“Leaders can’t be like a Pate Goose. They need a mouth and an arsehole.”
This is what a Professor from the Chicago Booth University said a few years ago when we were discussing the challenge of the noise that many professionals face today.
“I get hundreds of emails a day,” Kate, a senior operations leader said during one of our coaching sessions. “Each week I try to clear my inbox, but then it just fills up again.”
“Sounds like you’ve become like Sisyphus,” I replied.
“Sisyphus?” Kate asked quizzically.
“The person condemned by the gods to push the boulder up the hill, only to find that when he got it to the top, the boulder rolls back down and he has to start all over again,” I explained.
“Exactly,” she replied shaking her head.
Back to the Goose
When we get hundreds of emails a day and our time is filled with back-to-back meetings, it’s easy to feel like we’re drowning. What’s worse, it’s really only 10 – 15% of the emails that actually matter.
Acting like a Pate Goose means that we try to give our attention to all the information that comes our way, rather than letting the majority (i.e. the noise) pass right through. And like Sisyphus, the clearing of our inbox becomes our boulder, where each time we clear it, it just fills up again.
Although we find immense discomfort in this busy-ness, it has perversely become a core part of our identity.
Cutting the noise
“How many of the emails you get each day that are actually important?” I asked Kate.
“Only about 10-15,” she responded without hesitation. “The rest are people either just ‘reply all’ happy or trying to cover their arses.”
“But I still have to skim through all of them to find the ones I need to respond to,” she concluded.
“What would happen if you deleted your entire inbox?” I asked provocatively.
“I wish,” Kate replied.
“Seriously, what would happen?” I pushed.
“Probably not much,” she responded thoughtfully. “I guess I’d get chased for the important issues.”
“And the rest?” I continued.
“It wouldn’t make any difference!”
Kate’s response is exactly right. The vast majority of the communications we receive (and send ourselves) don’t need a response. The have really just been fired into our inbox ‘for information’ only.
Lessons from others
Throughout my career I’ve met a few professionals who seem to be great at cutting the noise. Here are some of the lessons from these people:
- Create folders and rapidly file: An early manager said that every time he started a new project or role, he would consciously set up a folder structure that was replicated in his email folders and his storage drive. This allowed him to be very clear on how he would filter and rapidly file all documents and emails, allowing him to find them when needed.
- Set the right rules: A Sales Director who I worked with used Outlook to create rules that automatically managed the vast majority of the noise entering his inbox. These rules helped him automatically filter and file emails requiring no action (i.e. CC only). He then had 30min held each week to quickly scan the files to make sure he didn’t miss anything. Tip: try entering ‘creating email rules in Outlook’ into Google and you’ll get some tips that are easy to apply.
- Archive weekly: A Finance Director who I coached was frustrated by emails that she felt were important but which she just never found time to respond to. We agreed a principle where if she hadn’t been chased on these for two weeks then they weren’t as important as she thought and so filed them with no action.
- Be clear with your team(s): An early mentor was always explicit with those around her on how she like to communicate. Although this initially seemed strange to be so explicit, it made working in the team a lot easier. The rules were:
- Never send me an email over a paragraph long.
- Where multiple points were included in an email use bullets.
- Be specific in the email heading about what’s needed – e.g. For Action, For Information.
- If a longer conversation was required, then set time in the diary for a meeting.
- If a simple yes or no response was required send a text message.
- If you need an immediate conversation then don’t call or leave a voicemail. Text and I will call back asap.
- Be conscious of your reply: A member of my team once told me that when I responded to emails in a particular way people felt compelled to continue on the conversation. Quite shocked by this I realised that I was perpetuating the noise. Becoming more conscious of my responses meant I ensured the right attention was being paid by people and that I was not just creating more noise.
- Switch off: As humans we’re prone to distraction. It’s linked to our early survival mechanisms. I’ve helped many leaders over the years overcome this by learning to switch off. At a basic level this means switching off notifications, especially sound notifications for email, instant messenger, phone etc. As we can become Pavlovian in our response to these things, switching them off breaks the reaction. Other leaders become really disciplined about going completely offline for set periods in the week so they can focus on that which matters most.
Beyond the Goose
There’s no doubt that with the volume of communication we’re bombarded with each day we’ve become Pate Geese. What’s worse, we’ve created identities that are based on how busy we are.
To move beyond being a Goose, even just a small investment of time will radically help you cut the noise. And ultimately, it will enable you to gain much needed time and energy to focus on that which matters most.
Something to consider…
Where does the majority of noise that plagues you come from?
Something to try…
Take a minute to identify which of the suggestions above you will apply to your working practice.
At Muru we help leaders build and sustain their confidence as they seek to achieve the success and fulfilment they desire.
To find out more contact Rob Cross at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him on +44 (0) 78417 06417.
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