“I didn’t get anything done, I was doing email all day.”

How often do you find yourself saying things like this?:337698-get-organized-5-reasons-your-inbox-is-not-your-to-do-list

“I got no work done, I was in meetings all day!”

“I didn’t get anything done, I was doing email all day.”

I think this is one of the drivers behind why we are working so hard, so long, and with such a cost to our work/life balance.  We are working – but it doesn’t feel like work.  Why?

I have a theory.

1. The number of meetings we go to that are really relevant to us is very small.

2. The percentage of email that we get that’s actually relevant to us is very small.

I’m not the only one who thinks this is true.  For example, Tim Ferris has long advocated against email.  Here’s a great post where he suggests using auto-reply to eliminate most email.  He also advises against attending meetings unless they have an agenda and an end time.  Lots of experts suggest that meetings are often over-subscribed and under-performing; the advent of the “standup meeting” is the natural antidote to that.

But I definitely don’t have a job where I can eschew email and stand up through every meeting. Still, I’ve been able to combat this idea that replying to email and attending meetings isn’t “work”.  Here’s how.

  • I figured out what meetings to go to.  Some meetings are status reports from all the participants, some are working sessions, some are read-outs from a project group, some are announcements from management, and some fall into some other category.  At both Dell and Infinio I’ve looked at the meetings I attend (sometimes 4-6 hours’ worth a day at Dell, at Infinio considerably fewer) and asked “Do I need to be attending this meeting?”  Nobody ever perceived me as difficult for asking – and often I was just being invited as a courtesy.

The thing that drives me nuts is people showing up to a meeting and doing other work, usually sorting through email. Either you have to be at the meeting or you don’t.  Unless you are in an extremely dysfunctional organization (in which case, leave!), there are rarely meetings that you “sort of” have to be at.  It’s rude to the organizer, and you won’t actually feel like you accomplished anything.

  • For email, I use Franklin Covey’s FAD method.  mrDiva took the course years ago and it’s one of the tips that we both still use.  Every email you get should get Filed, Acted upon, or Deleted.  Deleted means deleted – and many things you are cc’d on can be deleted.  Acted upon means you have some action to take based on the email, and those stay in your inbox  (At the end of a week I rarely have more than 10 items in my inbox.)  And Filed means you need to refer to it later, so you save it somewhere.  Now that I use Google Mail, it’s even easier because instead of Filing, I just Archive.  If I need it later, I just search rather than try to remember a folder I put it in.

And before you go all Negative Nancy on me – at Dell I was in email hell: I got hundreds of messages a day, and still managed to use this system.  Just be methodical, be ruthless, and only keep something in your Inbox if you still have to do something with it.  Face it, most people send you an email, then they come over and ask you if you got their email.  If you accidentally archive or file something you should have acted on, they’ll let you know.

Once I did these two things, I stopped feeling guilty about replying to emails and attending meetings.  I’m communicating with colleagues, customers, and vendors; I’m designing our product, strategy, and tactics; I’m understanding the bigger picture and explaining the details.

And all that is work.

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