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7.Interrupting Interruption and the Art of Refusal
Do your own thinking independently. Be the chess player, not the chess piece.
Meetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate.
—DAVE BARRY, Pulitzer Prize–winning American humorist
SPRING 2000, PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY
“I think I understand. Moving on. In the next paragraph, it explains that …” I had detailed notes and didn’t want to miss a single point.
“OK. That makes sense, but if we look at the following example …” I paused for a moment mid-sentence. The teaching assistant had both hands on his face.
“Tim, let’s end here for now. I’ll be sure to keep these points in mind.” He had had enough. Me too, but I knew I’d only have to do it once.
For all four years of school, I had a policy. If I received anything less than an A on the first paper or non-multiple-choice test in a given class, I would bring 2–3 hours of questions to the grader’s office hours and not leave until the other had answered them all or stopped out of exhaustion.
This served two important purposes:
I learned exactly how the grader evaluated work, including his or her prejudices and pet peeves.
The grader would think long and hard about ever giving me less than an A. He or she would never consider giving me a bad grade without exceptional reasons for doing so, as he or she knew I’d come a’knocking for another three-hour visit.
Learn to be difficult when it counts. In school as in life, having a reputation for being assertive will help you receive preferential treatment without having to beg or fight for it every time.
Think back to your days on the playground. There was always a big bully and countless victims, but there was also that one small kid who fought like hell, thrashing and swinging for the fences. He or she might not have won, but after one or two exhausting exchanges, the bully chose not to bother him or her. It was easier to find someone else.
Be that kid.
Doing the important and ignoring the trivial is hard because so much of the world seems to conspire to force crap upon you. Fortunately, a few simple routine changes make bothering you much more painful than leaving you in peace.
It’s time to stop taking information abuse.
Not All Evils Are Created Equal
For our purposes, an interruption is anything that prevents the start-to-finish completion of a critical task, and there are three principal offenders:
Time wasters: those things that can be ignored with little or no consequence. Common time wasters include meetings, discussions, phone calls, web surfing, and e-mail that are unimportant.
Time consumers: repetitive tasks or requests that need to be completed but often interrupt high-level work. Here are a few you might know intimately: reading and responding to e-mail, making and returning phone calls, customer service (order status, product assistance, etc.), financial or sales reporting, personal errands, all necessary repeated actions and tasks.
Empowerment failures: instances where someone needs approval to make something small happen. Here are just a few: fixing customer problems (lost shipments, damaged shipments, malfunctions, etc.), customer contact, cash expenditures of all types.
Let’s look at the prescriptions for all three in turn.
Time Wasters: Become an Ignoramus
The best defense is a good offense.
—DAN GABLE, Olympic gold medalist in wrestling and the most successful coach in history; personal record: 299–6–3, with 182 pins
Time wasters are the easiest to eliminate and deflect. It is a matter of limiting access and funneling all communication toward immediate action.
First, limit e-mail consumption and production. This is the greatest single interruption in the modern world.
Turn off the audible alert if you have one on Outlook or a similar program and turn off automatic send/receive, which delivers e-mail to your inbox as soon as someone sends them.
Check e-mail twice per day, once at 12:00 noon or just prior to lunch, and again at 4:00 P.M. 12:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M. are times that ensure you will have the most responses from previously sent e-mail. Never check e-mail first thing in the morning.12Instead, complete your most important task before 11:00 A.M. to avoid using lunch or reading e-mail as a postponement excuse.
Before implementing the twice-daily routine, you must create an e-mail autoresponse that will train your boss, co-workers, suppliers, and clients to be more effective. I would recommend that you do not ask to implement this. Remember one of our ten commandments: Beg for forgiveness; don’t ask for permission.
If this gives you heart palpitations, speak with your immediate supervisor and propose to trial the approach for one to three days. Cite pending projects and frustration with constant interruptions as the reasons. Feel free to blame it on spam or someone outside of the office.
Here is a simple e-mail template that can be used:
Greetings, Friends [or Esteemed Colleagues],
Due to high workload, I am currently checking and responding to e-mail twice daily at 12:00 p.m. ET [or your time zone] and 4:00 p.m. ET.
If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m., please contact me via phone at 555–555–5555.
Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better.
MOVE TO ONCE-PER-DAY as quickly as possible. Emergencies are seldom that. People are poor judges of importance and inflate minutiae to fill time and feel important. This autoresponse is a tool that, far from decreasing collective effectiveness, forces people to re-evaluate their reason for interrupting you and helps them decrease meaningless and time-consuming contact.
I was initially terrified of missing important requests and inviting disaster, just as you might be upon reading this recommendation. Nothing happened. Give it a shot and work out the small bumps as you progress.
For an extreme example of a personal autoresponder that has never prompted a complaint and allowed me to check e-mail once per week, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. It has been revised over three years and works like a charm.
The second step is to screen incoming and limit outgoing phone calls.
- Use two telephone numbers if possible—one office line (non urgent) and one cellular (urgent). This could also be two cell phones, or the non-urgent line could be an Internet phone number that routes calls to online voicemail (www.skype.com, for example).
Use the cell number in the e-mail autoresponse and answer it at all times unless it is an unknown caller or it is a call you don’t want to answer. If in doubt, allow the call to go to voicemail and listen to the voicemail immediately afterward to gauge importance. If it can wait, let it wait. The offending parties have to learn to wait.
The office phone should be put on silent mode and allowed to go to voicemail at all times. The voicemail recording should sound familiar:
You’ve reached the desk of Tim Ferriss.
I am currently checking and responding to voicemail twice daily at 12:00 p.m. ET [or your time zone] and 4:00 p.m. ET.
If you require assistance with a truly urgent matter that cannot wait until either 12:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m., please contact me on my cell at 555–555–5555. Otherwise, please leave a message and I will return it at the next of those two times. Be sure to leave your e-mail address, as I am often able to respond faster that way.
Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better.
Have a wonderful day.
- If someone does call your cell phone, it is presumably urgent and should be treated as such. Do not allow them to consume time otherwise. It’s all in the greeting. Compare the following: Jane (receiver):Hello?
John (caller): Hi, is this Jane?
Jane: This is Jane.
John: Hi, Jane, it’s John.
Jane: Oh, hi, John. How are you? (or) Oh, hi, John. What’s going on?
John will now digress and lead you into a conversation about nothing, from which you will have to recover and then fish out the ultimate purpose of the call. There is a better approach: Jane: This is Jane speaking.
John: Hi, it’s John.
Jane: Hi, John. I’m right in the middle of something. How can I help you out?
John: Oh, I can call back.
Jane: No, I have a minute. What can I do for you?
Don’t encourage people to chitchat and don’t let them chitchat. Get them to the point immediately. If they meander or try to postpone for a later undefined call, reel them in and get them to come to the point. If they go into a long description of a problem, cut in with, “[Name], sorry to interrupt, but I have a call in five minutes. What can I do to help out?” You might instead say, “[Name], sorry to interrupt, but I have a call in five minutes. Can you send me an e-mail?” The third step is to master the art of refusal and avoiding meetings.
THE FIRST DAY our new Sales VP arrived at TrueSAN in 2001, he came into the all-company meeting and made an announcement in just about this many words: “I am not here to make friends. I have been hired to build a sales team and sell product, and that’s what I intend to do. Thanks.” So much for small talk.
He proceeded to deliver on his promise. The office socializers disliked him for his no-nonsense approach to communication, but everyone respected his time. He wasn’t rude without reason, but he was direct and kept the people around him focused. Some didn’t consider him charismatic, but no one considered him anything less than spectacularly effective.
I remember sitting down in his office for our first one-on-one meeting. Fresh off four years of rigorous academic training, I immediately jumped into explaining the prospect profiles, elaborate planning I’d developed, responses to date, and so forth and so on. I had spent at least two hours preparing to make this first impression a good one. He listened with a smile on his face for no more than two minutes and then held up a hand. I stopped. He laughed in a kind-hearted manner and said, “Tim, I don’t want the story. Just tell me what we need to do.” Over the following weeks, he trained me to recognize when I was unfocused or focused on the wrong things, which meant anything that didn’t move the top two or three clients one step closer to signing a purchase order. Our meetings were now no more than five minutes long.
From this moment forward, resolve to keep those around you focused and avoid all meetings, whether in person or remote, that do not have clear objectives. It is possible to do this tactfully, but expect that some time wasters will be offended the first few times their advances are rejected. Once it is clear that remaining on task is your policy and not subject to change, they will accept it and move on with life. Hard feelings pass. Don’t suffer fools or you’ll become one.
It is your job to train those around you to be effective and efficient. No one else will do it for you. Here are a few recommendations:
Decide that, given the non-urgent nature of most issues, you will steer people toward the following means of communication, in order of preference: e-mail, phone, and in-person meetings. If someone proposes a meeting, request an e-mail instead and then use the phone as your fallback offer if need be. Cite other immediately pending work tasks as the reason.
Respond to voicemail via e-mail whenever possible. This trains people to be concise. Help them develop the habit.
Similar to our opening greeting on the phone, e-mail communication should be streamlined to prevent needless back-and-forth. Thus, an e-mail with “Can you meet at 4:00 P.M.?” would become “Can you meet at 4:00 P.M.? If so If not, please advise three other times that work for you.” This “if … then” structure becomes more important as you check e-mail less often. Since I only check e-mail once a week, it is critical that no one needs a “what if?” answered or other information within seven days of a given e-mail I send. If I suspect that a manufacturing order hasn’t arrived at the shipping facility, for example, I’ll send an e-mail to my shipping facility manager along these lines: “Dear Susan … Has the new manufacturing shipment arrived? If so, please advise me on … If not, please contact John Doe at 555–5555 or via e-mail at email@example.com (he is also CC’d) and advise on delivery date and tracking. John, if there are any issues with the shipment, please coordinate with Susan, reachable at 555–4444, who has the authority to make decisions up to $500 on my behalf. In case of emergency, call me on my cell phone, but I trust you two. Thanks.” This prevents most follow-up questions, avoids two separate dialogues, and takes me out of the problem-solving equation.
Get into the habit of considering what “if … then” actions can be proposed in any e-mail where you ask a question.
- Meetings should only be held to make decisions about a predefined situation, not to define the problem. If someone proposes that you meet with them or “set a time to talk on the phone,” ask that person to send you an e-mail with an agenda to define the purpose: That sounds doable. So I can best prepare, can you please send me an e-mail with an agenda? That is, the topics and questions we’ll need to address? That would be great. Thanks in advance.
Don’t give them a chance to bail out. The “thanks in advance” before a retort increases your chances of getting the e-mail.
The e-mail medium forces people to define the desired outcome of a meeting or call. Nine times out of ten, a meeting is unnecessary and you can answer the questions, once defined, via e-mail. Impose this habit on others. I haven’t had an in-person meeting for my business in more than five years and have had fewer than a dozen conference calls, all lasting less than 30 minutes.
Speaking of 30 minutes, if you absolutely cannot stop a meeting or call from happening, define the end time. Do not leave these discussions open-ended, and keep them short. If things are well-defined, decisions should not take more than 30 minutes. Cite other commitments at odd times to make them more believable (e.g., 3:20 vs. 3:30) and force people to focus instead of socializing, commiserating, and digressing. If you must join a meeting that is scheduled to last a long time or that is open-ended, inform the organizer that you would like permission to cover your portion first, as you have a commitment in 15 minutes. If you have to, feign an urgent phone call. Get the hell out of there and have someone else update you later. The other option is to be completely transparent and voice your opinion of how unnecessary the meeting is. If you choose this route, be prepared to face fire and offer alternatives.
The cubicle is your temple—don’t permit casual visitors. Some suggest using a clear “do not disturb” sign of some type, but I have found that this is ignored unless you have an office. My approach was to put headphones on, even if I wasn’t listening to anything. If someone approached me despite this discouragement, I would pretend to be on the phone. I’d put a finger to my lips, say something like, “I hear you,” and then say into the mic, “Can you hold on a second?” Next, I’d turn to the invader and say, “Hi. What can I do for you?” I wouldn’t let them “get back to me” but rather force the person to give me a five-second summary and then send me an e-mail if necessary.
If headphone games aren’t your thing, the reflexive response to an invader should be the same as when answering the cell phone: “Hi, invader. I’m right in the middle of something. How can I be of help?” If it’s not clear within 30 seconds, ask the person to send you an e-mail about the chosen issue; do not offer to send them an e-mail first: “I’ll be happy to help, but I have to finish this first. Can you send me a quick e-mail to remind me?” If you still cannot deflect an invader, give the person a time limit on your availability, which can also be used for phone conversations: “OK, I only have two minutes before a call, but what’s the situation and what can I do to help?” 6. Use the Puppy Dog Close to help your superiors and others develop the no-meeting habit. The Puppy Dog Close in sales is so named because it is based on the pet store sales approach: If someone likes a puppy but is hesitant to make the life-altering purchase, just offer to let them take the pup home and bring it back if they change their minds. Of course, the return seldom happens.
The Puppy Dog Close is invaluable whenever you face resistance to permanent changes. Get your foot in the door with a “let’s just try it once” reversible trial.
Compare the following:
“I think you’d love this puppy. It will forever add to your responsibilities until he dies 10 years from now. No more care-free vacations, and you’ll finally get to pick up poop all over the city—what do you think?” vs.
Now imagine walking up to your boss in the hallway and clapping a hand on her shoulder:
“I’d like to go to the meeting, but I have a better idea. Let’s never have another one, since all we do is waste time and not decide anything useful.”
The second set of alternatives seem less permanent, and they’re intended to appear so. Repeat this routine and ensure that you achieve more outside of the meeting than the attendees do within it; repeat the disappearing act as often as possible and cite improved productivity to convert this slowly into a permanent routine change.
Learn to imitate any good child: “Just this once! Please!!! I promise I’ll do X!” Parents fall for it because kids help adults to fool themselves. It works with bosses, suppliers, customers, and the rest of the world, too.
Use it, but don’t fall for it. If a boss asks for overtime “just this once,” he or she will expect it in the future.
Time Consumers: Batch and Do Not Falter
A schedule defends from chaos and whim.
—ANNIE DILLARD, winner of Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, 1975
If you have never used a commercial printer before, the pricing and lead times could surprise you.
Let’s assume it costs $310 and takes one week to print 20 customized T-shirts with 4-color logos. How much and how long does it take to print 3 of the same T-shirt?
$310 and one week.
How is that possible? Simple—the setup charges don’t change. It costs the printer the same amount in materials for plate preparation ($150) and the same in labor to man the press itself ($100). The setup is the real time-consumer, and thus the job, despite its small size, needs to be scheduled just like the other, resulting in the same one-week delivery date. The lower economy of scale picks up the rest: The cost for 3 shirts is $20 per shirt x 3 shirts instead of $3 per shirt x 20 shirts.
The cost- and time-effective solution, therefore, is to wait until you have a larger order, an approach called “batching.” Batching is also the solution to our distracting but necessary time consumers, those repetitive tasks that interrupt the most important.
If you check mail and make bill payments five times a week, it might take 30 minutes per instance and you respond to a total of 20 letters in two and a half hours. If you do this once per week instead, it might take 60 minutes total and you still respond to a total of 20 letters. People do the former out of fear of emergencies. First, there are seldom real emergencies. Second, of the urgent communication you will receive, missing a deadline is usually reversible and otherwise costs a minimum to correct.
There is an inescapable setup time for all tasks, large or minuscule in scale. It is often the same for one as it is for a hundred. There is a psychological switching of gears that can require up to 45 minutes to resume a major task that has been interrupted. More than a quarter of each 9–5 period (28%) is consumed by such interruptions.13 This is true of all recurring tasks and is precisely why we have already decided to check e-mail and phone calls twice per day at specific predetermined times (between which we let them accumulate).
From mid-2004 to 2007, I checked mail no more than once a week, often not for up to four weeks at a time. Nothing was irreparable, and nothing cost more than $300 to fix. This batching has saved me hundreds of hours of redundant work. How much is your time worth?
Let’s use a hypothetical example:
$20 per hour is how much you are paid or value your time. This would be the case, for example, if you are paid $40,000 per year and get two weeks of vacation per year ($40,000 divided by [40 hours per week x 50 = 2,000] = $20/hour). Estimate your hourly income by cutting the last three zeroes off of your annual income and halving the remaining number (e.g., $50,000/year p $25/hour.
Estimate the amount of time you will save by grouping similar tasks together and batching them, and calculate how much you have earned by multiplying this hour number by your per-hour rate ($20 here):
- Test each of the above batching frequencies and determine how much problems cost to fix in each period. If the cost is less than the above dollar amounts, batch even further apart.
For example, using our above math, if I check e-mail once per week and that results in an average loss of two sales per week, totaling $80 in lost profit, I will continue checking once per week because $200 (10 hours of time) minus $80 is still a $120 net gain, not to mention the enormous benefits of completing other main tasks in those 10 hours. If you calculate the financial and emotional benefit of completing just one main task (such as landing a major client or completing a life-changing trip), the value of batching is much more than the per-hour savings.
If the problems cost more than hours saved, scale back to the next-less-frequent batch schedule. In this case, I would drop from once per week to twice per week (not daily) and attempt to fix the system so that I can return to once per week. Do not work harder when the solution is working smarter. I have batched both personal and business tasks further and further apart as I’ve realized just how few real problems come up. Some of my scheduled batches in 2007 were e-mail (Mondays 10:00 A.M.), phone (completely eliminated), laundry (every other Sunday at 10:00 P.M.), credit cards and bills (most are on automatic payment, but I check balances every second Monday after e-mail), strength training (every 4th day for 30 minutes), etc.
Empowerment Failure: Rules and Readjustment
The vision is really about empowering workers, giving them all the information about what’s going on so they can do a lot more than they’ve done in the past.
—BILL GATES, cofounder of Microsoft, richest man in the world
Empowerment failure refers to being unable to accomplish a task without first obtaining permission or information. It is often a case of being micromanaged or micromanaging someone else, both of which consume your time.
For the employee, the goal is to have full access to necessary information and as much independent decision-making ability as possible. For the entrepreneur, the goal is to grant as much information and independent decision-making ability to employees or contractors as possible.
Customer service is often the epitome of empowerment failure, and a personal example from BrainQUICKEN illustrates just how serious but easily solved the problem can be.
In 2002, I had outsourced customer service for order tracking and returns but still handled product-related questions myself. The result? I received more than 200 e-mail per day, spending all hours between 9–5 responding to them, and the volume was growing at a rate of more than 10% per week! I had to cancel advertising and limit shipments, as additional customer service would have been the final nail in the coffin. It wasn’t a scalable model. Remember this word, as it will be important later. It wasn’t scalable because there was an information and decision bottleneck: me.
The clincher? The bulk of the e-mail that landed in my inbox was not product-related at all but requests from the outsourced customer service reps seeking permission for different actions: The customer claims he didn’t receive the shipment. What should we do?
The customer had a bottle held at customs. Can we reship to a U.S. address?
The customer needs the product for a competition in two days. Can we ship overnight, and if so, how much should we charge?
It was endless. Hundreds upon hundreds of different situations made it impractical to write a manual, and I didn’t have the time or experience to do so regardless.
Fortunately, someone did have the experience: the outsourced reps themselves. I sent one single e-mail to all the supervisors that immediately turned 200 e-mail per day into fewer than 20 e-mail per week: Hi All,
I would like to establish a new policy for my account that overrides all others.
Keep the customer happy. If it is a problem that takes less than $100 to fix, use your judgment and fix it yourself.
This is official written permission and a request to fix all problems that cost under $100 without contacting me. I am no longer your customer; my customers are your customer. Don’t ask me for permission. Do what you think is right, and we’ll make adjustments as we go along.
Upon close analysis, it became clear that more than 90% of the issues that prompted e-mail could be resolved for less than $20. I reviewed the financial results of their independent decision-making on a weekly basis for four weeks, then a monthly basis, and then on a quarterly basis.
It’s amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them. The first month cost perhaps $200 more than if I had been micromanaging. In the meantime, I saved more than 100 hours of my own time per month, customers received faster service, returns dropped to less than 3% (the industry average is 10–15%), and outsourcers spent less time on my account, all of which resulted in rapid growth, higher profit margins, and happier people on all sides.
People are smarter than you think. Give them a chance to prove themselves.
If you are a micromanaged employee, have a heart-to-heart with your boss and explain that you want to be more productive and interrupt him or her less. “I hate that I have to interrupt you so much and pull you away from more important things I know you have on your plate. I was doing some reading and had some thoughts on how I might be more productive. Do you have a second?” Before this conversation, develop a number of “rules” like the previous example that would allow you to work more autonomously with less approval-seeking. The boss can review the outcome of your decisions on a daily or weekly basis in the initial stages. Suggest a one-week trial and end with “I’d like to try it. Does that sound like something we could try for a week?” or my personal favorite, “Is that reasonable?” It’s hard for people to label things unreasonable.
Realize that bosses are supervisors, not slave masters. Establish yourself as a consistent challenger of the status quo and most people will learn to avoid challenging you, particularly if it is in the interest of higher per-hour productivity.
If you are a micromanaging entrepreneur, realize that even if you can do something better than the rest of the world, it doesn’t mean that’s what you should be doing if it’s part of the minutiae. Empower others to act without interrupting you.
SET THE RULES in your favor: Limit access to your time, force people to define their requests before spending time with them, and batch routine menial tasks to prevent postponement of more important projects. Do not let people interrupt you. Find your focus and you’ll find your lifestyle.
The bottom line is that you only have the rights you fight for.
In the next section, Automation, we’ll see how the New Rich create management-free money and eliminate the largest remaining obstacle of all: themselves.
Q&A: QUESTIONS AND ACTIONS
People think it must be fun to be a super genius, but they don’t realize how hard it is to put up with all the idiots in the world.
—CALVIN, from Calvin and Hobbes
Blaming idiots for interruptions is like blaming clowns for scaring children—they can’t help it. It’s their nature. Then again, I had (who am I kidding—and have), on occasion, been known to create interruptions out of thin air. If you’re anything like me, that makes us both occasional idiots. Learn to recognize and fight the interruption impulse.
This is infinitely easier when you have a set of rules, responses, and routines to follow. It is your job to prevent yourself and others from letting the unnecessary and unimportant prevent the start-to-finish completion of the important.
This chapter differs from the previous in that the necessary actions, due to the inclusion of examples and templates, have been presented throughout from start to finish. This Q & A will thus be a summary rather than a repetition. The devil is in the details, so be sure to reread this chapter for the specifics.
The 50,000-foot review is as follows:
- Create systems to limit your availability via e-mail and phone and deflect inappropriate contact.
Get the autoresponse and voicemail script in place now, and master the various methods of evasion. Replace the habit of “How are you?” with “How can I help you?” Get specific and remember—no stories. Focus on immediate actions. Set and practice interruption-killing policies.
Avoid meetings whenever possible:
Use e-mail instead of face-to-face meetings to solve problems.
Beg-off going (this can be accomplished through the Puppy Dog Close).
If meetings are unavoidable, keep the following in mind:
Go in with a clear set of objectives.
Set an end time or leave early.
- Batch activities to limit setup cost and provide more time for dreamline milestones.
What can I routinize by batching? That is, what tasks (whether laundry, groceries, mail, payments, or sales reporting, for example) can I allot to a specific time each day, week, month, quarter, or year so that I don’t squander time repeating them more often than is absolutely necessary?
- Set or request autonomous rules and guidelines with occasional review of results.
Eliminate the decision bottleneck for all things that are nonfatal if misperformed. If an employee, believe in yourself enough to ask for more independence on a trial basis. Have practical “rules” prepared and ask the boss for the sale after surprising him or her with an impromptu presentation. Remember the Puppy Dog Close—make it a one-time trial and reversible.
For the entrepreneur or manager, give others the chance to prove themselves. The likelihood of irreversible or expensive problems is minimal and the time savings are guaranteed. Remember, profit is only profitable to the extent that you can use it. For that you need time.
TOOLS AND TRICKS
Eliminating Paper Distractions, Capturing Everything
This is perhaps the most impressive tool I’ve found in the last year, introduced to me by some of the most productive technologists in the world. Evernote has eliminated more than 90% of the paper in my life and eliminated nearly all of the multiple tabs I used to leave open in web browsers, both of which distracted me to no end. It can clear out your entire office clutter in one to three hours.
Evernote allows you to easily capture information from anywhere using whatever device is at hand, and everything is then searchable (read: findable) from anywhere. I use it to: Take photographs of everything I might want to remember or find later—business cards, handwritten notes, wine labels, receipts, whiteboard sessions, and more. Evernote identifies the text in all of these pictures automatically, so it’s all searchable(!), whether from an iPhone, your laptop, or the web. Just as one example, I can store and find the contact information from any business card in seconds (often using the built in iSight camera on Mac to capture it), rather than spending hours inputting it all into contacts or searching through e-mail for that lost phone number. It’s mind-numbing how much time this saves.
Scan all agreements, paper articles, etc., that would otherwise sit in file folders or on my desk. I use the Mac Fujitsu ScanSnap miniscanner (http://bit.ly/scansnapmac), the best I’ve found, which scans all of it directly to Evernote in seconds with one button.
Take snapshots of websites, capturing all text and links, so that I can read them offline when traveling or doing later research. Get rid of all those scattered bookmarks, favorites, and open tabs.
Screening and Avoiding Unwanted Calls
GrandCentral (www.grandcentral.com) and YouMail (www.youmail.com)
In a world where your physical address will change more often than your cell phone number (and e-mail), it can be disastrous if your number becomes public or gets in the wrong hands. Enter GrandCentral, which will give you a number with the area code of your choosing that then forwards to your own phone(s). I now give a GrandCentral number to anyone besides family and close friends. Some of the benefits: Identify any incoming number as unwanted, and that caller will then hear a “number not in service” message when attempting to call you.
Customize your voicemail message to individual callers (spouse, boss, colleague, client, etc.) and listen in on messages as they’re being left, so you can “pick up” if the message is worth the interruption. Call recording is also an option.
Use an area code outside of your hometown to prevent people and companies from finding and misusing addresses you’d prefer to keep private.
Establish do-not-disturb hours, when calls are routed directly to voicemail with no ring.
Have voicemail sent to your cell phone as SMS (text messages).
YouMail, another option, can also transcribe voicemails and send them to your phone as text messages. Getting calls while stuck in a time-wasting meeting? No problem: Respond to voicemails via SMS during the meeting so you’re not stuck returning calls afterward.
One Shot, One Kill Scheduling Without E-mail Back-and-Forth
Few things are as time-consuming as scheduling via e-mail. Person A: “How about Tues. at 3 P.M.?” Person B: “I can make it.” Person C: “I have a meeting. How about Thurs.?” Person D: “I’m on a con-call. How about 10 A.M. on Fri.?” Use these tools to make scheduling simple and fast instead of another part-time job.
The best free tool I’ve found for herding cats (multiple people) for scheduling without excessive e-mail. Create and poll in 30 seconds with the proposed options and forward a link to everyone invited. Check back a few hours later and you’ll have the best time for the most people.
Let colleagues and clients self-schedule with you based on your availability, which is determined by integration with Outlook or Google Calendar. Embed a “schedule now” button in e-mail messages and you’ll never have to tell people when you can make a call or meeting. Let them see what’s open and choose.
Choosing the Best E-mail Batching Times
Xobni—inbox spelled backwards—is a free program for putting Outlook on steroids. It offers many features, but the most relevant to this chapter is its ability to identify “hotspots,” or periods of time when you receive the bulk of e-mail from your most important contacts. These “hotspots” are batching times that will enable you to keep critical contacts (clients, bosses, etc.) smiling even while you reduce checking e-mail to 1–3 times per day. It will also populate your contacts automatically by pulling phone numbers, addresses, etc., from separate e-mail buried in the inbox.
E-mailing Without Entering the Black Hole of the Inbox
Don’t enter the black hole of the inbox off hours because you’re afraid you’ll forget something. Use these services instead to keep focused, whether on completing a critical project or simply enjoying the weekend.
Capture thoughts, create to-do’s, and set reminders with a simple toll-free phone call. The service transcribes your message (15–30 seconds) and e-mails it to whomever you want, including yourself, or to your Google calendar for automatic scheduling. Jott also enables you to post voice message links to Twitter (www.twitter.com), Facebook (www.facebook.com), and other services that tend to consume hours if you visit the sites themselves.
Copy talk (www.copytalk.com)
Dictate any message up to four minutes and have the transcription e-mailed to you within hours. Excellent for brainstorming, and the accuracy is astounding.
Preventing Web Browsing Completely
Freedom is a free application that disables networking on an Apple computer for 1–480 mintues (up to eight hours) at a time. Freedom will free you from the distractions of the Internet, allowing you the focus to get real work done.
Freedom enforces freedom; a reboot is the only method for turning Freedom off before the time limit you’ve set for yourself. The hassle of rebooting means you’re less likely to cheat, and you’ll be more productive. Experiment with the software for short periods of time at first (30–60 minutes.) COMFORT CHALLENGE
Revisit the Terrible Twos (2 Days)
For the next two days, do as all good two-year-olds do and say “no” to all requests. Don’t be selective. Refuse to do all things that won’t get you immediately fired. Be selfish. As with the last exercise, the objective isn’t an outcome—in this case, eliminating just those things that waste time—but the process: getting comfortable with saying “no.” Potential questions to decline include the following: Do you have a minute?
Want to see a movie tonight/tomorrow?
Can you help me with X?
“No” should be your default answer to all requests. Don’t make up elaborate lies or you’ll get called on them. A simple “I really can’t—sorry; I’ve got too much on my plate right now” will do as a catch-all response.
LIFESTYLE DESIGN IN ACTION
Batching tool—PO Box: This might be stating the obvious, but one easy way to encourage batching of your mail is to use a PO Box versus getting mail delivered to your house. We got our PO Box to limit access to our physical address online, but it also encourages you to get the mail less and deal with it in batch. Our post office has recycling bins, so at least 60% of the mail doesn’t even come home with us. For a while I was only getting and managing the mail once a week, and I found not only did it take less time overall, I did a better job managing it and getting it out of the way versus looking at it and setting it aside for future follow up.
For families, the four-hour workweek doesn’t have to mean four months on a sailboat in the Caribbean unless that’s their dream, but even the simple ideal of having time to take a walk in the park every evening or spending weekends together, makes taking actions to implement this program worthwhile.
Why not combine a mini-retirement with dentistry (or medical) geoarbitrage and finance your trip with the savings? I lived in Thailand for four months and got root canal treatment and a crown for ⅓ of the price that it costs in Australia. There are many upmarket clinics set up for “expats” and health travelers in Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Goa, etc., with English-speaking dentists. And in Europe many people go to Poland or Hungary. To research, just Google “dentist” and the country and you will come across practices advertising to foreigners. Talk to expats when you’re in the country or on online chat forums for recommendations. Now I’m in Australia I still combine my travels with annual dentist checkups—and the savings often finance my airfare. Even between developed countries there are significant cost differences. For example France is far cheaper than the UK and Australia is cheaper than the U.S. [Note from Tim: Learn more about the incredible world of medical tourism and geoarbitrage at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_tourism. Even large insurers like AETNA often cover overseas treatments and surgeries.] —ANONYMOUS
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