What work task do you start the day with? Is it email? Many of us think ‘I’ll just get this out of the way and then I’ll be clear for the big jobs.’ And then what happens? Have you noticed that email seems to take on a life of its own?
I had another excellent reminder of this a few months ago. Even though I teach people to start on the important tasks first, I too sometimes get seduced by the lure of ‘first I’ll clear the email.’ The week in question was the first for ages that I’d been in the office for three consecutive days. Let me describe the first two days of that week.
• Who’s the poor sucker sitting by the photocopier?
As you’d imagine I was keen to catch up on a backlog of tasks. ‘Surely the email won’t take long,’ I convinced myself.
(The little voice on my shoulder whispered ‘Don’t go there’ but I pushed it impatiently aside.)
Sure enough, by the time the first batch of mail was out of the way, answers needing reply had started bouncing back; phones were ringing; people wanted my attention. I was on a roll, and I just wanted to get that damned Inbox down to a respectable level. Every time I went back to check something, new mail had popped in. It was a bit like trying to beat Solitaire! You persuade yourself that ‘this time I’ll win’. Yeah, right!
At the end of each of these two days I noticed a dull sense of dissatisfaction. It felt as though I’d been dragged with barely a whimper into a never-ending whirlpool of digital interactions. It didn’t feel that I’d wasted time. Everything was appropriate. BUT – the two most important tasks for the week still languished.
The third morning, lying in bed reflecting on the day ahead, I gave myself a stern talking-to. It went a bit like ‘Robyn, you know better than this!’ (Maybe I have to stumble from time to time to keep empathy with my similarly-struggling clients.)
“Like everything in life, email has a good side and a dark side. It’s not only an amazing time-saving tool, but also an incredibly time- and money-wasting device.”
First coffee for the day in hand, I approached the seemingly innocuous lump of metal on my desk with steely resolve. I applied my own good advice – and didn’t turn on the email programme first thing. As I well knew, starting with the most important task was the answer. Outlook didn’t get an ‘In-look’ – I knew from past experience that ’email first’ for me at least, was an insidious bad habit that I had to snap out of. Clearly, after two days of having its own way, this particular unproductive practice was doing its sneaky best to creep back in.
The first item on the list was a short but important preliminary outline requested by a client. We’d both agreed that it wasn’t urgent and he was quite happy to wait, but the ‘wait’ was becoming embarrassing to me, even if he was still cool. With optimistic intention I’d even carted meeting notes to America and back a few weeks earlier! Enough was enough!
All my client wanted was an emailed outline but I knew it would take me about half an hour of thinking and concentration. So, even though the logical place to create this was in Outlook, instead I compiled it in Word and only at the conclusion, resolutely NOT looking at any new incoming mail, transferred the content into email format for transmission. I then went on to the second of the important tasks that I’d been (dare I say the word?) procrastinating on.
You might be much better disciplined than me, and of course your work may require you to check the mailbox before you can sort your priorities for the day. One thing I’ve learnt in this business of being a trainer and speaker is that there is no ‘one right way’ in anything. So take out of this example what’s useful and leave the rest. But if you can identify with my little tussle, hopefully the process I went through might be of help.
Like everything in life, email has a good side and a dark side. It’s not only an amazing time-saving tool, but also an incredibly time- and money-wasting device. Allowed to have its wicked way it is addictive, distracting and productivity-killing.
Make the main thing the main thing – don’t let ‘stuff’ masquerade as important.
Enjoy the sense of accomplishment as you keep focused on your Main Things.
This article also appears in Robyn’s regular New Zealand Herald Online column