Reduce Stress & Get More Done By Conquering Time-Wasting Email, Meetings & Busywork!

Why Time Management this month? Well, in preparing my first ever Women’s Marketing Mastermind, I had an epiphany: I can teach sales and marketing till I’m blue in the face, but unless people have the TIME to IMPLEMENT and EXECUTE what they learn, it’s useless.

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Let’s start with the value of your TIME. Skip ahead to the next session if you’d hate math 😉Value of time

There are supposedly (approximately) 40 “work hours” in a week, and about 4 weeks in a month. That’s about 160 work hours/month. Most of us work a lot more than that, but at the end of the day, how many of those hours are really productive?** Chances are, only 1/3 (or less!) So let’s say you have 50 or so productive hours a month…

If you’re aiming to make $100,000/year, that means your productive time is worth $167/hour. If you’re aiming to make $200,000, that’s $333/hour. Half a million? Well, your precious productive time is worth at least $800.

Are you guarding your productive time like it was a stack of $100 bills? Probably not…

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So what does “productive” mean?”Productive” varies from person to person and business to business, but most of us would probably agree that anything that generates revenues to our business, value to our clients or future strategic opportunities is productive, nearly everything else is just filler.

What do you spend a lot of time doing that seems to ‘suck up’ your time or interfere with productivity each day? Almost invariably when I ask this question the answer falls into 1 of 3 categories:

1. Email/messaging
2. Meetings/people
3. Random little things that have to get done… but aren’t directly related to generating or executing business, i.e., “Busywork.”

If this sounds like you… keep reading.

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I. A Nation Of (Email) JunkiesEmail Junkie

If you’re like many of us these days, you’re checking your email consistently and constantly all day long. Every time a message comes in, your BlackBerry buzzes, your iPhone chimes or your email icon starts bouncing (maybe that’s just on a Mac?)

In any case, in the best case scenario, a good portion of us have become slaves our inbox, processing it as steadily as we accumulate it. Worst case, we’re slaves to email AND we can’t keep up with it as we accumulate it!

LaundryIf you think about it, email is a lot like laundry. What would happen if every day you came home and shed your clothes, separated them into lights, darks and like colors, and then washed them?

Chances are, you’d spend a couple of hours a day just doing laundry. It makes a lot more sense to let laundry pile up over a week or two and then “batch” it all at once.

Like laundry, email is something that you accumulate steadily over time. Unlike laundry, though, many of us (including me at times) are so completely hooked on processing email the second that it comes in that it’s almost a compulsion, or even an addiction!

Let’s try looking at this another way… What IS email?

If you think about it, your inbox is simply (mostly) a running list of other people’s priorities!
This is a concept I picked up from Julie Morgenstern who wrote the book Never Check Email In The Morning – she’s crazy, right? For many of us, email is the very first thing we do in the morning!Julie Morgenstern

Actually, her approach makes a lot of sense. Her reasoning is: if you check email (i.e., other people’s priorities) first thing in the morning, then you might spend the next few hours on those activities rather than on your priorities.

Meanwhile, if you FIRST attack YOUR priorities, then you have the rest of your day to handle everyone else’s!

Multitasking MugTo paraphrase programmer Paul Graham… In addition to the direct cost in time we spend on email, there’s also a cost in fragmentation – breaking people’s days up into bits too small to be useful.

When I talk to people about changing their email behavior, I regularly encounter responses like “well in my industry I have to be available at a moment’s notice” or “I’m in sales, if I don’t respond immediately, I’ll lose the business.”

While that may be true in some cases, generally speaking, there are few things that can’t wait a few hours and by being completely and totally responsive to each email in real time, we are actually training people to expect it – further compounding the problem!

Not to mention that there ARE ways to let important calls/emails through AND keep your sanity (i.e., instituting an auto-responder to let people know how to reach you for immediate attention.)

Finally, whatever happened to picking up the phone and calling? Often a 3-day email trail to set up a meeting can take less than 2 minutes over the phone. Phone calls are also much more effective in resolving interpersonal issues.

There are lots of ways to become more efficient with email, and I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but I CAN tell you this: if we learn to manage our email more efficiently and effectively, some of us could literally add HOURS back to our day (depending how bad the situation is, of course)!

Michelle BoatII. THE MEETING MYTH (AKA: Why Most Meetings Are A Big, Fat Waste of Time)

In terms of “conventional wisdom,” most of us wholeheartedly buy into the belief that the best results arise when we get together as a team, receive loads of input and reach a consensus.

Consider the following by David H. Freedman (as published in “What’s Next: The Idiocy of Crowds” in Inc.com, June 2007):

The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth. In many cases, individuals do much better on their own…. In fact, the notion that individuals out-think and out-decide groups is so well established among experts that they don’t bother to study it anymore. Instead, the hot question among psychologists and organizational behaviorists is why the rest of us persist in keeping this wrong-headed notion alive. ‘We’ve been trying to find out what seduces us into thinking teams are so wonderful,’ says Natalie Allen, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario who has studied what she calls ‘the romance of teams.’….

That’s pretty extreme, but rings somewhat true. As David Ogilvy once said, “Search the parks and search the cities. You’ll find no statues of committees.”

While I do believe that “all of us together know more than any one of us individually,” in terms of time management and PRODUCTIVITY, there are problems that plague many (or even most) meetings. Here are just three of them.

1. They’re Often Time-Based (i.e., Regular) Rather Than Need-Based

Sometimes we meet just because we’re supposed to, even though there are other, more important, more productive things we could be doing with our time. If meetings were forced to meet certain criteria, accomplish (rather than simply discuss) important tasks and set accountability, they might be more productive.

Just recently I participated in a meeting in which no less than 4 people together edited one document! Rule of thumb: if it’s possible for one person to do the task, then one person should do the task. Wasting time on menial tasks is not uncommon in a regularly-scheduled meeting situation.

2. The Work They Produce Is Often Mediocre

Most groups in meetings like to have consensus to reach a decision. Take the “Brainstorming Session” – a very popular meeting style. The problem with consensus, is that most people can agree to a mediocre idea (consensus,) while “great,” “unique” or “unusual” ideas can usually, easily find a dissenter. Individual creativity is quashed and as a result, no one challenges the group (not to mention that those who do challenge the group can become pariahs.) Voilá the mediocre idea prevails.

William H. Whyte, who coined the term groupthink back in the ’50s said “What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity – [a philosophy] which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.” Smart man. Bet he didn’t waste a lot of time in useless meetings…

By the way: “About half of all groups don’t reach any conclusion at all,” says Bernard Nijstad, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam.

3. Meetings Create More Work

“Meetings don’t get work done. Meetings create work.” Chances are if you go into a meeting, you’re going to walk out with a list of things to do, rather than a list of things that got done. Fewer meetings = fewer to-dos. I’m just sayin’…

4. They Can Pop Up Anytime, All The Time

Office Space Still

Scene From "Office Space"

You know the story… “hey you got a minute?” or “let’s have a quick meeting to discuss this?” and BAM! you’re in an unscheduled, unstructured, unfocused meeting – which takes a two-hour chunk (or more!) out of your day. The “Surprise Meeting” is a sneaky time-stealer.

Office Hours

College professors were onto something with those office hours…

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So what can you do to minimize time-wasting meetings? Well there are the obvious, tried-and-true solutions: implement agendas, set start and stop times, and build in a clear decision-making process with accountability.

Another option is to hire someone like me to facilitate important meetings (Sorry!! I had to mention it! How could I not?)

Or you can try more extreme measures: as Bob Schoultz described in his Washington Post editorial – he holds meetings standing up! Dan Kennedy recommends scheduling meetings right before lunch or before 5:00 in corporate environments, so people are itching to get out.

III. BUSYWORK: Like Junk Food For Your Business

You may remember “busywork” from back in your school days, when you had a substitute teacher who needed to fill the time by giving you work to keep you quiet and busy – with no clear purpose.

Busywork is like junk food because it may make you feel really good and productive in the short term, but long term it doesn’t nourish or sustain you.

What’s business busywork? Some common forms are endless rounds of editing, filling out forms, then of course carefully filling those forms, organizing stacks of papers, typing in business cards… Anything that someone far less qualified than you could do just as well as you.

Busywork is especially dangerous  because “work expands to fit the time allotted” so the more time you allot to it, the more you do!

As my new acquaintance Jorge Sarria said to me yesterday (at a very short, very productive meeting!) “Done is better than perfect.” Good one!

Have you ever noticed how PRODUCTIVE you all of a sudden become when you’ve got a vacation starting and there are a million things to do before you go? Exactly. Try bringing that to your everyday work.

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So what are some solutions?

In a nutshell: Set limits, deadlines and boundaries, learn to say no, respect your own time (which will teach others to do the same), delegate, outsource, automate, batch (like laundry!), hire a personal assistant, and try to only work with people who “get” it – it will spare you a lot of stress, heartache (and time!!)

On March 16th “Get More Done & Stay Sane: Time Management Techniques For Busy Execs” (see event section) will address this topic in depth. There is very limited availability but if/when we fill up we will start a waitlist and do the event again (probably April or May).

Here are some great resources on this subject (these were my inspirations for
implementing the above):

The 4-Hour Workweek (Tim Ferriss)
Never Check Email In The Morning (Julie Morgenstern)
The No BS Guide to Time Management (Dan Kennedy)
Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better (Gina Trapani)

Please comment on this post! I want to know what YOUR take on all this is.

Best,

Michelle Villalobos (veeyalowbos)
Mivista, Inc.
http://www.MichelleVillalobos.com

** A concept I picked up from Dan Kennedy

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2 thoughts on “Reduce Stress & Get More Done By Conquering Time-Wasting Email, Meetings & Busywork!

  1. Love this blog Michelle.

    A timely reminder that email can eat into your day without you even recognizing it’s happening.

    As Dr Stephen R Covey wrote, when we focus on the important and not urgent tasks (of which email is not), we are likely to not only be more productive, we will probably “working” on the things we enjoy and are most passionate about.

    Incoming email is usually accommodating other people’s important and urgent issues and is far less fulfilling or meaningful for ourselves.

    One way you can begin to minimize the size of your email inbox is to schedule time for reading email and then deal with every email once it is read. It is tempting to leave it in there and tell ourselves “I’ll handle that another time”, and of course the result is many many emails sitting there waiting for “handling another time”.

    By handling it, I mean read it, respond to it if necessary and then delete it. It is now handled. If, on the other hand you are tempted to “file it” you will find, as I did, you create an enormous set of email folders with email that you will never read or refer to again.

    Adopting this approach takes personal discipline but is so worthwhile in the long run. It is more satisfying, feels more productive and allows you to free time up from your busy day to focus on the more important issues.

    We all have the same 24 hours a day. The question we need to ask ourselves is simply how do I choose to spend that time – wasting it on other people’s priorities or managing it to follow our own passions and goals?

    Thank you for the reminder Michelle.

  2. Love your thoughtful and helpful comment! It is hard for me to delete email (then again, I was ever the pack rat in “real life” too…)

    I’m going to try to be more disciplined and delete more. Ironically, my computer is almost full and I’ve been up since dawn trying to release some space by deleting old email!!

    Have a great day.
    Michelle

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