The Tyranny of the Urgent: An Effort at Breaking Bad Habits
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the fact that I do not do enough thinking. I do too much reacting, too much responding, but not enough thinking. Why? Because of the tyranny of the urgent, and I’ve come to realize a major culprit in my slavish attention to the urgent is: e-mail and the computer in general. I’m going to try to break some bad habits and form some good habits. Here are some excellent things I’ve read that I’m going to be putting into place over the next two weeks. I’ll give this a whirl and let you know how it is going, in two weeks. And, yes, this applies to Twitter Tweets and Facebook messages and blog reading and writing, as well. Here are some tips I’ve picked up, starting with a blog post by Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson:
“I am reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. He’s only twenty-nine-years old, but wise beyond his years. This is probably the best book I have read on productivity since Getting Things Done by David Allen. Tim says, “… limit e-mail consumption and production. This is the greatest single interruption in the modern world.” He’s right. It is amazing how distracting e-mail can be. Does this sound familiar? You are working on an important project and you get a notice that you have received an e-mail message. What do you do? You stop what you are doing to read the message, despite the fact that this can totally derail you from your current task. The worst part is that people go through their entire day like this. No sooner are they engaged in doing something important and meaningful and—da-ding!—they get a notice that they have received a new e-mail. They stop what they are doing, switch to their inbox, and read some inane e-mail that contributes nothing to their current priorities or the project at hand. What makes us do this? This is border-line neurotic behavior. I should know. I suffer from the disease myself. If you keep doing this long enough—let’s be honest here—it makes you A.D.D. You stay busy all day long and have virtually nothing to show for it at the end of the day. Can we agree to stop the madness? Based on Tim’s advice, I have resolved to check e-mail only twice a day. It is already having an enormous impact. Here’s what I suggest:
“1. Work on your computer in “offline” mode. You don’t need to be notified when you receive a new e-mail. People can wait. Yes, even your boss. Instead, let messages accumulate in your inbox and then batch process a whole bunch of messages at once. For example, I’m on a plane now. I downloaded my messages just before we boarded in Dallas. I have processed 68 messages in 45 minutes, and generated 21 replies. I am now writing this post. It took 30 minutes. If I had dealt with these in real-time, as they landed in my inbox, it would have likely taken two to three times as long. Why? Because my attention would be divided between my e-mail and all the other things yapping for attention on my desk.
“2. Only check e-mail twice a day. I mean really … isn’t this sufficient?
“3. Don’t check e-mail first thing in the morning. This has been the most difficult part of my experiment. I am used to checking my e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night (and a hundred times in between). Instead, I am now focused on getting my two most important daily priorities done first. Before, I would often go days without making any real progress. At best, I was reacting and just trying to stay caught up. Now, I am proacting and making substantial progress on my goals and to-do list items.”
And here’s another set of tips.
1. Shut off auto-check – Either turn off automatic checking completely, or set it to something reasonable, like every 20 minutes or so. If you’re doing anything with new email more than every few minutes, you might want to rethink your approach. I’m sure that some of you working in North Korean missile silos need real-time email updates, but I encourage the rest of you to consider ganging your email activity into focused (maybe even timed) activity every hour or three. Process, tag, respond to the urgent ones, then get the hell back to work. (See also, NYT: You There, at the Computer: Pay Attention)
2. Pick off easy ones – If you can retire an email with a 1-2 line response (< 2 minutes; pref. 30 seconds), do it now. Remember: this is about action, not about cogitating and filing. Get it off your plate, and get back to work. On the other hand, don’t permit yourself to get caught up in composing an unnecessary 45-minute epistle (see next item).
3. Write less – Stop imagining that all your emails need to be epic literature; get better at just keeping the conversation moving by responding quickly and with short actions in the reply. Ask for more information, pose a question, or just say “I don’t know.” Stop trying to be Victor Hugo Marcel Proust, and just smack it over the net—especially if fear of writing a long reply is what slows your response time. N.B.: This does not mean that you should write elliptically or bypass standard grammar, capitalization, and punctuation (unless you want to look 12 years old); just that your well-written message can and should be as concise as possible. That saves everyone time.
4. Cheat – Use something like MailTemplate to help manage answers to frequent email subjects. Templates let you create and use boilerplate responses to the questions and requests to which you usually find yourself drafting identical replies over and over from scratch. At least use a template as a basis for your response, and then customize it for that person or situation. Don’t worry—you can still let your sparkling prose and winning wit shine through, just without having to invent the wheel 10 times each day.
5. Be honest – If you know in your heart that you’re never going to respond to an email, get it out of sight, archive it, or just delete it. Guilt will not make you more responsive two months from now, otherwise, you’d just do it now, right? Trust your instincts, listen to them, and stop trying to be perfect.