It Does Have an Off Button

30 July 2015

co-authored with Peter Todd

Last week’s TWOG suggested that the new digital technologies may be driving much managing over the edge, making it frenetic to the point where managers lose control of their own work. This week’s TWOG suggests what managers, and everyone else driven nuts by these technologies (who isn’t?), can do about it. 

Holidays are magical times, and not just because the sun is shining. This can also be because of the silence: the smart phone is off, not a hint of “You’ve got mail!”… if you take the opportunity.

Are you? (Ha! Not if you are reading this in some vacation paradise!) How often do you? Or are you yet another prisoner of the new electronic technologies, struggling to keep the digital world, with its e-mail and i-phones, texts and tweets, apart from your own world?

How to harness these new technologies, to serve us instead of us serving them? Various estimates have office workers spending almost 30% of their time just on e-mail. A Google search of “effective e-mail communication” yielded some 63 million results―another example of “information overload” (which itself yields over 10 million results)1―although much of this proved to be about “good communication,” meaning to be clear and concise, etc. All of us can certainly communicate better, but our concern here is about dealing with the volume, flow, and distraction. So please consider the following:

Get e-stingy   

There is one obvious way to alleviate the problem: think before you send.  Reduce your sent messages, and their number of recipients. The more messages and people you put on a network, the more messages you can expect in return. This may be obvious, but how many of us get it? Or realize that we can spend so much time arranging things on e-mail that we barely have time to do them. So please, be electronically stingy: send the minimum, and only to people who need to know. (Have a look at the Guide at the end about studying yourself.)

Use PAs and e-PAs  

The personal assistants who have long managed the time, information flow, and access to executives can handle e-mail tasks too. They can triage, delegate, even reply. Multiple e-mail addresses―one public, for the PA to screen, the other private, for yourself―can be used to manage message volume. But even without the luxury of a personal assistant, consider that second e-mail address, restricted to a close circle of contacts: this one to look at carefully, the other one to skim occasionally. (How about a third one, to collect the debris of your online registration adventures?)  Maybe even consider a personal server, although we don’t recommend this to any American Secretary of State who happens to be reading this.

Take a seven-hour e-sabbatical 

Managing your e-mail load is one thing, but you also need to escape from it. At the limit, take note of Danah Boyd of Microsoft, who not only declared an e-mail sabbatical but also used an electronic filter to delete all incoming messages, with an automatic reply to contact her after her sabbatical ended. But you needn’t go that far: a sabbatical of a few hours can help too. Just try scheduling out e-mail time, attending to it in blocks only once or twice a day, bearing in mind that “urgent” does not necessary mean having to respond urgently (or, in some cases, at all). 

Better still, schedule in “soft time” for personal interaction and reflection, when nothing is scheduled. Try turning off the message prompts in favor of “out of office” replies, even when you are in the office. (For managers, this can read: “Sorry, I’m managing.”) And when you go home, be sure to forget your chargers at work (or hide the ones at home), let the batteries run down, and watch your own energy rise up.

Go e-bankrupt   

Some people who were completely overwhelmed have declared “e-mail bankruptcy.” Out with the old e-mail address and in with a new one. Given that fresh start, you can develop better habits about how to send, receive, and respond to messages, while losing connections with those people best left behind. At the very least, you can push key mail to a new address, as mentioned above. Especially when you change jobs, take advantage of the opportunity to simplify your communication life.

Find th-e-button  

When all else fails, remember that every one of these devices has an off button. Seriously: you can discover it in some corner of the screen, or hiding on some edge. Hit it to stop yourself from going over the edge. That way, you might discover that your work and your life have an on button!

One thing we have learned in the novel management programs we developed at McGill (impm.org and imhl.org; see also CoachingOurselves.com) is that managers today desperately need to pause, step back, and reflect thoughtfully on their own experience. Managers hardly need development programs that replicate the pressures of managing. We find that the temporarily disconnected managers in our programs relish the opportunity to learn by sharing their experiences with each other. Sometimes this even distracts them from those devices vibrating in their pockets! 

By temporarily disconnected, we don’t mean until the next coffee break. Every management development program requires use of that off-button during class time. But don’t conclude that its owner has stopped running in his or her head, all ready to reconnect the moment that break is announced. We encourage even those who can’t wind themselves down to at least wait until the program winds itself down for the day.

All of us need to appreciate that the off button works outside the classroom—in the office, even at home, and especially during holidays. So use it, now that you have finished reading this TWOG (after you read the Guide below—that’s urgent!).

© Henry Mintzberg and Peter Todd 2015. Peter is the former dean at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management and incoming Directeur Général of HEC Paris. See our article “The Offline Executive” for an extension of these points. See also CoachingOurselves.com  to engage your own group in these ideas. Photo at end taken by photographer Lisa Mintzberg.

 

GUIDE: Study yourself…to become part of the solution

Try the following exercise, to determine whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution, also to assess how important the messages you send and receive really are. The results may surprise you.

Do three calculations: (1) of your send/receive ratio: the number of messages you send compared with those you receive; (2) of your origination rate: the percentage of messages you initiate rather than reply to; and (3) of your action-required rate: the portion of messages you receive for which some action is required (typically replying or forwarding).

By way of illustration, one of us, Peter (the has-dean), not Henry (the is-professor), did this for a work week, and was surprised by the result. He received 294 e-mails, not counting those caught by junk mail and spam filters. 20% of these were generated by messaging systems; the rest came from individual senders. During this week, 64 e-mails were sent to 76 recipients.  Of these, 33 were responses to some of the 294 messages received (a little more than 10%), 13 were messages received and forwarded to someone else to handle (about 5%), and 18 were messages originated (6% of the total received).

In other words, of the 294 e-mails received, only 46 (about 15%) required action, 107 (about one-third) were unread (because the subject line said it all, the information was obsolete, or the message did not pass the personal junk-mail filter), and the rest (about half) could be classified as “for information” (which could still require significant time and attention).

All quite surprising. And you?

ADDENDUM: e-mail from Peter 30/7/2015

Henry. If we want to embarrass ourselves you could publish this string of emails as an appendix. On the other hand think of how long this might have taken if we'd used pens, scissors, scotch tape and Canada Post to process the edits back and forth! In retrospect and upon reflection all this technology is good for something after all. Peter

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Apparently you are not overwhelmed, so here are some more of those Google stats: there are 50 million on effective tweeting, 14 million on effective text messaging, and most important of all, 430,000 on how to use texts to flirt effectively.