Attention, for the very busy

A couple of jobs back (actual time: about a year ago) I worked in the data services department at a medical billing company. My coworkers and I were in charge of making sure that data was transmitted to and from the customers on schedule. Most of this was automated, so we had a lot of downtime for reading celebrity gossip magazines, but when something broke down, it was a different story. Sooner or later you’d have a day where the programmers pushed out an update with unexpected side effects, your data files were corrupt, the file transfer script failed to run on time, and every customer was calling to ask “where’s my file and what’s this trash I received instead?”.

While I was there I learned a fair bit about what to do when your brain is screaming ‘I can’t do all of this at once where do I start how do I make these people shut up and go away aaaaah!’. And I’ve been interested to see that a number of busy tech types are experiencing this feeling with respect to their own business communications. Many of them are concluding that the way out is to to cut back on the things calling for their attention. If that works, great, but I don’t think it’s the only option. At the operations job I handled the overload through aggressive triage. Anything that can be done later, should. I also put things that had specific deadlines on my schedule, and those were completely non-negotiable, no scheduling meetings at the same time. My apology-writing skills also got a fair workout some weeks.

I’ve been following the way Stowe Boyd pushes back against the ‘information overload’ panic, and I think he has some very useful tips: You don’t have to reply to everything. You don’t have to read everything. If it’s important, it’ll come up again. I would add: learn to assess what’s important in this moment. Whatever just appeared in your inbox probably isn’t it. Triage, and put anything you can’t work on right now out of your mind.

The biggest disagreement between Stowe and his critics is that they see the state of having more email etc. than they can respond to as a sort of crisis mode, while he believes it to be business as usual. If it’s a crisis, then you want to figure out how to get out of that state as fast as possible (which would be appropriate when the thing filling your inbox and voice mail is ‘the server’s down again and all of our customers are threatening to leave’). But when it’s just your regular work, people you’re talking to about future projects, and other assorted communication (emails from mom, Facebook friend requests, …), a different strategy is required. Unless you want fewer friends, want fewer business contacts, fewer interesting and exciting projects. You could do that. But I’m pretty sure that anyone who winds up in this situation likes the busy busy life. They just feel bad about the unanswered email, and worry that they’re ignoring something important. It’s an unpleasant panicky feeling, but it’s not rational or useful, and if you know that, you’ll be able to work with it.

This is what my triage process looks like right now. Lower priority: Messages from people I don’t know. Questions sent to a group, especially if someone else will probably be able to answer. Links to fun videos, websites, and other distractions. Anything I can resolve the next time I see them in person. Higher priority: Messages from people I know and like talking to. Questions that can’t be answered by other people, especially if they involve potential work. Anything that involves my calendar, like planning future events or meetings.

That’s usually enough to get my inbox and other pieces of incoming information in order. It requires a bit of faith that anything I forget that involves people I know, I can sort out later without too much trouble. I think the best criteria for figuring out whether what you’re doing is working is this: Can people get in touch with you when they need to? Are your business and personal relationships suffering? Those are affected by a lot more than just how many emails you answer in a day, or how fast you return a phone call.

Updated to add: Kaitlin Sherwood has a great post on why email isn’t the problem (“People have been overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that other people give them to do since long before email.”, she writes).

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