How to stop being busy

I work in an office which thrives on emails and meetings. Being busy with meetings or with sending and receiving emails appears to be a large part of the working day, there have been days when I’ve done nothing but sort through emails; reading them, responding to them, writing my own, and filing them. On these days I’ve come home with a great sense of satisfaction that I’ve dealt with my emails, but the truth is on these days I haven’t done any real work all day.

Tasks like¬†dealing with emails, going to meetings, filing and photocopying are all jobs which make us feel busy. We do feel busy, and we can feel overwhelmed. By focusing on these busy tasks, we’re losing the opportunity to work on the really productive stuff, the stuff which makes a real difference and which gets us noticed and moving away from busy work to productive work requires a big shift in your view point. Making this shift can feel daunting because you feel like your busy work is necessary so I’ve put together some tips which will help you move your focus to productive tasks and away from those which are just eating into your time.

Sort your email by subject

Sometimes I receive 80 or more emails in a day and I know for some people it’s much worse. The worst culprits are emails where many people are copied in and all have something to say on the matter. So that I can quickly deal with and delete (or archive) as many emails as possible from my inbox I sort by subject. This means I can quickly read through all emails on the same subject from start to finish and work out whether a response is needed from me.

Stop filing your email

Some of us spend hours carefully sorting through emails and filing them into different folders for anything from project names, people’s names or month ends and although it can be helpful to know all of your Project Gizmo emails are in the same folder, if it’s an email from Jane Doe about Project Gizmo, which folder do you file it in? Something I’ve implemented is a three folder policy. My folders are:

Action – for emails which need an action which I haven’t had time to work on yet or for which I’m awaiting information

Archive – for emails I need to keep but which have been dealt with

Reading – for emails with information which I might get around to reading one day but which need no action

If Jane Doe calls me with a question about the email she sent me, my archive inbox can be easily sorted by sender name, date or by title to quickly find the email she’s talking about without needing to search through multiple folders.

Flag email from VIPs

I set up a mail rule which flags email from important people – my boss, my team, and my husband (!). This means I don’t miss these emails amongst the sea of email from other people.

Sometimes a quick call will save 20 emails

If I’m copied into one of those email threads where a lot of people are involved, each of which has their own view or question, I try to put a stop to it by inviting people to a 15 minute call. I jot down the main points or questions in the email thread and invite people to quickly talk through the main points. This can save days of back and forth on email.

Focus on the goal for the day

Every Monday I print out Outlook’s five day calendar view so I can see my meetings for the week. At the top of this sheet I write my main goal for the week, the goals of my team and high level jobs for each day. I have this on my desk and it keeps me focussed on my priorities. If there’s something else I want to track like how many glasses of water I’ve had to drink I can keep a note of this as well.

Reflect on the week

At the end of the day on Friday I like to take 5 minutes to think about what went well, what didn’t go well, and what I can improve. This task helps me reflect on my successes for the week, it helps me set goals for the following week and it keeps me focussed on productivity every day as I know I’ll be reviewing myself at the end of the week.

I hope this has helped you to think about how you can be more productive at work next week, I find that moving my focus away from being busy towards being productive instead means I get a lot more out of my days in the office.


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