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Hello, could you focus please?

August 15, 2012

Good day, followers and mooc alumni of #change11, #cck12, #ds106 and #fslt12.  It’s hard to believe that I have been mooc-free and blogless for nearly three months.  With all of the sunny summer weather we’ve been having since May, I’ve been spending as much time as possible at the beach.  And, truth be told, I haven’t regretted spending more time offline than online lately.

As I dipped my toes back into the serendipitous pool of social media this month, I read some of Nick Charney’s posts, including his rationale for blogging weekly.  He wrote about needing time to digest, rewrite, revisit and synthesize.  In the same spirit, I would like to share some reflections that I have been pondering for the past five years while learning to ‘manage’:

* email

* information

* networks

* personal knowledge

* projects

* time

I am also sitting a little taller in my chair because of this statement about conscious computing and partial attention:

 “We have focused on managing our time. Our opportunity is to focus on how we manage our attention.”Linda Stone

Thank you, Linda!  This strikes me as a good starting point for what I’ve wanted to ask Jane Hart for awhile: “How can I convince others about the value of social technologies in an organization?” 

I feel confident in saying that social technologies have given me more effective ways to use my time (see Harold Jarche on reducing email) and have helped me to focus my attention


I had to figure out how to make the best use of certain social technologies, through considerable time and practice, before they paid off any returns.  I also had to modify or dump the ones that weren’t working for me. 

Last year, for example, I invested several weeks of regular use on Twitter (with guidance from generous #change11 moocers on FaceBook) in order to decode the nature of hashtags, tiny URLs and acronyms that allow us to stretch considerable meaning across 140 characters.   After figuring out the balance of noise and useful nuggets that Twitter can add to my information flow, I now only make time to pan its streams occasionally.

And this is where I hit a massive roadblock with most of the people at my workplace: the “I don’t have time” mantra, often coupled with the chant “I’m not very good with technology”.  Insert sound of head rolling across keyboard.  Repeatedly.

I’m calling shenanigans on those excuses.  Do they think my knowledge and skills with technology fell from the sky?  We all have time in our work days (a mandated 8 hours or similar).  The question is: how do we choose to spend our time?

Uh, oh.  There I go bringing up choices again.  To which the token response is “…but I’m so busy!  There are so many priorities! I don’t choose how to spend my time.” 

That is bullsh*t.   Poor-me-I’m-a-time-victim-bullsh*t.

I’m talking about adults, well-paid learning professionals, executives and knowledge workers, who make choices every hour about:

* how many emails and texts to look at

* how many disruptions from people and technology that they’re willing to tolerate

* how many meeting invitations they accept and then complain about

* how many collectively-bargained lunch hours and breaks they voluntarily give up

* how many fictitious deadlines they’ll work towards without negotiating a more reasonable timeline

* how many e-boring courses they develop

* how many deaths-by-bullet-point they create

* how much chronic overtime they are willing to work in their cubicles, on the road or at home

* how many times they’ll cover for someone else who is away and don’t get their own work done

* how much time they (don’t) spend learning something that will make work easier

At the moment, we don’t have much control over the reality that email is one of our biggest streams of information at work.  That’s not likely to change anytime soon given the resistance embedded in the poor work habits that I’ve listed above.

Thankfully, I recognized a long time ago that I have to manage email very diligently so that I can stay on top of what’s happening.  Email management takes commitment, patience, attention to details and focus.  I believe that chronic mis-management of email is at the heart of most backlogs to productivity, even in the second decade of the 21st century.

Say I’ve sent a recipient three emails over the past two work days regarding projects x, y and z.  This is good practice: I use one discrete subject per email that makes it easier to categorize, prioritize and search for the item later, if necessary.

The recipient (likely equal rank to me or paid an extra decimal place more than I am) might have skimmed through all three emails but can’t find the email about y anymore so asks me to send it again.  Why can’t he or she find the original email?  It’s part of an account with thousands of emails, hundreds of folders, links, attachments, ‘read later’ piles and archives.  If the recipient is a bit more tech-savvy, that junk drawer is also cluttered with newsletters and RSS feeds and notifications and social media updates.

It’s madness.

No wonder they can’t focus. 

No wonder my work gets backlogged by people who don’t know which response I am waiting for because my email doesn’t stand out from the rest of the noise they’ve invited into their accounts.  And then it falls upon me, originator of the well-articulated request, to keep track of their lack of response and resend the item in some fashion that might get their attention.  How tiresome.

Reality check: no one is going to come along and give us less email, less information or less work to do.  Very few managers are willing to say, “Take some time away from what you were doing and get organized so that you can focus.”  We have to make that time for ourselves and treat it as real, honest-to-goodness work that is as important as anything else we do all day because it keeps us in check with what’s hot, what’s not, what’s on fire and what’s been laid to rest.  Update: here are some tools and habits to help you get started.

I get the distinct feeling that I am part of a very tiny minority of people who are not stressed out by my own email and, consequently, not as stressed about my workload, my time or the status of my contribution to collaborative projects.  So, to borrow from Jane’s lovely question, how do I convince others that using social technologies to manage email more effectively will give them back the very time in the day that they claim to be missing?  Wouldn’t that message just get lost in their clutter?


From → Smarter worker

  1. Ahh brainysmurf – again your words ring true to me. In terms of use of social media and other forms of technology as learning tools at work, you captured the words I have heard many times… “I don’t have time”… “I’m no good with technology”… Your framing of these comments, though, gave me new insights – to feel more confident in advocating for use of various forms of technology, to encourage people to persist, and to help people see the payoff that awaits.

    Our workplace has seen an almost total ban on paying for travel, and so the view of technology is changing, with it being seen as a potential saviour for people in remote areas of our state. So circumstances will necessitate that people commit the time and learn new skills.

    The second part of your post also rang true for me – but for different reasons. I am a collector – and this habit extends to email. I subscribe to so many lists, discussion groups, blogs…. even though I can’t keep up, it helps me to feel connected and motivated. I have tried using rules to assign these subscription emails to folders rather than just all piling up in my inbox, and this worked well until the email storage system was totally changed.

    Your post has been a reminder of something that I know well, but have been dodging – I need to get my act together and put some simple mechanisms in place to manage emails more effectively.

    Thanks brainysmurf – I appreciated your post! Sounds like you are quickly getting back into the online swing of things!

    • Thanks so much for this candid reflection! I really appreciate your perspective on collecting and feeling connected. A few years ago, I read some of Peter Walsh’s great work on decluttering and have been applying it to my electronic collection, with more success than I’ve had with my tangible objects, admittedly! 🙂

      Our workplace is also keeping travel to a minimum (for both working and learning events) so we are undergoing a major ‘forced’ change where all of us will have to get used to e-learning and e-working more than ever before. For the pioneers or early adopters, the willing and the brave, it’s all about opportunities to do things more efficiently and effectively. I’ve been e-working full-time for more than five years and it comes naturally to me now.

      Those who have been reluctant/resistant to these changes all along now have to look in the mirror and aren’t liking what they see. They are professionals who are used to being ‘in the know’ and competent at their work. They now risk being unsuccessful and slow for awhile – perhaps for the first time in a long time – until they build up their knowledge and skills with technology. That seems to trigger embarassment, fear of failure and shame: all very real, personal, messy stuff that gets in the way of learning.

      I’m definitely back in the swing of online things with a new perspective on how to use social media carefully, consciously, selectively and purposefully. My next task is to find a way to share my resources on Taming the Email Beast without hitting my corporate firewall…

      Thanks again!

      • Thanks for your reply brainysmurf. Your second last para is particularly timely for me. Learning really is about letting go of certainty and safety and taking risks – a reminder for those of us in the business of learning to be mindful of what we are asking of those we are ‘teaching’.

        • I agree, it’s a curious thing for those of us in learning. Most of us got here because we were very good ‘students’ in the ways that traditional schooling expected us to be. Knowledge was relatively fixed, we memorized it, we passed the tests, we got the certificate/diploma. In my opinion, learning professionals are pre-disposed to being less conscious of how learners struggle, not being all that familiar with it firsthand. Now, knowledge is evolving with such speed and complexity that the defintion of ‘good student’ is rapidly changing…and requires extreme resilience in the face of change. This means lots of adaptation for us to practice and model when asking others to learn something new as well! 🙂

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