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Most of us deal with the little things first. We check texts and emails; we try to respond to the urgent requests others send us; we set about tidying up, clearing the decks, in the vain hope of creating some physical, mental and digital space in which we can one day address the really important and creative projects that matter to us.

Mark McGuinness explains why this doesn’t work.

The trouble with this approach is that you end up spending the best part of the day on other people’s priorities, running their errands, and giving them what they need. By the time you finally settle down to your own work, it could be mid-afternoon, when your energy has dipped and it’s hard to focus on anything properly. “Oh well, maybe tomorrow will be better,” you tell yourself.

But when tomorrow comes round there’s another pile of emails, phone messages, and to-do list items. If you carry on like this you will spend most of your time on reactive work, responding to incoming demands and answering questions framed by other people. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel. And it will never lead to remarkable work, in Seth Godin‘s sense, “worthy of being remarked on.” We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded, or when we are surprised by something completely unexpected.

So what does McGuinness do instead?

The single most important change I’ve made in my own working habits has been to start doing things the other way round – i.e. begin the day with creative work on my own top priorities, with the phone and email switched off. And I never schedule meetings in the morning, if there’s any way of avoiding it. This means that whatever else happens, I get my most important work done – and looking back, all of my biggest successes have been the result of making this simple change.

It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, particularly when I get phone messages beginning “I sent you an email two hours ago…!”

By definition, taking this approach goes against the grain of others’ expectations, and the pressures they put on you. It can take an act of willpower to switch off the world, even for an hour, during the working day. For some strange reason, it feels “unprofessional” to be knuckling down to work in this way.

The thing is, if you want to create something truly remarkable, it won’t be built in a day. A great novel, a stunning design, a game-changing software application, a revolutionary company – this kind of thing takes time, thought, craft, and persistence. And on any given day, it will never appear as “urgent” as those four emails (in the last half-hour) from Client X or Colleague Y, asking for things you’ve already given them or which they probably don’t really need.

So if you’re going to prioritize this kind of work – your real work – you may have to go through a wall of anxiety in order to get it done. And you’ll probably have to put up with complaints and reproaches from people who have no idea what you’re trying to achieve, and can’t understand what could be more important than their needs.

Yes, it feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset, but it’s much better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to sacrifice the big things for an empty inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing real productivity for the illusion of professionalism.

McGuinness finishes with some practical tips:

1. Creative work first, reactive work second.
Either start the day on your creative work, or make sure you block out time for it later in the day – preferably at a time when you typically feel energized and productive.

2. Tune out distractions.
You know the drill – email off, phone off, work from home if you can, stick your headphones on if you can’t.

3. Make exceptions for VIPs.
Don’t be reckless. If you’re working with a client to a deadline, or your boss needs something urgently, treat them like VIPs and give them special access – e.g. leave the phone on and answer if they ring (everyone else gets the voicemail).

4. Be really efficient at reactive work.
You can’t ignore everybody all the time. The better your productivity systems, the more promptly you’ll be able to respond to their requests – and the more time you’ll have free for your own work.

I don’t do this, but I think it’s worth trying.

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Fascinating figures recently out from Ofcom. For the first time ever, despite the fact that mobile phone sales are still surging, the time we spend talking on the mobile has actually dropped. So this isn’t just the decline of the landline conversation, which has been happening for a long time. It’s the decline of conversation full-stop, even though it is cheaper and easier than ever before.

Tiffany Jenkins gives the facts:

Have you noticed how little we talk on the telephone, compared to how much we used to? That’s talk; not text. Speak; not message. I rarely pick up the land-line, or my mobile, to dial those with whom I work.

Admittedly, I occasionally call a select group of friends and family, but even these have been filtered down to leave only a few on the line.

More often than not we e-mail each other instead of speaking to one another, or we text and instant message, contacting people through social networking sites. The answerphone is redundant, quiet in the corner. The landline retained only for its internet connection.

These observations are not confined to personal experience. Figures released by Ofcom, earlier this year, showed that the volume of landline calls have gone down dramatically. Last year, they fell by 10 percent. Today, it is surprising when it rings, and when – if ever it does, you are more likely find a salesperson at the end of the line than someone you actually know.

Fixed-line voice calls have been in decline for some time, but what is significant is that there has also been a drop in mobile voice calls.

The figures published by Ofcom show they are on the wane – the overall time spent talking on mobile phones dropped by over 1 per cent in 2011, for the first time ever. My mobile constantly bleeps and buzzes at the sound of new activity, but I hear the ring tone less and less.

People are still communicating, they just don’t do it directly. Instead we are switching to texts, e-mails and online communication of various sorts.

The average UK consumer now sends 50 texts per week which has more than doubled in four years.

What does it all mean? Jenkins reflects:

Developments in technology allow us to get in touch whenever, quickly, cheaply, and apparently efficiently, but separated at a distance. It isn’t face to face, nor on an open line. Walking into a once noisy office recently, where I used to work, I found that everyone was silently typing away. They were interacting with each other – and others – but though the internet. Text based communications and the computer are acting as a chaperone […].

This connection at a distance concerns me. Why does it feel too intimate to call someone without an arrangement? What is so scary about an open line? And why do we need to be constantly in touch, but with technology coming between us, putting us at arms – or rather text – length?

And she writes about Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at Massachusetes Institute of Technology, who makes some pertinent points in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (which I haven’t yet read).

Her central point is that we are turning to technology to fill an emotional void and desire for intimacy, but that it in fact creates a new solitude. “Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”, she says.

That we seek intimacy in technology, and not with each other, suggests that we are too fearful of real-life connections, relying on technology as a shield. We are turning away from one another, typing away in isolation, and developing virtual connections, because it feels safer than speaking in person. But we cannot make friends, or sustain relationships without commitment, without exposing our true selves.

Social media will not be truly “social” if it is a crutch that we use in place of communicating with each other in real-time. It strikes me that we should pick up the telephone and speak to one another. Go on, take a risk and give someone a call. It is good to talk.

Do you talk less than you used to? Here is a tip/experiment: Instead of checking your email or Facebook or internet news at the end of the day, try calling someone just for a ten minute catch-up. Try it for a week. See if it has made a difference…

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I’m reading Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect, about ‘How three totally wired teenagers (and a mother who slept with her iPhone) pulled the plug on their technology and lived to tell the tale’.

First, Maushart describes the extent to which electronic media were an inescapable part of their family life:

At ages fourteen, fifteen, and eighteen, my daughters and my son don’t use media. They inhabit media. And they do so exactly as fish inhabit a pond. Gracefully. Unblinkingly. And utterly without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there […]

For Generation M, as the Kaiser report dubbed these eight- to eighteen-year-olds, media use is not an activity – like exercise, or playing Monopoly, or bickering with your brother in the back seat. It’s an environment: pervasive, invisible, shrink-wrapped around pretty much everything kids do and say and think.

Then why did she have so many doubts and uncertainties?

“Only connect”, implored E.M. Forster in his acclaimed novel Howards End

So… How connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? As a social scientist, journalist, and mother, I’ve always been an enthusiastic user of information technology (and I’m awfully fond of my dryer too). But I was also growing sceptical of the redemptive power of media to improve our lives – let alone to make them ‘easier’ or simplify them. Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family. (Talk about a disconnect!)

There were contradictions on a broader scale too – and they have been widely noted. That the more facts we have at our fingertips, the less we seem to know. That the ‘convenience’ of messaging media (e-mail, SMS, IM) consumes ever larger and more indigestable chunks of our time and headspace. That as a culture we are practically swimming in entertainment, yet remain more depressed than any people who have ever lived. Basically, I started considering a scenario E.M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

What’s your experience? Has all this connectivity made us more connected? Happy? Freer? Less alone? More alive? More at peace with ourselves and one with each other?

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This is a late plug for Oliver Burkeman’s new year resolutions, which include (with copious references to the scientific research behind the advice): stop looking for your soulmate; reject positive thinking; make something and work with your hands; befriend your friends’ friends; and get a standing desk!

Here is his suggestion for all you internet and social networking addicts:

We’ve been worrying about information overload for millennia. “The abundance of books is distraction,” complained Seneca, who never had to worry about his Facebook privacy options (although he was ordered to commit ritual suicide by bleeding himself to death, so it’s swings and roundabouts). But it’s been a year of unprecedentedly panicky pronouncements on what round-the-clock digital connectedness might be doing to our brains – matched only by the ferocity with which the internet’s defenders fight back.

Yet as one team of neuroscientists pointed out, writing in the journal Neuron, we’ve been talking in misleading generalities. “Technology” isn’t good or bad for us, per se; neither is “the web”. Just as television can have positive or negative effects – Dora The Explorer seems to aid children’s literacy and numeracy, a study has suggested, while Teletubbies seems not to – what may well matter more is what we’re consuming online. The medium isn’t the only message.

The best way to impose some quality control on your digital life isn’t to quit Twitter, Facebook and the rest in a fit of renunciation, but to break the spell they cast. Email, social networking and blogs all resemble Pavlovian conditioning experiments on animals: we click compulsively because there might or might not be a reward – a new email, a new blog post – waiting for us. If you can schedule your email checking or web surfing to specific times of day, that uncertainty will vanish: new stuff will have accumulated, so there will almost always be a “reward” in store, and the compulsiveness should fade. Or use software such as the Firefox add-in Leechblock , which limit you to fixed-time visits to the sites you’re most addicted to.

Can you, as the blogger Paul Roetzer suggests, make it a habit to unplug for four hours a day? Three? Two? What matters most isn’t the amount of time, but who’s calling the shots: the ceaseless data stream, or you. Decide when to be connected, then decide to disconnect. Alternative metaphor: it’s a one-on-one fistfight between you and Mark Zuckerberg for control of your brain. Make sure you win.

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It’s been running for a few weeks now, but I haven’t yet highlighted the email subscription option for this blog. It’s in the right-hand column, near the top. Just leave your email address, and each new post gets sent to your inbox.

Inbox Art by 10ch.

This will save you endless worry and heartache about which posts you might be missing, and whether you are reading them hot off the press or not. And the email comes with all the images, links and comment options – so it gives you the full online experience.

Of course I am only suggesting this to those strange people out there who are trying to fill their inboxes rather than empty them.

Inbox 1790 by Tidewater Muse.

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