When you work in a startup, you are guaranteed to make a decision that will disappoint someone today. Every day is a series of stack-ranked decisions. You decide (in near real time) whether Item A is more important than Item B, and make the best decision you can at the time. Many of those decisions are right. Some of them turn out to be wrong. It’s really hard to know before you make the decision which ones are going to be the wrong ones.
If you start with the premise that you will need to let items drop (there are too many tasks to do, not enough time, inability to delegate, not enough resources), it’s easier to focus on the inverse problem. Which one task do you need to get done today to move things forward the most? You might move two or three or ten things in a day, but what’s the one task when you look back will be the one you say “yes, I needed to do that or bad things would happen?”
Great – easy advice, you say – now how do you do this in practice? There are many ways to sort your list in the order that will give you the top stack rank. You might start with effort. What are the highest effort tasks? Give everything a 1 (easy), 2 (more than easy) and 3 (sounds big). And now think about the value of those things: 1 (small), 2 (bigger), and 3 (definitely high). If you’re spending time on easy small things they are not going to be the ones that create value. In the effort scenario, you need to be working on the smallest big thing that creates value.
But you need to allocate Time as well. Tasks that need to be done in a week are probably not more important than those that need to get done in two days, or tomorrow. In a perfect world you would have addressed the “tomorrow” tasks days ago but … sometimes life doesn’t work that way. You need to be aware enough of the deadlines for items (especially those that are contingent on the work of other people). Time (especially when there are near term tasks that are bigger and more than easy) can disappear quickly. One way to handle this is to under-schedule your expected tasks so that you have reserved capacity for just-in-time triage.
And there is importance. Is this a task for a customer? Is it a task that moves a critical product feature forward? Is it a commitment that was made and is potentially late if you don’t take action? Perhaps the most difficult choice to make is managing the conflict between two tasks of competing importance. The solution? Pick your best. Make Your Choice. Keep moving. The speed of making decisions and moving the task forward is almost as important as picking the right one. Until you make a mistake. That’s the time to stop and figure out what you should do the next time you make a decision.
There is no right answer. But there is a mostly good answer most of the time. Know enough about the decisions you need to make to get it right a lot. When you don’t know, ask leaders in the organization which direction they prefer. And keep learning.
(photo by https://unsplash.com/photos/HOtPD7Z_74s)
What’s the most important thing you do at work?
Most of us, when asked “how do you create job security”, default to explaining a way of interacting with others that only we can do. If you have unique skills, of course you would want to create a solution where you can solve the problem. It’s romantic to think that you – the cowboy or cowgirl – can race into the important situation and solve the problem where no one else can, or do it faster than anyone else.
Described differently, “I am the only one who can get it done on time and under budget” also looks a lot like “I am a bottleneck”, or “my company is now vulnerable to the ‘Bus Problem’, where if I get hit by a bus my company will have absolutely no way to do the things I know how to do. These statements now look a bit different.
A Corollary To What You Do Today
But what if creating personal job security looked completely different and had more to do with creating systems everywhere you go that help everyone else in the company raise their game? In this version of the bus problem, maybe the solution is to make bus schedules (so that all buses run on time), and develop contingency plans (like snow routes) for what happens when there is inclement weather or other unexpected behavior like traffic?
The best way to solve the problem of institutional knowledge sharing is to share that knowledge. Duh. But it means more than simply barfing out that information in whatever messaging suite happens to be the flavor of the month. True knowledge sharing means that you can isolate the facts and share the strategy implications of changing course, that you can write a procedure anyone in your company can follow, and that if you are not in the office the process works without you there.
What does this look like in practice?
Let’s say for the moment that you are responsible for updating the team on a new feature in your product. As a consumer of that information inside of the company, each person in each role needs something different. Sales might need to know if the price of that product changes or if specific customers had been waiting for it. Marketing might need to know if there are marketable features that could be shared with a wide audience. Engineers might want to know if there are new things to test and build. And Customer Support needs to know the typical things customers will ask and how to solve their problems.
Compare your original goal of becoming the only one who can solve a critical problem with the goal of sharing information with everyone in the company at the right time to ensure a productive product release. If you don’t create systems that ensure people on your team know what they need to know before you can tell it to them, you will fail. Your participation in the process should be the reinforcement of the knowledge, rather than the only way they know that information.
Start today by writing down an important thing that no one knows into instructions that person can follow, and then take the day off. Train a trusted resource, take the day off, and see how things went. If you get to “One in a Row” on this problem, you’re ready to tackle the next critical business process you own until the whole business can run without you telling them which buses run next on the schedule.
If there’s nothing else you remember from this post, spend 15 minutes writing down your goals for your next project so that you explain them better to the people who matter. The simple act of writing down your goals is a powerful organizer for you, the people you are interacting with in your project, and the people you want to benefit.
Build the Big Picture
When you paint the picture of a problem, a high-level reason why that problem needs to be solved, and a proposed end state that is a great start. That statement doesn’t explain the How, or the resources and tactics you use to get from “project not done” to “project done” within a known amount of time and effort.
So spend a few minutes writing down the ideal state and how you want to get there. Your way will probably be different than mine, which follows a template of prompts. STOP and go do that, then come back.
It seems silly to focus on such a small goal, because knowing what you’re going to do for your project, feature, or idea is obvious.
Test that theory the next time you feel you have alignment on “what is my project” or “what is my feature” by asking someone else to tell you what they think your project is, what benefits it will deliver, and to state the goal you’re both working to achieve.
When the goal of the project, the definition for that project, and the benefits of that project are clear(er), it’s a lot easier to know where to start.
What does this look like in practice?
Consider this example: “Build a new web site Widget.”
If you know: “we have never introduced a thing like this before onto one of our pages,” you might want to test that results differently to make sure there is no required dependency in your environment.
If you know: “we use these things all of the time, and this is a new instance of a thing we do already,” your comfort level will be increased.
And if you know: “we have already described the ‘look and feel’ of this widget in the fonts, colors, and information architecture of our website, for example page xyz,” you will have made it much easier to know what the thing is that you are building.
Stating the benefits for your project helps you to understand the measurement you’ll need to quantify these benefits. Then, find the measurement as it stands today. Yes, it does seem elementary to find a baseline, and you need one to prove that something change. If there is no baseline, state your assumptions and move on.
Getting Started …
In the spirit of a brief solution, I’ll keep this post short too. When you’re ready to make your next project better, set a timer for 15 minutes and write the overall goal, 3 things you want to do toward that goal, a statement for how you will measure your progress, and any questions you have about the project. This simple exercise makes it easier to share what you’re doing, how you’re thinking about it, and how to make progress.
Admit it — it’s really great to get the message you want, when you want it, and in the time and place that you want it. And that vision is usually hard to match.
Most Messaging is not Like This
And it’s really horrible to get most unwanted messages. It should be simple (and of course it’s not) to find the right balance of messaging across various clients — be they email, iMessage/SMS, or social — so that you get more signal than noise. The reality is that everyone sends you all of their messages all of the time. Unless you filter communication aggressively, split your contact lists into “family”, “friends”, “acquaintances”, and “block that”, you’re going to have a hard time finding the zen of messaging.
The Unrestricted Inbox is No Fun
The irony of messaging as a category is that as it gets more popular it gets more awful (thanks Nir Eyal for this visual of Message Hell). Yet almost every app and remote communication method needs messaging, because messaging solves the problem of communicating 1:1 (or 1:many) when we are all not physically in the same place and need to respond to each other. We all want the (algorithmically-delivered or not) perfect signal of “need to know” and “just in time” messages while also wanting desperately to avoid the inverse: “crying wolf while seemingly urgent and important”, “informational but not urgent”, or just plain spam.
But Blocking Email is Not A Solution
What will we do to keep the best parts of messaging across clients and channels and remake the part we don’t like that causes inefficiency, anger, and frustration?
Clay Shirky, in the well-known talk above (watch it if you’ve never seen it before), talks of “filter failure” and poses that as an antidote to information overload. However, that talk was several years ago. Things have gottne a lot worse with the volume and speed of information since then.
A Modest Proposal
Here’s the problem as I see it — we have information overload and filter failure. Some of this is bacn — “email you want but not right now”, and we have spam (we all know what that looks like). We have communication from different groups: home, family, work, social, and commercial communications. And we have the very real problem of multiple identity disorder, because there is no universal namespace for messaging someone that would create a “phone number” for all communications.
Most people would say, “I’m not sure I like this but this is sort of fine, because the idea of a universal mailing address sounds even worse.” The whole purpose of messaging, they might say, is “to have varying degrees of anonymity and intimacy based on the level of familiarity and trust you have with the individual who’s contacting you.”
The Typical Answer: Don’t Cross The Streams
This “trust” issue is the crux of the problem we face when we want more signal and less noise in our messaging and in our communication in general. We all have internal business rules we use to govern how we respond to different types of messages.
Whether we have enumerated these “rules” or not, they might look like:
“Answer the phone call on the second or third ring when my spouse or partner calls”
“Text my friend in an hour if I’m busy, or immediately if we are in the process of meeting for coffee or a meal”
“Ignore that spammy message from someone or some business I don’t know.”
“Never look at LinkedIn connection requests (ok, I kid — but this might be a special category for a segment of the population).”
Get More Quiet, Based on Our Actions
Our messaging apps and messaging platforms in general do a poor job of interpreting our own behavior and in translating that behavior (and future, intended behavior) into human-readable business rules that govern apps and give us more signal than noise.
We don’t live in a utopian (or dystopian, depending on your worldview) future when we have universal messaging or aggregate delivery of messages to a single client or brain box and a system to rules to respond automatically or manually to those messages. But given the overall desire to reduce noise and increase signal in the messaging conversations we do have, I propose the following suggestions:
Turn off notifications on your phone or tablet. This seems like a no-brainer but the struggle to fight “notification creep” is real. It only takes a few app-created nudges to generate a storm of messages you don’t need or want, generated by app developers and not by your own actions.
Unsubscribe from information you don’t need or want. Try Unroll and Sanebox to clean up your email — future you will thank you.
Aggressively filter the information you get. Your mileage may vary depending upon your style, so this might mean uninstalling apps, unfriending certain people, using email filtering rules, or just not looking at your devices so often.
Use text messages and iMessages to maintain ongoing, single-threaded conversations to the people who matter to you. What’s better than email? Having only one conversation to respond to, stacked in chronological order. If that person is on your list (let’s say … in your top 25 people), they should either leave that list by falling below a threshold or you will have a clear signal that you need to reach out to them because they’re not at the top of your list.
Think about simple rules and habits that make your life better. When you encounter product managers and other people who work on products and services, be sure to tell them what’s working and what’s not working in the products you use. (Hint: they would like to know what regular people feel.)
What could product managers and developers do to help with the message problem? A great start would be more levers and dials to adjust how we receive messaging. Don’t worry — I’m not suggesting that we create Advanced Settings Panels everywhere — but rather that the products themselves observe and respond to a series of behaviors derived from passive activity and active activity. Passive in this case might mean the messages I don’t respond to, and active could mean the messages I do respond to or arrange into folders or lists. The goal should be to develop a personalized set of rules that will automatically deliver message Air Traffic Control to the average user, not the power user.
What about Ads?
Building a personalized set of messaging rules will make easier to present promoted content in a clear and consistent manner, penalize spam, and highlight the important messages I’d like form the people that matter most. It could be an elusive goal, but I believe that improving messaging incrementally has amazing potential to increase happiness and productivity.The popularity of messaging need not cause its antithesis by creating messages we hate. We should be building new and clearer ways to ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time, on the right communication channel.
Like you, I spend a lot of time doing the same things over and over again. In physical space this is easier to think about: when you have clutter in your home, if you attack each area systematically you’ll eventually get to a clean room. It’s impossible to ignore a stack of things in your way that cover every surface. In contrast, it’s really easy to ignore a stack of digital things when you’re not looking at your computer screen. So what should you do when you have a lot of unwanted emails that keep showing up in your inbox?
I’ve tried a lot of solutions to this problem, and read some great suggestions about getting your inbox down to reasonable level. Getting your inbox down to true zero might be overkill, and there are some great easy tips to make that task faster and more manageable. But the thing that helps me the most is SaneBox – it’s a simple subscription service that makes my life easier. Sanebox connects to my email accounts and automatically files the emails I might not need to read immediately into SaneBulk and SaneNews folders. It also catches my important emails – those from people I talk to frequently – and puts those emails into the SaneTop folder. Sanebox makes the daily email scan easier because I’m reading (or deleting) emails of the same type.
My favorite Sanebox feature is SaneBlackhole, because it magically makes unwanted email disappear. I subscribe to a lot of newsletters and blogs, and sometimes my name makes it onto an email list and I’m not sure how it got there. Instead of having to figure out how to unsubscribe, I just drag the email into SaneBlackhole and Sanebox makes sure I don’t see more emails from that sender. The best thing about Sanebox is that it doesn’t care what email program I use – it just works. So if your inbox is making you crazy, I’d recommend checking out Sanebox (yes, I’m a subscriber).
Every app and every web site has notifications. Whether they are push notifications, email notifications, phone call notifications, voice mail notifications, in-app notifications, or smoke signals, you are competing for a valuable and scarce commodity: the customer’s undivided attention. There are too many notifications to pay attention to, even if you just dip your toe in the information river now and then.
It must be a problem for a lot of people these days, judging from the number of retweets and favorites on a single Saturday afternoon tweet. Yes, you can turn off all notifications for an app or a service in the operating system of the phone, and this is a solution that may just leave the app unused. Surely there must be a middle ground.
So how can you make your message the one that the customer reads?
B.J. Fogg, a Stanford Professor, suggests that “three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.” (read more about it here).
The results of motivation are obvious – if someone wants to respond to your notification, they will. You can see the positive result almost immediately. Teasing out the reasons for the negative or null result is a bit more challenging. Did the customer see your message and ignore it? Did the customer never see your message? Did the mean to respond and forget? There are many reasons why this outcome might occur, so the next “why didn’t it happen” focuses on ability.
Does the customer know what to do? An extreme view suggests that notifications as a method are an anti-pattern – that is, they are a mechanism that contributes directly to the customer being unable to focus. When the notification happens so often that it becomes background noise, it’s hard to know what’s an “important” notification and the easy thing to do is to just ignore all of them.
If the customer knows what to do, why don’t they do it? They might not have the ability. The notification might make sense to the designer or the programmer who knows the intended behavior of the feature and the customer might not have the same mindset. Or there might be a bug in the system. Either way, when the customer encounters the notification, if things don’t happen right the first time their motivation will suffer, they may question their ability to complete the task, or they may more likely just say “that’s broken.”
And every time there is a “that’s broken” moment the effectiveness of the trigger declines – the reason you wanted the customer to interact in the first place – and you have to have a “one in a row” moment before the customer trusts that the notification is worth responding to in the first place. A great way to save a “that’s broken” moment is to understand when it happens (ideally before the customer does) and reach out and let them know you’re working to fix it.
As for the problem of too many notifications and overall cognitive overload? There is no way to control what’s going on in someone’s phone or in someone’s head. Giving the customer a pressure relief valve like “mark all notifications read” is one way to alleviate the problem before there is a fine-grained solution. Designers might say that adding such a feature is a mark of failure, and readers on Twitter who clearly deal with this problem frequently in apps might just say, “thank you, app developer.”
We get a lot of email – especially the kind we don’t want. The worst is getting email from sites that you don’t even know (when they got your details from the people that you did want you to send email originally.) How does this affect an average person? You might be spending 28% of your time just answering email, as this graphic from McKinsey demonstrates. That could be two or three hours out of every day.
I understand how this feels. I used to feel completely overwhelmed by email – and it was a constant game of “ping-pong” where when I received emails I would need to either delete, answer, or file them for later. Deleting wasn’t hard – it was easy to find the emails I didn’t really need to answer. Yet it was more challenging to store the emails I kind of wanted to read and didn’t need to act on.
My solutions for this organizational problem were to put everything in a folder. I then tried the “pomodoro” method of only answering email a few times a day for a set period of time. And I also tried answering all of the emails. None of these items really worked. I still ended up with a lot of email that I didn’t really want to read. And it seemed like it got harder and harder to unsubscribe over time. It still felt like I was wasting my time instead of either enjoying the email or just ignoring it.
After starting to use Sanebox, I had two great benefits: first, all of my mail got filtered automatically into “News”, “Bulk”, and “Top” folders that I could also rename and train if I wanted (but frankly, I’ve just left it at the “set it and forget it” mode because it just works). And I also gained the “SaneBlackHole”, a folder into which I can drag any email that I never want to hear from again. There are lots more great features in Sanebox (works in any client, has lots of cool “snooze” and reminder features), but it’s worth it to me to subscribe just for the automatic filtering and the Black Hole feature.
Trust me, future you will thank you for trying it out. You can do that here.