I got my first real manager’s job in the late 1980s. I was thrilled, but overwhelmed. I had suddenly gone from being an individual contributor to managing a team of about 20 folks.
Necessity dictated that I manage a higher volume of information. After a lot of reading and some trial and error, I adopted a simple system that I’m still using almost 40 years later.
This system will help smooth out your workflow, which creates margin for those “chipping away” projects that we discussed last week.
E-mail was barely a thing when I started using this, most everything was paper and “snail mail.” But, it adapts quite well to our digital age.
Your inbox is often the primary culprit, or bottleneck. So you can also think of this as a diet of sorts for your inbox. I call it a “Thinbox.”
Here’s the idea – when you receive a piece of information (electronic or paper), you should immediately take one of four possible actions with it so things don’t pile up over time. This takes discipline, but with a little practice it becomes second nature.
First – throw it away or delete it.
Most of us keep way too much stuff. I’ve seen inboxes with thousands of items. Scrolling through all those e-mails to find the one you’re looking for takes a lot of time, and completely unproductive time at that.
So – review the item, then make a decision. Yes, there is a chance that you’ll delete something you’ll need later, but realistically it is minimal.
Or, if you feel you need to keep it for a while, set up a folder to park it temporarily. I have a separate file in my email that automatically deletes items after 30 days. But, 99% of the time I never look at something once I put it there.
Second – refer or forward it.
Consider referring or forwarding the item to a friend, family member, or colleague if it may assist them. In addition to providing them with some valuable information, it is also a simple and effective way to maintain and even expand your network over time. It’s a nice gesture, and people usually appreciate being thought of. I like doing this with good books as well.
Third – act on it.
If you can take action immediately, do so. If it will take several steps to accomplish, schedule the first one by adding it directly to your calendar or to your to do list. If it needs to be delegated to a team member, schedule a time to hand off the task.
Acting on something right away allows you to forget it and move on, rather than reading the same e-mail five times before finally figuring out what to do with it.
Fourth – file it.
Early on, I filed almost everything. My filing system became so complicated that when I really needed something it would take me forever to find it. Looking for things became frustrating, demotivating and a huge vacuum cleaner sucking up my time.
Over the years, I’ve simplified my system. Using e-mail again as an example, I try to keep my file depth to two levels, maximum. It’s not always possible, but I’d say 90% of my files are compliant with this.
Everyone’s situation is different, but these principles are universal and can be adapted as needed to fit your own needs.
And, as with all healthy eating and exercise programs, you’ll burn some unneeded fat and replace it with new “muscle mass” for strengthening your productivity.