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Don’t let meetings and time-sensitive emails ruin your productivity! Here’s how.

I have previously written about getting your most important work done by creating extra time in your day or focusing on your most important tasks. But as we all know, reality is sometimes hard to bend to your will.

Another Meeting

This week’s post is inspired by a reader question that I got recently. While she is a lawyer, I know from first-hand experience that these problems are very common in a corporate setting as well. Let her introduce the problem:

I am a lawyer and I have a lot of emails that come in and are time-sensitive. I have tried reducing the amount of times I look at my email but it can be difficult when I get a lot of time-sensitive inquires. I also just feel like I lose focus a lot during the day and don’t get my big projects done because they seem too big to start in the time I have between meetings. So then I end up staying late and using my evening time to really wade through the larger projects, which I don’t want to do and cuts into the plans i make with friends, etc. I guess my overall problem is just planning my days and sticking to it. I’ve read your suggestions and they seem so helpful but they feel hard to implement.

So let me briefly summarize the challenge in this setting which could be straight from when I was working at a corporation:

  • Time-sensitive emails, or the fear that there may be any, prevents you from getting sucked into your inbox
  • Lots of meetings which break up the day into small chunks, making it hard to start or focus on larger projects

I’m sure that many people feel the same way. This is especially true in a company where you have a boss and are not fully free to set your own agenda. But I have some advice.

How to deal with fear of missing time-sensitive emails?

Are time-sensitive emails always from certain people (such as your boss)?

In that case you could use rules and filters to get notifications or text message alerts for emails from those people (and/or for messages marked as “urgent”) and in the meantime be less stressed about checking mails.

You could also organize your email inbox in a different way: set a rule to automatically file ALL Emails (except the ones from your boss) into a sub-inbox (let’s call it “Inbox2”). So whenever you check your inbox you would only see urgent messages (if any) and can safely check your Inbox2 in larger intervals.

Fake urgent vs. really urgent messages

First of all, are those messages that you are so afraid of missing ‘fake’ urgent, or really urgent?

If your boss is making everything urgent, there is big opportunity to ‘educate’ him or her. How to do that? When you have a conversation raise the issue that you would like to increase your productivity and effectiveness which would also be more beneficial to the company. As part of that you would like to have more discretion about when to work on things. Also, you could advise (= educate) people to call you for urgent messages and write emails for not so urgent things.

If you make everything urgent then the burden is on you to fix it – but that is easier than dealing with a demanding boss! You have to become aware what is really urgent and what is not. It is totally acceptable to answer non-critical emails in 24–48 hours. The trick is to focus on what is important, not what is (fake) urgent. Also, the faster you respond the quicker you will get another email from that person.

Scan your inbox, don’t process it

Also, whenever you check your inbox you probably loose time on the non-urgent emails as well. So try to develop the habit of just scanning your inbox for urgent messages but not reading all messages and reacting. If there is nothing time-sensitive, close your email service completely. If there are time sensitive messages maybe print them out and close your inbox. The important is processing your inbox infrequently and being as effective as possible in those few times when you do spend time in your inbox.

Meetings as productivity killers

We all know that meetings kill productivity. So the strategies are very straight-forward here: if possible: 1) avoid meetings, 2) shorten meetings, and 3) set them when it suits you best.

Who’s in control?

Are you in control of setting meetings? Your absolute goal should be to create larger blocks of time without meetings! Have no-meeting days or no-meeting afternoons/mornings. To achieve that, try to set more back to back meetings on certain days or periods so that you have other periods with larger time intervals for your big projects.

Another way to get more control in a company even if you typically don’t set the meetings yourself: block out your calendar for certain periods with “meetings with yourself”. That way, you legitimately have a meeting already (maybe just don’t mention that it is with yourself to others…). Other people on a company calendar will see you as busy when they try to schedule meetings. That way, you can “force them” into your preferred slots. If people try to coordinate meetings with you directly, blocked entries in your calendar will also remind you of your preferred meeting times.

Avoid and shorten meetings

That’s really simple: ask yourself if you really need to be part of a certain meeting, if a certain meeting really has to happen, or if it can be shortened to respect everyone’s time. Others normally appreciate fewer and shorter meetings as well.

How to create time for your bigger projects

Become a morning person

Instead of working evenings, what about trying to create mornings with more free time and fewer meetings to work on the big stuff? Your brain will be fresh and productive. Especially if you get up earlier. I know, it may sound horrible, but there are ways to get yourself to do it until it becomes a routine. Check out the book “The Miracle Morning” which helped me tremendously. Especially if you snooze a lot, that can be 20–40 minutes saved per day. (I know this from personal experience) And you will feel awesome getting large chunks of work out of the way in the morning before the unproductive meeting schedule starts.

Become better at chunking your projects

If your day is still really divided into many chunks between meetings and emails you probably have to become better at breaking your projects down into smaller pieces as well. Instead of “create briefing for client” you to-do should be “create paragraph on XYZ for client briefing”. So for every larger project, try to write down all the individual steps that need to be done. That should look much more manageable for in-between meetings.

You should try to work on this strategy for one week. Take larger projects and become really conscious about the sub-steps by writing them down with an estimate of how long they should take. Then try to fit those time bits into your free periods between meetings.

A big caveat is that there is definitely some time loss involved if you have to come back again to the same project. This reinforces all the points from above: check email less often, get more control over meetings and create free blocks of time in your calendar.

Please let me know how this works for you. What resonates with you and what sounds impossible? Give it a try for one week and let me know the results.

Keep up the good work,

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