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If you've ever thought, "I could get so much done if people would stop emailing me," you're not alone. I work with dozens of development directors, CEOs, and board members and I hear that from most of them.
I feel the same way sometimes, of course--and yet despite working with over 50 clients (i.e. helping carry the fundraising load for 50 different organizations), my email inbox is empty right now as I write this.
There are a number of reasons, and not all of them can just copy and paste into your life. And sometimes (like with keeping track of tasks) different tools work better for different people. But here are some things that have helped me reduce my time spent on email by probably 80%:
Inbox is Gmail's new web/phone app that incorporates everything Google has learned from running Gmail over the years. It allows you to group emails (automatically) a lot more intelligently and with a lot more room for customization, so the stuff you don't need to open can get swiped away in one touch, the stuff you don't need to read never even clutters your inbox (though you can easily find it if you want it), and things that you just don't need to worry about right now get snoozed for any time you want (and disappear till then). You can pin important emails so they stay at the top of our inbox till you've dealt with them. Responding is also faster and more intuitive. You can even leave yourself reminders that don't appear till you need them. I was pretty organized before I even touched this product, but even then it reduced my time spent on email by probably 20%.
Sometimes you need to manage individual relationships and keep track of when to contact lots of different people (for example, a contact/relationship development flow where you want to email somebody today, then send a follow-up email a week later, then a call in a month, etc.). If these are pretty simple and straightforward and there aren't too many at once, you can use Gmail's reminders and snoozes to keep track (it's pretty smart; like if you say "call John Doe at 9:00am on Thursday," you'll actually be able to click the reminder and go straight into the call). If, however, you've got loads of these--like for an entire set of dozens of donors--you seriously need to consider a good CRM and/or project management software (17hats and various free project management tools can be good for individuals or small groups...I still haven't found an affordable CRM that does everything I think they should).
Also, this doesn't work for Inbox yet, but for regular Gmail, you can install the Boomerang extension so that messages send later. If you don't want to be that jerk filling up your team's inboxes on Sunday night, give that a try. (It also allows you to automatically re-send an email at a designated time if it hasn't been read or responded to.)
Unroll.Me is one of several apps that'll allow you to unsubscribe en masse from any email subscriptions you don't want, and aggregate any remaining ones into a single email. It scans your inbox for what in my case turned out to be literally hundreds of subscriptions I'd picked up over the years. Then it allows me (en masse or one at a time) to roll up all those emails (the ones I still want) into a single email I get at a time of my choosing. They come in a two-column format, a fixed box per email, so I can glance through that JCrew sale, the latest three emails from that listserv, etc. in about 10 seconds. If I can tell from glancing at the subject line and first paragraph or so that I want to read an email, I can just click it--but more often than not, a quick glance is all I spend on it--instead of opening, reading, and archiving 20 different emails throughout the day. (I got into Unroll.Me before Inbox for Gmail launched, so it's hard to say if I would get it again now, since Inbox mirrors some of the functions--but unsubscribing from dozens of things I no longer want would still be awfully helpful.)
I've tried lots of project management tools, but so far Evernote has given me the best combination of the features I use most often. Emails I don't need to read till right before that meeting can get funneled right into a note in that client's notebook and have a time-sensitive reminder attached to them that can buzz my phone if I need it to. And unlike a lot of "to-do list" tools, rather than just have a to-do item, I can have any length of notes, Word documents, PDFs, videos, etc. all tied in directly to what I need to remember. And the nice thing is, Evernote syncs or connects with seemingly everything. Between Evernote and Inbox, I never have to leave an email in my inbox to remind me of something, and instead of six emails representing one massive pile of work I need to get through in order to clear out my inbox, they disappear into tasks and projects that I'll take care of at the appropriate time. (I actually track nearly all my client data in Evernote, and can use its phone widget to quickly glance at what I've got coming up today or this week.) And a quick "forward" click, or copy and paste, or screenshot capture, or in the case of many apps clicking an integrated Evernote button, allows me to archive information where I can find it later rather than poring over it right now.
I read a lot of articles. I'm friends with a lot of interesting people on Facebook, and I like reading a lot of helpful industry blogs. Those two things are the main places I get interesting stuff that makes it onto my own social media postings (via Buffer) and blogging. That used to devour a ton of my time. Feedly allows me to subscribe to all those blogs and magazines at once, and just check what's new at my convenience. Pocket allows me (from my phone or browser) to save articles for reading later (in a gorgeous, customizable, mobile-friendly format--even if the site they came from wasn't mobile-friendly). Now checking Facebook doesn't have to mean getting sucked in. Usually in the morning, I spend less than three minutes scanning Facebook. An interesting article or two get added to Pocket. Then I end up reading the article on my phone later, when I'm waiting in line for lunch or waiting for the water to boil for dinner.
Nobody owns you. Under normal circumstances, nobody has the right to expect a response on a Sunday morning. Many, many emails go through that just don't need your one-sentence response (or your long argumentative one when this argument really doesn't matter, or could be done faster by phone). So don't. I've gotten pretty vicious about that swipe motion on my Inbox for Gmail app that removes an email from my inbox.
Sometimes saying no can be a passive thing--just ignoring some emails, or responding the following week to establish a dynamic. Sometimes I've been surprised to find that somebody I thought was being presumptuous about my time was actually just getting something off his plate, and was actually happy to not have to think about it again until I responded a week later.
But other times saying no requires a tough conversation with somebody--a co-worker, a client, a colleague, a donor, a boss (okay, the last one you might have to live with). Sometimes it requires being the grouch for a day. But I've found that if I establish boundaries and precedents with people (even if that means enforcing them once or twice), they're usually pretty good about respecting them. For example, I had one client who had a habit of emailing me every time she thought of something relevant to me--it might be a project that needed doing, or it might just be a random idea. That was how she worked, and it was partly how she kept her inbox empty. But the net result was 12-16 emails per day. If I had to live with that because she was my boss, she would have been a good candidate for Unroll.Me so I could just check her emails once a day and skim them all at once. But since she wasn't my boss, we ended up having several conversations about how to best adjust each of our habits so that we could work well together. She started adding those random thoughts to an Evernote file, and copying and pasting it into an email a couple times a week (or saving it for our weekly phone call).
Checking your email is not quick. I forget the stats, but it's something like triple the time you think it does. Mentally detaching from what you're doing, focusing on your emails, and then getting back into the groove takes a lot of time. So pace yourself. Stop thinking of email as a heartbeat to which you must constantly be connected, and start thinking of it as a project you do each day. Check a few times a day at specific intervals, or when you have some spare time. People will actually survive if they have to wait an extra hour to hear from you.
Ask yourself these questions:
(1) Does this absolutely require a response? (If not, lose it.)
(2) If it does, what kind? If it's a quickie, consider doing the quickies in batches a couple times a day (see "schedule email checks" above). You'll take up less time than if you did them individually over the course of the day.
(3) If it requires a longer response, think about when would be good to respond to it. With Inbox for Gmail, you can snooze it till tonight, tomorrow morning, etc. And think about HOW is the best way to respond. If it'll take you more than 10 minutes to type the email, consider a phone call. For those rare emails that require five paragraphs of typed text, get in the habit of doing them in three.
All these things, if you make a habit of them, will train you to be faster and more efficient. Too bad the You of today can't go forward in time to see how fast the You of a month from now will look by comparison.
Are there certain inquiries you get a lot? Consider saving common responses in an Evernote note. When you get that email, copy and paste the response rather than doing it manually each time. (If you use Outlook, it actually has a tool that allows you to do this within the email app; e.g. you click "question 1 about monthly giving" and it pastes it into your email automatically.)
That's it! Hope you find at least a couple things in here that you weren't doing already. The more time you have to focus on your core job, the happier you'll be and the better results you'll get.
Most of our attempts to convince people to back a social or political point of view are wasted effort.
I was recently interviewed by a radio station on "Changing People's Minds." The audience was home schooling parents; home schooling is an increasingly mainstream educational option and many homeschoolers are outperforming even their top public and private school peers, but home schooling also carries with it some challenges in terms of ideological insularity. As it happens, home schoolers are less and less unique in that respect.
We had a great chat about how to persuade people of differing viewpoints; I hope I was able to do some good!
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"You need to understand your audience as people and love them as people, not as projects to be fixed or enemies to be vanquished."
Check out some of our services here, or email meto talk through how my team might be able to help. We bring over 50 combined years of communications experience as well as up-to-the-moment knowledge to your situation! __________________________________________
Do you want to talk about something controversial without your listeners tuning you out? Brian Brown is here to help. Listen to his tips on today’s Home School Heartbeat.
Mike Smith: We’re joined today by Brian Brown. He’s the founder and CEO of Narrator, a consulting firm that helps nonprofit organizations with strategy, communications, and fundraising. Brian, welcome to the program!
Brian Brown: My pleasure! Thanks for including me.
Mike: Brian, it can be hard to discuss controversial social issues—especially when people disagree. Why do we need to really be able to talk winsomely about these issues?
Brian: I think people need to be able to talk winsomely about anything important. One of the big challenges of our current culture is that we’re really segregated by our ideology. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who hold strong liberal views or strong conservative views has doubled in the last two decades—as has the percentage of each of those groups who actually think the other group is actively trying to harm the country.
We spend most of our time, in terms of engaging political issues, reading and watching sources of news and ideas that reinforce that notion that the other guys are the bad guys. And we’re less and less likely to have friends who disagree with us. So this means the minute that you open your mouth about something politically controversial, anybody that you actually need to convince has already figured out that you fit into the “bad guy” box. Their subconscious is getting itself all worked up to fire back at you.
People who can overcome that initial subconscious response, I think are really our only hope for sensible policies and workable compromises, or for that matter even functioning communities.
Mike: Brian, how can we talk about these controversial issues without alienating those who disagree with us?
Brian: I think we need to give people an opportunity to be the good guys. I’ve talked before about the importance of that first minute that people have in conversation while their prejudices are formed. Prejudices aren’t necessarily bad things—our brains assemble our memories of relevant experiences into narratives that tell us not to touch that hot stove, or not to go out on a date with that guy we saw screaming at his mom yesterday. We don’t have to have those experiences over and over in order to learn them because we have prejudices.
So a huge factor in having any kind of productive conversation where prejudice is working against you is being able to instantly appeal to emotions that help people build new narratives, new prejudices, rather than falling into the ones they’ve already got.
One example that comes to mind: People have a lot of political biases surrounding redefining marriage, but not a lot surrounding the needs of children. So there are organizations like the Center for Bioethics and Culture that have made enormous headway building bipartisan coalitions around the notion that children have rights and, for example, deserve to know both of their biological parents. They’re thinking in terms of the children’s perspective rather than the parents’, and they’ve got people on both sides of other arguments coming together on it.
Mike: Brian, how can we talk to someone who has already made up their mind about something? Can we really get them to hear us out?
Brian: Yes, I think so, because the human brain is always learning. But we have to provide frameworks that help other people to understand the world outside of the box that they’re used to using to think about it. When I have experiences or talk to people that give me a little bit of a different perspective on things—not one that necessarily goes against my values, but one that makes me see them slightly differently, maybe by putting two of my values in tension with each other—my perspective gets shifted.
So for example, I live in Colorado Springs, where many people equate taxes with government and government with evil. So taxes hardly ever get raised. Well, one recent exception to this was the tax increase to pay for police-related expenses. Conservatives around here love and appreciate men and women in uniform. So the folks arguing for the tax increase said, “Hey, we don’t like taxes either! But it’s for the people in uniform.” People were forced to decide which mattered more to them: hating taxes, or supporting the troops, so to speak, which forced them to actually think rather than take the knee-jerk reaction. (The initiative passed, for the record.)
A couple of mistakes to avoid on this point. One is appealing to values that people don’t share. And another is treating life like a battlefield, where we’re juiced up to go to a war of words if we ever meet a real live liberal. When a person is the embodiment of evil to you rather than a unique person, he probably doesn’t appreciate being pigeonholed. You’ve really already lost.
Mike: Brian, many conversations today end up happening on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. How do we have a good conversation on the internet?
Brian: You don’t! I would say, never have an important conversation when you can’t see the other person’s face. You miss too many social cues, and you feel too insulated from the potential consequences of your words.
What can happen online, though, is a cumulative shaping of people’s perceptions and values. Because on the internet, people can curate their own environment. They can read sources of information that are customized so that they never have to feel uncomfortable. On Facebook, for example, I can block or remove from my newsfeed anybody who posts things that don’t make me feel warm and fuzzy.
This has a huge impact on my perception of reality. If twenty of my Facebook friends all put up a graphic that says, “John Connor is the best Republican candidate for president,” and I see it again and again from people I know and respect, it makes me think there must be some truth to it.
So there are three things that people can do to be a positive force on social networks. One is to stay friends with people who disagree with you. Another is to keep connecting with those people on levels of shared interests and enthusiasm. And the third is, instead of saying things designed to blast your opinions out into the stratosphere, work in small thoughtful things from time to time that communicate your values but also take into account the values of those diverse friends. Because you’re creating a social environment where people are more likely to recognize good ideas for good ideas, rather than just associating them with loudmouths and weirdos, which is how they’ll otherwise see it.
Mike: Brian, how can homeschooling parents teach their children to talk persuasively about these difficult topics?
Brian: I think homeschoolers have one of the biggest challenges when it comes to that problem of knowing people who aren’t like them. Some of the ones that I’ve known have withdrawn not only from public schools but largely from the community as a whole. On top of that, because homeschooling parents tend to care about their children very deeply, they’re often among the most protective when it comes to movies and TV and literature.
I’m not about to pretend there aren’t negative influences out there. But in order to talk persuasively about difficult topics, you need to understand your audience as people and love them as people, not as projects to be fixed or enemies to be vanquished. And real-life interaction and engaging rich stories are the two best ways I know of to develop your ability to do that.
Mike: Do you have any resources that you would recommend for us?
Brian: Yeah! Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler wrote a great book called Connected. It came out a couple years ago. And on the front of building up your imagination—your ability to wrestle with difficult things that maybe don’t rub you the right way.
And I think for some parents I’ve known, the best exercise I could imagine would be to read Chaucer and try to come to grips with how this thing filled with raunchy humor is considered a masterpiece of Christian literature. That’s an odd thing to say. But thinking about those kinds of questions I think are very, very helpful in terms of coming to grips with people who are not like us.
Mike: Brian, thank you so much for joining us. Your advice will help us be gracious and charitable, even in difficult conversations. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.