‘Seriously? They’re posting business-critical information as a reply to a private Facebook thread?’ I was as incredulous as my client at this lack of basic ‘communication hygiene’ – expecting colleagues to find what they needed to do their jobs in amongst a sea of new pet videos and tanned poolside legs.
You see, it’s great to be able to catch up with distant friends on my smartphone using WhatsApp, Messenger, or old-fashioned SMS. It’s handy to ask colleagues a quick question on Slack, whip up a shared Google Doc to collaborate, or chuck a project update into Trello. And as a generation native to instant information (and averse to email) takes hold in the workforce, these tools are only going to grow in number and usage.
Yet this explosion of available communication channels in our world – and more importantly, how we use them – is nothing less than a full-on assault against the clean edges we must establish to manage our individual commitments well.
Some of these tools enable the digital equivalent of the ‘desk drive-by’ – when someone swings by unannounced and dumps a load of work on your lap. Yet we feel less guilty when we can’t see the frustrated look on our colleague’s face, and nowadays many don’t feel the need to preface their (abbreviated, all-lowercase) text with, ‘Is this a good time?’ Delegation gets faster and lazier, and interruptions (some critical, most not) exponentiate.
Other tools are designed to keep information in one shared place. Yet consolidating information is not enough to get work done. In addition to the supporting material required to collaborate, clear outcomes and a succinct, accurate ‘state of play’ statement are necessary to manage projects optimally to completion. Furthermore, these three distinct elements – where we are at, where we are headed, and what information we need along the way – must be disentangled from threaded discussions and digital pin-boards if we are to do anything besides search endlessly for the parts we need.
So how, as a practitioner of the Getting Things Done® (GTD®) methodology do you keep track of what you have to do in relation to this landscape saturated by business-critical droplets falling in and amongst an informational hurricane? The answer comes in listening to your commitments across these digital distraction-masters just as you would IRL.
That is, whenever you get the ping, ask: are there any commitments as a result of this communication that I need to capture? Then, throughout the exchange, keep an eye on what you (or anyone else) has requested or agreed to do.
Just as your email has a spam filter, so too does your brain need an ‘action filter’ switched on whenever you communicate. Often in these channels you are just socialising or swapping updates – like you would at an in-person meeting or when chatting in the hall. But whenever you recognise that something needs to get done, this must get into an ‘inbox’ as fast as you can. And your app or groupware isn’t enough by itself – unless you want to go cycling through them all each time you need to decide what to work on.
So what do I do? I take screenshots of the commitments that show up in text-based messages on my phone, and send them to my email inbox using the ‘share’ feature. Likewise, in any form of ‘groupware’ application (from SharePoint to Workplace to old-school forum threads), I get what I need to work on into one of my few trusted inboxes (either email or physical) and convert it into projects and actions from there. Otherwise, every one of those places becomes an ‘inbox’ I have to check. No thanks.
If needed, you can still reference the larger body of information and conversation with the copy-and-paste of the text itself or a unique URL. If not, a simple note on the project or action to ‘see the xyz conversation thread’ will usually do. Then you can work from your lists, and click over to the appropriate reference material as needed, rather than sifting through the conversation each time, re-thinking what you need to get done.
So many individuals and organisations are simply shifting the problem away from email into these new-and-shiny methods for either circumventing an overloaded email inbox with answer-me-now demands, or dumping woolly data into the cloud. The problem, though, begins with a lack of recognition about what’s actionable, where to put it, and how to get to it as needed to make good priority decisions about what to do.
Neither do you have to fall victim to the shared digital morass of undifferentiated data, nor do you have to drop everything with each new notification for fear of forgetting. Your apps and cloud platforms are not your system – they are inputs. You still need a system to manage your agreements stress-free, and the GTD methodology has proven itself to be the best around.
Are you socialising or strategising? Conversing or committing? Get clear, and get it captured. The only way out of this storm is through.