The Fruitless Quest For Inbox Zero: Eight Tips To Protect Your Time

You can seek to impose order on your inbox all you like – but eventually you’ll need to confront the fact that the deluge of messages, and the urge you feel to get them all dealt with, aren’t really about technology.

They’re manifestations of larger, more personal dilemmas – Oliver Burkeman

At the back-end of 2018, I did an experiment, I exported nearly two years worth of email and meeting data into an analytics tool.

The results were unsurprising to me , but still alarming.

Time spent in meetings , especially meetings arranged by others, was increasing exponentially.  The amount of email was increasing too.

Four years earlier I wrote a post called Six Ways To Kill Email , which set out a discipline for drastic email reduction.

This regime worked for a long time, my inbox never contained more than half a dozen items. So what failed and why?

We don’t have a technology problem, we have a boundary problem

We’ve never had more productivity tools than we’ve had today, and yet we’ve rarely felt less productive.

Part of the problem is that our new tools have given people unparalleled powers to intruding into one anothers time.

  • Want a meeting? Spot some free time in their calendar and grab it.
  • Need them at the weekend? Message them from your phone.
  • Can’t get hold of them? DM them via their preferred social network

As Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson write in their book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work companies are failing to protect their most precious resource – their employees time and attention.

It’s now perfectly acceptable to have a culture of back to back meetings, and even double or triple booked meetings.

As they write “the shared calendar is one of the most destructive inventions of modern times. People’s calendars are not only completely transparent, they are optimized to be filled in by anyone who simply feels like it”.

It was this realisation , that most things in my calendar had been put there by other people, that led me to create some new rules at the beginning of the year.

It was a silent new years resolution to myself to do something to address the overload. As a third of the year has gone – this is how I’ve gotten on.


1: Ignore the quest for Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero (the idea that every time you visit your inbox, you should systematically “process to zero”) was quite the thing a few years ago but in my experience it doesn’t work – as it actually focuses on email as the cause of the problem rather than the symptom.

Even when you do successfully reach Inbox Zero, it doesn’t reliably bring calm if you’re still being invited to lots of meetings and assaulted by instant messaging.

2: Give yourself permission to walk out of meetings

Last year Elon Musk sent a memo to his staff advising them to ‘just walk out of bad meetings’.  Funnily enough it was a rule we had at Bromford many years ago instigated by then CEO Mick Kent.

Walking out of meetings, or not turning up to ones that you’ve previously accepted may seem like bad manners. However if we are serious about valuing peoples time we have to develop new codes that allow people to maximise their productivity and creativity rather than just be polite and wasteful.

3: Don’t send any emails

This is by far the most effective thing you can do. Every email you send begs a reply – sometimes several. By pressing send you are literally making work for yourself. Copying people in to every email is not effective information sharing. Email in 2019 is still effective, but it’s best used sparingly.

4: Divert long chat threads to Chat Apps 

At the formation of Bromford Lab , we turned off in-team email and moved to Whatsapp. Along with Trello and Google Docs, it’s the tool that’s survived five years of uninterrupted use. WhatsApp is great for creating groups and promoting a more social place to chat and interact without the annoyance of email threads. It doesn’t beg you to respond.

4: Delete emails that are three days old 

This takes some bravery – but trust me it works. If you haven’t looked at something for three days it simply can’t be very important. Delete it. If anyone is bothered they will chase you up on it. 90% of the time they don’t – it was low value work that never really needed doing.

5: Unsubscribe from everything 

Make it part of your day to unsubscribe from at least five email lists. Email marketeers breed like rabbits but you can stem the flow by turning off their constant distractions. Don’t just delete them and hope they will go away – they won’t. Also go into the notification settings of any work networks like Yammer you are part of. Turn them off – you’ll see a huge difference instantly.

6: Use Pomodoro for manageable periods of focus

It might sound easy to work on one task for 25 minutes with no interruptions, but it actually isn’t. Pomodoro is a cyclical system where you work in short sprints , which makes sure you’re consistently productive. You also get to take regular breaks that boost your motivation. Use a Pomodoro app on your phone and put it into flight mode to kill other distractions. It’s the best way I’ve found of powering through the work you need to do, but don’t always want to. There’s a more extreme 50 minute  version of it called Focusmate, where your concentration is remotely observed by a total stranger. Try it if you dare.

7: Try Trello for transparent work sharing and delegation across teams

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We are big Trello fans at Bromford Lab with our work shared openly for all. We also keep a private board as well to prioritize work across the team. Making it visible this way means we can call for help when we are blocked or delegate work when people have capacity. It shifts the focus completely away from your inbox.

8: Set visible boundaries

The way you work has to be the way that works for you, not for everyone else. That might mean setting an email out of office communicating you only check in once a day. It might turning your phone off and saying you are concentrating on deep work. It might be wearing headphones in the office to signal you don’t want interruptions.

Whatever it is – set your own boundaries and make them known.


 

I haven’t cracked this 100%. However as I finish writing this post at 8:15am I have nine unanswered emails and just 90 minutes of meetings today. Something is beginning to work.

Most productivity hacks fail, no doubt many of the above would fail for you personally.

The trick is finding the ones that work for you and balance your needs with those of your colleagues. My advice however would be to not sit around waiting for this, it’s a truly rare employer than places restrictions on meetings, emails and phone calls.

You need to develop your own rules and boundaries that protect your time and creativity, never mind your sanity.

Know Your Customers, Just Never Ask Them What They Want

We do not really know what our potential users will really respond to, what they will understand or what they’ll hate until we really see them using it –Jonathan Courtney

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If you are working on any new service change or product there’s one question I guarantee will be asked of you at some point:

“What do your customers think of this?”

The thing we never say – but we need to be brave enough to is this:

“We haven’t asked them – it would be a complete waste of time”.

Despite no evidence of any real impact, each year millions of pounds are spent across the social sector on market research, focus groups, and ‘coproduction’.

At best it’s well intentioned paternalism , at worst a cynical tick box exercise.

95% of products launched this year will fail – and it won’t be for lack of customer involvement. Many of these will have asked people to articulate what they want whilst failing to actually get to the core of what they need.

It is difficult for us as users , of any service , to think in abstractions or envision a new concept.

There is little evidence that we can even predict our own behaviour. We don’t necessarily know why we make decisions.

When anyone proposes a change – even humdrum day to day changes (think self-serve check outs in supermarkets , or charging people for plastic bags) – we don’t react rationally.

Our status quo bias, the tendency for us to lean towards doing nothing or maintaining our current or previous decision – is a strong reason for never asking customers what they want. Unless you want your business to stand still.

Customers often don’t know what’s good for them.

If you ever go to an airport here’s a quick experiment. Look at the queue of people checking in manually versus the queue for people who’ve checked in online and are using bag drop.

Despite all the benefits (huge time saving, plus the airline can’t close the flight and move on without you) people are disposed to stick to what they know.

These are probably the same strange group who applaud the pilot and crew when the plane touches down, simply for doing their job and not killing you.

Asking them to design your next service would be catastrophic. They’d request a lot of features that they would never use.

As Jason Fried has said – a great question to ask ourselves is  what are people going to stop doing once they start using our products or services?

That’s how Amazon and Google have conquered the world – not by surveying us to death – but by understanding our problems and taking them away one day at a time.

The challenge is understanding the problem better than your competitors and then road testing solutions. As Jonathan Courtney writes, the useful data comes not from research, not from surveys – but from the first user tests.

Every pound we put into asking customers what they want is basically wasted.  My aspiration at Bromford is for us to the become the best organisation at understanding the problem, before deploying rapid experiments to prove or disprove any solution.

Our customers have big problems to solve, the social sector faces unprecedented challenges – and we simply don’t have the time anymore.

 

Have you really got the time to be distracted by what customers think they want?

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It’s a great line but there’s no evidence that Henry Ford ever said this. It never appeared anywhere until about 1970.

A better quote , and one he did say in his 1922 book, is this:

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Ford understood his customers aspirations before they did.

Knowing our customers is about a deep understanding of the day to day problems they face and the opportunities they haven’t even begun to realise.

You won’t get that from your next customer workshop.

Technology Won’t Kill Meetings – But We Can

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Technology failed us.

We thought the world of work was to be reimagined. The death of the office. The end of email. A utopia of work/life integration fueled by work-where-you-want technology.

It hasn’t happened.

Six years ago 2.8 million people made daily commutes of two hours or more. In 2016 that’s risen to 3.7 million.

People report attending an average of five meetings a week with over one third saying they are unproductive, admitting to checking emails, Twitter and even Tinder.

And despite unprecedented access to virtual tools – our actual productivity has slumped to the worst level since records began.

Is it possible to spend a whole year in meetings?

In 2014, a research team from Bain and Company used data mining tools to analyse the Outlook schedules in a large company. It concluded that in one calendar year the organisation spent 300,000 hours in meetings.

Given there are only 8,760 hours in a year that’s quite some feat.

It’s because of what they termed the Ripple Effect:

  • The weekly Executive Meeting – essentially a status meeting – accounted for 7,000 hours.
  • 11 Unit Heads met with their senior team to prepare for that meeting – another 20,000 hours.
  • The 21 divisions racked up 63,000 hours in the subsequent team briefings.
  • 210,000 hours were “sub-meetings”. Literally – meetings about the other meetings

Very few of us do the meeting maths. As Jason Fried has written – the time blocked off doesn’t equal actual time spent. A one hour meeting with 6 people is a six hour meeting. A 15 minute meeting with 9 people is a two-and-a-quarter-hour meeting.

What if every meeting we had kept a real time counter of the salaries in the room, increasing minute by minute?

If you’re brave – try running this meeting calculator at your next one. Even if you run it based on the average UK wage the results are eye watering.

We all know we can be better than this.

Work can be better than this.

We can make it more collaborative, more efficient, more connected, more transparent, more elegant, more fun. 

In the current incarnation of Bromford Lab we’ve abandoned meetings altogether, even weekly planning. We run our work through Basecamp which prompts us to answer “What do you plan on working on this week?”.

We get a daily prompt to ask what we’ve completed and can answer it at our convenience.  The productivity , or sometimes lack of it, is visible for us all to see.

Technology is not to blame. It’s our failure to adapt our leadership for the digital age.

We still have a tiny percentage of leaders who are really living a digital lifestyle. There are still relatively few having open debates , showing transparency in public discourse , answering questions online and sharing progress.

Until there is a monumental shift in the leadership dynamic from the old fashioned command and control to a collaborative, status free, matrix way of working, then we will still have all those meetings.

The challenge is spotting the friction and noise that is dragging us back to 20th Century management behaviours – and then personally doing something about it.

Technology didn’t fail us. We failed technology. And it’s our job to fix it.

 

Using Weak Signals To Determine Your Future Organisation

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“Weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear” – Vijay Govindarajan.

Luckily for us the future doesn’t arrive in an instant – but unfolds seconds at a time.

Despite our organisational 2025 strategies, our five year forward views, it’s impossible to predict what our world looks like in the years ahead.

We are making, as Jason Fried has said, business guesses rather than business plans.

Launching a service or developing a new product against this ever shifting background is fraught with difficulty. What’s good for 2016 could be surplus to requirements a year later.

Today all our new services must be iterative and capable of scaling for mergers, growth and indeed for retraction and redundancy.  Designing for obsolescence is more important than ever. 

At Bromford Lab we’ve worked with our Insight team to give a tentative green light to a new service – and I think there are some lessons to learn. Tom Hartland gives an overview of our thinking here with an excellent slide deck showing the design process.

The concept is simple. Switch from being a reactive service (waiting for basic repairs requests) – and move to offering proactive coaching so people can do things for themselves. It’s aiming to tackle exactly the same things as many of our public services are: reducing demand by focusing on prevention rather than cure.

Lesson One: The test has been beset by implementation problems. 

As it should be. 

If you are launching anything new against the background of what could be legacy services and systems – it should be plagued by problems.

Expect lots of tiny failures. The worst thing you can do is to give up. Unfortunately many of our organisations, and certainly most of the media, do not think like this.  This is part of the re-education journey we need to take people on.

Lesson Two: The test hasn’t delivered tangible business benefits. Yet. 

So why are we recommending that it proceeds to pilot?

The answer to that is a mix of art and science. We have some evidence of potential success but we need a more detailed and longer term evaluation.

However not all insight can be gained through evaluation alone – but by picking up what futurists term ‘weak signals’.

Generally organisations are poor at picking up these signals. Arguably the fact that we are still talking about digital transformation demonstrates that the weak signals from the 1990’s onwards were largely unheard.

There are a number of signals that we are picking up at Bromford that – if correct- means our concept could have a very positive future. With time there’s a possibility of substantial financial returns – alongside fulfilling our strategic objective of growing customer skills and aspirations.

Here are a few of the things that we do, and don’t know about the future:

  • We have an ageing population with more people living on their own. We don’t know if this will have a positive or detrimental effect on future demand.
  • We know that driverless cars will soon be on the roads – drastically reducing transportation costs to get parts to our residents homes. We don’t know the speed of adoption.
  • We know the maker community – people using 3D printing and other self manufacture tools – is growing. We don’t know whether this will ever move beyond a niche and into the mainstream.
  • We know artificial intelligence – think Siri and Amazon Alexa – is rapidly advancing. We don’t know whether AI advice and coaching delivered through technology or a robot will ever be a good enough alternative to physical delivery.
  • We know housing associations are unlikely to be flooded with lots of public money in the future. We don’t know what future welfare reforms look like.

Putting all of these things together alongside the evidence we do have is persuasive enough to take the test to a next level.

None of us can predict the future – but we can attempt to second guess it. And the best way to do that is by low-cost experiments to test the unknowns, before gambling any big money.

Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.

The only choice is whether to be an active participant in what the future looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around you.