How do we get anything done?

So today I was feeling frustrated that I hadn't crossed many items off my todo list. I'd been really busy and felt like I had a pretty productive day, but I'd only managed to cross a couple of items off my list.

So I took a break to see exactly what I'd been doing. And ended up tweeting this:

As of 2:30pm
today I sent 46 emails, got email in 128 threads, posted 9 tweets + 8
Facebook comments + had 4 phone calls + 5 IM chats.

And I forgot to count IRC chats.

So then I got to wondering what a normal day looked like. Unfortunately I don't have an easy way to count  threads (email, IM, IRC and Facebook) and I think threads are most likely the most indicative of work done. (It's fascinating how many different conversations we can carry on at once. Often on very unrelated tasks.)

What was easy to count was how many emails I received in a day and how many I sent. What was surprising was how consistent the numbers were!


Also, look how good I was at not working over the weekend – I don't normally do so good at that.

The next thing that surprised me was how many people commented on how productive I was. So I looked up productive in the dictionary and saw they were right:

productive: producing or capable of producing (especially abundantly);

The problem is I measure productive by how many things I cross off my todo list, not how many emails I send or I'd be in reactive mode all day. Now most of the emails I sent were working towards getting things crossed off my list, but in and of themselves they aren't something I want to measure in order to measure productivity.

The third thing that struck me was how many different topics I handle every day. Those 46 emails were in 37 different threads. Over the course of 6.5 hours, that's almost 6 different topics an hour. Or at least 6 different conversations an hour. And again, that's not counting IM, IRC, twitter … If multitasking is inefficient, how much more effective could I be if I managed to focus on one topic for an entire day?

So what was the point? I don't know, but if it takes me 50-100 outbound emails a day (and at least that many inbound emails) to get my job done (not to mention IM, IRC, Identica, Twitter and Facebook) whatever did people do before email??

P.S. And I'm not complaining. Feel free to continue to communicate with me as often as you want in the medium you find most comfortable. I feel like whatever I'm doing is working well for me at the moment. (Except for that pesky todo list that grows as fast as I cross things off of it!)

I'm just contemplating what this means … your thoughts and insights are welcome.

9 Replies to “How do we get anything done?”

  1. I would recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen, it discusses the ideas of feeling relaxed about what your not doing when you are working.

  2. I think the biggest difference between how we work now and “then” is that more people were involved and the communication happened more slowly and/or informally. Your job probably would have been done by two or three people and/or the expected communication response time was quite a bit longer, or you just happened to chat with so-and-so when you ran into them in the hall or at the next team meeting.
    Assuming at least some of your email threads were conversations with multiple people, would there be a savings to getting everyone into a conference call and hashing things out for a bit? Would a one hour conference call replace 2 (or 3, or 4…) net “person hours” of email?
    If it was one individual, what would a single phone call have done?
    Everyone talks about how great modern technology is because it allows everyone to “communicate anywhere” and be geographically diverse and decoupled and asynchronous and multi-taskey. Well, that flexibility comes with a price. In this case, dealing with textual comms overload. None of this is to say that the “old” ways of getting things done are necessarily better or even appropriate to your situation.

  3. Thanks for the link. I actually do keep my inbox almost empty all the time.
    I just find it fascinating that we do so much via email and we depend on it so much.

  4. I’ve tried his method a couple of times but to be honest it always feels like a lot of overhead.
    I’m actually quite happy with my process. Just amazed at how much we do via email, IM, IRC, …

  5. Those are some good points.
    I think the # of threads is indicative of how productive the conversations are. If I had 300 emails in 10 threads then more meetings would be in order. (But note I did have phone calls in there too.)
    I do wonder at how to balance different people’s styles. Some people really like getting all the info on a working mailing list and others still seem to think it wastes their time.

  6. I use Thunderbird as a backup mail system. So all my mail for the past week was just sitting in the inbox. I created a folder, moved an entire day’s email to it, checked how many emails were there. Sorted by sender and removed all the ones not sent by me, checked the number.
    So pretty manual but it only took about 5 minutes for the 7 days I checked.

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