’t dip in and out of your inbox. But when it’s time to check your emails: yes, focus on that job 100%.
Tom’s key message 4: ask yourself if sending an email or emailing someone back is the best option. Sometimes it can be more effective to pick up the phone, especially if the issue is sensitive or urgent.
Tom’s key message 5: think before you cc someone. Don’t do this indiscriminately.
Tom’s key message 6: apply the 4 Ds. When you see a new email:
- delete, or
- delegate, or
- do it now, or
- decide when to do it and transform it into a task
So if you get 10 emails and process them like that, how many emails will be left in your inbox? Nil.
Finally, Tom’s key message 7: turn off the bells and whistles (pings/pop-ups).
- Email Options
- Advanced Email Options
- Uncheck: When new items arrive in my inbox…(all 4 options)
Tom suggested we get rid of task reminders too:
- Task Options
- Uncheck: Set reminders……
He ended by giving us a great quote from Sir John Harvey-Jones, one time boss of ICI: referring to Plan B: “The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise and is not preceded by a period of worry and depression.”
1 What is your advice for the first day we’re back from holiday and have 400 emails in our inbox?
Answer: your top priority task for that day is to work through the 400 as per the above 4 Ds. A further idea: set your out of office to a day after your first day back.
2 What do you do with the person who rings you for an answer half an hour after sending you an email?
Answer: help change your corporate culture by courteously saying that your next time for checking your emails is going to be (-) and you’ll deal with their email then.
A lot of people left the talks with their memories refreshed as to what good and bad practice is, new methods for their own way of working and valuable suggestions for colleagues. Some even had the lights come on as to how they would finally be able to get on top of their emails!
Iain Archibald for business matters