Inbox, diary, to-do list: now choose just two

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That choice between this “trinity” of masters seems to be the reality of modern knowledge work , and for those in senior roles (C-suite or equivalent) it’s often just one of those three that you get to stay on top of while the other spiral out of control.

The modern media environment with its torrent of pings, dings and notifications came for knowledge workers’ inboxes years ago (here’s how email improved, then instantly destroyed workers’ productivity) and now the remote/hybrid environment with it’s “shall we just schedule a quick video call on that” proliferation of meetings and calls has now done the same for calendars (here’s a great piece by HBR on the psychology behind meeting overload). The struggle is real!

Job descriptions don’t include staying on top of messages and email, but often the reality is this is the majority of a role – and spare a thought for part-time workers doing say 3 days a week who return every single week to the need to spend a morning triaging an overflowing inbox (or the necessity of catching up on off days). Emails, messages and quick calls have become like a tax we all collect from each other every day, every week. Does it have to be that way?

I don’t subcribe to either of the three most common responses: (1) fatalism – simply accepting that you’re never going to be on top of stuff or (2) naive optimism which assumes some magic fix is just around the corner to be uncovered that fixes it all with no additional work or (3) resignation that a sunday evening going through messages is the new monday morning.

My unpopular viewpoint is that managing this is an essential skill in modern knowledge work alongside (say) powerpoint or excel, albeit one that remains vastly underappreciated and for which there is little or no workplace support or learning provided. And worse still usually no role-modelling of good practices. Often senior folk have some of the worst practices here and this cascades down through the culture. Why make an effort on it if your business head so clearly does not? We all just need to master our own way of figuring this out, every week, every day.

Harvard business review wrote about the curse of infomation overload way back in 2009, and surely it has only got worse and worse since then.

Let’s talk through the two most common scenarios:

Inbox + calendar. I see this one a lot. You’re sat at a desk answering emails and chat messages, or in meetings. When you’re not in meetings you’re catching up on messages. Rinse, repeat for months or years. It’s not necessarily wrong but it completely ignores the fact the most important tasks and objectives just never get a look in. Are you actually achieving anything? You just spin plates never move anything forward. Your impact and productivity has been stolen away by the mass of message communication and the need to respond, or be seen to respond.

To-do list plus calendar. This is maybe the second most common version. You’re able to push things forward but between meetings and doing stuff your inbox just piles up and up and never gets answered. Obviously we dodge the reality that they won’t get answered and kid ourselves we’ll sometimes find a mythical free day to go through it all, meanwhile feeling guilty and frustrating colleagues.

For senior execs I think the most common default choice is just: calendar. Seen so many who are effectively on autopilot shuttling from one meeting to the next to receive and update or give their blessing to something.

I think it goes without saying that none of these setups are great – yet I’m sure you’ll all recognise at least all or parts of these.

How can we get better? Well one approach is to adhere to something like the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach advocated by productivity guru David Allen. This approach effectively espouses the need for one single place where everything that needs to be done gets placed and stored (or actively discarded if it isn’t going to get done). So you don’t have these separate places that “run” your day you just have your GTD “board” so that everything is captured in one place together and nothing is sitting in the back (or the front) littering your mind.

It works on the principle that the human mind is a powerful problem-solving device but a very faulty storage machine – and easily distracted. The act of organising things is one big step on the road to simplifying.

Another paradigm to think about here is the “Deep Work” approach of Cal Newport – where significant blocks of time are set aside for real work with no meetings and no distractions ( I wrote about this and GTD as well as other productivity approaches here). One issue here is colleagues not fully buying into these stretches of undisturbed time and prying them open to slot in urgent calls. The title of Cal’s latest book “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload” says it all.

Another approach is to re-imagine the to-do list (which for many is little more than a vague wish-list of things they’d like to do) to something more action oriented and specific – for example at the start of the week setting out a “it’s not the weekend till … ” list which contains three things that just have to get done before you can power off on a friday evening, and also notebooks which allow you to capture a helicopter view of the entire week’s appointments, key to-do and projects like this. (More ideas for alternatives to to-do lists are here).

Another approach is to recognise the one common strand of all the above configurations: calendar. That’s the one thing we almost always honour, as it’s hard/awkward to get out of a commitment to a physical or virtual presence. But are we going to the right meetings? That’s the question. With a laser like focus on ensuring our calendar is aligned to our to-dos and what we need to achieve, we stand a better chance of being able to pull off the dream of keeping the “trinity” of masters all satisfied. It’s a bit like what Greg Mckeown talks about in the book essentialism. The best way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.

This brings us to another underrated skill: saying “no” nicely. If you’re not able to do this then you don’t really have a hope of ever getting on top of this issue. As Steve Jobs famously said:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” ( Steve Jobs. Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference, 1997)

These rules for simplicity are a worthwhile read (Shane Parrish at Farnam Street) .

I’d go as far as to say that if you are a knowledge worker in the 21st century and you are not employing some sort of system around you to help overcome distraction, focus and beat mental shortcomings, it’s like trying to farm the land with your bare hands. It might work for a while, but ultimately it’s unproductive and you’ll get left behind.

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