If you’re like me, when someone approaches you with a question or a problem, your instinct is to help them. You want to give them an answer or a solution. And you want to give it to them fast because doing so makes you feel productive. Since you like feeling productive, you keep helping people with their ‘quick and easy’ problems.
Before you know it, you’re the go-to person for everyone’s quick and easy problems. And you’re caught in a trap. The helpfulness trap.
But wait, it gets worse.
You’re now so addicted to the buzz you get from helping people, if they come to you with something that doesn’t have a quick and easy answer, you utter these four words:
Leave it with me.
Now you’re in a situation where not only are you solving other people’s ‘quick and easy’ problems for them in the moment, you’re holding on to other people’s more difficult problems. Problems you don’t fully understand.
This is where you start feeling overwhelmed. There’s too much work to do, and too many people needing your time and attention. You owe people answers. And it feels like you’re so busy solving everyone else’s problems there’s no time to solve your own.
The end result?
Your days become filled with other people’s work. Work that has little to no meaningful purpose to you. This disconnects you from what motivates you and causes you to become disengaged at work. As the cycle continues (because you haven’t done anything to stop it), new problems are piled on your plate which creates stress, anxiety and frustration. Before you know it, you’re completely burnt out.
So what can you do differently? How do you avoid this vicious cycle? Is it as simple as saying no when people ask for help?
No, it isn’t, because, in the IT industry, we are in the business of solving problems.
The real solution requires you to change your habits. Specifically, you need to develop a coaching habit.
DEVELOPING A COACHING HABIT
Athletes have coaches. Sports teams have coaches. Business owners often have coaches too. But if we’re not planning to coach athletes, sports teams, or business owners, why do we need to develop a coaching habit?
In his book, The Coaching Habit, author Michael Bungay Stanier writes:
The essence of coaching lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.
We are all coaches, whether we realize it or not. A teammate coming to you for help is a coaching opportunity. A customer coming to you with a problem is often a coaching opportunity as well. Even your boss coming to you with a task is sometimes a coaching opportunity.
By viewing each of those scenarios as a coaching opportunity, you can help others to increase their self- sufficiency. This enables them to do more without you. This will both reduce your workload, and remove you as a bottleneck in the system. It will also free up more time for you to work on things that matter, which will increase your level of motivation and engagement. You’ll find yourself doing less work, but having a greater impact.
When people like you develop a coaching habit, it solves the problems of over-dependency, overwhelm, and burnout.
So where do we start? As Bungay Stanier puts it:
A little more asking people questions and a little less telling people what to do.
When presented with a problem, instead of jumping in with solutions, Bungay Stanier offers these seven questions to ask first:
- What’s on your mind?
- And what else?
- What’s the real challenge here for you?
- What do you want?
- How can I help?
- If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
- What was most useful for you?
Before we break down what the above can look like in real life, let’s examine a typical situation.
Your teammate Jeff comes to you with a problem.
Bob from Finance says the daily reports aren’t showing up on time.
Your instinct is to be helpful and solve the problem. The database server is probably running slow. “Leave it with me,” you say to Jeff. And off he goes, content that Bob’s problem is now yours to deal with.
See how easily you’ve fallen into the helpfulness trap? You’re already busy, and not only did Jeff interrupt the work you were doing to share Bob’s problem with you, Jeff has now removed Bob’s problem from his plate and put it on yours. And you’ve got no real idea of the scope of the problem, what the root cause is, or what the priority is for getting it solved. It could be anything from a minor complaint by Bob, to a full blown crisis with millions of dollars at stake. And if your first hunch (the database server running slow) turns out to be wrong, you’re going to have to keep working to find the solution.
Let’s look at the same situation, but apply Bungay Stanier’s coaching questions:
Jeff: “I need your help with a problem.”
You: “What’s on your mind?”
Jeff: “Bob from Finance says the daily reports aren’t showing up on time.”
You: “Okay. And what else?”
Jeff: “He says it’s been a problem for a few weeks now.”
(Ah-ha! It’s not a sudden crisis.)
You: “I see. And what else?”
Jeff: “Well, I’ve checked the database server, and it seems to be running fine. I’m not sure what to do next.” (Ah-ha! Jeff has already checked the most obvious cause.)
You: “Good, I would have checked the server performance as well. I can think of a few other ideas, but what else do you think might be causing the problem?”
Jeff: “I guess the schedule might be set to start too late.”
You: “I agree. And what else might be possible?”
Jeff: “Maybe the report itself has a problem.”
You: “That’s possible too. So what’s the real challenge here?”
Jeff: “I can change the report schedule, but I don’t know how to fix the reports if that is the problem. I don’t know enough about them.”
You: “What do you want to do?”
Jeff: “Well, I’ll try setting the report schedule to run earlier. But if that doesn’t work someone will need to look closer at the reports.”
You: “Sounds good. And how can I help?”
Jeff: “Can you look at the reports to see if they have a problem?”
(This is where you need to ask yourself, if I say yes to this, what am I saying no to?)
You: “No, I can’t. I’m working on the firewall project for the rest of this week. Tell Bob that if the schedule change doesn’t fix his problem, you’ll put a job in the system to have the reports checked next week at the earliest. If he needs it done sooner, he will need to approve a contractor to come in and help with it.”
Jeff: “Okay, I’ll do that.”
You: “Great. So, what was most useful for you?”
Jeff: “Well, it’s good to know that checking the server performance was the right idea. And that we can adjust the report schedules if we need to. I also didn’t realize we could get outside contractors in to help with this kind of problem.”
As Bungay Stanier writes in The Coaching Habit:
The goal here [of these questions] isn’t to avoid ever providing an answer. But it is to get better at having people find their own answers.
If you’re a person with skills and knowledge, or the responsibility to deal with certain tasks, then people will come to you for help. This is inescapable.
Running through the seven questions removes the knee-jerk ‘leave it with me’ response that leads to overwhelm and burnout. It ensures that if you end up saying ‘yes’ to helping someone with something, you’re doing it more slowly and mindfully. And that only the work you should be doing ends up on your plate.
Because the reality is, we can’t always say no. There are many situations where saying yes is the only possible outcome. That could be because there is nobody else who can solve the problem. Or because a customer is paying you to do it. Or because your boss is making it non-negotiable. And that’s okay, because those situations where yes is the only answer will have more time to be dealt with if you’ve offloaded the other meaningless work from your plate.
The seven questions ensure we only accept responsibility for a problem once we have a better grasp of the situation. This helps us to avoid overcommitment that comes from agreeing to impossible deadlines.
They key is to not be a robot about it:
- add some warmth to your voice
- show interest in the person’s problem and their answers to your questions
- vary your questions, but don’t stray far from the formula I would encourage you to skip the small talk, and get to the first question promptly.
Jeff: “Hey, how’s it going today?”
You: “Good thanks. What’s on your mind?”
From there, you can progress in a friendly way. Notice in the example earlier I wasn’t simply repeating the “And what else?” question over and over. Instead, I acknowledged their answers before asking the next question. “I see. And what else?”
If your fear is that you’ll become known as The One Who Always Asks Those Questions, ask yourself this: Is that a worse outcome than being overwhelmed with other people’s jobs and getting burned out?
Besides, Bungay Stanier thinks there’s a good chance your fears are unfounded.
… most likely you can think of someone in your organization who seems to be able to ‘hold the line’ and stop that aggregation of small tasks and additional responsibilities that, for the rest of us, eventually consume our lives. That person might not be the best- liked person in the organization … but they’re likely to be successful, senior and respected. And that’s because they know how to say yes more slowly than you do.
Developing good coaching habits reduces your problem load, and stops you from becoming a bottleneck for others. And ultimately that helps everyone, not just you.
A lot of people think email is broken. They get too much email, most of it is rubbish, and they dread looking at it. Often they feel that email is more harmful than helpful to their productivity. Opening email is a chore.
Email alternatives are plentiful today. Slack, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger … there are many non-email methods of communicating. Sometimes they’re an improvement, other times not. You can become overwhelmed by Slack messages as easily as you can email messages. Bad communication habits are bad habits, no matter which app or medium they’re applied to.
Email isn’t broken for everyone, but it might be broken for you. I’m not a raving fan of email myself. My job is not to read emails. Reading more email doesn’t earn me more money. With few exceptions, reading email doesn’t bring me more joy. The more time I spend on email, the less time I’m spending on my business and things that make me happy.
Email is a necessary function. But it only provides me with personal or business value when used correctly. To me that means:
- receiving fewer emails
- spending as little time dealing with email as possible
We recently moved our business to a new office. As anyone who has moved offices will tell you, there are a thousand little things to do for an office move. Our move took months of planning, culminating in a furious week of packing up the office. Moving day started with a 4am wake-up for me. And although we managed to get the new office opening and functional by lunchtime, it still took part of the weekend to finish setting things up.
I barely touched a computer in that final week of the move, and only triaged email on my phone for a few minutes each day. Usually when you take someone away from their computer and their normal duties, they return to a huge pile of unread emails.
Not me. It took me less than 30 minutes to ‘catch up.’ Then I got back to work.
I’m not writing this to brag. Rather, I want to share with you how I got to the point where a week of disruption didn’t leave me with a mountain of unread emails to deal with. My days are not spent dealing with my inbox. Email is a task that takes up less than an hour of my time each day, in total. And that’s on a busy day.
It didn’t happen overnight. In fact it took me about a year of steady progress to get to this point. Here are my best tips based on that progression:
1. Minimize email volume
The most obvious solution to reduce the time you spend on email is to receive less of it. To receive fewer emails, you must:
Answer questions before they’re asked
Give your users self-service options for repetitive requests. Give your support staff documentation so they don’t need to reach out to you. Put a FAQ on your website. Not everyone will use it, but you’ll cut down the number of emails you receive by a lot.
Unsubscribe what you aren’t consuming
Get rid of the newsletters you aren’t reading. If you haven’t read one in a few months, it’s obviously not that important to you. If you do need to keep up with industry news, subscribe to just one or two high quality, curated emails instead of dozens of individual sources. The most important information will bubble to the surface anyway. Everything else you can seek on Google or by asking peers when you actually need it.
Switch off what you don’t need
Email alerts and notifications are often a waste of time. Working in support and operations roles, I didn’t need to know that a Priority 2 or 3 ticket had been assigned to me. I will see it when I go to my ticket queue for my next task. The associated email notification is unnecessary. Even Priority 1 tickets don’t need an email since they were also alerted by SMS/text and a phone call. The same goes for other notifications, such as social networks. I check LinkedIn for a few minutes a couple of days per week. I check Facebook in the evenings or during short breaks during the day. I see the notifications in the app, so there’s no value in receiving notifications in my inbox all day as well.
Feed work straight into work queues
Most businesses have a customer service email, or a sales form on a website, or something that generates email. Send those items straight into the workflows that they belong in, and cut out the manual handling.
Kill long email chains
If your email conversation is bouncing back and forth without a conclusion, pick up the phone and solve it that way. Or schedule a short meeting with the right people to come to an agreement.
Separate work from fun
This may seem like common sense, but keep your personal life out of your work mailbox. A personal email address with Gmail or Outlook.com is free, has good security with 2FA, and has decent spam filtering.
Send fewer emails
Yes, you’re part of the problem too.
What’s left over should be mostly email that is necessary. There might still be a lot of it. That means it’s important to be able to process email efficiently.
2. Process email efficiently
It’s often said that email is a great way for other people to inject their priorities into your day. This is true, and one of the main reasons is that we tend to sort our email in order of newest to oldest. Whoever has emailed us most recently becomes the top item in the inbox. This is why annoying marketers send frequent follow up emails. They want to reclaim the top position in your inbox.
Because we’re conditioned to think that all email is important and deserving of a prompt and thoughtful reply, we allow ourselves to give the most visible emails all our attention.
The problem then becomes that the oldest tasks are pushed so far down your inbox by the new emails that keep arriving, they lose any chance of being actioned. Out of sight, out of mind.
Sort email from oldest to newest
This is why my first piece of advice for improving your email processing efficiency is to sort your inbox the other way around—in order of oldest to newest. Unless some other signal tells you that a more recent email is more important, deal with your oldest items first.
If that creates an unacceptable delay in you getting through all the email you’re receiving, you’re receiving too much email. Either go back to my earlier advice about reducing the amount of email you receive, or keep reading and try and process your email more efficiently.
Sorting email from oldest to newest solves the issue of older items being overlooked. But it doesn’t make your inbox any better at being a to-do list. In fact, your inbox is the worst place to store your outstanding tasks. There’s no sense of priority, urgency, due dates, time spent, status, or anything else that goes with effective task management.
Action quick replies/tasks immediately
Don’t leave tasks sitting in your mailbox, waiting for you to ‘get back to it later.’ Especially tasks that you can’t complete immediately. If something is a quick reply or two minute job, go ahead and do it right away. You’ve already interrupted some other work to check your email, so you may as well finish actioning the quick messages immediately.
Move time-consuming tasks out of your inbox
If something needs a longer reply or will take longer to work on, get it out of your mailbox and into your task management system. Don’t hang on to that email for Bob’s reporting request that you need to start working on next week. Add it to your tasks/to-do system so that it pops up on your list on the appropriate time and day. Then archive the email away where it won’t distract you any further.
That might sound strange, but it’s how I handle emails that need some time to consider and reply. After reading the email once I will create a to-do item such as ‘Respond to Julie’s email about database updates,’ and set it to pop up on my task list for an appropriate time in the future. I’ll either attach the email message to it (if the system supports it), or just archive it away and search for it again when the time comes. No stress of needing to remember to get back to that email.
Very little of my email arrives into my inbox. Most of it is filtered by a series of rules that moves messages into folders. For example:
- automatic notifications for things like backup jobs completing go into a separate folder (failures stay in my inbox)
- newsletters go into one of two folders (one for business newsletters, one for technical newsletters)
- emails that I am cc’d on go to their own folder
- emails that I have received as a member of a distribution list go to their own folder (a few DLs have earned their own dedicated folder, but most get pooled together)
Use the archive function
I’m not one who likes a complex mailbox folder system. Aside from the messages that I filter above, all my other email goes to my inbox. When I process it, I archive it. Outlook has an ‘Archive’ button that just moves messages to an ‘Archive’ folder. Gmail has a similar archive function that has the same effect.
No need to think about where the email needs to go. Just archive it. If I need it later, I can search for the person’s name or a few keywords and find it in seconds.
3. Process email in batches
So you’ve minimized your email volume and aggressively filtered your inbox. What’s left in your inbox now needs to be dealt with. And I’ve found batching to be the most effective way to do this.
Each morning when I sit at my computer I process the emails that have arrived overnight. I start with the emails that have been filtered into folders. Customer service and sales emails are a priority, so they go first. After that I spend a few minutes checking system notifications for anything unusual.
Then I look at my inbox. Inevitably something unwanted will have arrived, which I either delete if it’s the first time I’ve seen it, or unsubscribe if it’s a recurring nuisance. You’ve got to nip these things in the bud.
If I still have a few minutes left I deal with other messages, but when my allocated batch processing time is up, my calendar will remind me that it’s time to get down to the real work for that morning.
I don’t look at my email again until shortly before lunchtime, and then one more time near the end of the day. Often those batch sessions are just quick triage of other email that doesn’t need a response, such as flicking through my distribution list emails on my phone while waiting for my coffee.
Decision overload is a problem in modern life. The mental burden of decision making wears us down a little bit at a time. I remove the burden of deciding what’s for dinner by meal planning the entire week in advance. I remove the burden of deciding when to exercise by having specific days and times for workouts. I remove many other decision-making burdens from my life in similar ways.
When I batch process my email I want to deal with it then and there. The last thing I want to do is rush through all my email and mentally load myself up with a bunch of decisions that I need to remember for later. Quick emails get actioned immediately, and the rest goes into my task list. When time runs out, the rest waits for my next batch window.
Again, if that leaves too many emails untouched until tomorrow, or too many tasks in your queue than you can deal with in a week, then the problem might be that too much work is coming in to begin with. There’s only so much optimization you can do before it’s time to hire more people to handle the workload.
Do what works for you
You might have noticed elements of different productivity systems in my way of doing things. In the past I’ve given a surface look at GTD (Getting Things Done), Inbox Zero, personal Kanban, and various others that escape me right now. Some are general productivity systems, while others are targeted at email.
Whatever I’ve taken from those systems and made my own is mostly subconscious, and in some cases probably just a coincidence. To me that’s the best way to approach productivity. Take a little bit from here and a little bit from there, and merge them together into a system that works for you.
That’s why I don’t recommend one specific system. What makes sense for you will be different to what makes sense to others.
Some of you might be reading this and thinking that my advice doesn’t apply to you. Perhaps you feel it’s unrealistic for you to reduce email, or process it differently.
I no longer work a typical IT job. I’m self-employed and a business owner, but I still answer to others. I have customers, staff, other businesses I’ve partnered with, suppliers, and more. People email me wanting things, and I have to deal with those emails just like you do. More importantly, my staff have to deal with email as well. I don’t want them to be overwhelmed and unproductive because of email.
And, most importantly, my methods for dealing with email worked just as well in my last job as an IT consultant as they do today in my role as a manager. The advice works for many situations if you are consistent in applying it.
For example, if people are emailing you support requests directly instead of going to your help desk, don’t respond to them. If you respond, you create an expectation that you are responsive to emails. That invites more emails. Instead, carry on with your high value work, and leave the email until your next batch processing window. If it’s a quick answer, deal with it once. If it’s a more complicated request, add it to your task list or ticket system and let it wait its turn (first in, first out).
Email gives you something to react to. When you are receiving too much email, there’s always something there in your inbox to spend time on. You can check your email in much the same way someone checks Facebook or Twitter—to distract you from the sense of needing to do something else. Email becomes the ultimate procrastination tool. It sucks up time and relieves you of the need to deal with things that actually need your attention.
Without email to react to, you need to make harder decisions like “what should I work on next?” The good news is, you can focus your attention on deep work. It takes some getting used to, but the habit becomes easier once you’ve created the space for real work to take place. Instead of sitting down and opening email to see what your next task is, you can sit down and plan out a productive day. Then once your morning email processing is complete, spend time on high value work that moves you, your job, or your business forward.
I don’t like the term ‘ASAP.’ Nothing about ASAP tells me what I really need to know about prioritizing a task or request. Is it urgent? Is it important? Or does the person just want it done ‘as soon as possible’ for their own personal satisfaction.
If you ask people whether their requests are urgent or important, they’ll tell you the request is both of those things. It probably is urgent to them, possibly because they procrastinated and now they’re up against a deadline of their own. And I’m sure it’s also important, because whatever they’re asking you for directly impacts their job. (Remember, most people you deal with in IT as customers and end users are focused solely on their own priorities.)
Some of us in IT are fortunate enough to work in organisations with clear SLAs in place. SLAs are an agreement between a provider and a customer, whether that is an internal or external customer, describing how a service is provided. It will cover things like availability of services, expected response and resolution times for requests, and consequences for not meeting those targets.
In some ways, SLAs are easy to work with. A medium- priority request must be resolved in 24 hours. A high- priority request must be resolved in four hours. The SLAs define what is medium priority, and what is high priority. In theory this means you simply work on tasks in order of due date. In practice, however, it’s not always that easy. Mostly because SLAs are often poorly defined, and customers self-select the priority based on their own subjective views rather than genuine business impact.
When everything is urgent, nothing is urgent.
The other issue is that most SLAs don’t control how much work is generated by a customer. So excess workload is a problem that isn’t solved by an SLA. You would think that an SLA would actually make it easier to deal with excess workloads. If SLA targets are not being met, a provider knows they should hire more staff to support that customer. Right? Sadly this is not the case. Decision-makers seem to like dealing with the problem by telling their staff to ‘work smarter,’ which is code for “We don’t want to spend more money on staff, so instead we’re going to imply that you’re just not working to your maximum potential.”
Working smarter is a nice idea. But how exactly do we do it?
If I gave you a list of ten tasks to complete, and only enough time to complete five of them, how would you deal with that? You can’t work hard enough to get them all done, so you need to work smarter. Would you tackle the oldest items on the list first? The new items? Or perhaps you’d do the smallest, easiest ones first, and hope there’s time left over for the big stuff.
Prioritizing tasks is key to getting your workload under control, especially when you have a backlog that you’re struggling to deal with. A helpful exercise is to assess all of your work against two metrics:
- Impact for the business (or customer)
- Effort to complete
Using those two metrics, each piece of work that you are responsible for will fit into one of four categories:
- High impact/low effort – these are quick wins that you should prioritize in the short term as they carry long term benefits.
- High impact/high effort – these are major projects that should be scoped in detail and have resources dedicated to them.
- Low impact/low effort – these are small, routine housekeeping tasks that should be delegated or automated.
- Low impact/high effort – these are tasks that are wasting more time than they’re worth and should either be delegated, automated, or discontinued entirely.
As a matrix it looks like this.
Sit down with a piece of paper and draw lines to divide it into four quadrants. As you look through your work, categorize each item into one of the quadrants. You’ll quickly see what you should prioritize in the short term, what needs resourcing for longer term effort, and what you should seek to delegate, automate, or get rid of completely.
You can apply the same categorization to new work that comes in as well. Whether you’re overloaded or not, new work should be assessed for impact and effort. If someone comes to you with a request or an idea for a project, run it through the matrix. This will immediately tell you whether the work has genuine benefits (impact), and whether it can be implemented as a quick win or needs proper scoping and resourcing. You’ll also immediately see when ideas are just change for the sake of change. Different is not always better. If a proposed piece of work is going to be high effort for low impact, it’s probably not worth pursuing in the first place. The matrix helps prevent unnecessary work from being added to your workload, which helps you avoid overwork.
Automation is a polarizing topic because people think that automation will replace their job. Automation can’t replace your job, it can only replace tasks that you perform.
When you automate replaceable tasks it frees up time for you to perform higher value tasks. It’s only when your entire skillset is made up of replaceable tasks that you have a problem.
Rather than seeing automation as your enemy, you’re better off seeing it as a reminder that your career must be built on valuable skills. Avoiding automation won’t help you. In fact, embracing automation is more likely to help you in this situation, because you will develop the skills to automate replaceable tasks, support those automated processes, and solve more of the problems your business has. Now that’s a highly valuable skill.
When talking about automation at a company level, I've found conversations tend to focus in an overly simplistic way on its time-saving and cost-saving benefits. While saving time and money are certainly two potential benefits of automation, they are not the only driving factors.
Here's a more nuanced approach you can bring to the automation conversation the next time it comes up in your company.
Automation drives quality
This is because you can’t automate a process you don’t understand. Completing a process accurately every time drives consistency because automation doesn’t get lazy and skip steps to save time. And automation never forgets how a process is performed, even if it hasn’t recently run that process.
Automation is more easily scalable
To scale up a manual process you need to hire and train more people. To scale up an automated process you simply add more computing resources.
Automation allows you to be more agile
When a manual process changes, everyone who uses that process needs to know about the change. That takes time and communication, and it’s easy for someone who is not paying attention to slip back into the old way of doing things, or simply forget that the process has changed. Automated processes can be changed rapidly by updating the script or code that runs.
Yes, automation saves time
But first you have to invest time upfront to automate a process. And then it will take time to reap the time-saving benefits. This is where I think many IT professionals miscalculate. It’s also important to note that not every automated process needs to save you large amounts of time. Automating a series of ten different five minute tasks saves you very little on a task-by-task basis. But you will save 50 minutes of time in total. Probably more when you take into account the time lost when switching from one task to another.
Automation also saves you time on repeat processes, or reruns. Here’s an example:
On one customer project I needed to migrate 200 web pages from one platform to another. A manual copy- paste of the page would have taken half the day to do. Instead, I spent that half-day writing a script to migrate the web pages automatically. When the time came to run the migration it only took a few minutes to complete. So, no time saving yet. But, sure enough, the next day the customer told me that several of the pages had changed on the old server and needed to be re-migrated. Instead of spending time hunting down which ones had changed, I simply reran the script and the changes were migrated across in minutes.
Automation is a simple solution, but not an easy one
To turn a manual process into an automated process you must:
- Learn an automation tool or language (such as Python or PowerShell).
- Understand the process, its dependencies, and any conditions that might cause it to branch off in a different direction.
- Write the code or implement the tools to automate the process.
- Monitor and debug the automation until it is running reliably.
And that’s just for one process. Granted, you can reuse your learnings in Python or PowerShell and apply them to multiple automation scenarios. But there’ll still be unique elements of each problem that need you to invest time to learn how to solve them.
MAKING PEACE WITH INCREMENTAL PROGRESS
Working in IT means facing big problems every day. Some of those problems need solving in order to make your working life more enjoyable. For example, if you’re swamped by work involving repetitive, manual processing, the obvious solution is to start automating that work.
Big problems are made up of smaller problems to solve. If you only focus on the big problems, it can be quite daunting. It can feel like any progress you make is meaningless until you have solved the big problem in its entirety. This can be a serious productivity killer.
This is why it’s important to break big problems down into small problems. Each small problem you solve is a victory you can celebrate, one that takes you incrementally closer to your goal. In the automation
scenario I mentioned earlier, the big problem is that you’re doing too much manual processing of routine tasks. It’s going to take time to get to a point where 90% or more of your manual processes are automated. This big goal can be broken into smaller goals, such as:
- Goal #1 – identify the top ten manual processes that are taking up your time.
- Goal #2 – spend 30 days learning the fundamentals of PowerShell.
- Goal #3 – write a PowerShell script that handles one of the top ten manual processes.
- Goal #4 – improve the script to the point where you feel comfortable handing it over to your team to use. Or, even better, that you feel comfortable having the script run automatically to handle those tasks.
That’s progress you can build on. Once you get that first process automated, you can take what you’ve learned and automate the next process after it. The same approach can be used for any big problem you’re facing. Give yourself a fighting chance by breaking it down into small, manageable chunks, and then start to make incremental progress.
DEALING WITH INTERRUPTIONS
A technology professional’s day usually consists of three types of work:
- Proactive, routine processes (e.g. daily backup checks, monthly reports)
- Reactive support tasks (e.g. responding to tech support calls, alarms)
- Innovation and improvements (e.g. developing new systems, upgrades)
Different technology roles will spend different portions of their day on those tasks. A help desk worker will spend more time reacting to support requests. A tier 2/3 system administrator will tend to have extra responsibilities to innovate and improve systems.
Striking the right balance is a challenge in overworked, understaffed teams. There is a natural tendency to deal with the problems that look like fires. Work is a never- ending stream of ‘urgent’ requests. But that leaves no time for innovation and improvement. We have to make time for it.
I say ‘make’ time, because there isn’t a bunch of spare time hidden away somewhere that you can ‘find.’ You have to remove other things from your day to make time for the work that is most important.
The biggest obstacle is that we work in environments of frequent interruption.
- Reactive support work is immune to interruption. The urgency of reactive work allows us to say no to interruptions that are less important. If something more important does come up, we can return to a problem and refocus fast.
- Proactive, routine process work is also immune to interruption. It is simple to return to a routine process and pick up at the last step you were working on.
- Innovation and improvement work is different. This work requires extended
periods of deep concentration. But sitting and thinking about a challenging question can look and feel unproductive. This makes innovative work especially prone to interruption. The coworker who sees you sitting still will assume you’re not busy, and will interrupt you with a question. The manager who measures output through perceived effort instead of actual results, will assume you need more work to do.
Many studies have measured the impact that interruption has on productivity. The accepted wisdom is that interruptions don’t only consume time for the duration of the interruption itself. They can also impact your mental progress for up to 30 minutes after. When a five-minute chat becomes a 35-minute loss of productivity, you can see the problem.
As time passes and interruptions continue, the problem spreads even further. Work piles up. Stress levels rise. Our moods and general well-being deteriorate. Productivity declines as we start to resent the interruptions that keep us from making real progress. Burnout is a common outcome of this type of work environment.
A career in technology involves working on complex systems. And technology moves fast, so things also change rapidly. We need to learn complex things quickly, then adapt as they change.
When was the last time you were able to quickly learn a complicated new technology while being constantly interrupted? I would think the answer is ‘not recently.’ But it’s important to keep learning otherwise you risk becoming a commodity worker in an industry that places little value on such skills.
And it’s not enough to learn new skills. You also need to create value. Unfortunately, value is not created through repetitive, process-driven, reactive work. Value comes from innovation and improvement. In other words:
- the type of work most vulnerable to interruptions
- the type of work that requires extended periods of focus and concentration.
The way most people find those extended periods for focus is by working longer hours. (When everyone else has gone home, there’s finally peace and quiet to work on a challenging problem.) Or they work from home in the evenings and on weekends.
I’ve done this myself, to varying degrees of success. A few nights or a weekend spent bashing out a problem that saves me an hour a day is worthwhile. But spending every night and weekend doing work is neither worthwhile or healthy.
To make space for focussed work in a healthy and sustainable way, we need to remove distraction and interruption. On a personal level, the solutions are well known. Cut down on social media, close your email, and turn off smartphone notifications. I take Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit completely off my phone for most of the year. Facebook gets reinstalled only when we’re traveling so I can keep up with friends while on vacation. Twitter only gets installed if I’m at an event or conference that is using it as a primary social channel.
Likewise, with emails, texts, and phone calls, I have my phone set to automatically enable Do Not Disturb mode at 6pm each evening. Only my wife and a few family and friends are able to interrupt me after that time. I might unlock my phone and check for messages now and then, but that’s an active decision on my part and not an interruption. This has allowed me to spend my evenings giving full attention to my family, or a personal project that I’m working on, or even just reading a book without my phone trying to get my attention.
In a professional setting, it gets trickier. How do you turn off interruptions yet still do your job? How do you dedicate blocks of time to focussed work when anyone can walk up to you with a question or a five-minute chat?
One simple trick is to work with a teammate. Working with someone is the ultimate cure for interruptions and distractions. People are less likely to interrupt you when you’re already with someone. It also keeps you focussed on the task at hand and removes the temptation to check email or quickly browse Reddit.
A more complex solution that needs some management support is to block out big chunks of your day where you:
- can’t be booked for meetings
- don’t answer phone calls, and
- don’t accept walk-up interruptions.
That last one is tricky if your office doesn’t have a way to prevent people from walking up to you. I’ve seen teams go to the extent of hanging a sign at the entrance to their area that says the team is unavailable between certain hours of the day. If someone believes their problem is important enough to interrupt them, they are requested to call the team leader who will filter those requests and pull aside a team member when necessary. That was a difficult change to implement, and it ruffled a few feathers in the organization, but eventually things calmed down and productivity improved.
The most important thing is that you’re consistent with your boundaries and expectations. If you’re known as someone who doesn’t respond to email straight away, but who always replies by the end of the day, people will get used to that and accept it. If you’re known as someone who is available for meetings in the morning, but not the afternoons, people will get used to that too. And if you’re someone who politely turns away interruptions that aren’t emergencies, directing people to use email or your ticketing system instead, people will get used to that and stop bothering you with unimportant matters.
Multitasking is a myth. Much as we’d like to believe it, we really can’t work on more than one thing at a time. When we think we’re multitasking, what we’re actually doing is task switching.
Yes, even when you think you’re multitasking by running a process on one screen, and reading your email in another screen while you wait for the process to finish, that’s really just task switching.
Every time we switch tasks, we lose time. Our brain has to stop one activity, then start another one. Task switching is a self-created interruption. At a micro level, these interruptions may only cause a few seconds of lost time. But they also drain our energy and increase the chance of making a mistake.
Over the course of several hours, constantly interrupting yourself to switch tasks costs you time, energy, and accuracy. Give your tasks the focus they need.
The majority of meetings in the workplace are a pointless waste of time. And time is money. As I once saw posted on Twitter, you aren’t trusted to authorize a $500 purchase but you can call an hour long meeting for 20 people and nobody cares.
I once worked in a distributed team of about ten staff with two managers. Each week we held a team meeting via conference call for an hour. The meeting always lasted an hour, and provided very little real value to the team. The team leader opened the meeting by sharing various news and announcements. Rarely was there any discussion about the announcements. The only constraint on the team leader was to leave enough time for the rest of the agenda items.
After 30 to 40 minutes of information sharing the team leader would finish speaking and then we would ‘go around the room,’ each person sharing a brief update with the team about their work and any current issues they were dealing with. With eight to ten team members sharing their status update in just 20 minutes of meeting time we all became quite adept at summarizing our points into one to two minutes. The meeting would then wrap up at the one hour mark as planned, and we’d all get back to work.
Personally I found this meeting to largely be a waste of time. To prove this, I decided to flip things around. Each week a different team member took turns chairing the meeting and keeping notes. When it was my turn, I changed the normal order of speaking and started with everyone’s quick status updates. After 15 minutes everyone had shared what they wanted to share, and I turned the meeting over to the team leader. This put him in an awkward position. If he spoke until the end of the hour, it would seem he was just speaking to fill the time. Instead, he spoke until he’d shared all of his important matters, and then stopped. We wrapped up the meeting in just 30 minutes instead of the usual hour, a total saving across the team of five hours of productivity.
Meetings have a way of expanding to fill the allotted time. That team meeting was a perfect example. Worse, the meeting was multipurpose, which actually diminished its usefulness rather than enhancing it.
If you search online for ‘types of meetings’ you’ll find many different results telling you there are anywhere from five to 16 types of business meetings. In my view there are only three types of meetings worth having:
- status meetings
- decision meetings
- workshop meetings
Most of the other meeting types you’ll see online can be grouped into those three types. Some are not really meetings at all. For example a sales meeting, (whether you’re ‘selling’ to a customer or to your managers to go away afterwards and make a decision), is really a presentation or an event, depending on the scale.
Each of the three meeting types achieves a specific goal:
- Status meetings are for sharing information of any size
- Decision meetings are for making decisions or coming to an agreement
- Workshop meetings are for developing ideas or solving problems
Any meeting that attempts to combine two or more of those goals is a bad meeting. A status meeting that gets sidetracked into debating a decision, or goes down a rabbit hole of problem solving, will inevitably be wasting the time of several attendees who are only there for the main purpose of the meeting.
And in a lot of cases, the same goals can be achieved without holding a meeting at all.
Status updates can be provided via other channels such as email, chat/IM software, and project management systems. This works particularly well in distributed teams and staggered shifts. Why wait for the entire team to arrive in the morning before sharing status updates? The early starters can share theirs then get to work, while the later arrivals can come in and read what’s already shared, then add their status update as well.
Decisions can be reached by asking for suggestions then running a poll to select a way forward that most people agree with. Even better, choose just a few key people to make a decision instead of giving everyone a say in the matter. It’s nice for everyone to have a voice, but not every decision needs everyone’s input. For example, pick two people to select the monitoring products to evaluate instead of asking the entire team of ten. If they get stuck then they can solicit some more opinions from others. By shrinking the number of decision makers they become more invested in the process, develop a greater sense of responsibility and ownership, and aren’t just throwing in a vote to go along with everyone else. Pick a different two people to decide how to plan a system upgrade, a different two people to choose a new report template, and so on. Everyone gets to make decisions, but not everyone has to be involved in every decision.
If you must hold a decision meeting for something big and important, give each attendee all of the background information so they can review it beforehand. Explain the problem, the desired outcome, and the pros and cons of each option for moving forward. The goal is for everyone to come to the meeting ready to reach an agreement on the decision. If they aren’t prepared, they don’t get a say in the decision. A few questions or clarifications are fine, but don’t get sucked into workshopping the issue or re-explaining it to someone. If you haven’t provided enough information for a decision to be made, end the meeting, go away and try again. Few people like to make an important decision under time pressure, so you shouldn’t expect ill-informed meeting attendees to have to decide based on last-minute information.
Workshop meetings can be quite valuable if done correctly. Workshops should be as isolated and distraction-free as possible to ensure everyone is focussed on the problem at hand. They should also be shorter than you think they need to be. A full day workshop sounds like a great way to innovate on new ideas. But energy levels tend to wane later in the day. Instead, try a series of shorter workshop meetings with space in between them for people’s idle minds to chew on problems. You might just find that planting a few seeds in people’s minds on a Tuesday morning will yield better ideas on Thursday than if you just sat in a room for an entire day thinking about the matter.
More Effective Meetings
As a meeting organizer you should always know what the goal of your meeting is, and respect people’s time.
- Always clearly state the purpose of the meeting and provide an agenda.
- Replace as many status meetings as you can with check-ins instead.
- Schedule meetings for the minimum possible time. A ten minute meeting from 2:05pm to 2:15pm lets people know that they are showing up for a quick, deliberate matter and not a 30 minute or longer chit chat.
- Use standing areas for meetings. A meeting room with no chairs is perfect for this. Otherwise, implement a ‘no sitting’ rule. Standing up ensures people don’t get relaxed and comfortable as this can lead to distraction and ‘waffling on.’
- Start on time, always. If someone is late don’t make everyone wait while you stop to catch them up.
- Don’t ‘go around the room.’ If you’re seeking input, ask one person, then ask a second person if they agree or disagree. If the question can’t be resolved that way then a separate decision meeting should be scheduled so you can move on with the purpose of the meeting you’re already in.
- Always record and send meeting minutes to attendees along with agreed decisions or action items (ideally these go straight into your task management system).
- If someone is only needed for part of a longer meeting, let them know that they can come late or leave early.
- Cancel meetings that aren’t providing value. If a weekly project status meeting is wasting time because the project is moving slower than expected, or because status updates are being well-communicated via other channels, then there’s no need to keep holding the meeting.
As a meeting attendee you can use the points above to set your own expectations of whether to attend meetings you’re invited to.
- Decline meetings with no agenda or that have no clear purpose.
- Show up on time and keep the small talk to a minimum so the meeting can get underway on time.
- If you are no longer needed in a meeting, excuse yourself and leave. Why stay the full hour if the relevant portion for you was all finished in the first ten minutes?
- Block out parts of your calendar where you don’t want to be invited to meetings. For example, keep your regular lunch break blocked out, and the last 30 minutes of the day so that you can wrap up your work and get out on time to catch the train home.
Chapter 5 Recap
Don’t get stuck in the helpfulness trap. Develop a coaching habit to slow down the rate at which you say ‘yes’ to things, and to ensure the tasks you end up with are the tasks most appropriate for you. To ensure your inbox isn’t ruling your life, you need to minimize email volume, process your emails efficiently (using filtering, sorting and archiving) and process your email in batches (at set times during the day).
- Use the impact vs effort matrix to effectively prioritize tasks and ensure you don’t spend any time on high effort, low impact tasks.
- Don’t look at automation as a threat to your job. Look at it as a timely warning to upskill (if your skill set is made up of replaceable tasks).
- Break big tasks and goals into smaller tasks and goals to keep your motivation levels up.
- Devise methods for reducing the number of times you are interrupted during the day as interruptions are the enemy of deep work.
- Multitasking is a myth. All multitasking is actually task switching, and task switching is a guaranteed productivity killer.
- Remember that meetings are giant productivity killers so do what you can to:
- reduce the number of meetings in your life
- make the meetings you are part of more effective.
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