I Love a Good System

Trigger warning: may be painfully boring work-related discussion & tips

It’s been a few months since I started my new role at work. I used to manage about 15 part-time employees and had oversight of two programs. Now I manage about 30 employees and oversee 5 programs. Before I started this new position, the former Director told me, “You’re going to have to find a system for managing emails…you won’t believe how many you get.”

I got it, I scoffed. I considered myself an email management pro no matter what came at me.

Turns out, I didn’t got it. I had a quick wake-up-call and reality check when I was getting buried in emails day after day. My entire job started to feel like email reading and responding. And it left no room for other projects and important tasks that were piling up while I was frantically trying to get through my inbox.

After yet another day of sitting at my desk for 9 hours responding to emails with zero attention paid to my ongoing projects, I decided the system wasn’t working. The volume of emails wasn’t going to change and my projects weren’t going to decrease (especially if I neglected them).

I suddenly remembered a book I read years ago, Your Brain At Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. Yes, the title sounds clickbait-ey. But the book was incredibly well written and offered tangible, immediate ways I could change my current mode of operation, and it helped me a lot several years ago. Things I still use to this day I got from that book. And not just in my work life, it helped my personal relationships/routines a lot, too. I decided it was time to start rereading it.

So I did, and very quickly realized several things I was doing “wrong.” And by “wrong” I simply mean habits I was in that were contributing to the overwhelm, stress, and lack of productivity on important projects.

I quickly made some adjustments. Knowing that my most productive, clear-headed time of day is in the morning, I immediately rescheduled all my recurring morning meetings to late afternoons. I made a rule for myself that I would reserve the first hour of every day for my projects and task lists, no responding to emails. The only thing I could do email-wise was to do a quick inventory of my inbox and make sure nothing was emergent. I also had to do some serious work on my mindset that said I had to respond to an email within a day. I realized I needed to give myself 5-7 days business days for non-pressing items. For my work style, this was a really hard mental adjustment to start making.

However, within just 2 days it felt like a pressure valve released. Things started flowing so much better. I stuck to my one hour project time in the morning and what often happened is that hour turned into 4 hours before getting to my emails. I quickly realized, ohhhh this was needed. These projects need and deserve a lot of my time and attention, and my emails can and should wait.

A few other systems that have helped a lot:

1. Using the Microsoft Outlook feature of color-categorizing emails. I’ll admit, I’m still working on the compulsive drive I have to look at and address every email that comes in right away. If I even glance at a full inbox with unread messages it gives me the sweats. I want to dive in and get my hands dirty. An almost flawless fix has been quickly scanning an email and giving it a category- high, medium, or low importance. Then I sort my inbox by priority, collapse each field, and BAM. My brain says “ahhhhh, we’re in good shape, everything is organized and taken care of.” I can successfully work on other things without the stress of a chaotic, unanswered inbox. It also gives me an immediate starting place when I am ready to look at emails, I know where I have to start even if the low priority emails looks like more fun to handle.

2. Per the book suggestion, I prioritize and re-prioritize my task list a lot throughout the week. The simple act of prioritizing actually takes up a lot of brain power, more than we realize, so this should happen at the very start of every day vs after a few hours of diving into miscellaneous tasks when our decision-making skills are weakened. I prioritize my week first thing on Monday, and then each morning I prioritize the day. This ABCD prioritizing sheet has been key in helping me determine what is actually a high priority. Again, my brain often jumps at the fun, easy, non-important tasks first and ignores an A-item. This sheet helps me systematically approach my tasks.

3. Lastly, another Outlook feature that has been really helpful is flagging emails for follow up. When emailing a lot of different people and asking for a lot of different things, it can feel overwhelming to have to keep so many moving pieces on my radar. You can “flag for follow up” and select a specific date, and that email will automatically add to your task list on the date you select. You can actually flag an email so that it pops up on the recipient’s task list too, but that feels a little too passive aggressive. I’d rather follow up in a few weeks and give them a good ‘ol, “per my last email.”

All of these adjustments have made my job a lot more manageable and enjoyable. Though I think one of the biggest improvements was moving all my meetings to the afternoon. If you’re an ADHDer or an introvert (who needs quieter, solo mornings) or simply want to try a productivity experiment, give it a try. See what you think.

Related excerpt from Your Brain At Work by David Rock.

Your ability to think well is a limited resource, so conserve the resource at every opportunity.

We all know what it’s like to “burn the midnight oil.” The later we work into the night, the less we’re able to think clearly, and when we notice that our attention is waning we tell ourselves that we should simply try harder.

But there’s reason to believe that you should give your brain a break instead.

We use a massive amount of energy in all our interactions with the world, which fatigues our ability to think clearly. This indicates that our capacity for active thought is limited.

Evidence for this limitation can be found as early as 1898, in a study where subjects were instructed to perform a mental task while putting as much physical pressure as possible on a machine that measures force (a “dynamometer”).

The results revealed that, when the subjects were engaged in active thought, their maximum physical force was reduced by up to 50 percent.

Furthermore, as you’d expect, performing more than one conscious process simultaneously is even more taxing. The result is that our performance quickly declines when we try to do several mental tasks at the same time.

For example, one study indicated that the constant distraction of emails and phone calls reduce performance in an IQ test by 10 points, on average. This reduced mental capacity is similar to that we experience after missing a night’s sleep. One explanation for this effect is that such interruptions force the brain to spend too much time in a state of alertness.

So if we want to maintain a good level of performance, we have to conserve the brain’s energy for only the most important tasks.

This can mean prioritizing certain tasks above others. But be aware that prioritizing is itself a task that drains energy, so make sure you prioritize when your mind is alert and fresh.

Another way to conserve energy is to turn tasks into routines, as these can be stored as patterns that won’t require you giving your full attention to a task.



One thought on “I Love a Good System

  1. Ahh Courtney. This is such a good post! Thank you for recommending to me the Book on our brains a couple of years ago!! So very good! One note about overwhelming email — and I have a lot of it too! I ask all my staff to organize their emails to me in four parts: (1) Action Requested — what action do they want me to take or is it for info only; (2) Bottom line up front- a SHORT summary of the gist of the issue; (3) Discussion section with a request to use bullets if possible along with short sentences with details; (4) Recommendation(s)— what recommendation do they have for the issue. I also organize my emails to the staff this way so they know immediately what my expectations are. Lastly, in the “Action” section I put who is lead if several people have a part and when I expect an answer (in 10 min or 10 days!). 😁. I know it seems a bit formal, but it will really help you and your staff better communicate ! I love you!! Dad ❤️

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