Tag Archives: Personal Productivity

The elasticity of time


Even though I use a quote from Albert Einstein elsewhere on this site, this post is not an exploration of his theory of relativity!

In recent weeks I have experienced both the total relaxation of holidays and the hectic busyness of a very full work schedule. Every day that passed apparently had the same number of hours on the clock. But it certainly didn’t feel that way.

The clock ticks at the same pace all the time. Each day comes and goes. The sun rises and then sets. Newspapers land in the stores with a new date.  Yet, time can feel so elastic.

On some holidays, with days of unstructured relaxation lying ahead, time can appear to be infinite. And many of us will tend to act as if there is an unlimited supply of time. But the clock is ticking at the same pace.

When we are under pressure, facing a deadline, or have over-committed ourselves, it feels like time is in very short supply. We work to maximise the output of every single minute. Yet, the clock is ticking at the same pace.

From working closely with people in our ‘Overcoming Procrastination’ workshops, I have noticed that our varying perception of the value of time can lie at the root of many non-productive behaviours. Why do we treat our time as being precious and valuable one day, yet the following day act as if it is a commodity with an infinite supply?

Finding a more consistent or level balance on how we value our time can be hugely effective in helping us get into a productive mode and ultimately, achieve our targets and goals. If we can find our optimal ‘sense of urgency’ and ensure that it is sustainable, then we will have developed a very productive habit.

The ‘sense of urgency’ label may have become a cliche in many business circles but I think it accurately captures a critical point of human behaviour. Of course, it’s easy to abuse the concept, especially in corporate environments where ‘sense of urgency’ is measured as a required competency. I have seen many expend a lot of energy in creating a storm of dust but ultimately achieving very little.

So, here’s a key question: what is the optimal level of urgency that gets you moving on what you need to do but doesn’t tire you too quickly?

In recent months, I have developed the habit of a daily reflection, mostly completed before I begin my work. At present, I reflect on four points under the heading of ‘sense of urgency’:

  1. My time is not infinite
  2. Today will never come again
  3. Now is the time to act
  4. I am at my best when I move with purpose

What works for you when you work to arm yourself with your optimal sense of urgency?

Overcoming Procrastination – Cork September ’09

It’s showtime!

The first Smarter Egg Overcoming Procrastination programme will commence on Wednesday, September 23rd at the Ambassador Hotel, Cork. The first session will run from 7pm to 9.30pm.

This will be the first of four sessions with the other dates reserved for September 30th and October 14th & 28th.

Places on this initial programme are strictly limited to just fifteen people. Already, almost half of the places are reserved so procrastination on signing up will likely lead to disappointment!

This programme will be a unique blend of different learning elements: interactive workshops, facilitated discussions, personal assignments with a special option of individual coaching in the area of procrastination.

If you would like to participate or would like to treat a spouse, family member or colleague to an innovative learning experience, then please contact us immediately to reserve your place.

Procrastination, regret & motivation


Procrastination isn’t a victimless crime. And it probably shouldn’t be described as a crime either.

Procrastination can have consequences. We can miss opportunities. Relationships can fade unnecessarily. Sometimes, we even face sanctions because of our failure to do something on time.

This story, from one of the better sources of inspiration on productivity online, is quite powerful. Procrastination has meant that a dream lies unfulfilled.

But there’s hope.

The powerful emotion of regret can act as a motivator.

I’ve turned my feeling of regret into a motivator. I don’t want to be upstaged or upset by my own inaction again. Put off and delay and prepare to pay.

It almost sounds like a mantra and maybe it’s a little trite. But it sticks.

Put off and delay and prepare to pay.

E-mail key #3: Limit your e-mail checking

“Hang on, I’ll get back to you in a minute. I just need to check my e-mail”

How often have you heard this in modern working environments? Checking one’s e-mail has assumed similar importance to eating and visiting the bathroom. Unfortunately, falling into this habit means you have become a slave to e-mail. And the reality is that this problem is getting worse with the emergence of mobile e-mail solutions, such as the Blackberry.

Here are some ways to get this under control:

1. Make a conscious decision NOT to check your e-mail while you are working on a specific task. Ask yourself this question: “What could possibly go wrong if I don’t check my mail while I finish this task?”. Many of us have allowed ourselves to be conditioned into thinking we are not being ‘effective’ if we’re not alert and responding to mail as it arrives. Trust me – the e-mail can wait.

2. Turn off all types of beeps, jingles, alerts, pop-ups and taskbar icons. These are a lethal source of distraction. I guess we started out on the wrong path back in the innocent 90s when AOL introduced the male voice alert “You’ve got mail” to signal the arrival of a new e-mail. Hollywood even made a movie on the back of it! This may be ok if you’re getting a small number every day and they tend to be nice, heartfelt messages from friends and family. But when you’re getting 200+ messages from all sources….

Exhibit A is your typical Microsoft Outlook pop-up window. This comes accompanied by the now ubiquitous chime. I enjoy watching interviews with office-bound people on TV news programmes just to hear that occasional familiar sound in the background. And the most concerning thing about it is that these come as part of  the standard setting. You actually have to dig into the application to find where to turn these things off! And we can’t just blame Microsoft for these. Gmail also advertises the Gmail Notifier – a little application that will pop up similar windows in the corner of your screen.

3. Try to limit your e-mail checking to fixed times every day. This is a great way to replace an old unproductive habit with a new productive one. There is a school of thought that suggests that checking your e-mail should never be the first thing you do every day, given the possibility of potential distraction. This is good advice but it requires clarification between checking and processing e-mail. Let’s define checking e-mail as scanning what’s in your mailbox to see if there’s anything there that requires immediate action – and this should be restricted to “life/death” matters (something that’s really important to your customer or career). Processing involves the systematic review of each item to determine the next action. Some people can prosper by processing their e-mail just once a day.

Here’s a useful experiment for you. At the start of your next working day, leave a blank piece of paper on your desk. Each time you find yourself checking your e-mail, note it on the page. I do believe you will be surprised at how many notes are on that page at day’s end.

E-mail key #2: Treat your inbox as an inbox

If you have an inbox in your office space for receiving incoming letters, faxes, memos and miscellaneous deliveries, then the chances are that you go through what’s in it on a regular basis and do something with its contents. You may elect to throw some stuff in the bin, file some things, put a few pieces of paper on your desk or leave some to the side as you’re not really sure what to do next! Whatever you choose to do, it’s unlikely that you will leave your inbox over-flowing with stuff, primarily because you want to be able to receive new items whenever they arrive.

In the e-mail world, however, most of us treat our inbox as the great catch-all: a mix of new unopened mails, old rubbish, unanswered questions, out-of-date alerts, mails that we probably need to do something about but aren’t quite sure what to do next etc. The primary reason why we don’t empty our inbox in the same way as we would our office in-tray is that we have almost infinite capacity; there are no obvious consequnces if we don’t do so. In some organisational environments, there are restrictions on how much mail can be stored but with the ever-reducing cost of storage, these are fading away. For example, Google now offers several GBs for their Gmail users.

Even if our inbox capacity is infinite, by not regularly processing our inbox (and I would recommend emptying it on a daily basis) we are clouding our view of what we have to deal with and consequently, increasing our resistance to action (this is bad, bad, bad!).

The art of processing will be covered in detail in another post but essentially involves taking a decision on what we need to do with each mail. Luckily, there are actually a limited number of options: delete (highly recommended), take an action ourselves, delegate or forward to somebody else, file in an appropriate location or defer to a later time for reminder/action. That’s it! You see, it’s not quite as complicated as you might have feared.

Resolve today to rediscover the true meaning of inbox! Here’s my attempt at a re-framed definition: a place where your incoming mail accumulates until you make a decision & take an action on what needs to be done with each item. Having an e-mail inbox is really useful. It allows us to be busy doing real work while all the time collecting our inputs without requiring our attention. But as soon as we forget it’s true purpose, we begin to lose its value.

E-mail key #1: Be Proactive

Be Proactive? Is this a repeat of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People?!

Not quite. But a fundamental principle that lies within Covey’s first habit is very appropriate here: ‘between stimulus and response lies the freedom to choose’. When it comes to e-mail, it appears many of us have given up that freedom to choose.

Picture the scene. You are enjoying a relaxing bath in the comfort of your own home. Everything is quiet. You feel at ease. Suddenly, you hear the noise of a letter coming through the letterbox and hitting the floor. What is the appropriate response? Do you immediately jump out of the bath to see what might be in that letter with the possibility that you may not return? Do you wait until you have happily ended your bath and happen to be passing by the resting envelope? Do you sit there in the bath thinking about what could be contained in the letter and wondering how bad it might be?

Unfortunately, all too many of us are jumping out of the bath multiple times every day. We have forgotten that we have the freedom to choose our response to that stimulus. Until we re-establish in our minds the appropriate priority for e-mail, then all the efficiency techniques, short-cuts and tricks in the world will merely paper over the cracks.

Being proactive in our approach to e-mail relies on the following:

  • Think of your e-mail inbox in the same way as you would a paper inbox that would receive memos and letters from colleagues, friends and locations all over the world. Every now and again, a new item lands in the inbox. You process the items in the inbox at an appropriate time. It generally does not have the highest priority.
  • Manage your e-mail. Do not let your e-mail control and manage you. Resolve to learn about the best practices in e-mail management, inbox processing and mail authoring. Then apply them. Do not accept that bad habits cannot be changed.
  • Remember that your e-mail is not your job. Many knowledge workers fall into the trap where they believe that if they’re responding efficiently to incoming e-mail, then they are on top of their jobs. This is rarely true. They may not even be on top of their e-mail. Key objectives and outcomes take top priority. E-mail is a tool, a means of communication that helps us get there.

The first key to mastering e-mail is to ensure we have the appropriate perspective. Let’s understand e-mail for what it is. Let’s remember what our priorities are and how the effective use of e-mail can help us reach our objectives. E-mail is not an objective in itself. Let’s use e-mail to facilitate more focused and concentrated work. When we’re in the zone (or in the bath), let’s not jump out of there unless we have a really good reason. And checking our e-mail rarely qualifies.

10 keys for mastering e-mail

E-mail has transformed how we communicate in the modern world. If you challenged someone in 1990 to send a detailed memo to multiple people located all over the world, their choices were limited. Most would have produced a paper letter, made photocopies and mailed/posted it to the actual addresses. Others would have faxed that letter to those who were in a position to receive it. Others still would have used a contraption called the telex (remember that?!). Only a few early adopters would have been in a position to use e-mail. How the world has changed.

E-mail is now ubiquitous and is the primary means of business communication. Even text messaging, the little cousin of e-mail, is converging on the same space with the unstoppable progress in wireless networks and devices. Alas, despite all of the wonderful opportunities for communication and the potential for massive business efficiencies, many knowledge workers are crumbling under the strain of ‘managing their e-mail’.

Just reflect on these common observations:

  • Many lamenting the thousands of e-mails in their in-boxes
  • “I hate going away because when I come back I just have so many e-mails to deal with”
  • “Hang on, I just need to check my e-mail”
  • “What do you mean you don’t know? You were copied on that e-mail!”
  • An e-mail that requires your action but is titled “Re: Fw:fwd:FW:something irrelevant and meaningless”
  • How trust diminishes when someone doesn’t reply to a specific e-mail – “maybe they’re angry, or don’t like me?”

Mastering your e-mail is a critical skill for all knowledge workers. Olympians have critical skills that are crucial to success in their sport. They work on these skills repeatedly so that they become as good as they can be. Proficiency in key skills adds up to overall effectiveness and ultimately success in competitions. For knowledge workers, the same principle applies. Mastering e-mail is a key skill, without which overall success will be hindered.

Over the next ten weeks, I will share ten keys to mastering e-mail. These are largely drawn from personal experience over the last decade, coupled with a lot of experimentation and research. Implementing some of these ideas and principles will result in increased feelings of control, less time spent in a state of frustration and greater emphasis on achieving your main objectives. Now, who wouldn’t want some of that?!