In these digital times, keeping an eye on all the channels through which you receive information – whether or not it involves action on your part – is quite a task: you surf through the channels and see what’s inside. As the recipient of all these messages, it’s up to you to juggle, filter, and prioritize: where does your attention go? Which ones do you mute, completely ignore, or keep prominently visible?
Let’s take inventory for a moment:
Email messages in your inbox (sometimes more than one inbox), WhatsApp, the chat in Microsoft Teams, phone calls, people passing by, notifications from various platforms, notes or action lists from a meeting, post-it notes on your workspace, reminders from your calendar or task list… Not to mention things that bubble up in your own head, often at the oddest times.
Keeping them all in view and giving them equal attention is impossible for someone with one head and two eyes. This means you’ll have to choose, with technology possibly assisting you.
Here are some pieces of advice for optimal channel management.
For channel management, less is more
It’s not practical to have to go to various places to read your actions; try to limit that as much as possible. A good rule of thumb is:
– Your calendar for time-bound tasks that must be done at a specific time
– Your task list for non-time-bound tasks
– Your mailbox for tasks that come in there (a possible alternative is to drag those messages to your calendar or task list if you prefer to keep your mailbox empty)
If questions and actions come in from more channels than you’d like, there are two possibilities: a. try to get the other person to use a different channel consistently, and b. move actions to a different channel yourself.
Ingrid receives a WhatsApp message from colleague A (‘Can you provide the budget figures to Pieter by Friday?’), at the same time, colleague B sends an email (‘I’ve read your proposal, but I’m still missing the updated schedule, I need that today’), colleague C calls her (‘Can you check when Linda’s vacation is exactly?’), and colleague D walks by (‘In two weeks, you and I are starting that project plan, I wanted to discuss which folder we’ll place the documents in’).
What Ingrid can do:
– Giving a thumbs-up to colleague A’s WhatsApp message is the quickest action. If it’s the umpteenth time that colleague uses WhatsApp for communication, and Ingrid finds it inconvenient, it’s good to discuss this with colleague A: WhatsApp is only for urgent communication; other things should be communicated via email.
The action ‘Provide budget figures to Pieter’ can be put on Ingrid’s task list with a deadline of Friday. Or placed in her calendar (on Thursday or even earlier, so she won’t be caught off guard by the deadline).
-She can respond to colleague B’s message immediately if it’s just a matter of including the schedule. If Ingrid still needs to create the schedule, it’s better to put that action on her task list or in her calendar.
–Colleague C’s phone call is a major disruptor because it requires her to interrupt her work, just like colleague D passing by. For this contact, it’s also good to point out the pattern to colleague C. Just because it’s easy for him to call on the go doesn’t mean it’s workable for Ingrid. An alternative for colleague C is to send a voice message via WhatsApp or a Braintoss notification to his own mailbox.
–Colleague D walking by with his question is a good example of a non-urgent disruptive action. Even though it’s smart to make agreements about these elements of collaboration, it’s not necessary now. If Ingrid can provide a quick answer (‘We’ll put them in project folder ABC on SharePoint’), that’s preferred.
Does Ingrid need to think about it? Then it’s smarter to postpone her answer (‘Let’s discuss that during our first meeting; add your points to the Outlook appointment’).
If it’s the umpteenth time that colleague D walks by, Ingrid should point out this pattern. Because the interruptions are not good for her, and colleague D can make better choices.
Take fixed moments per day to review your priorities
A nice set of three moments is when you arrive (and your channels are ‘fished out’), after lunch, and the last quarter hour before you leave for the day.
But if a lot lands on your plate throughout the day, it’s wise to increase the number of review moments.
Make joint ‘rules’ about channel management where possible
As you saw in Ingrid’s example, her colleagues choose the channels that are easy or pleasant for them, regardless of Ingrid’s preferences.
Of course, there can always be a mismatch. One person hates phone calls, while another finds them pleasant. One prefers writing and emailing, while another likes personal contact.
Remember that the freedom to make your own channel choices is limited by the discomfort you cause to others (distraction, interruptions, confusion, lack of clarity).
Is that the case? Then make agreements about which channel to use, taking into account urgency and importance. So, email can be important but never really super urgent. Because if the building is on fire (very urgent!), your inbox isn’t the smartest channel.
Distinguish small, trivial actions and questions from more complex actions
Small, trivial actions are best done immediately. If that’s not possible or not desirable, keep them in the form in which they came. Don’t add bells and whistles to organize them.
For example, don’t type a short question that came in via WhatsApp onto your task list; instead, mark it as unread. (This adds a green dot to the message so you don’t confuse it with a genuinely unread message.)
Tasks that come in via email, you don’t need to retype them, but you can categorize them with a color code or drag them to your task list.
More complex actions that take half an hour or more are best accommodated in your calendar. If not, you’re overestimating what you can accomplish in a day and are likely to get stuck.
Follow a fixed route to review importance and urgency
Look at all the channels through which questions and actions come in, in a fixed order, and try to move them to your calendar and task list as much as possible.
If you find yourself jumping from channel to channel because things keep coming in, mute the channel, for example, by turning off email notifications, closing your mailbox entirely, closing the tab with WhatsApp messages in your browser, putting your phone on airplane mode, or finding another place.
Not now! You’re working on an important task, so you need all your attention.
Use your calendar as the central place for time-bound actions
Give your work a place in time, I always say. After all, you are the boss of your time, attention, and energy, and you have a limited amount of it. Just like your wallet: learn to budget and avoid going into the red.
As you make it visually clear how much of your week and day is already allocated – by scheduling appointments and time-bound actions – you’ll have a better idea of what you have left, and you won’t overcommit.
This article is also available in Dutch and can be found here