Time management classes, books, websites and tools are multiplying like rabbits in a meadow: There’s Getting Things Done, The 4-Hour Workweek, the Pomodoro Technique, the Autofocus System and more. People devote more and more time to training and adoption of new techniques, and in the end, they still don’t get their work done. The fact is, time management training is ineffective. If it weren’t, everyone engaging in it would be a paragon of efficiency by now. So what’s the problem?
Here’s what happens: After learning the fundamental principles of time management, participants go back to their natural habitat with new tools, high hopes and grand intentions…and promptly get steamrolled by their e-mail. Within days, they’re back to reading and responding to e-mail as it arrives, being reactive instead of proactive, and fighting fires instead of making time to think, plan and solve problems. The ship of time management ideas runs aground on the rocks of their reality. Ask any graduate of a time management course what keeps them from implementing the concepts they learned, and they’ll likely say it’s their e-mail.
Stop Focusing on the Symptom
One might think that the solution is better e-mail software. But if software were the solution, between Xobni, Gmail’s Priority Inbox, the latest incarnation of Outlook and all the other e-mail tools on the market, no one would complain about the deluge of e-mail, and everyone would be able to manage their time well.
When it comes to e-mail, we focus on the symptom, not the disease. You can organize, sort, file, color-code and prioritize your e-mail to within an inch of your life, but if you’re buried under an avalanche of incoming messages, that’s not going to help. If there’s any hope for rescue from the tyranny of the inbox, the solution will have to address the root causes.
There are three organizational root causes for the current unsustainable e-mail situation:
1. A lack of differentiation between levels of urgency.
2. Rewarding face time over real production.
3. A lack of (or simply unrealistic) e-mail response time agreements.
Addressing these three root causes will reduce the toll e-mail takes on workers and enable them to spend more time focused on value-creating activities.
Where’s the Batphone?
In the old Batman TV series, Commissioner Gordon had a special red Batphone that he could use to summon the caped crusader in an emergency. Doctors carry pagers — the real-life equivalent of Batphones — when they’re on the job or on call. The purpose, of course, is to provide a special, high-priority communication channel for truly urgent issues.
At most companies today, however, all communication is crammed through the same communication channel. Whether it’s a crisis with a key customer or leftover birthday cake in the breakroom, the messages all go through e-mail.
There should be an agreement about which channel to use, and for what purpose. For example, a policy could be made that urgent issues should only be communicated face-to-face, by phone or perhaps through text message or IM. If people know that urgent issues aren’t coming through e-mail, they don’t feel the need to check their inbox every time a new message arrives.
E-mail: the New Face Time
Many organizational cultures place a premium on face time over actual productivity. When an organization is spread over multiple locations, face time is most easily expressed by writing and sending e-mails at all hours and often to people who often have no need to receive the mail. The desire to show that one is working is what lies behind e-mails sent to large groups of people only tangentially involved with the issue at hand. It’s also behind the infuriating “reply-to-all” emails that plague workers like electronic locusts.
What’s needed is an environment that evaluates people based on their creation of value, not their creation of e-mail. Performance evaluations, despite their flaws, can be effective in helping people focus on what’s important. With clear measures of what’s supposed to be done, workers will be liberated from the mindless generation of pointless e-mails.
Just because people can send e-mail instantly doesn’t mean they ought to respond instantly. Unfortunately, many organizations haven’t set clear expectations for response time to e-mail, leaving workers feeling as though they should respond to each e-mail upon arrival. The constant switching between a task and e-mail leads to a decline in effectiveness.
The vast majority of the time, the sender of an e-mail needs a predictable response, not an instantaneous one. (That’s what the Batphone is for!) Organizations need to set e-mail response time agreements that are sustainable and support effective work habits.
It’s Not About Time Management. It’s About Culture Change
Time management training does, of course, have value. People often don’t know how to manage themselves effectively, or how to use their tools (e-mail, smart phones, office software, etc.) effectively. Training them in basic time management principles and advanced software functions can be helpful. However, that training will have only limited impact unless organizations change their own cultural norms and expectations. Without that change, time management training really is just a waste of time.
Daniel Markovitz is a consultant who teaches at Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and the Fisher School of Business at Ohio State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.