I was listening to a show the other day about technology. How it hasn’t changed what we thought it would change. My first example? Underware. Human beings used to change their underwear about once every six months. I know that you just said to yourself Ewwwwwwwww!
There was a practical reason for this, back before we had washing machines, doing the laundry was an incredibly difficult task. You would spend quite a bit of time hand scrubbing each individual item. You may have had to drag the water all the way from the creek or the town spigot because there was limited or no plumbing available. You may also have had to make your own soap, this is also a very long process. We are talking dozens if not hundreds of hours every year just to have clean underwear. Well the dirty underwear serves the same basic purpose as clean underwear so it’s pretty easy to see why cleaning and changing your underwear was aligned to the regular spring and fall cleaning of the house. Then came washing machines, what a time saver, right? Throw the clothing in, drop in some soap from the local store and an hour later you’ve got clean clothing. So what did we do? We started changing our underwear every day. The savings in time went out the door as we had to do laundry every week. Collect it, separate it, wash it, dry it, fold it. As anyone with a family will tell you there is almost always a mountain of laundry somewhere that needs to be taken care of.
Moving into the world of business, an oft cited example is the the idea of the receptionist. Someone who would usually sit at the front desk of a company. They would greet visitors, answer the phone and route the calls. Now we call and we get voice mail options. As for the front desk, I’ve walked into several organizations where there is an empty desk and a phone with a list of extensions. Older buildings have been retrofitted with a room that’s enclosed with a locked door, some chairs and the phone. There isn’t even a desk. How cold is that? So what happens? The main phone line rings, we answer, the phone rings again, we answer again. After we are done with the phone we find that we are distracted from our tasks. How much of managing these phone inquiry’s pull professionals from the task at hand, or worse suck up phone time away from a call that’s specifically come in for them? Then there is a voice mail, you have to listen to it, respond and the game of phone tag commences.
Don’t forget that we are in the age of digital communication. This includes email and the rise of twitter and texting for professional communications: Yes, millennial professionals will communicate via short text messaging with new contacts). Yes, gen X’ers and older will vent about the email usage patterns of millennials, and millennials will operate as they have become accustomed to. The important part to know is that these communications are direct and unfiltered. The barrier to entry is very slim so the volume of communication ‘touches’ becomes enormous and they all are routed directly, to you. This results in a thousand tweets or text’s or hundreds of emails per day among other digital contact methods. This takes tons of time to filter and respond to. It’s at that point you aren’t making any real progress or change. At some point the volume of communications starts to be the focus of your day, not the organization’s mission.
I’ve been on this rant before, with the underlying message that you need to be prepared for what’s next. That the pace of change is accelerating and as an educated professional you have the skills to deal with it if you wish to be proactive. It’s not just laundry, we see it in our daily activities. Today’s commentary is from a different slant. Today I want to discuss the importance of being aware of the technology effect and of figuring out ways to enjoy the benefits of technology without the liabilities. In short, how do you filter? So here are some thoughts.
- Control your communication methods: This is similar to only having one or two social media outlets for your brand but engaging your community aggressively through those specific channels. When you have a web forum, an email discussion list, a Vine, a Google Plus, a Yahoo Groups, a Facebook page, a twitter presence, a blog, (the list goes on and on and seems ever changing and endless) then you have that many more different things to track. For the professional it can be many of the same outlets and more including voicemails to text, emails, linkedin, Skype etc… Pick a few methods and just use them. I admit, this is much harder than it sounds. That’s why it’s something that should be focused on.
- Respond with a phone call. This one is least used, but it’s a pretty good way to clear the cruft. Pick up the phone. It’s that simple. Five minutes on the phone, in an organized way can eliminate an entire day’s worth of email exchanges.
- Delete it. How many people have two thousand emails in their in box? I always ask myself a simple question: Is there anything I need to do based upon this email? If there is, then I do it as quickly as possible and then delete / archive it. If not, it gets deleted / archived immediately. The trick with this is that sometimes it’s hard to figure out if you need to do something with the email. I find by verbalizing it, literally I ask myself out loud “Do I need to contact anyone about this chamber of commerce email?”. By saying the question out loud, it allows me to quickly figure out if I need to proceed to delete, or act.
- Organize it outside of the communication medium. This may seem a bit quirky but it works. It’s based on the overflowing email inbox or other messaging streams mentioned above. As an example, many people don’t delete or organize emails. The box becomes a twitter-like stream of information that never gets deleted. Some have long lists of folders they have lovingly set up through the years in Microsoft Outlook. That works, but in my experience most workflows don’t really use these folders for searching. But if you have another medium, a CRM, or a word doc with notes on a specific project, this gives you the ability to really focus on the projects or topics you want and eliminate the cruft. The question then becomes “do I even need to keep this information or is it just a waste”. In the rare case that their is important information to refer to later, you keep it in an area outside of the digital communications medium. Otherwise, archive quickly and move on with your day.
I’ve concentrated on email and other digital communications because they are a technology that correlates well with the earlier example of laundry. Instead of getting one formal regular letter a week with important information we went to getting hundreds of emails a day, to potentially thousands of tweets a day. It’s the same thing as washing your underwear. We tend to do more work with the technology but ultimately get the same or less done. It’s not as much as a productivity enhancement that we, or the technological pundits, would like to believe it is.
Why do this? Honestly, It’s to make the impact you want to make. This is another commentary on the age old wisdom of remembering to focus on productivity rather than activity. Activity is easy, it’s defendable, it’s a great place to hide. It’s why it has become the norm for so many organizations. Everyone is safe with faux productivity. It’s highly seductive, but it doesn’t make an impact, at least not quickly. Your laundry is crisp, folded, and in the drawer until tomorrow when it has to be washed and folded again.
There is power in eliminating the extra activity. The power is in time and focus. If you have an empty email inbox, if you engage and are selective about how you communicate, the end result will be additional time. If you have that time then you can actually push a big change; the pet project, the championing of the thing you believe is more important than the other things. What ever that extra thing is, you become the guy or gal who is identified by it. That means if there is an actual opening for leadership in that area, your chances are better than not to get it. You won’t be considered if your just one more cog in the email grind adding a few thoughts here and there. This is one way to make the brute force attack of career ascendance a bit easier to manage. The less cruft you have to deal with, the more you can do that ‘extra’ that drives your competitive position.
One alternative point: If you are only in your job to get a paycheck. You are the Wally of your organization. You have given up on any sort of growth or aspirations in your professional career, well then stick with the email. Be organized to a fault. Spend lots of time promoting email chains, and rules, and existing initiatives. Activity is your friend. Their is always corporate laundry to be done and the person most effective at doing it is the person who will be left alone, usually.
There is no right or wrong answer here. My personality tends toward one side of this equation but I envy the attitudes and benefits of other side. The good news is that no matter what side you choose, your personal workflow is similar to how often you do your laundry. It’s really hard for people to know how often you clean everything out because it’s mostly underneath other stuff. This let’s you change it as much or as little as you want so you can find what’s most comfortable for you and do that.