Nathan Zeldes is a globally-recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of technology and human behavior. Nathan has been working on email overload for 18 years and is a founder of the Information Overload Research Group, which he chairs. The Distracted Executive was excited to sit down with Zeldes to talk prioritizing, time management and the greatest challenges he faces today.
The Distracted Executive: What are the biggest distractions that you deal with every day at work? What is your go-to solution?
Nathan Zeldes: I'd say incoming email, with its demand on my attention. My solution is to practice what I preach: my #1 info overload coping tip has always been to set a daily time slot where I clean my inbox in batch mode, rather than responding to each message as it comes in. To that end I have all "You've got mail" alerts turned off on both my desktop and handheld. As it happens, my mind is most creative in the morning, so I reserve an hour or two in the afternoon for this email session. Of course this is not 100% rigid - I do check my inbox first thing in the morning to see if anything urgent had come in overnight that may affect my day's priorities. But on the whole I stick to this arrangement and reap the benefits of concentrated thinking/creating time for hours at a stretch.
TDE: What is information overload costing us these days?
NZ: Well, the last data I saw from Basex says close to a Trillion dollars a year in the U.S. alone. But that's just the cost to employees in paid work time. As individuals, we suffer incalculable harm in stress, reduced creativity and damage to family relations.
TDE: Please give my readers your #1 tip for stopping email overload.
NZ: I recently published a guide to all the solutions to information overload I'm aware of, and it came to 164 (and counting, for the next edition). I can share one tip that I've invented years ago at Intel and that I (and many others) use daily: the "5 weeks folder". Here goes: Set up a folder called "Five Weeks" that deletes its content automatically after five weeks. Use it as a repository for messages you're unsure about, such as that email you want to delete, but you're not sure if the sender might call you tomorrow and ask about it. If, when screening your Inbox, you hesitate for more than 2 seconds about deleting a message, put it into “Five Weeks” and forget it! This simple method speeds up inbox processing considerably, because it does away with the procrastination and doubt that slow down outright deletion: anything thrown into the folder can, after all, be recovered for five full weeks.
TDE: How do you deal with interruptions all day long?
NZ: Primarily by batching work time together. As I noted, I work best in the morning, so I devote the entire morning to concentrated work (and one coffee break). I try to defer any interrupting tasks to the afternoon, when I can address them also in one batch.
TDE: Prioritizing. Everything seems important or urgent these days. How do you efficiently navigate your to-do list and calendar?
NZ: By devoting time to important things in order of importance, but also handling the necessary but less important things in order of arrival, older first. That way they are sure to eventually get done, instead of flopping at the bottom of the list forever.
TDE: You manage people and work with some people who are all over the place. How do you deal with someone who is very distracted and not giving you what you need?
NZ: With kind firmness (or is it firm kindness?). I know how to form emails that get attention, and I send people reminders they eventually can't ignore.
TDE: As an entrepreneur, what is the greatest challenge in your business today, and what are you doing to address it?
NZ: Perhaps it's balancing serving my clients and securing new ones. The latter requires active networking and content production, which is time consuming, so it's a fine balancing act. I can't pretend to have a perfect solution for this conflict - I just make sure to be doing both activities and adjust to the demands of both.
You can learn more about Zeldes, and purchase his IO solution Guide here.