How they manage their email in Bilbao

by Joe Pelissier on February 19, 2013

Guggenheim Museum – Bilbao

They don’t. Which is one of the reasons I spent a week in Bilbao running a series of workshops about effective email communication. It was part of a project to help the European Agency for Safety and Health (OSHA) manage email in a more productive and less stressful fashion.

The workshop originated in 2011 as a request from a directorate in the European Parliament whose Heads of Unit were struggling to stay sane when dealing with up to 300 emails a day. Is this a clue to the Euro crisis?

eMail overload and mis-management is a problem which the whole world suffers from, myself included, but which we do resolutely little about. In May 2012, a study by the University of California into what happens when information workers are cut off from email for 5 consecutive days took 4 years to get off the ground! Simply because no company was willing to risk cutting off its staff from email for such a long period of time. As the results showed such fears were groundless.

How dependency influences productivity

It’s clear that very few of us manage email. Instead email manages us. That’s why part of the workshop focuses on Dependency and the way it influences productivity. There’s nothing wrong with dependency per se, until it starts to disrupt your life and you find you’re not properly in control.

Your productivity is potentially compromised if you

  1. Have email notifications switched 100% on so that each time a new email arrives you momentarily stop what you are doing to read it
  2. Allow yourself to be ‘hijacked’ by new email – you stop the task in hand and deal with what has just arrived instead
  3. Find you have multiple ‘unfinished’ emails open as a result of points 1 and 2.
  4. You are constantly checking your email so that you respond to it randomly
  5. You believe managing email is about ‘multitasking’.

In practical terms, the solutions are easy – you switch off notifications and you allocate specific times to complete tasks. You stop doing email randomly. But behaviourally people find this very hard. They feel they should be constantly connected so they can multitask and not miss anything. But the whole concept of multitasking is rubbish, in truth we can only do one thing at time properly.

Consider this – each time you allow yourself to stop what you are doing it takes you c.1 minute 30 seconds to re-focus on the original task. If that happens 30 times a day you’ve gone and lost 45 minutes.  You can do a lot in 45 minutes – that’s 14 ‘lost’ hours in a month…

How Integrity plays a part

Integrity is about your commitment to respect the time of others. Especially when you send emails they have to work hard at understanding and you don’t factor in an awareness of all the other emails they are hit with. It’s also linked to the amount of time you allocate to dealing with your own email.

Most people are happy to use email as an excuse to disrupt them from something they find dull or boring. They also tend to lazily .cc everyone in order to cover their arse  – few seldom think about who needs to be copied in the first place

I’ve also experienced email as a short-hand ‘chat’ in which hundreds of emails fly around with snippets of banal conversation, in which everyone is .cc’d in order that everyone knows that Lizzie, ‘is on the case‘.  This how you get up to 300 emails a day.

eMail depends of Literacy

The third part of my approach focuses on Literacy, or rather the lack of it. For example, the importance and impact of the Subject Line in an email. This is the Headline, the information that’s going to decide whether the email is worth your attention or not. Most Subject Lines are only a couple of words and so are not very specific; the recipient either ignores it or has to open it to find out what it’s really about.

During my work with OSHA we concluded that if everyone wrote more explicit Subject Lines it would help the agency enormously. Easy.

Life without eMail

You may find this surprising but here’s what happened following the University of California’s experiment in monitoring a cut-off from email for 5 days.

  1. Much less stress, especially on day 5 (as measured by Heart Rate Variance)
  2. People spent longer on a single task – they were more productive
  3. Less jumping across different windows and applications – this dropped by c. 50%
  4. People talked to their colleagues more and asked them questions (do you remember those days..?)
  5. The co-workers could still obtain the information they needed albeit not as fast

The sad news is that although the volunteers felt liberated by the experience they soon reverted back to their bad old ways. The conclusion is that changing email habits has to be collective – it can’t be down to the individual.

If you work in a large organisation this is probably true, senior management needs to change organisational expectations first. But if you work independently, you owe it to yourself to have your life and your productivity NOT dictated by email.

As a result of the workshops the good people of OSHA have a series of things they are going to change organisationally, departmentally and individually. They’ve made verbal commitments to monitor certain behavioural changes over a period of 21 days – the time it takes to make or break a habit.

Life in Bilbao

If you’ve never visited Bilbao, try to go. It’s a great little city, very confident in its own Basque identity and where there are no American fast-food outlets. There’s no need – in Bilbao the place is full of small bars all selling delicious and exotic pintxos (pincho meaning a thorn or spike), the Basque equivalent of tapas. You just drop into one, have a pintxo with a Crianza (or, two) or coffee and move on.

The city also has Frank Gehry’s brilliant design for the Guggenheim Museum which has a constantly changing collection of contemporary art.

These things are far more interesting and important than email (well, they are to me when I’m not at work) but you still need a Pélixir to tell you so.

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