Take time to get back in the work flow

September 13, 2013

Q: I am returning to work after five weeks of vacation and am already feeling overwhelmed. Last time I had over 2,000 emails in my inbox. What tips do you have to get me back on track faster this time?

A: Believe that being rejuvenated and clear headed will help you accomplish more than you think. Be realistic and give yourself time to reacclimatize.

Keep your out-of-office message on and avoid booking appointments for one or two additional days so you can get reoriented and reorganized.

Perhaps change your out-ofoffice message to say you are back and if something needs urgent attention re-send it.

Get a status report from your boss and colleagues on key projects so you have a clear sense of the big picture and key priorities. A 15-minute standup huddle will keep things brief and concise. Where are things at? What are the highest priorities? Reconfirm timelines and deadlines.

After these meetings, create a new to-do list and block time in your calendar to accomplish them so you are in control of your time, not others.

Review and clean the clutter out of your inbox because the junk can obscure the critical ones. Only read and respond to urgent emails. Beginning with the most recent, file or delete unnecessary CCs, solicitations.

Resist the temptation of easy low priority emails that may give you an immediate sense of accomplishment but really put you further behind.

Use your positive holiday energy to boost your productivity. Don’t wear yourself out with long hours and taking work home. Returning the next day fresh and clear will keep your momentum strong.

Put the details into perspective by remembering the bigger picture and what really matters in your role.

Originally published in The Province, September 8, 2013.

Timely tips save effort

April 14, 2013

Q I’ve just been promoted to the C-Suite and the time demands are daunting. I am an effective time manager but I can’t stay on top of all the additional requirements of the role. What more can I do?

A Protect your most productive hours of the day to do your big picture strategizing and reflective thinking. Since 20 per cent of your efforts produce 80 per cent of your results, prioritize your tasks and stick to it. Delegate the rest. This is more effective than doing it all. Studies show that a 60-hour work week decreases productivity by 25 per cent and gets worse as the work hours increase.

Executives waste almost a day a week in meetings. Consider limiting meetings to between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Keep them on track by sticking to a clear agenda, beginning and ending on time with specific actions for each individual, following up on their accountabilities at the next meeting.

Email is often the biggest distraction. It helps to check email only at specific times of the day and to give your people guidelines on what you want to be copied. Have someone pre-screen and file items for you. Take the time to clear your inbox weekly. Additionally, the average leader is interrupted every three minutes – that is two hours a day. Instead of inviting intruders with: “How can I help” narrow their access by asking: “What do you need from me for you to accomplish this?”

Forget multi-tasking altogether. it takes 20-40 per cent more time to finish items when you multi task compared with completing the same tasks in sequence. Time lost switching among tasks increases with the complexity of the tasks diminishing productivity and quality.

Stay focused on holding the strategic vision, holding others accountable for operational details and keeping both in alignment.

Originally printed in The Province, April 14, 2013.

Get set up -then unplug

July 19, 2011

Q: Vacations just aren’t worth it. I work like a dog beforehand to get ahead of my workload and race to catch up when I get back. While I’m away my BlackBerry buzzes continuously. I’m thinking of cancelling this year’s holiday altogether. Can you help?

A: Others won’t respect your time off until you do. You’ve trained people that you are available even when absent.

This time give people two week’s notice of your upcoming vacation. At the same time block time to wrap up, tidy up or delegate your current responsibilities to others you trust. Introduce your replacements to the key issues and provide clear written instructions on how to handle specific situations so you can relax knowing business is taken care of.

Turn on your “out of office” e-mail manager informing people you are unavailable and who to contact regarding urgent issues. Create an outgoing voice message with the same information. Then unplug. Don’t answer your phone! Seriously, once you respond from your BlackBerry it is game over.

Doing even a little bit of work while away will continue a slow drain on your mental and emotional batteries. You will end up coming back just as tired. Ride the relaxed holiday momentum by easing back into work. Block the first day or two to get organized and reoriented.

Rather than answer each email, sort by subject, scan, prioritize and act on the most pressing issues. Delegate what you can immediately, then file or dump messages you were cc’d on for reference. This reduces the sense of overwhelming.

Remember. Vacations have enormous health benefits.

Originally published in The Province, July 18, 2011.

Emails that get attention

August 22, 2010

Q: I don’t get the responses I’m looking for when I send e-mails at work. People either avoid replying or miss the point. How do I get straight answers to my questions?

A: Corporate e-mail users receive up to 200 e-mails a day. If the recipient only spends a minute on each one, that’s over three hours a day reading e-mail. In an overflowing inbox, you have seconds to grab the reader’s attention and make your e-mail a priority to open and answer.

One topic per e-mail is the surest way to get a clear direct response. E-mails with several items require extra thought and time to address. Points often get missed and replies are slower, if not forgotten. Numbering the items and identifying each topic in the subject line helps.

A subject line that gives enough detail about the message in a few words or includes a call to action such as “Please respond by . . .” attracts the reader, while a friendly opening line and an appreciative closing personalizes the message and builds rapport.

People appreciate brevity. State the purpose of the message up front, then get to your point quickly in a conversational style. Straightforward, short messages that are easy to follow and specify the desired response get dealt with promptly. Incomplete messages, where recipients have to write back for more information, frequently get dropped.

Proofread every message from the reader’s vantage point. E-mails convey emotional tone. Is it neutral, courteous and respectful?

Following these simple steps to be a more effective electronic communicator can create a positive impression, enhance credibility and elicit the responses you want.

Originally printed in The Province, August 22, 2010.

How to send your message

December 9, 2007

Q: I give instructions to my team and they just don’t get it. I keep repeating myself yet it doesn’t get any clearer for them, then I get angry and frustrated and nothing gets accomplished. What could I do differently?

A: Before you blow another gasket, know that 85 per cent of business issues are people-related not skill-related. Even clear, direct communication can often result in a different message received. The onus is on the sender to ensure it is received as you intended.

Here are some tips:

  • Begin by clearly stating your reason and the result you are expecting from the receiver. Do you want them to take action immediately, to file this information until required, or is it simply FYI? Explain how following these directions will benefit them, the team, the client or other stakeholders.
  • Many people miss this next crucial point: Step outside of what you want and consider it from your listener’s perspective. Are your instructions clear? Are the outcomes realistic? What vital information must they have to carry out these instructions and successfully meet your expectations? The receiver needs enough detail to deliver on, yet not so much that they get bogged down.
  • Your message requires three key elements: What you want done, when it needs to be finished and how you want to be informed when it’s completed. Empower team members to complete the task in their own way.
  • Now about that tone — yes, even e-mail has a voice quality that telegraphs volumes. If your message is emotionally charged, even the clearest directions will be resisted. Keep your message light and to the point.

Originally printed in The Province, December 9, 2007.