Aug 27 2014
I am sorry it’s been a long time between posts. I was on travel to the US, partly for business and partly to see my son. The business days tended to be long and involved and when I got back to the room-between drinks, dinner, binging on Netflix and doing my courses-something had to go by the wayside. So that is not a good excuse-but it’s the truth.
Now I’m back in Germany-but only for a short while till I begin a trip I have been planning for some six months, a voyage back to the promised land of Japan. It’s been 4+ years since I have set foot in Japan, 2.5 years since I set foot anywhere in Northern or Southeast Asia. To say I am more than a little excited about it is an understatement.
So as I prepare to drop off the grid for a while ( about 2 weeks to be accurate) I wanted to do a quick post on one of my biggest pet peeves: e-mail. Or rather, people who complain they don’t have enough time to get through their e-mail. I had the misfortune of hearing two Lieutenant Colonels whine and complain about how they spend so much time dealing with e-mail, they don’t have enough time to get anything else done. Since one of those same LTC’s seems always to find 1.5 hours for a mind numbing staff meeting each week-and another 1.5 hours each day for a workout, ( and the other one is always dealing with child care issues-welcome to the modern world) I know for a fact that this is utter bullshit.
E-mail is the curse of our generation and those that are yet to come. Yet, I think some of the complainers really don’t know how bad things were in the “good old days” of OCR printers and messages, message diary entries, and messages that had to go all the way to the CO for signature. You have amazing tools at your disposal to deal with e-mail these days-it disgusts me when you don’t know how to use them.
It especially makes me angry when I hear a flag officer complain about his e-mail load. What that tells me, is that you don’t know how to delegate responsibility to subordinates-and more importantly, you don’t know how to :1) read for content and context and 2) scan and sort necessary e-mails from trash. As an O-7 in a modern military, you should be able to do better.
I get between 75-100 e-mails in an average workday on two different networks. I am almost always able to work my way through the pile in relatively short order in the morning and before I go home at night. I do long for the days of yesteryear, when I could use POP mail to drop into my e-mail accounts at night while drinking beer, but thanks to events of the last few years that is impossible to do. The key is understanding a few fundamental rules about e-mail, and for that matter, about work in general. So I provide these rules and suggestions for your consideration.
Rule #1: Not everything is worth doing to perfection. Some things are worth doing only good enough and others are not worth doing at all. The trick is to know which is which.
For e-mail the corollary would be-not every e-mail needs to be answered. And those that do, do not always have to be answered by you in writing. Phone calls are quicker.
For my two LTC friends above, they have the double curse of being grammar and word Nazis-added to the idea that they subscribe to the notion that we have what I call, “Twitter flags”, e.g., Admirals only have a little time so you can only give them the bulletized version. I think that is total crap.
Rule #2: Outlook is a powerful tool, IF, you will learn how to use it.
Here is an example. I have a coworker who says he hates the “preview pane”. With all due respect, he’s an idiot. The sorting rules and preview pane of Outlook are your friends not your enemies. Especially the preview pane. I use it religiously and have my outlook set up with calendar on the right of the preview pane. I make it a point to scan through all my new e-mail using the preview pane first-then I go back and read in detail the ones I judge to be important. I scan paragraphs quickly-not necessarily to read for total comprehension, but to scan for warning flags of things that are dangerous and need to be responded to.
And here is an adjunct rule-if you have a secretary, or a chief of staff or exec, they better be trustworthy enough to read your official mail and you should have no qualms about sharing your inbox with them. Three sets of eyes can spot warning flags better than one. ( Caution if you do this, have some checks and balances and fire the person that does not safeguard the contents.) Lots of times they can alert you to something you missed, or in many cases they can take actions on your behalf.
Rule #3: Action and CC lines mean different things. If you are not an action addressee on a e-mail, give thanks, take note of an e-mail and move on. Come back to the e-mail if you need to later.
Rule #4: Start at the top of the pile and work your way down. That will help you resist the urge to respond immediately, which is usually never a good thing. You will also generally find out that a problem has worked itself out without you having to intervene at all save for reading about it.
Rule # 5. For writing replies-see rule #1. If it is really important, and you have the luxury to have subordinates “ghost” the reply, let them do it. Its good training for them. But if you do this-be a man and ask them for the desired text only. Don’t be one of these flag officer pussies who insist on having the whole e-mail including addressees laid out for them. That wastes time. There is a word for flag officers who make subordinates create an outlook shell and then put addresses and text in that shell: morons.
If it’s just a minor matter that needs acknowledgement-then respond quickly, and move on.
Rule #6. Learn to use Outlook rule sets-and learn how to archive. Generally if an e-mail is over a month old, you don’t need it and you can archive it. This makes your e-mail inbox smaller.
Rule #7. Go see rule # 1. If you are a leader, e-mail should be a small portion of your day. If you are spending too much time on e-mail, you are in over your head.
Trust me-these rules work. I am a big believer in managing by walking around, and I refuse to get chained to my desk all day. I also believe in things like Blackberries, and letting people work from home, or at least have access to e-mail at home to the max extent possible. I know some people hate these ideas-but I am the kind of person who works best in spurts. Having the BB with me, allows me to pace myself and do more productive things. I am not a slave to my Blackberry. It is a slave to me.
Thus endeth the rant for today.