Office essentialism


Over the years I’ve read countless books on time management and efficiency. The first was Tim Ferris’ modern manifesto, The 4-Hour Workweek, which triggered my interest in doing more with less. Recently, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less and Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think have inspired me to strip non-essentials and focus on my real priorities.

I followed their advice and applied it to my working day. After some experimentation, I’ve settled on six habits to achieve more during my office hours.

#1 – Do 90 minutes of productive work before checking email in the morning

The first hours of any day are golden. Capitalise on the freshness of your mind and body by getting at least 90 minutes of good work under your belt before you open any emails. The rest of the day might run away from you, but if you get 90 minutes of quality work done every morning you’ll do better than most people in the office.

To avoid interruptions, create a recurring appointment in your calendar to reserve this precious slot. This stops colleagues inviting you to meetings and reminds you to focus.

Spend the time on the most important item in your TODO list, rather than the most urgent. This is your moment to progress towards the goals that matter in your work.

#2 - Only check your email twice a day

If you’re not careful, you can spend your entire day reading and responding to emails. This may leave you with a satisfied busy feeling, but it’s not what you’re paid to do. Email is a tool to assist your work, not a boss to govern it.

Break free of the cycle by checking your email just twice a day. I opt for mid-morning (after 90 minutes of productivity) and again in the late afternoon, around 3pm. Email is perfect for batch processing - in twenty focussed minutes you can respond/delegate/delete numerous emails.

I keep Outlook open to remind me about meetings, but I disable all new mail notifications. No envelopes appear in my task bar, no noises, no pop-ups. I’ve even created a rule that moves new emails to a “TO READ” folder, so I’m not distracted by tantalising subject lines as I check my calendar.

You may find entire conversations have started and finished since you last checked your email. Another recipient supplied the necessary information, a brief conversation followed and now everyone is satisfied. Had you checked your email earlier, you may have got caught up in this for no benefit. Let others respond first while you’re getting useful work done!

#3 – Avoid recurring status meetings

Ah, the dreaded status meeting. I used to have four of them weekly, one for each project. Most meetings had a dozen attendees, each contributing only a brief update. Because we worked closely together, we knew exactly what everyone was going to say, so the whole thing was quite pointless.

The cost of these meetings was huge. 12 man-hours multiplied by 4 meetings equalled 48 hours every week. That’s a hell of an investment, equivalent to an entire week’s work.

Avoid creating these meetings and concentrate on better team communication. If you can’t escape (perhaps your boss has scheduled it), try and miss the occasional week with a promise of sending an update with a co-worker. If you’re feeling brave, propose a two-week hiatus to gauge if it really adds value.

#4 – Hold shorter meetings; 20 minutes is enough in almost every case

Isn’t it funny how 60 minute meetings take exactly 60 minutes, almost every time? Parkinson’s Law is a bitch. People instinctively edit their contributions to fit into the allotted time. The trick is to compress the available time and watch the noise-to-signal ratio improve!

Microsoft has to take some blame here. 30 minute meetings are the default in Outlook and it takes quite a bit of effort to schedule a 15 or 20 minute meeting. But persevere and you’ll benefit from more efficient meetings and less chatting about the weather.

#5 – Answer the phone the right way

How you answer the phone will dramatically affect the duration of the conversation that follows. A typical polite exchange looks like this (at least in Britain):

Hey, Duncan, it’s Steve. How are you?

Good, thanks. How are you?

Not bad, thanks. Did I hear you’ve been on holiday? I bet you didn’t miss the weather here!

Yeah, I just got back and I’m fed up of the rain already! Have you been away?

Before you know it, you’re gossiping like old fish wives. Tut-tut.

Instead, try answering the inevitable “How are you?” question with the magic phrase “I’m pretty busy today, how can I help?”. This cunningly sets a tone - your time is precious, this call is eating into it, but you’re happy to assist with something specific.

In most cases, this will trigger a short, focussed phone call. Sometimes, however, your caller will offer to ring later when you’re less busy. Don’t accept this offer - they’ve already interrupted your flow with their call; it’s best to address their problem now rather than be interrupted again later. In these situations, neatly continue the conversation:

Hey, Duncan, it’s Steve. How are you?

Hi, Steve. I’m pretty busy today, how can I help?

Oh, sorry. I can call you back later?

No, it’s fine. I’ve got a minute. What’s up?

Much better!

#6 – Keep an empty inbox

If your inbox has 12,647 emails and counting, it’s time to take action. Maintaining an empty inbox is a great way to stay on top of emails and helps with the twice-a-day batch processing discussed above.

Start by creating a “Misc” folder. This is your new dumping ground for emails you don’t want to file. It’s unrealistic to file thousands of old emails, so just move all the read emails from your inbox into the Misc folder. It may take a few minutes for this to complete, go grab a coffee.

Next, create folders for your current projects and subjects of interest. From now on, each email session should result in an empty inbox. Every email should be deleted or filed once read. If the email requires significant action (beyond just a reply or forward/delegation), add a task to your TODO list and file the email. You don’t need to keep the email polluting your inbox if you’ve made a reminder to action it later.

This simple change will revolutionise your use of emails, speeding up the time it takes to find that important old email and crucially giving you a sense of superiority over those still stuck in email hell.