Friday, February 15, 2019

NYTimes tells you to answer your email. Okay, I'll get right on that.

In "No, you can't ignore email. It's rude", Adam Grant makes some good points about why you should respond, though. Here are some of his ideas and some of mine.
  • First of all, unless you're so awash with self-importance that people only exist when you want them to, you pretty much have to. It's your job. 
  • But according to Grant, "Your brain is not just sitting there waiting to be picked. You should not feel obliged to respond to strangers asking you to share their content on social media, introduce them to your more famous colleagues, spend hours advising them on something they’ve created or 'jump on a call this afternoon.'"
  • What about rude emails? Just say no to answering them. If for some reason you have to respond, be as polite and clipped as possible--and save the email exchange in case you need it later.
  • Some colleagues won't answer emails, and that's their prerogative. If I'm scheduling a meeting and they don't respond, keeping the original meeting time is mine. But what about people who ignore emails and then demand that you accommodate the request they couldn't be bothered to convey before? Just say "hell, no." 
  • What about emails sent after hours? Me: "You can shoot all the emails you want at me after 5 p.m. on Friday, if that's what your heart desires, but to me they're just silent snowflakes drifting down to settle into my inbox snowbank  until 7 a.m. on Monday." Group emails sent on a weekend seem to devolve into a snowstorm, if you catch my drift (see what I did there?), and answering just draws you into the thick of it. 
  • Grant: "Remember that a short reply is kinder and more professional than none at all."
  • Grant:  "If it’s not an emergency, no one should expect you to respond right away. Spending hours a day answering emails can stand in the way of getting things done." Me: no kidding.
  • Also, limit the number of times you apologize. Seriously. 


*You would think that the NYTimes would be in a complete shame spiral at even the thought of the word email, given that their blame-heavy "both sides" reporting on you-know-who's emails (along with Putin) handed the election to our current president, who just declared a national emergency to please his base.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

In search of lost time: the Costco plan

Figure 1. Not Walden Pond.
Over at Inside Higher Ed, Michael S. Harris has a good essay called "The Zero-Sum Game of Faculty Productivity." Harris argues that"The best way to tackle the zero-sum game and better prioritize our time is to make explicit the trade-offs that exist in faculty work."

This isn't an earth-shattering idea, and in fact it reminds me of a post I wrote a few years back, "Groundhog Day: Mid-career Academic Choices."

But it's a great reminder that time is limited, and so are our choices.  Harris gives some examples, with my commentary:

1. "For example, what if you spent more time creating an interactive activity for class than revising the look of your lecture slides?" Great idea, although revising the look of lecture slides is 99th on any list of 100 tasks.

2. "What if you created an answer sheet with clear explanations to distribute to class rather than writing brief notes in the margin on each individual student exam?" This is a lovely sentiment. What would happen is that students would ignore the answer sheet and come to your office or, more likely, email you because they don't see why theirs isn't like the best answer. It's nice to believe that they see what you see, but many will not, and they'll feel injured at the depersonalized nature of the feedback and say so on your evaluations.

 3. "What if you checked your email three times a day instead of three times an hour?" Great suggestion for anyone who does not have time-sensitive things going on. Still, three times a day should be plenty. 

Harris quotes Steve Jobs, who reduced the number of product lines so that he could focus Apple's attention on a few of them. (That's also what McDonald's did when it started out: a few products done well rather than many done not so well.)

It struck me that what Harris is talking about is the Costco plan. A very long time ago, a student of mine related to a Costco executive wrote that its philosophy was not to give consumers endless choice but to choose the best thing and stock it. That's it.

Now, obviously Costco stocks more than one kind of toothpaste, one kind of shampoo, etc., although in my house we still kid about the Soviet-style choices that are made for us: "Costco loves us. Costco knows what is best. You WILL grow to love the Costco choices. Two plus two is five."


Figure 2. Thoreau, definitely not in Costco's mission statement.


But the reality is that if you trust the choices, and as a Costco cult member I generally do, your shopping is more efficient and you save time.

Applying this to your own work, as Harris suggests, makes sense.

What are the things you need to do?
What are the things you want to do?
What priorities do you have?
What are the things getting in the way of them?



I'm not saying that you should make your mind into a retail giant, but if you're trying to pursue 15 smaller things instead of figuring out how they fit into your plan of 5 big ones, the choices alone are distracting you and taking up time.

Or, to put it another way in the words of that old anti-capitalist Henry David Thoreau:

Simplify, simplify.

[Edited to add: More Thoreau posts.]