A simple four-phase strategy from our CEO, Phil Johnson.
We all deal with massive demands on our time these days. It’s how we manage this demand that can make or break our work / life balance.
I’m the CEO of two technology companies and an active investor in multiple national and international start-up businesses that cover technology, food and ethical cosmetics. So I guess it would be fair to say I am a very busy person – yet I do manage to maintain that good work / life balance.
How? Over the years I’ve developed a very effective set of strategies to deal with the substantial amount of information that I need to deal with every day.
I’d like to share some of these strategies with you. Given how long we spend dealing with email and all the tasks and responsibilities it brings, that seems like a perfect place to start.
The ideal email state
The goal is to get an inbox that is under control and a task list that doesn’t rule your life. That way, you’ll have a little more breathing space to be a better manager, partner, parent, mentor and for all those other lofty goals you may have set yourself.
At this point in time I have 15 emails in my inbox, my to-do list is under control and I’m meeting my self-imposed communication and response timeframes. Oh, and I don’t have a PA, and I haven’t offloaded all my emails elsewhere!
I got there with four phases:
- Take control of your inbox
- Don’t use email on your phone
- Smash that “to-do” list
- Stay on top
And with those sorted, you reach phase five: the new proactive you.
Phase one: take control of your inbox
This is perhaps the single most important step you can take.
The key: only use your inbox to store stuff that requires your attention. Appropriately structured, your inbox can function as an excellent to-do list.
- Reduce the clutter: Ruthlessly unsubscribe from all those lists you are on, or use rules, to redirect anything that is not related to your core focus. Email should not be a messy bedroom; it should be a clean functional office.
- Use email rules: Most email platforms have very sophisticated rule engines that are really easy to use (CommArc can help you understand these). You can automatically process emails into folders, delete stuff and move stuff, all using powerful rules that are designed to help you cope with the load.
- Automate the CC: I work on the theory that if it is not addressed directly to me then it is not something I need to deal with right now. All emails that I am CC’d on automatically go into a folder for later reading.
Phase two: don’t use email on your phone
Surprise, surprise, I don’t use email on my phone. I use my diary and my notes, but no email.
I used to use it, but it made me highly reactive and distraction-driven. How many times do you let your device get in the way of a great conversation? Have you ever had coffee with someone who can’t leave their device alone? And how many times do you send an email from your phone without the same reasonable consideration you’d give at your desk?
Removing the electronic demands helps you focus on a better outcome for your day. It’s changed the way I interact with my team (and my family) for the better.
Phase three: smash that “to-do” list
Once you have your inbox under control (let’s say it’s now less than 50 emails), you can start using it to prioritise your day/week.
In effect every message in your inbox is now something you need to deal with (respond, acknowledge, plan around etc.), without any of the extra clutter.
- Have an action plan: Try to have a simple action plan for everything in your inbox. When you are processing your emails try and set a positive action for each and every one of them.
- Use the right-click: By “right-clicking” on an email you open a world of possibilities. Move it somewhere, set a flag for importance, trigger a reminder time or date, convert it to an appointment, apply rules to the sender and change the email to a task.
- Elevate the urgent: Use your new email rules to identify urgent emails and permit these to circumvent all of the other rules.
- Don’t procrastinate: Set priorities, but don’t get into the habit of procrastinating over that item that has been sitting at the bottom of your inbox for months.
- Use the same rules for yourself: If you think of something you need to do, then send yourself an email. Put what you need to do in the subject line and then deal with it like you deal with all the others.
- File or remove it: Once you have dealt with your email then file it immediately and effectively. Don’t leave it in your inbox. It is easy to set up new folders that enable you to quickly refer to communications at a later stage.
- Trust the search: Most email systems have very powerful search facilities. Learn how to use these properly and you don’t need to worry so much about where you put stuff.
Phase four: stay on top
Now that you’ve put lot of effort into organising your inbox, you’ll want to stay on top of it. It’s common to revert to old habits, so it’s important to keep the faith and make this work for you.
- Communicate your strategy: Let all of those dependent on you know how you work: CC’d messages will be considered in due course and you won’t respond immediately on mobile.
- Remove distractions: Most people need clear space to do their best work. Removing distractions gives you that clear space. In my case, that was removing email from my phone.
- Create clear time: Have regular times when you process your email. Remember, if people want you urgently they will call you – right?
- Don’t over commit: As a CEO, I have learned over time to not apply the blow torch to my team and especially myself! Business moves fast, but not so fast that you need to be connected and available 24×7.
- Reward yourself: If you are on top of things then take a break, have a coffee or go for a walk. You shouldn’t have to feel you need to “allocate” the extra time you have won back.
Phase five: the new proactive you
Remember that ideal state we talked about? Where your inbox is under control and your task list doesn’t rule your life. Congratulations: you’re there. Now’s the time to start using that extra breathing space in the way that you want to use it.
This simple organisational strategy certainly gives me that extra space, and I hope it gives it to you, too.