Nearly 15 years ago, I found myself with a particular problem at work. I felt like I was not being very productive, so I started closely tracking where my time was going.
I used the emergent task timer from David Seah’s Printable CEO collection as a way to keep track of what I was doing for each 15-minute interval of my day. I had some idea of what I might find, but tracking reality was the best way to find out what was going on.
What did I find?
I was spending most of my time in Outlook. Second place went to Word. This was considerably sub-optimal for a software developer who considered writing code (with Visual Studio) as the primary way to deliver business value. Not much wonder I felt both under-productive and over-stressed.
When I investigated where my time in Outlook was going, I discovered that I was spending the majority of the time in conversation via email, reading and replying to an endless tsunami of emails.
I had developed a habit, with all good intentions, of quickly responding to my immediate colleagues when they emailed me. I did this out of a sense of obligation because I didn’t want them to be blocked waiting for an answer from me. Most of the emails were short and easy to write, so I had not noticed how much time they were taking up.
Over several years, I had inadvertently trained my colleagues to expect quick answers to their emails no matter when they sent them. Whether it was first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon, they’d likely have a response to their question within minutes.
I’d made it easier for them to email me and ask a question than for them to find the answer themselves. This was true even when their inboxes contained the answer because I’d previously answered the exact same question. I was repeating myself quite a lot, answering the same queries over and over again.
In effect, I’d trained some of my colleagues to be lazy.
There was an occasion when we had a production outage that required up a follow-up post mortem. I wrote it up as a comprehensive email that covered all of the issues, detailed a complete timeline, identified many of the causal factors, and listed several actions that we would take to make sure the problem never happened again.
This email triggered an ongoing conversation for the following couple of weeks. One of my colleagues wanted to know more and asked a series of detailed follow up questions to clarify their understanding.
I answered every one of those questions by copy and paste of the relevant fragment from my original email.
Should I have done that? Probably not. I ended up having a rather difficult conversation with my manager, who was somewhat sympathetic to my grievances but not very approving of my actions.
The underlying problem was not really with the way my lazy colleague skipped reading the original email and asked questions that had already been answered, it was this:
I had trained my colleagues that it was faster, easier, and more accurate to ask me the same questions over and over again than to find the answer for themselves.
Time for a change
It was time to change the status quo for the better.
I started reviewing my email three times a day. First thing in the morning I’d triage my emails and answer anything urgent that had come in overnight. After lunch, I’d clear my inbox completely (aiming for inbox-zero, but with a timebox to limit how long I spent on email), and finally a quick review of messages at the end of the day in case any needed a quick response before I left.
Most of the people on my team adjusted quickly to my new practice, but there were a few who took several months to adapt, finding it frustrating that they no longer got a quick response to random questions at any time of the day.
The real benefit from my perspective, however, was that I got to spend much more of my time delivering business value by writing code, instead of spending my time in brief conversations it via email.
Being deliberate and introspective on my email habits lead to some useful lessons.
Busy people don’t read long emails
People who are extremely busy (and those who want to look as though they are busy) will seldom read more than the very first sentence or two of an email message. Sometimes they only read the subject line. It’s therefore vital to make sure both that your subject is accurate and that you get to the point very quickly in your message. I’ve found five.sentec.es a useful website in this regard.
Email is a really bad way to have a conversation
Conversations in email seldom get anything useful done. They are typically protracted and seldom come to any actual decision. Often, a response will address only one or two of the things that have come up so far, with other issues being dropped. It’s also common for email threads to go around in cycles, relitigating things already discussed. All this simply because busy people don’t read long emails.
Email is a good way to make a record of a conversation
It’s a far better idea to actually have a conversation, to actually talk to your colleagues. This might be in real life, or perhaps via a Teams (Skype? Zoom?) call. We’re well-adapted as a species for face to face communication. Afterwards, capture a summary of the discussion and share it with interested parties by email. Explicitly call out any decisions made and any actions required as follow up.
Subject lines are important
We all have a limited amount of attention - and with an email, you are asking the recipient to spend some of that attention on you. Making your subject line concise and engaging is a good way to gain that attention - and poor subject lines a good way to encourage them to skip to the next message. Which of these subject lines is more likely to grab your attention?
- RE: CCW2020
- Would you sponsor Code Camp Wellington 2020 in October?
It’s easy to spend far too much of your time moving email messages around instead of creating business value. Being deliberate and introspective about your use of email can, for most people, free up significant time to work on other things. By doing this, I gained back control of my time and was able to deliver on my commitments.