12 Oct 2016 21:12 IST

Power of the quiet hour

Set aside an hour in your work day just to clear all pending mails and calls

Welcome to the world of information overload! If you are a busy executive, chances are that you will receive north of 100 mails a day. Plus phone calls and visitors. Then there are the meetings and reviews. I was caught up in this world for over 30 years till I called it quits to focus on coaching and consulting.

Inundated with meetings and mails, I took it as the inevitable “sense of urgency” that organisations and executives actually needed in order to perform and deliver. However, over time, I came to my senses, realising that I was falling behind with my mails. Worse, I was not even aware that some of the mails that needed my response or action were not attended to. Until I received a reminder!

Fact of the matter is, what we often mistake as a “sense of urgency” is actually a “false sense of urgency.” We fail to distinguish between “action” and the “activity trap.” In other words, we mistake “busyness” for “business!”

Resolving the issue

Over time, yet another type of behaviour surfaced. To give the impression that I was very prompt in responding to mails, I started to selectively respond to mails from my boss and other key constituents in the company. This was obviously not helping as many things returned to haunt me and a sense of guilt was accumulating. Until I chose to reflect and resolve these issues.

Yes, all it takes is a clear mindset to resolve such conflicts. I am not at all suggesting that every mail you receive, offering all kinds of training from “assertiveness” to “zeal improvement” should be responded to. Or mails that promote everything from paper-clips to plumbers on call for your everyday problems. Many important mails that require our attention, but not necessarily from our bosses, are skipped due to our “activity trap.”

During my routine weekly reviews, I shared my personal challenge and asked team members if they also fall into this trap. Most of them came forward and confirmed that they do “suffer” from this challenge. And I knew this to be true from a few escalations I received every week. But my mails were always promptly responded to, pretty much as I did for mails from my CEO.

Simple solution

The solution to this challenge is fairly simple. And effective, if you believe in it and practise it with conviction. I practised this for a few weeks before I offered it as a suggestion. This was received with an open mind by most of the team, and with some doubts by a few, particularly those who believed their time was not under their control and their job revolved around being dictated to by others. I persuaded them to try.

Those in the recruitment team, for example, believed they have to run around, meet people, follow up for interviews, get interview assessments completed, and obtain approvals for making offers to the selected! They had the least “sense of control” and did not believe in the idea I proposed. Until I insisted they make an attempt.

The idea, as such, is no break-through. It is to decide on an hour at work as “quiet hour” and let people know that, during that hour, we would be replying to mails and clearing up our mail box and would not be answering phones or meeting visitors. Yes, initially, this will be difficult to accept but, in reality, no one has the right to expect that they can “call on you” and “engage in a conversation” at any time of their choice. Some simple steps to make this work are:

~ Decide on an hour during your work day as “Quiet Hour”. This can be 10 am to 11 am or 3 pm to 4 pm, whatever you believe is good for you, given your nature of work.

~ Then share this with your manager, and a few key senior managers or their executive assistants, so they avoid calling you for a meeting at that time

~ Share this also with your direct reports, so they know you are busy responding to all your mails

~ Share with your boss and your team that you intend to use this “quiet hour” for responding to all mails received but pending your response.

~ During the rest of your day at work, go about meeting people, participating in discussions and other routine tasks

~ Actually use the quiet hour for clearing your mail-box!

Become more productive

Though it may initially look odd to those who used to take your time for granted, most folks will appreciate this discipline and, more importantly, the promptness with which you respond to their mails. Believe me, it works.

It is easy to suffer from a sense of false urgency and chase many things at the same time. But it is liberating when you resolve to cut through the madness so that you become more productive and responsive.