Maneuvering Around Distractions

A classic from last year, to get things going: Jason Fried on why work doesn’t happen at work:

“The real problems are what I like to call the M&Ms – the managers and the meetings. Those are the real problems in the modern workplace.”

It is amazing that tools of our time are not better encouraged – even enforced – in opposition to the real distractions of the workplace. With email, instant messaging, collaboration tools, and even post-it notes, we live in an age where physical human contact isn’t necessary for making decisions, answering polar questions, or executing a one-off. As Fried points out, even conducting business within the bounds of steel, cubes, and wheeled chairs isn’t necessary – modern distractions are more prominent in those environments than in the comforts of the home. Or at a coffee shop.

But… When Technology Doesn’t Exactly Work

Granted, not all meetings are bad. Or unproductive. You can’t brainstorm solo when far-reaching goals require cooperation. Sometimes gathering a crew into a room with a whiteboard does wonders. And while you could do something very similar with technology – in fact, oftentimes better – it’s hard to change people’s habits and motivations. If the current environment does not encourage (or require) tools for these tasks, the only way to procure cooperation from people is to gather them into a room where participation is mandatory. So while leaving comments or suggestions via an online cooperative tool may provide the perfect distraction-free channel for involvement, it doesn’t work if the process isn’t coaxed into daily routines.

How to solve this dilemma? If M&Ms are really a problem, the best way to move towards a distraction-free environment is through the “Email Segway.” It doesn’t sound like much, and it’s the most boring of all the technologies at our disposal, but it’s the one with which everyone is most familiar.

That does count for something.

Additionally, email requests are most often fulfilled because of a sense of obligation. Let’s face it: what stays in your inbox antagonizes your conscience. And besides, participation isn’t guaranteed even if you do get human bodies into a room. Participation through a less intrusive channel will most likely promote participation from those less inclined to do so in large groups, and email is a great foundation for that.

Using Email More Intelligently

Email does have its own problems, though – we tend to get email overload. (And let’s not kid ourselves – Lotus Notes is the devil incarnate.) Parsing through hundreds of emails a day can become a time-sucking distraction. In most cases: worse than M&Ms. But there’s a process that can work to help reduce the number of incoming emails an individual receives from you. It’s simple, it makes a lot of sense, but hardly anyone does it:

  1. When something comes up that needs to be addressed, whether it’s a question, a decision, or direction, take note of it. Use Notepad or TextEdit or whatever, affix the name(s) with whom the request is associated, and queue it for email.
  2. But don’t send the email yet. What you’re actually doing throughout the day is writing a draft.
  3. Oh, something else came up that needs to be addressed by the same person? Or persons? Add it to the queue.
  4. Okay – nearing the end of the day. You have a nice little draft for a few people, and even sets of people. Guess those items didn’t need to be addressed so quickly after all? And you didn’t need to pester them with multiple emails throughout the day.
  5. Send the email(s).

Now, instead of being harassed by emails throughout the day that probably wouldn’t have been acted upon until later or even the next day (unless action was immediately required), said parties will receive the email with all the requests at the best time of day: the next morning. Why? Everyone checks their email and queues up their tasks for the day accordingly. It’s the best time to reach anyone – when they’re fresh – and it best prepares an individual to execute without having to constantly add to a list of to-dos during the day that would have resulted otherwise.