Superhuman Email Management

Knowledge jobs of all types require quick communication. Despite the prevalence of chats, channels, and text, email remains the key way to share detailed information. This makes mastery of email an essential modern skill. The catch is that most people never received training on how to handle it effectively. Thankfully, there are easy to learn principles that make email processing effective and fun.

Tiago Forte first learned email management through GTD. From there he expanded on the practice to create a seamless system to completely process his inbox with ease and turn it into an enlightening high value experience. In a recent article on the Superhuman blog, Tiago spoke to Rahul Vohra at Superhuman for an article that highlights four steps to email mastery.

It starts with changing your perspective on email.

“The key to having a more positive outlook toward email is to nail the management,” says Tiago. “Anytime you don’t have a place for information to flow to, it will pile up, multiply, and become a problem.”

“The solution to having too many emails — and not knowing what to do with them — is not found in your inbox,” says Tiago. “You have to solve that problem elsewhere.”

Later on in the article, Tiago shares a key approach to reframing email, slowing down your reactivity.

“When someone sends you a message — especially a colleague, or someone senior to you — there’s a built-in feeling of urgency,” says Tiago. “But is that urgency real? What is the real expectation of this person?”

“Low reactivity is a spiritual discipline,” reveals Tiago. “Go slightly beyond your normal response time. If you normally respond within an hour, try to respond within a day.”

Discover the whole systematic approach to handling email at the Superhuman blog.

The Six Step Guide to Library Worker Engagement

Over the past four years I have focused on building a strong culture in my library system. Unlike revising a policy or plan, strengthening a culture takes time to achieve. One of the key books I have used is Primed to Perform : how to build the highest performing cultures through the science of total motivation. It included ideas such as creating a Firewatchers committee and measuring your culture based on six key factors.

This year a new book has come out on culture that focuses solely on libraries. Written by Elaina Norlin, it is titled, The Six Step Guide to Library Worker Engagement.

In the book, Norlin demonstrates how library workers can easily become disengaged from their work. To prevent this from happening, she identifies the following areas as key to building a strong culture:

  • Leadership and Management
  • Trust
  • Recognition and Praise
  • Feedback and Performance Evaluation
  • Teamwork and Collaboration
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

To show best practices, Norlin includes interviews with library directors, managers, and leaders from public, academic, and special libraries. I was honored to be interviewed for the section on Feedback and Performance Evaluation. Here’s a portion of that interview.

If a new library director or manager wanted to know how to get started inspiring a more engaged workforce, what would be your advice?

The first step is always to listen. Often a new leader may come in with great ideas and pet projects to launch. However, if they don not take the time to learn more about their organization and connect with the people who comprise it, they may end up going in the wrong direction very quickly. Typically there is a problem or an old way of doing things which is a pain point for the staff that needs to be resolved. A new leader can show their support by tacking that issue first and only afterward start advancing their own ideas.

Find the book at your local library or from the ALA store.

Pay Yourself First and Do It With Time

If you have ever tried to save money for retirement, you might be familiar with the “pay yourself first” strategy. This approach recommends that people take the first portion of their pay check and set it aside for savings. The rationale behind this strategy is that we have so many opportunities to spend money that relying on leftovers at the end of a month will lead to little savings or none at all. While this approach works for money, does it work for time?

In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, author Oliver Burkeman argues that many people spend their limited time on this earth doing things the feel they need to do, not what they want to do. As David Allen has long pointed out there is always more to do than we can ever do. If a person want to accomplish the things that matter most to them, their time must be preserved for those things. As he writes:

If you try to find time for your most valued activities by first dealing with all the other important demands on your time, in the hope that there’ll be some left over at the end, you’ll be disappointed. So if a certain activity really maters to you – a creative project, say, through it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause – the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some if it today, no matter how little, no matter how many other genuinely big rocks may be begging for your attention. (pg 74)

Four Thousand Weeks

Now reflect on this question: what project or cause in your life do you want to give more attention to on a daily basis?

Once you know what it is dedicate a sacred time period each day to do it. Whether it is an hour in the morning to write that novel, or your lunch hour to attend a Toastmasters meeting to work on your public speaking, or even two nights a week to make phone calls to raise money for your favorite charity, these priorities only happen when you block off the time to do it.

So, how much time to do you want to pay yourself first?

Tidy the Home Office

Are you working from home all the time or a few days a week?

The pandemic radically altered the way we approach work. Many people no longer commute and instead work from a home office. This can be a great arrangement since it cuts out commutes and coworker distractions. However, setting up a home office to make it a welcoming productive space can be tricky. Is there a way to do it well?

Marie Kondo, creator of the KonMari Method, recently offered advice on her blog about how to tidy the home office space. She first explains that you should set an intention for how you want the home office to look and feel. Next is her signature move, discarding!

Go through your desk drawers and toss out old receipts, corral loose change, and recycle catalogs or other paper items that are no longer needed. When it comes to more sentimental items, such as photos or notes from friends and relatives, express gratitude for these belongings and their significance and then let go—Marie sends off such items using salt

Read the rest of her advice for your home office on the KonMari web site.

Leadership Perspectives – Organizational Health

Who is responsible for the health of the organization you work for? Most people assume it is the top leader and there is lots of truth to that belief. However in reality everyone in the organization has a role to play in building a strong culture.

The ALA Learning Exchange newsletter recently published a short article I wrote about this topic. It starts out with this question.

So how does one determine organizational health? Many people think it is through the measurable outputs and outcomes laid out in the strategic plan. These can be such factors as visitor counts, circulation numbers, program attendance and more. Other factors such as employee turnover may point to job satisfaction. However, all these pieces are just a part of the equation. After all, you can have an organization that achieves its goals yet is stressed out and hostile. In the end, an organization’s health is determined by the strength of its culture. Strong cultures thrive no matter what the situation, while weak cultures disintegrate at the slightest sign of stress.

To learn more about how culture directly affects an organization, please read the rest of the article which has been posted here for your review.

Think Like a Chef!

Have you ever had a day when new information, emails, and calls were flying at you in record speed? The nature of knowledge work is that we move between times of quiet and reflection to periods of rapid action. It is in those hectic times that we can easily fall behind and get flustered. So to master those busy periods it is helpful to consider another profession that works on rapid deadlines and continuous input: Chefs!

In a recent blog post, Tiago Forte examined the work environment that chefs create in their kitchens to handle the daily dinner orders. It is called mise-en-place. Tiago describes it this way.

Mise-en-place is about bringing together all the tools a chef needs in close proximity, prepped for immediate use, so that they can just execute – quickly, consistently, and sustainably.

Observing the way that chefs work to handle the flow of orders, Tiago highlights six principles that he believes can be applied to knowledge work. The first is sequence. As Tiago describes:

In a kitchen, sequence is everything.

The biochemical realities of food demand it: the meat can’t go onto the chopping block if it’s frozen; the pasta won’t absorb the sauce unless it’s been cooked; the garlic can’t be added until it’s been chopped.

In knowledge work, the importance of sequence isn’t always so clear. Does it really matter whether you send that email or write up that report first? It often feels like we should be doing everything immediately and all at once.

But consider that we can never do more than one thing at a time. The flow of time is linear, which means at some point, even our most complex thinking and planning has to get distilled down to a simple, linear to-do list: what comes first, what comes next, and what comes after that.

Once we realize the importance of sequence, it becomes apparent that not all moments are created equal: the first tasks matter much more than the later ones. In a kitchen, the few seconds it takes to start heating up a pan or start defrosting the chicken will have the biggest impact on the overall timeline, because these steps can’t be accelerated. They take as much time as they take.

Discover the other five principles by reading Tiago’s post.

Should We Keep Working From Home?

Over the past year did you get an opportunity to work from home? In my case I did it for a couple of days, but otherwise worked in my library office. My case was different from many people who shifted to a part time or fully virtual work situation. To reduce COVID spread, companies across many industries offered their employees the flexibility to work from anywhere. However, the big question yet to be answered is whether this change has enabled greater productivity and satisfaction or if it has become an impediment to creative teamwork. The initial answer to this question is a big maybe!

I recently came across two good explorations of this topic. The first was an article from The Guardian titled The empty office: what we lose when we work from home. Reporter Gillian Tett explored the this idea: For decades, anthropologists have been telling us that it’s often the informal, unplanned interactions and rituals that matter most in any work environment. So how much are we missing by giving them up?

Of particular interest is a look at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a group that designs the underlying architecture of the Internet. Over the years the IETF developed a fascinating way to poll the collective body on decisions. In a conference room, the group will ask members to hum to show support or opposition to an idea. It is a type of decision making process that can only work effectively in a real world environment. As Tett notes:

When the IETF members use humming, they are reflecting and reinforcing a distinctive worldview – their desperate hope that the internet should remain egalitarian and inclusive. That is their creation myth. But they are also signalling that human contact and context matter deeply, even in a world of computing. Humming enables them to collectively demonstrate the power of that idea. It also helps them navigate the currents of shifting opinion in their tribe and make decisions by reading a range of signals.

Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

Other view of the effects of work from home can be found in a recent Freakonomics podcast titled Will Work from Home Work Forever? In the middle of the podcast host Steven Dubner interviews economist Steven Davis about his studies on working from home prior to the pandemic and then a year afterward. Davis’ findings are illuminating.

The real benefit to being at the office is face-to-face interaction — which might be painful if it’s your boss reprimanding you, but this concept of a knowledge spillover — all of that causes, we think, productivity to be higher at the office than at home. But we also think working at home is not as unproductive as it used to be. Because we have all of these tools at our disposal.  

Later on in the podcast, Dubner interviews Raj Choudhury of the the Harvard Business School. His multiple year study of remote work done by U.S. Patent Office employees demonstrated measurable benefits from working at home. He found the examiners were 4.4% more productive at home than in the office. However, he also discovered another factor at play, increased loyalty.

And the story that came was one of loyalty. That “I was really helped by this policy because now I could move to Philly and my daughter needs some medical treatment, which is only available in Philly. No other organization will let me work in Philly and do the kind of work I’m doing. So I have to give something back.”

The factors that will determine the long term success of working from home are still being figured out. To learn more about the direction of work from home, I highly recommend both these Guardian and Freaknomics pieces. They are well worth the read and listen.

Is Productivity just is a Phase?

When did you decide to seek out personal productivity practices?

Many people do so when they feel overwhelmed by their work. Perhaps they have been given more and bigger projects or received a promotion with lots of responsibility. Others might have changes in their home life, such as a new child, that prevent them from putting in overtime. For these reasons and more they must become more efficient. Either way, personal productivity practices often make a huge impact on our work, but are they an end in themselves or a means to another end?

According to Tiago Forte of Forte Labs, learning personal productivity practices is only one step on a person’s journey. In fact it is an early stage. In a recent post on his web site he states:

I’ve begun to realize that the concept of “personal productivity” is just a season in people’s lives. It is a temporary phase that we each pass through on our way to other things.

Productivity as we know it is largely an entry-level concept. It caters to people just beginning their careers, starting their first professional jobs, or moving to new roles that demand a higher level of personal output.

Why is it attractive to people in an early stage of their professional life? Tiago believes it is due to leverage.

The reason productivity is just a phase is that it is relatively low leverage. “Leverage” refers to the ability to do more with less, such as using a lever to lift a boulder that you’d never be able to lift on your own strength.

You do need to reach a certain level of proficiency in your personal productivity. But once you do, you can go beyond it to greater sources of leverage. And you must, if you want to accomplish more while working less.

What are those other sources of leverage? There are many options.

Learn about these other sources of leverage by reading the rest of his posting.

Happy Mother’s Day – Now Clean Up Your Bedroom!

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, there are lots of ways to show appreciation for everything our mothers do. Flowers are nice. Chocolates are sweet. A prepared meal hits the spot. However, one thing your mother might really appreciate is if you take the time to tidy up your room! (BTW, May 10 is National Clean Up Your Room Day!)

Thankfully, the KonMari Method provides an easy solution to tackle that project. In an article on the Linen & Homes web site, Marie Kondo lists eight tips to keep your bedroom clean and organized. For example, Tip #5 states one should organize belongings by category.

When it comes to organizing, we have a tendency to store the same item in different places. So it’s more effective to start with categories than it is to start organizing by room. For the purpose of organizing in your bedroom, you can at least start with clothes then when the time comes, branch out to books, before going to the sentimental items like photos and letters. She even gets more granular with her process, suggesting to start with all your shirts before your pants, your pants before your socks, and so on.

To help you along the article links to a KonMari checklist that covers every possible thing you might own.

Cleaning your room will not only make your mother proud, but give you a peaceful place to rest your head after a busy day. Check out the other tips in the article.