Managing Emails and Meetings – Killing the Time Vampires
In Part 2 we dealt with that vampire that sucks the life blood out of your business: the phone. The second biggest time vampire, which is so bad as to almost be entitled to equal top billing with unscheduled phone calls is email, followed by the face-to-face meeting.
Since Alexander Graham Bell perfected the phone we’ve been conditioned to answer the blasted thing whenever it rings. But that’s happened over a relatively long period of time in society; particularly given the pace of more recent change.
Email on the other hand seems to have become insidious and all pervasive in a much shorter period. There is something quite addictive about email. Personally I love email up to a point, I send an email to my list every day that I am in the office and I have developed some quite special relationships with people I would not otherwise have known other than through email.
But as with the phone, the time that an email is received should not and cannot dictate when you respond to it; unless it is genuinely urgent. For example, if you receive an email warning you that someone is going to apply for an injunction later that day in default of some action, or that your flights are going to be cancelled if you don’t confirm your booking by a hard time deadline, then you need to pay attention to those ones as they come in.
However, these tend to be very rare compared to the tsunami of inane, unnecessary or relatively trivial email that we receive each day. The addictive part of email is that it is often very easy to deal with it. You can ping back a one liner or a one worder that deals with the email and you get a little endorphin rush for having ticked a task (albeit perhaps a completely unimportant one) off the list.
Resist this and stop it entirely.
Stop looking at email
The first thing you must do is to stop looking at email. Just being aware that an email has been received is a distraction. If you are at your desk to concentrate on the most important work you have to do and if you become aware in your peripheral vision that an email has appeared in Outlook or if that little reminder in the bottom right hand corner of the screen pops up, your mind is immediately diverted from the important task requiring your complete focus and concentration and is now thinking about replying to the email.
The client or the matter may be an important one in itself but it can wait, particularly when your clients know how you work. However, your mind is thinking about it and if it’s something that you know you can deal with quickly and easily the temptation not to respond is almost irresistible.
But you must resist.
The first thing that you must do is set a clear policy that everyone dealing with you understands. I inform all new clients of my communication policy, which provides them with a clear procedure for phone calls, emails and in person meetings. Clients who won’t work reasonably along mutually agreed ground rules are not worth having.
As for others with whom you may not have as direct a relationship as you have with your clients or your staff, you need to let them know how you work.
I have set an auto-responder set in Outlook that is on permanently. It’s the type of thing that is often reserved for when you are out of the office. Mine is on constantly and it gives a very simple message: it tells the person that has sent the email how I work. It tells them that I do not review emails immediately upon receipt. It advises them that if the matter is urgent they should contact the office reception by telephone for further assistance. It advises that I only review emails periodically in batches at fixed times each day and their email will not be seen until that then.
So, if some smarty pants is sending me an email threatening an injunction later that morning or, more importantly, if a valued client needs urgent assistance, they’ll get immediate notification that they need to come by another channel. Anyone else will just have to wait until you get to it.
Please understand: as with many of these practices, this will inevitably piss some of your peers off. They won’t necessarily appreciate having to work on your terms and unlike your clients won’t have agreed to this in advance. But regrettably, this is the price of getting your most important work done. However, if peer approval is more important to you than that, you probably should have stopped reading long ago.
So, having given your client and all other third parties who are sending you emails notification of your email policy, you need to work your policy.
Disable the pop up notification
First off, if you use Outlook, disable the pop up notification that email has been received that appears in the bottom right hand corner of your screen. This is evil and insidious; it is impossible to ignore it and not be tempted to have a peek to see the email.
If you are following the procedures outlined on calls in Part 2 you will be using a shared calendar like Outlook for meetings and call appointments so that all members of your team know when you are available and when you are not. Therefore, you may have to have Outlook open during the day to see your calendar. In my experience this is very dangerous, as it is practically almost impossible not to slip into bad habits and look at the email tab when you should only be looking at the calendar.
I have to confess that when I initially stopped looking at email I found this the biggest challenge and one that I have not yet resolved completely satisfactorily. For me the ideal would be to be able to open the Outlook calendar without the email but technically this has eluded me if it is possible. What I am currently experimenting with is having my Outlook calendar synched with the calendar on our practice management software and using that as my main calendar during the day. That is shared throughout the office and everyone has access to it but it does not have direct email access. You’ll need to tweak this system to get something that works for you. Remember email is like a drug, it is addictive and much easier to fall back into bad habits than not.
So this is one area in which you will have to exercise great discipline; but remember the prize: achievement of your most important work and ultimately the progressive realisation of your worthy goals; true success in other words.
After that batch the time that you do review and respond to emails. I chose 12.30pm and 4pm each day. The first time is just before lunch and allows me to deal with any relatively urgent emails in the first half of the day. Done this way, all emails of the day can be dealt with in much less than an hour in total, rather than being a constant distraction throughout the day. This time can be combined with your time for returning phone calls, making it a really intensive period of catch up and doubly productive as a result.
Have someone else triage your emails
Consider having someone else triage your emails first. Give them discretion, let them know your ground rules and what you want to achieve. Let them know the emails they have complete discretion with and the ones that you wish to be left for you to deal with. This can eliminate a huge number of the relatively trivial work related emails that clog up the majority of the inbox.
Structure your email responses so that they do not require a reply if a reply is not necessary. Multiple emails saying thanks or you’re welcome can add to the clutter exponentially. Now, I’m not suggesting you be rude or discourteous, but it is perfectly possible to structure the content of your email to make it clear that it does not warrant a response if you are not seeking one.
Turn off your smart phone
Finally, if you go to all of this trouble to put up effective barriers to the email vampires at your desk, do not let them come around the defences via your pocket. As with phone calls, when you are at your desk turn off your smart phone so that you are not tempted to have a sneaky peek at emails on it, just to satisfy your email drug fix cravings. Don’t worry after a little while you’ll be completely detoxified.
After you’ve dealt with email and the phone, the next biggest time vampire is the face-to-face meeting. These take many forms and you need techniques for dealing with each.
First off is the impromptu face-to-face meeting or drop-in. If you’ve been taking anything from what we’ve been talking about here you’ll know by now that these are simply unacceptable.
There are two main types of drop-in callers those from inside and those from outside. Personal callers from outside should be treated no differently from callers on the phone. Anyone showing up without an appointment should not be seen. How on earth can you be expected to be available to drop what you are doing to go into a meeting with someone about something you are completely unprepared for? Do you really want anyone who would expect to work like this on a regular basis in your life in the first place?
Again bear in mind that you never want to be rude or discourteous to anyone. You do not operate these rules in your life because of any overinflated sense of your own self-importance. You do this to enable you to provide the standard of excellence in service to all of the clients of your business that you require in order for your business to achieve the goals you have set for it.
The rules must be to your business like gravity is to your physical presence on earth; just a simple fact of life – nothing personal.
There is one fundamentally important impromptu caller that you have to provide for here, both in a phone and in-person call context. That is a new enquiry from a prospective client who has not dealt with your business before. This person will not be aware of the rules and may be an important source of new business. You need to have systems in place to make sure that this person’s interaction with your business is satisfactory for them. It may not necessarily mean that they get through to you on the first attempt, and I generally recommend that they do not. But you do have to think clearly in ensuring that this type of caller is very well catered for. And of course all of the callers to your office should be well catered for, they just don’t get through to you on an unscheduled call; ever.
Open door policy
The second type of drop in caller is from within your own organisation. Perhaps the most idiotic concept in management is the open door policy and the most dangerous five words to your productivity are “have you got a minute?” The answer to this question should generally be “no, but let’s schedule a time when we can go though all of your issues together at once”.
There are exceptions to this: if the building is on fire, please open my door, interrupt me and ask me to evacuate the building. You should feel completely justified in interrupting me in other comparable situations of this nature. Apart from that; don’t.
If a person comes to you with a non-urgent request for some of your time, don’t refuse them but give them a scheduled time slot in the future to which you will commit to sitting down with them and resolving all of their issues. Ask them to set those issues out for your in writing in the meantime so that you have a clear agenda of what needs to be worked through.
This will be doubly productive. It will make the other person think through their issues clearly and given time they may come to a resolution of them on their own. When they do come to meet you, you will both have a far more productive and satisfactory meeting working through a very clear list of items requiring attention. You may often find that the other person does not wish to commit to that meeting at all, and thus that the reason for the interruption in the first place was completely unnecessary.
Remember that this is a two way street. You can only expect others to respect your time to the extent that you respect and value theirs. So take the same approach with others as you expect them to take with you.
After you’ve eliminated unscheduled interruptions, the next type of in-person meetings that you have to address are scheduled ones. I always find that the days on which I feel most drained by the end of them, bar none, are the days in which I find myself stuck in multiple meetings. Sometimes this is unavoidable, necessary and productive but often it is none of these.
The first thing to establish is whether the meeting is necessary at all. Often when clients contact me requesting a meeting a little effective communication can establish that a face-to-face meeting is not required at all. Sensible clients don’t like having to take time out of their busy schedules to travel to my office to meet to deal with something that could have been dealt with without that hassle. Again, this is not about being inaccessible, it’s the complete opposite: it about achieving the most mutually satisfactory outcome at every stage of the service delivery. It should be what you are completely focussed on delivering all of the time.
Internal office meeting
If it’s an internal office meeting (and I’m a big fan of regular, effectively internal office meetings) consider carefully who needs to be there, don’t have people present when they don’t need to be, this is the worst waste of everyone’s time. Then make sure the meetings have a clear agenda and give each agenda item a time frame to which you stick religiously. Then make sure the meeting is chaired properly and that the agenda is adhered to; don’t let people wander off topic. Someone should be responsible for maintaining a good minute of the meeting with clear actions arising from each agenda item; each action item needs to be assigned to a named individual at the meeting, with a date set for when it will be done and recorded in the minute.
If you put these procedures in place, you will have increased your productivity exponentially and you will encounter minimal interruption in the focused pursuit of the most important tasks required to achieve your goals. But you will still not be completely interruption free. With the best systems and will in the world that will always remain impossible while you are in the office. But this is a solution: find a cave.
Find a cave
You need a cave to which you can go away from the office where you can work completely alone. It needs to be a place without a phone, WIFI or 3G and preferably not known about by anyone but you. You need to go there regularly and work on the most important task of all, thinking and reviewing your goals, the tasks required to take you towards them, their respective priorities and the systems you need to implement to achieve it all.
Ok it need not be a cave. It could be a public library (but if you choose this option make sure it’s somewhere you’re not likely to meet anyone you know), a cheap rented back office room, or even a cupboard somewhere. I have a vacant room in a building a friend lets me use. It’s got a desk and a chair, that’s all. He gives me the key, I can go and lock myself in there and no one knows where I am. I can get more done there in a few hours than I can in days in other settings. So find your cave, just make it somewhere where you can go to be alone for an extended period at least once a week to work and think with complete focus.
To your success!
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