Do you still own your own time?

"Why didn't you answer my email?". This is a common question in our household. When I email Lamar, my 17-year-old son, I have given up expecting a response. I used to hope for a simple acknowledgement, something like, "Hey, dad, I saw your email." I wish he'd make an effort and type a quick reply, but I've reset my expectations. It dawned on me that Generation Y and Generation Z, are really just looking at email as a form of inefficient, asynchronous communication. They don't view it as a "to-do list", they don't feel like they need to respond or make a decision. They simply read it, or not.

I grew up in a workplace that was conditioned to reply to emails. To me, not to acknowledge a receipt of an email feels strange, irresponsible, rude, and a bit careless. I had my first job in the world of paper memos, then, around when I turned 25, email suddenly got popular. It became a new way to manage the office environment (like the hierarchy in an organization, its projects and its priorities). It became a tool that increased productivity of our generation, and it became a source of new challenges (and opportunities for authors of books on work-life balance).

When I got to my 3rd job—my first management role - I began routinely blocking off time on my calendar to actually get some work done (like so many of my colleagues). My Inbox was flooded with tasks, demands, and invites to attend meetings or events. The only way to do work such as detailed research or to complete a contract, was to set aside a couple hours in the calendar. We all did it. The names we gave to those chunks of time were funny. We called them "Work Time" or "Block". These words were based on the false notion that you felt you did not own your own time unless you blocked it off. You had to make it clear to people that even if you had available time on your electronic calendar, it didn't mean that they could determine what you would do with this time. This is the reason why we did it. And many of us still do it today.

Then at some point I met someone who asked an interesting question.  He said, "When you block of time, are you actually telling yourself and others that you're not the owner of your own time?”.  This made me think. Does blocking your calendar send a message to other people that they can prioritize how you would use your time, unless you block it off? I think this analogy applies to what has happened with email as well.

New users that started to use email in the last 10 years don't look at their Inboxes as to-do lists. My generation did. We still do. For the longest time, anything that landed in my Inbox every morning became my to-do list. Those emails became part of my priorities for the rest of the day, and it wasn't helping productivity. That's why so many time management techniques have sprung to life, like “Getting Things Done”, for example. All of them tried to cope with this problem, but they weren't solving the root cause. The problem is not "How do I manage the list?" or "How do I not forget about all the things that come into my Inbox in the morning?". It's about not letting your Inbox to become your to-do list in the first place. Other people should not determine how you prioritize your time.

David Allan's methodology of “Getting Things Done” is now embedded into many email management tools (and I’m sure it has helped many people, but this post is for everyone else). In Outlook, for example, you can flag emails so you can do something about them later. But this solution to email clutter is based on the idea that you're subject to what other people think is important to you. This is why my son doesn't respond to my emails. He merely views them as an interesting source of information. If he sees that an email is from his dad, chances are he will actually read it, or at least will puts a bit more urgency at reading it versus the other emails that may be spam or advertising. But he does not feel the need to respond if there is nothing to say. He doesn't treat his Inbox as a to-do list or as a list that drives his priorities. I have come to conclude that this is a very healthy approach and am trying to retrain myself to think of my Inbox as a source of information. I can tell you, it's hard.

The reality ofcourse is that we have trained people around us to expect us to treat our inbox as our to-do list. For good reasons, when they need something from me, they typically think, "Hey, I'll send Stijn an email, and that will guarantee that something will get done right away and won't fall through the cracks." This pattern is another reason it's a major struggle for me to change my behavior and start behaving like my son, but it doesn't mean that we can't try and change it.

I'm looking forward to your comments on this topic. My question to you is, "How can we become a little more like our teenage kids in how we manage our email and still make sure that things don't fall through the cracks?"

Your to-do list (not an email):

  • Don't spend more than a few minutes on your email in the morning, or, preferably, don't spend any time on it at all. For most people, best work energy is derived from morning hours, and if you do email in the afternoon, you might find that many emails don’t even require an answer anymore :-).

  • Give your team an alternate way to contact you—text, or Skype,—and only respond to emails once per day. Make people make an effort if they really need to reach you right away. Phone for example. And then use a tool like MightyCall to make sure every call gets answered.

  • Consider running your team doing daily ‘scrum’ meetings.  This type of quick update replaces the need for many “update” emails. Here's a post on team meetings

  • Batch your tasks and reply to everyone in the evening with short one-liners that don't invite any more conversations. Tim Ferris had a great blog post about how to do it.