the danger of back-up plans, your email is out of control, and more

Over at QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I take a look at several interesting work-related stories in the news right now, including whether having back-up plans might actually undermine performance, how the Zappos CEO’s invention of “yesterbox” could change the way you deal with email, and more. You can read it here.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Amtelope

    I don’t understand the “yesterbox” suggestion. Maybe we are just strange in our use of email at my company, but most of my email is either time-critical — requires a response as soon as it’s read, or requires me to start doing something as soon as it’s read — or is informational and doesn’t require a response at all. For the time-critical stuff, if I don’t answer within a couple of hours, someone will call me or come find me in person, and will possibly need to assign those tasks to someone else if I’m not available. So I’m trying to wrap my head around the idea of being inundated with email that needs a response, but not until the next day.

    1. Charlotte Collins

      I agree. This would be a disaster waiting to happen for me. And there often isn’t a way to tell how critical an email is until you open it and read it, by which point you’ve already technically started working on the problem. (Better training for others on how to use subject lines and who should be included on emails would help, but that’s not my problem to solve – just to be irritated by.) And I am responsible for three different heavy-traffic email boxes. (And this is just for work – I’m not even counting my two separate personal boxes.)

      It sounds to me like he needs to learn to use his settings to auto-file some noncritical but essential emails…

    2. eee

      yeah, it sounds like he’s saying to do that for all emails where being 48 hours behind won’t negatively affect anything, but how would you know that unless you read them? That sounds like something a very high up person could do, because they could request that everyone emailing them flag all emails that can’t be read tomorrow with !, but that’s hardly a request I could make to everyone at my company.

      1. BRR

        It was somewhat ambiguous to me but my guess is he does a quick assessment and then answers anything critical with non time sensitive emails getting attention the next day.

        1. Hotstreak

          That’s what I thought, too. He must be reading the email, or at least skimming it well enough to understand what it’s about, but not taking the time to draft a well thought out response. In my office this would probably be fine to do, since things happen in weeks instead of days & things that are really time sensitive are usually short easy questions (which we use IM for anyways).

        2. Formica Dinette

          That’s how I read it, but I’m probably biased because that’s how I handle my email. My work rarely requires immediate responses or turnaround, though, and I need to research and/or give some thought to many of the inquiries I receive.

    3. Jesmlet

      I sort of have a yesterbox process. I filter all my emails so any random external emails are typically put off a day or two, any external emails from clients are dealt with within 24 hours depending on urgency and any internal emails are generally taken care of soon after receiving them. That tends to work with the structure of our company but probably wouldn’t work for everyone.

    4. Layla

      Maybe cos he’s a CEO and doesn’t really need to do anything ? Just asking others to do stuff or answer their questions

      He probably doesn’t receive much tasks by email

      1. Charlotte Collins

        I agree. I can only see this working for someone very high up in a company, but not for the average employee.

        1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

          Huh. This would work fine for me, with appropriate triaging. As a previous boss used to say, “there’s no such thing as a leadership development emergency.”

          1. Layla

            This could also work for me in my previous role. * I would not be known as responsive but not terribly unresponsive since I assume everything gets replied to the next day.

            But a lot of tasks come in by email. Well I could be working on yesterday’s tasks

            * current project is currently too fast paced to let it stew for 1 day

        1. Layla

          Approving , yes. I would think I would give my CEO more than 1 day to approve something. So that’s fine.

    5. Abbi Abrams

      Yes, we often use email in my office to talk to each other about critical things if we don’t want to be overheard by others (small, open plan office). Yesterbox would not work here.

    6. Jaydee

      I think it makes sense. Each day you would check your email throughout the day as often as you need to. Respond the same day to things that need an immediate response, but flag everything else for follow up the next day. Then set aside some time each day to follow up on the previous day’s non-urgent emails.

    7. Anonymous Educator

      I used to be a receptionist, and I’m pretty sure I would have lost my job if I answered only the previous day’s emails. People don’t expect answers tomorrow—they want them today. I got no complaints on responsiveness, because I typically answered emails within 5-10 minutes… an hour at the latest, unless it was at the end of the day, but then I’d answer those first thing the next morning.

    8. Sunny Days

      I agree. You don’t know if it’s urgent until you’ve read it, and by the time you’ve read it, you might as well respond.

      I would be annoyed by “yesterbox” if it were the norm at my company. When I write someone an email, I want them to respond as soon as they have time to. I also like to respond to my emails right away. I like to treat everything as if it’s urgent unless it requires a well researched, well thought out response.

      Actually, I can’t see yesterbox working in fast paced work environments. But if it works for some people, great.

  2. Interviewer

    For Yesterbox, I get a lot of FYI emails that I don’t have to respond to, but I need to file for documentation, so my inbox gets clogged with to-do items and to-file items. I love the idea of setting aside a block of time to deal with yesterday’s emails for filing. I would struggle with the ones that need a more immediate response to my team, but this system probably works well for the CEO, where everyone can adjust their communication and workflow according to his preferences.

    1. LawCat

      I get a lot of informational emails (organization-wide emails or industry newsletters) that I will want to look at, but that I definitely know don’t need to be looked at any particular day. I set up rules in my email on Outlook to automatically shunt those emails into designated folders. That has helped cut down on the FYI stuff going right into my main inbox.

    2. BritCred

      I have a similar system.

      Folders for clients, sub folder for regular documents I need to find quickly or “big” issues/projects. And a folder for “misc office” etc that need to be kept but not client specific (daily reports etc.)

      The minute (ok, when I look at the email next which was pretty regular) an information email arrives its filed away in the right place. Easy to find later. Emails that await something I can’t do now go into a “to be done” folder for review each day. Emails that are urgent stay in the inbox or get done straight away and filed – including the replies – in the client sub-folder.

      Result has been I know what I’m waiting on, what I haven’t even touched/needs urgent reply and can pretty much instantly find last month Cute Teapots Ltd. remittance or discussion email about their order in a few seconds. I’ve even found old documents quicker than the bosses usually too!

      It takes work to set the system up but our auditors love it because rather than spending half a day waiting for me to chase up documents and customer proofs I can provide them by the time they get their hotdesk set u, they’d be in and out in half the time than any other site they visited. Once its up and running and being maintained I’ve found it much easier to manage workload and queries.

      Sadly I had a temp once who wasn’t as through and when I got back told us she’d just deleted remittances and other queries as soon as she printed them out. Me and my boss just *looked* at each other at hearing that since we were pretty sure all the paper copies weren’t kept either so the next audit would be a little less easy than usual…

      1. JaneB

        My inbox gets a whole mix of things, with appropriate response rates ranging from ‘next five minutes’ to ‘a couple of weeks’ and work involved ranging from 2 minutes to a couple of hours. I’m also kind of messy and get stressed out by overly-organised systems – from earlier discussions here I self-diagnose that I’m very likely to have adult ADD, but the health system here in the UK doesn’t really recognise it. In addition, my work doesn’t tend to divide neatly into boxes.

        I think what I currently do is a VERSION of Yesterbox… just without a snappy title! I check email roughly hourly, either at task transitions or after a stretching break (I have a phone alarm set to go off every 45-50 minutes as I can end up barely able to walk after a hyperfocused 5 hours in one position over the keyboard on a non-scatty day), and I triage everything. I reply immediately to quick, easy or very urgent things. To fairly urgent things, I usually send an email saying I’ve seen it and will reply by the end of the day (so the person concerned can ping back if they want it earlier, but basically take it off their desk) and draft the reply, then let it sit (not filed, just open – when I come to shut my PC down at the end of the day I read over and edit and send all the open email replies…). To something with a longer time frame or needing more effort, I write down the task and the date of the email on a post-it and stick that on the next days page of my diary. These tasks either get done or get moved through the diary. Depending on my schedule, either Friday afternoon or Sunday afternoon I do a clean-up – go through the last two week’s worth of email filing into folders, deleting (amazing how many emails can’t be deleted when they arrive but are concluded within a few days), doing short non-urgent replies, and checking that all the outstanding tasks are on postits. I then collect all of the postits out of my diary (email generated ones, ones from last week, ones from phone calls), off my desk etc. and go through them crossing off stuff I did (fun), and making up a summary list of undone things. I then look at the next week’s diary and decide roughly which tasks go where, and write a post-it note list for each day when I’m not scheduled completely with classes or meetings of 3-5 To Dos. If there are too many, yet another postit goes onto the start of the following week or month to keep those overflow tasks visible. If necessary I email anyone whose task is going to be late, or to check in that nothing has changed. So I EndOfTheWeekBox rather than Yesterbox, and I triage more thoroughly than just ‘do tomorrow’.

        Long lists on paper overwhelm me. Multiple short lists on colourful postits don’t – and also I get to buy stationary!

  3. Cactus

    For putting out fires –

    I am weeks behind on deadlines and I should change my name to Smokey the Bear because I literally put out fires all day long, mostly with my interns. At any given time I have 3 in the office and there’s a line outside my cubicle with them waiting to talk to me or ask me a question because they claim they don’t know how to do something and I’ve repeatedly told them to research, check the database, or talk to each other. What’s a tactful way to get some peace and quiet so I can catch up? My boss is no help.

    1. BRR

      Ask them what they have found out by researching or checking the database. to f they don’t have anything tell them to check and come back if they didn’t find an answer

      1. Cactus

        Thanks, BRR. I have one that will literally paste his call notes in my IM and wait for me to give him the answer so he can fix it. At first I’d repeat “Have you checked [place] but now I’ve stopped responding.

    2. Interviewer

      Work from home for a day or two each week, to catch up in peace.

      Have the interns make appointments.

      Sign them up for training classes. Then make them do a presentation on what new skill they learned, or resource they discovered. Everyone has to present something.

    3. Jillociraptor

      You could consider setting up two office hours per day or something like that. From 11-12pm and from 2-3pm, your door is open for questions. No other time unless [whatever criteria is an emergency in your environment.] You could also tell them to huddle before the meeting to see if they could answer each other’s questions before coming to you.

      Another option might be to have your first question be, “what have you done to try to answer this question?” and if the answer is nothing, send them away until they’ve done that.

    4. ArtK

      Set office hours. Have an explicit time block where you are not available.

      Be less helpful. You’re teaching them exactly how much work they have to do before you’ll bail them out. Don’t give answers, ask what they’ve done and then suggest 1 more place for them to look. Or even default to “Sorry, can’t help you now. Please continue to research. Bye.” Don’t reward them for being lazy.

    5. nofelix

      A line outside your cubicle sounds horribly inefficient. Would it make sense to schedule regular morning check-ups for anything they couldn’t handle the previous day?

      You also might need to demonstrate that finding the answer themselves is a valid route even if they’re not 100% sure of the answer. Asking you may be a way to cover their back rather than laziness or ignorance.

      A planning session at the start of an assignment might also help them identify which areas they’ll need to research and where the info can be found.

  4. Laura

    Nice if you are the CEO. Last job, the manager would get annoyed if I finished a business phone call before reading incoming email because it could be from a salesperson. We were to always interrupt what we were doing and answer whatever came in no matter because we were “customer focused” Or as I like to think about it, it was her first time managing and she didn’t understand how to communicate priorities.

    1. JMegan

      So if you were on the phone and an email came in, you had to interrupt the phone call to answer the email? And then if you were answering the email and another phone call came in, would you then have to interrupt the email to answer the phone? That is taking multi-tasking to quite the extreme!

      1. Laura

        I was supposed to be able to do both at the same time. Read the email and compose a response while finishing the conversation. They wanted someone who could “multi-task and react quickly”. Really it was the 26 year old golden child’s first time managing at her first job. She’d agree that one thing was a priority but then change her mind for one of any exception.

  5. F.

    1) I am an office manager (sole administrator for this location). I am constantly dealing with crises, usually of others’ making. There is absolutely no way a lower level employee like myself can get away with setting aside time to work on only their projects. I have seen this so-called solution offered many times, but it is not realistic for the majority of us. Working from home is not an option for the telephone/in-person receptionist, either. Again, only for higher level employees.

    2) Delaying response to e-mails for 24-48 hours has the potential to turn small, currently-not-urgent problems into urgent crises (see #1 above). Sure, for publications and FYI emails, no problem, but if everyone in my company put off emails like that, I would be dealing with more crises than I already do. Again, perhaps only for higher level managers, but they are more likely to delegate those types of queries to underlings anyway.

    3) I am an INTJ (spare me the anti-Myers/Briggs rant) with an anxiety disorder, having back-up plans is essential to my existential survival! I relax and perform much better on the original plan if my worries are calmed by having a back-up plan. YMMV, of course.

    Just a note to our readers in SW USA: I first put “forest fires” and changed it to crises. I realize some of you are dealing with a very real threat to your homes, jobs and lives, and do not want to trivialize that.

    1. JaneB

      Yes to your number 3 +100!

      I also have an anxiety disorder, and find that the best way to manage it at work is to have back-up plans, so that I can quickly dismiss thoughts of “what if…” with “then x” and focus on the task I’m actually doing. My ability to think ahead and think widely about projects is I think one of my strengths, but that means I’m very aware of all the weak points, and I’d rather expect the worst, have a rough plan, and then put it on the back-burner so I can focus my energies on not needing it.

      What we call in England the ‘belt, braces and a piece of string’ approach (the saying relates to keeping one’s trousers up) suits me just fine – relying on the button alone feels DANGEROUS and in dangerous situations it’s really hard to concentrate or be creative!

  6. Nanani

    Back-up plans give me the peace of mind to work on plan A.
    The backup plan could be as simple as building “buffer time” into a deadline, but I still need to have it.

    Yesterbox makes no sense to me either. It feels like those weird dating rules where you’re not supposed to call until x days after the date or something like that. Arbitrary waiting time on communications has never made sense to me.

    1. TL -

      It would make sense for some positions – it makes a lot of sense for the professors/PIs I know (who rarely answer emails because they get so many but if you don’t have to answer them they can’t be that urgent, can they?) and it would probably also make sense for a lot of other positions/professions (heck, I bet doctors often do a similar thing anyways, though with careful screening. If it’s truly urgent, they get paged.)

    2. nofelix

      The best thing about waiting on email is it cuts down back-and-forth. If you always answer non-urgent emails 24-48 hrs after they’re sent it limits the same sender taking up more of your time. It also means when you need some time to check something it’s built into your method so clients aren’t expecting instant responses when that’s impossible.

  7. CMT

    Zappos is also the company that doesn’t have managers, right? They’re still in business, so I guess it’s not working out terribly for them, but I wonder if anybody has ever told their CEO that different isn’t always better.

    1. James

      I’ve heard they started out that way, but found that it just doesn’t work all that well in the real world. SOMEONE has to have the responsibility for getting projects done, and that someone needs the authority to do so if you hope to succeed. Still, it seems like the type of outfit that would try weird things to see if they work. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t, and it’s always going to be dependent on the unique situations we each face.

  8. Patrick

    I haven’t finished the HBR article but I am currently dealing with this issue in my organization. My company has a lot of departments that all have to work together to achieve an end result (we have retail stores to make it a little more clear how many roles there can be) and this is a constant struggle – lately some teams have become way too reliant on backup plans. It’s frustrating when the attitude is not “let’s push to get the original, agreed upon plan correct” but “it’s OK we didn’t get it right, we have a backup plan.”

    It has kind of built a culture of people not taking responsibility – obviously things happen, but a lot of times if things don’t go to plan the attitude that comes back to my team is “well, we admitted we messed up and we proposed a plan B, why are you mad?”

  9. Admin of Sys

    Since it sounds like you’re not in an office where you can shut the door, is there a conference room you can reserve to work in isolation occasionally? I do monthly reports, and reserve a conference room that doesn’t see much use to get them done without interruptions.

    I also managed to get folks to stop interrupting me as much by not giving them attention for the first 30 seconds (I’ll say “half a minute” and keep typing/working) and then saying “I’m pretty busy, is this an emergency?” If they say “No” then I’ll tell them to come back in however long. If they say “Yes”, and it’s not actually an emergency or it’s something they can find themselves, I’ll tell them I’ve got higher priorities and vaguely where they can find the information themselves. If it is another fire, then I’ll help them. Eventually the team learned that if I said I was busy, I wasn’t going to drop everything and help them.

  10. Anonymous Educator

    Am I the only one who always gets back to emails right away? I mean, occasionally, there’s a situation in which I can’t completely deal with the email, because I’m waiting to check with someone else on something before Ic an give a final answer, but even then… I’ll let the person know I’m checking and will get back to her.

    Phone calls—those can easily overwhelm me. People randomly showing up in the office unannounced and unscheduled, sure. But emails? I’ve never been overwhelmed by emails, even when I was a receptionist.

  11. Matt

    Yesterbox: if I’d do this, I’d get a lot more phone calls. I already loathe the phone culture at my place, I always try to get people to e-mail me instead of calling (and therefore I also try to be as reponsive as possible via e-mail), it’s very difficult, everything is urgent and everyone calls everybody about everything … if people knew that I would let my e-mail messages sit for one day, I’d probably get at least the double of phone calls …

  12. David Smith

    Hey, I have a mailbox called !Yesterbox too. Sweetness.

    I don’t have a subscription to the WSJ so I don’t know if the source article mentions this, but the idea is from the book “Do It Tomorrow” by Mark Forster. There is an online summary at http://members.optusnet.com.au/~charles57/GTD/dit_nutshell.html

    The main benefit is an increase in your ability to plan your work rather than reacting to your work.

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