PMBAProductivity & Effectiveness

Bit Literacy – 2


Bit Literacy -  Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload 

Note : This week I am testing a new way of publishing: I will post this article in 4 sections, published throughout the week. What do you think? Do you like this better or would you prefer a complete report every time? Let me know through your comments 😉 . The part one is here.

Summary and Book Report, Part 2 :

Part II : The Method

  • Chapter 4: Managing Incoming E-mail

There is a solution for coping with the email avalanche: don’t bury yourself in it.

Actually, the email avalanche makes users less productive in many different ways:

  • It takes more time for an overloaded user to reply to an incoming email because every new email is in competition with all the others to attract the user’s attention.
  • Setting priorities is more difficult.
  • It takes time to find messages in a full inbox.
  • It’s hard to remember which email says what.
  • An overloaded user reduces everyone’s productivity because others must send new emails to remind him to deal with what he hasn’t done.
  • In some software, like Microsoft Outlook, very large inboxes can make the program crash.

What’s more, this loss of productivity, and a full inbox, also have psychological costs:

  • Overloaded users are never sure if they have forgotten something and live in fear of being “discovered” or punished for what they have forgotten.
  • A full inbox which contains weeks and months of old work constantly reminds the user how far they are from being “finished.”

An email workload is measured by the number of emails that are in the inbox. Inboxes with one or two thousand messages are common in the professional world (Note: My professional inbox right now contains 5,183 emails, but I work in a different way from Mark Hurst, as I will explain later.)

The most common reason for overloaded inboxes is because users use them for things that email wasn’t designed for:

  • To-do lists
  • Filing systems
  • A calendar
  • A list of book marks
  • An address book

It’s a mistake to rely on your inbox for getting things done. The inbox is only meant to be used as a temporary holding place for receiving emails, briefly, before they are deleted or moved elsewhere.

The Solution

Empty your inbox at least once a day.

And it’s not enough to leave it almost empty. Emptying it means the count goes down to zero – exactly zero – at least once a day.

For that all you have to do is follow the three steps in this method:

  1. Read all your personal emails, then delete them.
  2. Delete all spam messages.
  3. Take care of all the emails that are for your information and all those that need action, then delete them. In particular:
    • Delete or file all emails that are for your information, after first reading them.
    • Finish all the little to-do items that take less than two minutes.
    • Move all the big to-do items onto an efficient to-do list, then delete them.

By using this method, you will eventually have an empty list every day which will give you a deep feeling of satisfaction and the sense of having “finished.”

Be careful, sometimes you must manage the problem upstream. Don’t hesitate to educate your coworkers, employees and partners by asking them to reduce emails as much as possible and only to send them to people who really need to be involved. At the same time, drastically reduce or stop using instant messaging applications, which truly kill productivity.

  • Chapter 5: Managing Todos

Users with empty inboxes must know what to do next, and that means managing your to-do lists properly. Bit Literacy is essential because it allows you to spend less time organizing to-do lists and more time doing them.

Once again, the problem is overload. Every day can bring a new volley of things to do, that accumulate rapidly if you don’t accomplish them quickly enough. Because to-do lists are different from emails in one way: you must do them. To-do lists are work in themselves.

Users need to use a robust tool, that is not part of the email manager, and that assigns priorities to to-do items in a way that is compatible with Bit Literacy. And it should be a single tool so that all users can find their to-do lists in a single place.

What tool should users choose? Again, many people use paper to manage their to-dos. Often a depressingly large number. Little square sticky notes stuck all around your monitor, notes scattered around the desk, messing up your work space, scribbles on the back of cash receipts or paper napkins, stuffed into your pocket or stuck on the refrigerator door. Paper. Piles, stacks, mountains of paper. Managing it all sometimes takes more time than the tasks themselves! In any amount, except very tiny amounts, paper is a curse on productivity. 

The information overload of our era is caused by bits, and therefore the tool we use to manage this overload should know how to work with bits.

To find out what tool we need, we must understand the life-cycle of the to-do list item:

  1. Creation. The user must create his to-do immediately, as soon as he understands that he needs to do it.
  2. Inactivity is the period of hibernation between the creation and the activation of the task.
  3. Activation is the moment when the to-do item is ready to be done, and when it reminds the user that is it time to get to work.
  4. Achievement is when the to-do item is finished and scratched off the list.

A good management tool for to-do lists must therefore offer the following functionality:

  1. Every to-do item should be tied to a particular day.
  2. Users can create new to-do items by email, whether it is for today or a day in the future.
  3. Every to-do item has a priority on a given day.
  4. Every to-do item must contain a “details” field so you can summarize it, just like an email has a body of text and a header.

You must be careful not to choose a tool that is too simple (that offers only one header, for example) or too complicated (the author mentions Microsoft Outlook, but once again I don’t agree with him).

You therefore need a tool that is tailored for the task. Choose wisely. But the truth is that many users simply don’t want to do their work. If they have the choice between finishing the task or spending a few minutes deciding what color it should be, most people, engineers in particular, who love to play with software, would choose the latter. Colors are fun, pretty, and don’t require too much thought. Doing the real work requires time and energy, the chance of failure and is, perhaps, no fun at all.

Note: I skipped most of the chapter where the author explains in detail how Gootodo works – a program – not free – which he developed. It is, according to him, the quintessential program for effectively managing to-do lists. You can form your own opinion by subscribing to a free 30-day trial. 

  • Chapter 6: The Media Diet
  • At Mark Hurst’s university they often say that having an MIT education is like drinking from a fire hose. You can say the same thing today about the fact of wanting to stay informed in an environment saturated with information.

    There is a similar situation with offline information sources (magazines, journals, TV broadcasts, radio broadcasts, etc) and online (newsletters, mailing lists and forums, web sites – including blogs, new types of content such as podcasts, Youtube, etc.) that it could lead to stress and anxiety, as with the email avalanche and the to-do lists.

    There are three ways of managing the mass of media, as well as the mass of bits:

    • Live in reaction and feel more and more stressed and confused while still more information appears and demands our attention.
    • Disengage: avoid the problem entirely by avoiding reading or watching whatever it is.
    • Practice Bit Literacy: accept a little information – the good information – and don’t try to have it all.

    This last point involves practicing a media diet – this is a subversive practice because it allows us to live independently from how the advertisers want us to – and it is not very different from a food diet. An effective media diet:

    • is based on what is important to you, not on what is important to other people, companies or advertisers;
    • uses a small minority of resources that are useful to you for reaching your goals;
    • ignores the vast ocean of redundant and irrelevant sources;
    • is an active portfolio that you can change any time in order to keep it as long as possible, and
    • is as small as possible.

    Your media diet must therefore allow you to stay completely informed with the minimum of possible source and the least amount of time necessary. For this you will need to build a portfolio of difference sources in two categories:

    – The lineup 

    These are the most important sources, the ones that give you the most relevant information with respect to the time spent, and you should know exactly why you read them. They are divided into three sub-categories:

      • Stars. Valuable sources that constantly provide you with useful and relevant information. They require a little time because you consult them the most often, so only choose a few.
      • Scans. Most of the sources in your lineup that regularly give you some amount of useful information. Quickly look them over and find information that interests you.
      • Targets. Good sources for targeted use. For example, you can subscribe to a competitor’s newsletter so you can know for sure what he is saying.

    – Tryouts

    These are sources that are not in the lineup, but are kept where you can easily find them. They should, however, go through a trial period, and since a media diet must be as small as possible, it is likely that the majority of these sources will not pass the trial. You can try new publications, new sites, that are not your usual ones, that you would not have thought of consulting, etc.

    In addition to these two categories, there is an additional dimension to keep in mind, especially for online resource: credibility.

    How many emails do you see going from inbox to inbox forever, wasting millions of people’s time, telling you that “false real” stories ? You have probably sent some yourself, in good faith.

    Just because something is in writing doesn’t make it true. This is especially true for online material. Next time you receive an email of this type, take a tour of Snopes et paste the message in the “Search” box on the top right.

    To be continued… 😉

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