Overcoming work and information overload – two experts show how

Listen to interview with Baha and Margaret Habashy

File type: mp3. Size of file: 5.65 MB. Length of interview: 14.06 minutes

Hello and welcome to another “Voices” interview. I’m Joaquim Menezes, Web editor of IT World Canada, and today we have two very special guests on our “Voices” panel: Baha and Margaret Habashy. Authors and co-founders of Integrity+ Consulting based in Markham, Ont., Baha and Margaret specialize in helping organizaitons, leaders and knowledge workers deal effectively with the challenges of an overloaded world. Over the past 30 years, they have taught people in every walk of life strategies for improving their personal effectiveness by reversing the negative impact of work and information overload. Their clients have ranged from large corporations to small local charities.

Margaret and Baha, you specialize in helping busy people overcome work and information overload and achieve greater work-life balance. You’ve even written a book on the subject? What are some of the main reasons for overload?

Margaret: Simply put, the main causes are quantity and speed. Think of it the same way as you think of eating a big heavy meal too fast. How do you feel? Bloated and overloaded. Today, most of us suffer from chronic work and information indigestion caused by excessive input such as e-mail and meetings, and this has many negative consequences.

Talking about negative consequences, there seems to be a perception that the higher you are in the corporate pecking order the more overloaded you are – that a senior IT manager, for instance, is more likely to be a victim of overload than an IT administrator. In your view, is this perception correct?

Margaret: That is especially true of good leaders and managers. The main problem is that the demand for work far exceeds the available resources. Corporate boards and CEO’s are driven by the need to grow the business and grow market share. That’s what they are paid for. Skilled workers are a finite talent. Good functional leaders are caught in the middle. They try to protect their people from the negative impact of overload and, in the process, they feel the pressure more than others.

In your book you identify “title imposed roles” as a key contributor to overload? Could you explain this concept of title-imposed roles?

Baha: In any organization individuals and functions are given titles. The demands created by these titles are often dictated by the perceptions, biases, and needs of others. Over time the scope of the demands keeps growing. You see, we are good at adding and very poor at subtracting. Ill-defined title imposed roles cause us to lose focus and control as we react to urgency and excessive demands.

I would like to explore this concept a little more by talking about what is the antidote to that. You have suggested in your book that to break away from title imposed roles, we chunk down our functional title into a set of specific personas (such as guide, coach, planner, watch dog) – and identify which personas allow us to deliver the greatest value. That’s the theory. Can you illustrate how this is done by an example – perhaps someone you have coached who has taken those steps successfully?

Baha: Sure I’ll be glad to. Let’s take an example…let’s call him Doug. Doug directs an organization of about 150 managers and staff in a large multi-national organization. His day was back-to-back meetings, managing issues, and fighting fires. After our workshop he realized that his higher value was to be a coach to his managers. He committed to be being disciplined, empathetic, and encouraging. He prioritized this by carving regular weekly one on one time with each of his managers – investing time in coaching them and empowering them. The results were impressive. His managers began to do the same with their staff. For some reason fewer issues and fires needed his attention. As a matter of fact, Doug was awarded the highest employee satisfaction [among] his peers in his organization.

That’s a good example, but I was wondering if would be universally applicable. Now in Doug’s case, he had managers – and maybe peers – who actually accepted his suggestions. However couldn’t it also be true that in specific work situations, our colleagues, the people we report to, senior management, company policy etc., often determines whether or not we can focus on high value roles, instead of title-imposed tasks?

Baha: You are absolutely correct. In our workshop we use the metaphor of a theatrical performance on a stage. To succeed on that stage Doug had to negotiate and ensure that the important people who shared that stage with him — his vice-president as well as his manager — supported him in his priorities. And interestingly, they were eventually the beneficiaries of his changed behaviour.

I’d like to move to something different and talk about time wasters…and Margaret I direct this question to you. One of the major, acknowledged causes of overload is e-mail. E-mail often is a really huge time waster, keeping us from doing important tasks, often forcing us to sift through masses of messages that don’t contribute an iota to us doing our jobs more effectively. In your book you provide some practical tips for overcoming e-mail overload. Please share some of these with us.

Margaret: I’ll be glad to. There are many many of them, but I’ll just give you three. First, treat e-mail as a personal communication tool. With this in view, you must define a personal e-mail handling policy that is compatible with your personal high-value roles, not based on the demands of others. And another tip is to break the cycle of urgency created by e-mail. Batch process your e-mail at regular times in the day, say once in the morning and at noontime. Schedule this time in your calendar. Another tip that we give to people is what we call OHIO, Only Handle It Once. If you block say half an hour twice a day to deal with your e-mail you can give it the needed attention, deal with it, and file it right away. If a subject matter requires more than 5 minutes to deal with it, put it in your calendar and schedule a time when you can deal with it effectively.

In addition to us being overloaded by e-mail, we may inadvertently contribute to the overload of other people. So Baha, on our part, what sort of e-mail etiquette do we need to adopt to enhance the quality of our communication, while ensuring we are not contributing to someone else’s overload?

Baha: The old golden rule stands well in relationship to email: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Remember, The value and quality of the e-mail you send is not so much based on what you think when you are sending or creating that e-mail as it is on what the recipient will think at the point and time when he or she receives your e-mail. So, always think of the recipient first. That should cause you to spend more time creating your e-mail and sending it to far fewer people than you normally do. Now another point that we need to keep in mind is e-mail is a two-edged sword. If your e-mail is misinterpreted, misdirected or forwarded it can cause more damage than you like. What I am saying is that you are accountable for anything that goes through your outbox. This should cause us to send less e-mail. If you do not send a lot of e-mail, you will not get too many either. E-mail is never confidential. Do not write any thing in an e-mail that you would not write on an open post card that you place

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