A cow in Willesden

Public psychotherapy for a veteran auditor

But what if I WANT to be a jerk?

This week I have been mostly … in the garden. The garden of productivity tools, mulched with chopped-up-bits of bureaucracy and fertilised with some composted old traditions that no longer serve a purpose.

There’s heaps of gurus (gureaux?) out there claiming to have the answers, offering all sorts of cures and pills to declutter your inbox, your love life, your finances, and everything else. Frankly, most of these gurus have kangaroos loose in the top paddock (I’ve been reading an Australian slang book. It’s changing the way I think). But some of the articles and tips are bonzer. Sorry. Or at least that was my first reaction. But being pathologically cynical, I’ve been questioning my enthusiasm for these quick fixes.

This is the latest one that’s caught my attention : How To Write Brief Emails Without Being A Jerk <http://www.productiveflourishing.com/how-to-write-brief-emails-without-being-a-jerk/>

 Its about writing really short emails, and rather than feel bad about it, position it as a measure of respect for the recipient’s busy schedule. He quotes Mark Twain who once apologised for writing a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one. Although in the latest edition of his biography, apparently just published for use in schools, the letter was fine to begin with, so problem solved, and well done revisionist historians for resolving all that dramatic conflict for us before it reaches the audience.

Anyway. Regardless of the merits of the justification for short emails, the headline is a killer. Probably before I even read the article I was sold. Whatever it said in there, I was going to give it a shot in one form or another.

Thanks for your patience to everyone who had an email from me this last week or so, by the way. Most of them are short because I’m trying this approach. Some of them are short because your question is stupid and I’m trying to discourage dialogue between us on the matter. You can probably work out which category you are in. If not, drop me an email with a stupid question in it and compare the responses. If you need a suggestion for what I regard as a stupid question, just copy one from any email I’ve ever had from <name deleted>.

Trying to stay focussed here. Back to the great headline on the article. That got me to wondering whether the substance of any of these virtual gurus was of much consequence, or if, like certain of my erstwhile colleagues, it was all about putting a strong sales pitch and a jazzy new spin on the same tired, conceptually bankrupt dross. Is there a pattern or system behind these things, and if so is that because they’re facile, like a fortune teller reading, where the suggestions are so vague that we fill in the details ourselves, and obviously therefore feel that they are good suggestions. Because they are basically our suggestions represented to us under a snazzy headline.

Here’s the next one I looked at. Again, the title nearly had me signing up for the premium package before reading the first paragraph : Work at 85% Capacity with 100% Focus <http://www.productiveflourishing.com/work-at-85-capacity-with-100-focus/>

That one tapped into something I’ve seen as a paradox for a long time – how someone who takes on less work can often be more productive. The article argues that we should hold back 15% of our scheduled time to make sure we have contingency to complete the important stuff, and the right attitude to focus on it. “Gumption” it was called in that astounding quality manual “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Loved the article, of course, and again I was wondering : am I meant to feel so chuffed after reading a serious piece of business writing, or am I having a sales number done on me?

So it was on my mind for a while, and at the weekend, I was at home, in my shed with a hammer, and I thought I’d try a little experiment, see if these techniques delivered results in the real world (not many things more real than a man and his hammer), or if it was all part of some sort of mass hypnosis, a phenomenal façade of management speak and groupthink, with each participant being both victim and perpetrator of this epic level confidence trick.

Obviously the first article on short emails presented some difficulties, not being clearly transferable to the practice of fixing a drywall lining to a shed. I interpreted it as an instruction to send succinct messages to my wife from the shed, communicating as briefly as possible while still relaying the relevant information. When I needed refreshments, I took a few seconds to collect my thoughts, then sent an SMS to the house-quarters stating simply the nature of the request, the desired type and level of refreshment, and an indicative timeframe. So basically it was

“Bring to the shed :

Couple of sandwiches, chicken and curry sauce

Mug of tea

The rest of that cake from yesterday

About 15 mins from now.


And big tick to the system, I certainly found myself having more time to focus on the building work, and spent far less time in idle chatter. In fact, the benefits lasted well into the evening. Probably the fact that I didn’t get my refreshments was a bit of a low point, but my wife’s was very supportive of the experiment, replying with an impressively brief SMS which instantly made me aware that my request would not be fulfilled, and I might as well carry on working in the shed.

The second article was a little easier to apply, and basically involved me downing tools about an hour before dinner was ready, and nipping in next door to have a couple of beers with the neighbour. Was a little tricky by that stage to work out how long constituted 15%, since it was the weekend, and I had not really estimated how long the job would take. I didn’t take a good note of the end phases in this experiment, but I believe I called it a day around midnight, probably a little over 15% and I was a little worried I’d overdone it and caused some downstream problems for myself. Again a big tick for the new system though – lots more free time, and no issues arising, since combined with my first experiment, dinner was already in the bin when I got home.

Anyway, that little diversion turned out to be a major detour. Still a few things I want to cover on this topic, but time is short, I’ll need to wrap it up for today.

Basically I think these productivity tips are super, but I have a nagging doubt in my mind about whether its just a placebo effect, and that more or less any common sense approach could be converted into one of these insightful practices just by taking a cliché or accepted wisdom and restating it backwards or in the negative.

Why not try a few of these yourself and see if you can come up with any better than my suggestions below – drop them in as comments or email me. Not the conclusion I had in mind when I started writing this, but I’m pretty happy to open up a collaborative approach to solving the problem. Please let me know if you see any of these articles in real life circulation too.

Improve customer service by saying “No” (How to manage expectations by regular refusal of service requests)

Never decline a meeting invite again! (How to attend conflicting meetings by using your blackberry and laptop to give your full attention and presence to one meeting while ostensibly participating in person at another meeting) 

Declutter your everything book (How to avoid the need to take copious notes by listening to the discussion and remembering the important parts)

Stay tuned for a ramble into jargon and Harrison Ford next week.

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