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Posts tagged: email

How to be more productive

By , December 30, 2014 11:57 am

A few weeks ago @BobWalsh asked on twitter how to be more productive.

I dashed off a simple reply about turning various things off. I thought I’d expand upon this topic.

Productivity isn’t just one thing. It’s many things and they all need to be aligned to allow you to be productive.

Know your topic

Seems obvious, but how many times have to tried to do something that you aren’t that good at and it’s taken forever? And the result was OK, but you know it could have been better. Would this particular task have been better delegated to someone else or even outsourced to a trusted third party?

Willpower

You have limited willpower. Concentrating on a task, or many tasks requires effort. You only have so much energy available for that effort before your energy reserves are depleted and you either need to eat, rest or sleep. Choose what you spend your energy on wisely.

Don’t multi-task

There is this myth that some people can multi-task and some people can’t. In particular this myth is biased in favour of women. However in neurological terms, humans are not wired to multi-task. We can appear to multi-task (just as single core CPUs did) by context switching. Context switching in humans is slow and consumes energy. If your blood sugar is low you will not be good at this. This StackExchange question discusses the penalties associated with context switching.

Remove distractions

Every distraction is a request to context switch to attend to that distraction. And then context switch back to the previous distraction or on to a new distraction. This is why the job of receptionist in a hotel, a hospital or a veterinary surgery is not as simple as it seems. Each micro task isn’t hard. But it’s the sheer volume of them and often multiple balls in the air at the same time – this takes energy.

In terms of your working life, if you are tech then the chances are you have these things around you:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Smart phone
  • Text messaging
  • Wired phone
  • Email
  • Other productivity tool
  • Work colleagues
  • Open plan work environment
  • Office politics
  • (and possibly minority/sexist micro-aggressions)

But you’re actually trying to workout how to write some software for your company to meet the company product release deadline. Or you’re trying to debug someone else’s software and you need to get your head into their software space to understand what’s happening, or it’s a code review, or you’re examining the DNA of this interesting cancer, or something equally taxing. In short what you really want to be putting your energy is this interesting task but you are constantly pulled away from it by all these other sources of distraction.

Twitter

Turn off your twitter client. You don’t need to be on twitter all day, every day. You can always check in when you have a break or at the start/end of the day.

Facebook

Log out of facebook. Same as twitter, but it’s even less realtime so you definitely don’t need this open in your browser all day.

LinkedIn

Log out of LinkedIn. Same as twitter and facebook.

Smart phone

Turn it off. Completely off. No notification pings, no vibrates, no calls, nothing. So many apps on your phone to distract you and pull you away from work.

Text Messaging

Seriously. I know people under 25 seem to live in their text messaging world but I have news for you. If you turn off your phone the world will keep spinning. And your friends will still be there when it comes to lunch time and you can check up on what hasn’t happening in the (gasp!) last 4 hours.

Wired Phone

Unplug it. Turn off the ringer. Turn down the volume on the answerphone.

Email

You don’t need your email client open all the time. Check it once per hour, or once every two hours. For an extreme take, do it like Noah Kagan. Twice a day – once at the start of the day and once at the end of the day. OK, so some conversations won’t go as fast but everything will get attended to. And you might even focus on those emails a bit more because you’ve dedicated time to them rather than trying to time slice them with everything else in the day.

Trello / Other productivity tool

There are loads of planning/scheduling tools out there. Trello has taken off in a big way. Great. I have nothing against them. But you don’t need to fixate on it all day. Close the browser page. You can check the status of something when you actually need the information, not just because something has moved and you need to know, RIGHT NOW, what that was.

Work colleagues

Not a lot you can do about these. They need your help. You need theirs. If you can’t interact nothing will get done. But you can give strong hints as to when it’s OK to talk to you and when it’s not. Some folks put a red flag on their desk (or something equally unusual) to signify “I’m busy, don’t bother me”. Try it.

Open plan work environment

Yes, these are great. And they can be awful. Good for fostering openness and communication. Bad for controlling noise. For some tasks you may be better trying to get an office for an afternoon or take the work home.

Office politics

Er, not sure how to turn this one off.

Go for a walk

I’m serious. If you can’t get your head around a problem. Go for a walk. Preferably in the countryside. I live in a small country village. An average house on a housing estate. But I’m surrounded by farmland and the largest wetland in Europe (The Ouse Washes). Lots of the engineering problems at Software Verification have been solved while walking on this farmland enjoying the scenery, letting my brain wander and then out of nowhere a solution or partial solution appears. Back to the office and usually have a working demo by the end of the day.

Alternatively, a long soak in a hot bath (optional bottle of wine) often does the same job. Don’t try this one at work!

Alternatively, learn to meditate.

If it’s not obvious the key thing is getting your mind to relax and wander. Turn off the concious problem solving part of your brain and wait.

Caffeine

Get Caffeine out of your life. I really enjoy Caffeine (when provided by Tea, but not by Coffee) but I’m glad I stopped consuming Caffeine. It’s a myth that it makes you better at your job. I should probably also do the same with alcohol, but I have considerably reduced my consumption of that as well.

List

Make a list of all the things you need to do today. Identify the order of importance and how big/small a task it is. If you have lots of short tasks that are easy to do, do them. This reduces the list size and gives you a sense of progress, which is a good emotional boost. Then tackle the important and big tasks first. Cross each task off the list as you complete them. It’s trivial stuff to do, but this is emotional recognition of progress. Surprising what such simple tricks can do to your inner sense of “getting stuff done”.

If you find that you are not comfortable with the list on any given day that’s a good indicator that the tasks on the list – you haven’t fully decided how each task will be completed. So work on understanding each task a bit better. This may mean breaking the task into subtasks, or it may mean you just need to think about the task a bit more.

Summary

The days when I feel the most distracted, the least at ease, can’t decide what to work on it’s when there is nothing on the list that interests me and I have all these distractions turned on. The solution is to remove the distractions and then work on the contents of the list.

I’m not saying twitter, facebook et al are bad. I’m saying that they need to be used with care. So turn them off when you are working and turn them on when you need to plug in.

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When things go wrong

By , January 16, 2014 1:10 pm

Sometimes you do things with the best of intentions and it all goes wrong. This week has been like that.

Preamble

It all started out with the simple idea that we’d like to try to create a bit more business by contacting past customers that didn’t renew their software maintenance and see if they wanted to renew.

We’d had some feedback from some customers that they had missed the renewal notices that are included with their software updates and that they would appreciate a separate email from us to inform them. We took this feedback and created some appropriate emails that are sent 90, 60, 30 days in advance of the renewal date. We also send some email after the renewal date for a short period.

So far so good. Nothing wrong with keeping existing customers in the loop.

Setup

The problem occurred when we thought about the customers that had not renewed. Was it an error, an oversight or deliberate? Well of course we don’t know. I think the initial idea may have been to contact customers whose maintenance had expired just over 1 year ago. That’s borderline OK. CRM solutions such Hubspot, Act-On etc all recommend 1 year as the cut off threshold for contacting customers. Anyone over a year, you don’t contact. The reason we were going just over a year was to do with when we’d first introduced paid software maintenance. It fell just over a year.

We also thought that contacting these customers would be a good opportunity to get some feedback about why they hadn’t renewed. Where we doing something wrong? Or had their career changed? etc.

I produced lists of customers, organised by software product whose maintenance expired. The lists included their name, email address and maintenance expiry date. The intention was that customers would receive a personalised email that identified the product they used and did they know their maintenance had expired?

What actually happened

Normally we email customers evaluating our software in HTML email via our Hubspot account.

Customers that have purchased our software received email in plain text or very simply HTML email.

But customers receiving the maintenance renewal email received a HTML email in a different format to our normal Hubspot format, not sent via our Hubspot account, sent from an email account our customers have never heard of, with an incorrect email address in the body of the email. The emails were not personalised, not were they specific to the software tool the customer had purchased. In addition some of the email addresses in the list shouldn’t have been in the list. As a final nail in the coffin of getting this wrong, the emails were sent to customers well outside of the time boundaries initially specified.

I don’t think we could get it much more wrong if we tried. Well, I suppose we could have included some Not Safe For Work or some malware, but short of doing that we got this as wrong as we could have done. Very embarrassing. I’ve been writing email apologies to people left right and centre the last few days.

The Result

Some people unsubscribed. No problem. We expected that some people would. Turns out some people were using different languages or made larger changes in their career and no longer needed our tools.

Some people emailed asking if it was a phishing scam (mainly due to the format, incorrect email address, unusual sending email address, etc).

Some people complained that we were horrible unscrupulous people. Ouch.

In summary, we annoyed some people by being inept at this particular task. We could have done this so much better. And I’m embarrassed by it all.

If you have received one of these emails I humbly apologise. It won’t happen again.

Remedies

As a result of this unintended email episode I’ve created some basic rules. We’ll probably extend these rules as we go.

  • If you can’t personalise it, don’t sent it.
  • If you can’t specify which product you are emailing about, don’t sent it.
  • Don’t send generic, catch-all emails. See previous two points.
  • Ensure all emails are within the date range you intend. Double check them.
  • Don’t accept excuses from marketing for why things are being done a particular way.

The whole purpose of this task was that apart from generating the lists it wouldn’t involve me and I could get on with the technical side of running the business. It hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve had to spend time reviewing other’s work, accepting their reasons for why this way or that way. I’ve paid for their labour and now I’m writing an article about what went wrong.

Email Addresses

All email addresses used were sourced from our own customer lists.

We don’t buy email lists. We don’t sell them either. We regard buying or selling email addresses as Bad for Business.

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