In-person, on the phone, or via email — in that order

carrying the gun

Staff work entails lots of coordinating. Lots of communication with people inside and outside of your organization. Today, much of that communication occurs via email.

I bet you think you’re “good” at email.

It feels like work, doesn’t it?

It’s not work. It’s the illusion of work.

The other day, I fired off an email with some information and some questions to someone outside of my organization – hundreds of miles away. After I sent it, I didn’t think much of it. I figured I’d get a response in the next 24-36 hours.

A few minutes later, I found myself surprised when my office phone rang (hardly anyone ever calls me) and when I answered it was the person I had sent the email to. I was surprised.

In about 5 minutes, we covered all of the ground we needed to and were ready for the next step.

This is a lesson I learned many years ago. When it comes to getting things done (from other people), the priority should be in-person, on the phone, or via e-mail: in that order.

When someone comes to visit you, you stop and politely see what they need.

When someone calls you, you answer the phone and have a conversation.

When someone emails you, you likely process it through some system you have developed for managing the correspondence. Flag for later? Move to folder?


Of course, every organization has formal and informal business rules. I’m not going to just walk into the office of a superior because it is more efficient for me.

But it is worth pausing from time to time and asking – “Can I accomplish this more quickly through a phone call?”

“Can I just walk over to their office and ask?”

You may be surprised by the results.

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“Doing” email is the illusion of work

mail icon iphone red notification

This post isn’t actually about email. It’s about learning.

But one of the things I learned a long time ago is that email isn’t work.

It’s the illusion of work.

You read email. You sort email. You delete email. You write email. You send email.

It feels like work. But it’s actually close to the equivalent of shuffling papers around on a desk. It’s moving information.

It feels good to clear out the inbox. It is relatively easy and it is something we can see.

But it is rarely someone’s job to manage an inbox. More likely than not, your job has nothing to do with email. Yet it is where we spend a whole lot of time, convincing ourselves this is what it is all about.

I’ve been feeling this way lately when it comes to learning. As life gets busier, it is easy to just keep tweaking productivity systems to expand your personal bandwidth and squeeze out just a tiny bit more productivity.

Task lists, calendars, timers. It’s all good. It helps.

But, there are only so many hours in a day and we have only so much attention. Where is the learning coming from? Are we still learning?

This reflection comes partly from listening to a recent podcast where the guest spoke about the need to further retool his schedule to ensure there is built-in time for learning.

And by learning, I don’t mean reading and sharing articles or listening to podcasts.

I’m talking about dedicated study. Intense reading. Practicing skills. The things that you cannot do in “moments in-between.”

If you read this morning’s newsletter, you know this is on my mind. I haven’t figured it out yet. My hunch is that if we think just because we’re doing okay and can continue to grind that this means we are still growing, we’re wrong.

In the same way that losing weight and keeping weight off becomes more challenging as we age, I think there is a related challenge when it comes to learning and growth.

If we really want to learn and grow, we have to challenge our own assumptions about what is still important. What can we move to open up a dedicated hour a day to just reading? Or language study? Or coding? Or an instrument?

Reading and listening to “stuff” – even good stuff – is the illusion of learning. It’s good, but it is no replacement for the deep work required to actually improve.

I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

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Why I don’t use exclamation points in email anymore

metal gear alert exclamation

Once, when I was still enlisted and new to email in the Army, I sent an email to a staff NCO requesting some information. I was a Sergeant (E5) at the time and I was emailing either a Sergeant First Class (E7) or Master Sergeant (E8) – I don’t remember exactly. I was working for a General officer at the time, and as such, my emails packed a little more “punch” because recipients knew what office it was coming from. It’s a power that can easily be abused, and can certainly piss people off if used improperly.

Anyway, I don’t remember exactly what the information I was requesting was about, but before getting to the signature block, I wrote something to the effect of “Just let me know!”

It was written to be enthusiastic.

I sent the email and didn’t think much of it. Later that afternoon, I was walking back into the office where I found the angry NCO with a printed piece of paper (my email) gesturing aggressively to the Lieutenant who served as the General’s aide-de-camp. When the NCO saw me, he turned to me and asked “What the hell is this? You don’t tell me to just let you know!

I shot him a confused look and he showed me the email with my statement highlighted.

Again I looked at him confused, not understanding.

“It sounds like you’re trying to order me around there, Sergeant,” he said, with extra emphasis on the word sergeant.

“Oh, no, I was just trying to sound enthusiastic, like, let me know!” I said “let me know” with an un-natural upward inflection to emphasize the point.

“Well that shit doesn’t translate in email.”

It was an embarressing lesson. Since then, I rarely use exclamation points in email because I fear how it might be read on the other side. Sometimes, before sending an email, I’ll read it over and find places where an exclamation point would add a spark of life. I delete the period and replace it with an exclamation point and watch the blinking cursor flash at me for a few moments. I think of that angry NCO with his printed piece of paper and the highlighted line and I delete the exclamation point, replacing it with the boring and very safe period.

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