Do you ever have one of those lightbulb moments after someone says something just the right way and you get a whole new perspective on something?That happened at TeamworkIQ HQ while catching up on Bloomberg’s Game Plan podcast-show hybrid. An episode called Learning to Love (or at Least Live With) Email featuring the Duke University behavioral economist, Dan Ariley came up, and he said something that caught our attention about why an unmanaged email inbox can eat up your time.
He called sorting and deleting emails – sifting through and formatting your inbox – “structured procrastination”. That got us thinking. While working on the design of TeamworkIQ we’ve spent a lot of time looking at ways people and teams manage productivity – and how people can easily trick themselves into thinking they’re being productive by doing lots of busywork rather than focusing on priority work. However, discerning priority “signal” from the general inbox “noise” can be a time consuming chore all by itself.
Control Your Email Time
While the Inbox Zero strategy has been popular for a while, embracing Merlin Mann’s advice for managing time spent on email, setting aside specific blocks of time to handle important emails and triaging the rest, the fact is that it requires extra effort. Ariely’s solution to “structured procrastination” is different. It removes much of the effort out of the Inbox Zero process. How has he done it? He’s cleverly configured various settings and rules in his email software to auto-respond to messages with a FAQ to answer the most common questions and a unique contact form to triage messages for those who still have something to discuss. There’s even a ‘How urgent is this?’ option which he uses to further prioritize his time.
Putting This Into Practice with Your Team
Are there good ways to do something similar for teams? Something automated that enables teams to focus and move work forward more efficiently without having to outright abandon email?Of course, when people work together, team communication is vital. Email and messaging platforms (Slack, Microsoft Teams, HipChat, Facebook) are always going to be key. Communication is how people stay in sync and know what’s important to do next. The ubiquity of email enables employees, contractors, vendors and customers to communicate seamlessly. Slack, Microsoft Teams and other messaging services tend toward uses in smaller, tight-knit teams. Either way, unstructured communication can be extremely time consuming with hours spent wading through messages, looking for the newest version of document attachments, and making sure everyone knows the latest status of work to be done and who takes what next steps.To stop wasting time in email or messaging, unstructured messages need structure. You must keep your messages clear and to the point; reducing the effort involved in identifying the next high-value task is vital.The disciplined email triage inspired by Inbox Zero can help. But that takes work. Today, with recent advancements in computing, automated “smarts” are being applied to make people more productive. For example, Acompli‘s “focused inbox” (now part of the Microsoft Outlook Mobile App) applied intelligence to detect what to “focus” on versus “other” email and sorted your inbox into two buckets by those same names. That’s not too different from the objectives of Ariely’s contact form. It cuts down on time spent triaging email and puts important work the focus of priorities. At their core, Acompli, Ariely’s auto-reply contact form and Mann’s Inbox Zero all provide ways to reduce the amount of time wasted on busywork and distractions. Work that makes you feel like you are being productive but which does not actually drive results.
Smart Automation for Streamlined Processes
One irony of many productivity tools is that they require extra effort be put in to get time savings out. In fact, when people work in teams, our research at TeamworkIQ has shown often the time put in exceeds the time saved (something we’ve committed to solve). Certainly Acompli’s automated smarts and Mann’s automated email processing rules’ remove the manual chore of triaging email. Those are good for personal productivity, but how do you achieve efficiency and focus for teams?Similar to Acompli, we’re pioneering a smart app that takes the busywork out of teamwork, enabling teams to work together, prioritizing and executing work more efficiently, while keeping things from falling through the cracks. Best of all, and like Acompli, there’s no need to for a team to change their basic workday habits. You simply type up who needs to do what and send it out. TeamworkIQ’s smarts coordinate the rest, automatically sharing a collaborative checklist with everyone involved, focusing team members on priorities for the project or workflow steps, and keeping everyone up to date on progress.Avoiding time wasted by eliminating busywork by creating clear, prioritized, actionable focus is the goal. It should be a design principle for all productivity engineering. It’s certainly vital to our work here at TeamworkIQ.