Expert Advice for Cutting the Clutter and Having More Agile Communication with Your Team with Jeff Robertson
Corporate communication has consumed us all. While there are different ways to easily communicate, new platforms have been wasting people’s time and taking away our brain cells. In today’s episode, Jeff Robertson, CTO of 9thWonder Agency will share his thoughts on why we need to unsubscribe to newsletters and how you can be efficient in managing your emails. Tune in to find out how you can have a more productive day.
“Do more with your time in your inbox.”
2:16 - What is broken in the communication system today
11:00 - Why people stopped sending emails
13:05 - How successful people manage their messages to stay productive
16:53 - Tips to reduce your emails
23:42 - Bad practices in email handling and their negative effects
38:00 - What you need to do to solve problems faster
39:00 - Don’t email your boss
42:00 - The percentage utilization of resource formula
- Inbox Zero
- ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever
- The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win
Connect with Jeff:
Jon Voigt: Welcome to Agile Living: The Entrepreneur's Journey, the show dedicated to discovering how entrepreneurs and digital leaders are doing more with less. I'm Jon Voigt your host and CEO of Agility, and we're on a journey across the country to learn from top digital entrepreneurs on how to live a more agile, adaptable, and fulfilling life. Thank you for joining me today and let's dive in.
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Jon Voigt: Today I'm very pleased to be joined by Jeff Robertson. Jeff works at 9thWonder in Denver and we met up when I was driving through town a few months ago. We got into an interesting conversation around corporate communication and how it's consumed us all. Everything from email, to texts, to slacks, all sorts of other types of communication throughout the business world. Jeff, perhaps you can give some background on yourself, what you're doing at 9thWonder, tell us a little about what you're seeing that you see is broken in communication and we'll kind of take it from there.
Jeff Robertson: Sure, absolutely. Thanks for having me. I'm Jeff Robertson, I'm CTO of 9thWonder and really grew up as a developer way back in the day and then morphed that into running a development team and then eventually helping with the technology side of the world too, the IT side. Interestingly, what I wanted to talk about has nothing to do with technology. It's really all about communication because one of the things I started noticing over the past, say six months to a year, is the emergence of text messaging in daily corporate communication and I've always told people that I can't wait to be old enough to
officially be a crotchety old man because now I'm just a grump who's not old enough to be crotchety, but I really want to. I hate texting. I've always hated texting. It annoys the crap out of me to have to type something on my phone. Please send me an email. I can type so much faster on a keyboard.
Jon Voigt: An email also kind of sits there and you can get to it when you want to versus text kind of feels so immediate.
Jeff Robertson: And that is exactly why it has emerged in business. People ignore phone calls. You just don't answer the phone because it rings too much and you get so many emails that you ignore all your emails, or at least you don't get to them very quickly. The text is the form of communication right now where everybody instinctively looks at it immediately. Same with an app notification and all that, which is why people are so addicted to their phones and checking it every 10 seconds. When your phone buzzes you don't know whether it's a colleague or a friend and so you look at the text. People have figured out that that's how you get someone’s attention immediately. I actually had a guy the other day, who I work with regularly, I saw him and I said, "Oh hey, did you get that email I sent you," because I needed an answer from him eventually, and he said, "Oh, yeah sorry, I don't always get through my email, just send me a text," and that's when I went ...
Jon Voigt: Which is just pushing off to the next communication level.
Jeff Robertson: Exactly. That's when I said oh dear, we're in real trouble because all people are doing is running. Way back when, before I was in the business world, you sent interoffice mail. I read an interesting thing a long time ago. In Europe, and I'm sure other places, they used to deliver the mail something ridiculous, like six or seven times a day. The mail was ...
Jon Voigt: The main mode of communication.
Jeff Robertson: Yeah, it was a slow text message. You could get things to people. You could have a conversation via mail, same day, at least in town. Obviously, that was true for the business world. Then mail rooms went away, people stopped checking their mail because all they got was junk, and they just kind of stopped reading it. It was a slow method of communication, there were better things. You went to the phone, obviously. Voicemail followed pretty quickly after that. Then you got to the point where people stopped answering the phone because there's just too much junk, too many spam calls, too many solicitations.
Jeff Robertson: Then you got to the point, I guess much more recently, where there's some businesses that don't even accept a voicemail anymore, which I think is a fantastic idea. If you get their voicemail greeting it just says we don't take voicemail, please send them an email. Great, it's too slow. Email, obviously, has been the dominant form of communication for a good long time, at least in the technology world it's been a while, but all we're doing is trying to fight the flood of email. We have spam filters that do, actually, a really good job. I used to run a spam filter, darn near manually, way early in my career. You just sit there checking the box trying to unblock things that it had misclassified as spam for all your clients. It was a different world then. Now it's not so much about spam, like true junk, you're not getting Viagra ads all the time anymore.
Jon Voigt: Yeah, I'm missing all those.
Jeff Robertson: I know I ... That was like a very nostalgic view on those Viagra ads and the different ways they would spell it and put a whole bunch of spaces in between each letter, it was great. Now it's all about fake personal communications where it's sent from a marketing automation system but it's really ... the guise is that it's a personal email just to you that they saw something and they're reaching out, which they're not. You've got all of that and then you've got your corporate email, which is just floods of unimportant junk.
Jon Voigt: Yeah, I don't know. In a day I'm just trying to look at how many things I'm CC'd on, and not BCC'd. Which sometimes, maybe I do want to see it but I should be BCC'd so the 20 other messages after I don't get. A lot of the CCs I don't need to be getting.
Jeff Robertson: Actually, that's a fascinating point you just made because I don't have that in my notes at all about BCCing people so that they at least don't get the rest of the replies. That's a great idea.
Jon Voigt: Right, yeah. Just to give them an update at least, but let them disconnect.
Jeff Robertson: Exactly. I think the other piece that ... the thing we've gotten to. Let me start that piece again. What we've actually gotten to is a world where everyone is trying to be at the top of your inbox. People are fighting to get your attention because they know you may just be scanning your email at best. You don't get through it all every day. Then they start sticking exclamation points on it, sending everything high-priority, or they put ASAP or urgent in all caps in the headline or the subject. People have all these tactics which are essentially shouting please, please, please read this email. In fact, I think I actually get emails that say please read, colon, whatever.
Jon Voigt: Right, in the subject.
Jeff Robertson: Yeah. And you're like, "Really? You have to ask me to read my email because you think the default is that I just won't?" That's insane. I guess it's true for people. My wife, I know, she counted one time because we were discussing this topic and she gets hundreds of emails a day. There's just no way to go through them all.
Jon Voigt: Or if you do get through them all, you're deleting them fast enough that you shouldn't have been included on them anyway because you didn't really have to read it.
Jeff Robertson: Right. Half of it is newsletters and other things that you just ... you just don't need them at all. That's why Google and Microsoft ... I think they've done the focused inbox for Microsoft and then the new inbox app from Google which is essentially trying to weed out all of the newsletters and other things that you should be unsubscribing from but you're not, so you still get them anyway. They're just trying to do something to make it a manageable level of email. People have just given up and they've moved on to text.
Jeff Robertson: My concern is, besides the fact that I hate text and I don't want to send any, how do we think that's going to play out? It's going to work for a little while but then as soon as people realize that texting is the default communication method, then you're just going to get hundreds of texts a day. That's a bad situation to be in.
Jon Voigt: I look at text as being very similar to a lot of these new chat things like Slack and Teams, Microsoft Teams and all these platforms, it's kind of the same idea. Some organizations have moved to that and now I'm getting ... We use Slack and Teams. I'm getting overloaded and stuff there and now I'm like ... and at first, for the first bit it was like, wow my email just dropped in half and it was awesome. Now I have so many things on Slack that I have to go in there on a regular basis and check them and most of the time they're not relevant and so now I'm trying to sort that whole thing out. How do I optimize that again? It's the same as texting, exact same scenario.
Jeff Robertson: I've actually tried to ... let's see, start again. When we were using Slack, we've switched over to Teams recently, but when we were using Slack, all I wanted to was to make an automated reply that said, "Please send me this in an email because I won't remember that you slacked me."
Jon Voigt: Yeah, I do that all the time. I'm like this is important enough that you should email me so I have a copy and I can address it when I have time.
Jeff Robertson: Exactly. If it's not something I can answer you in 10 seconds off the top of my head, if I have to actually go do something, the odds that I am going to have time to stop what I am doing, go do whatever you wanted me to do, and reply to you are very slim.
Jon Voigt: Yeah, and even if you have time, you shouldn't be changing back and forth all the time. I think that takes a huge inefficiency out of the corporate world where we have on demand communication. A lot of people have to sit down and concentrate on what they're working on and a lot of people don't do that, but that's because we're getting distracted left, right, and center, and we really need to focus on what we're doing right now to really do it effectively and then move onto the next thing and make communication more of an on-call, not a ... oh sorry, not on-call, more of a mode where you choose when you use it versus ding, ding, ding, come over and answer my question right now.
Jeff Robertson: Exactly. There are whole books on the very admired leaders, like Steve Jobs' and others where they would have email breaks. They would only check their email once or twice a day for an hour and go through it all and then they'd stop. If they got another email they just didn't know. I'm curious how much that was actually true, but I'd like to think it was true because if something was really that important someone's going to use the more urgent form of communication, calling you or, I guess, texting you.
Jon Voigt: Walking over.
Jeff Robertson: Yeah, or heaven forbid, walking into your office and saying, "Hey, this is really important, you need to do it right now."
Jon Voigt: One of the big things, the first thing I do any time I set up a computer and I recommend everyone does this personally but obviously this is my preference is I turn off all of my notification alerts for emails, for slack, for all these tools, where they pop up when you have a new message. Even on my cellphone I do not have any sounds when any messages come in. Text messages I do because I still haven't got bombarded by that yet. I don't know when a new email comes in and I choose when I go to read them or go to chase them down or Slack messages. Some people feel out of control with that because they don't know when something's changed, but it allows me to really focus on what I'm doing at that current time and maybe when I've done that one little task or whatever I'm working on, oh, maybe I'll go over and check my email, see if anything came in that's important, type of idea.
Jeff Robertson: Right. I'm completely with you there and I think that may lead into kind of the recommendations part. There have been a number of things that I've done personally and most of this is not new. This is all gathered from ... oh gosh. Years ago I read the whole Inbox Zero campaign or initiative on their website and I truly try to keep my inbox pretty clean. Some days are better than others but yeah, I feel really good when there's like five messages in there. I use that as my to do list. If there's an email in my inbox it's because I have to do something with it.
Jon Voigt: Yeah, I'm in the same boat. I probably have ... I try to keep it under 100, which seems huge right? I could probably do a lot better at that but I know a lot of people who'll do that and I know other people who have like thousands and thousands of emails in their inbox. I like to use the inbox as a to do list pretty much.
Jeff Robertson: That's why I tell people who Slack me for something that I can't do, email it to me. That's my to do list. I'm not going to write down every single thing I need to do, it's just the inbox.
Jon Voigt: How do you handle someone sends you something, it's not something you have to do very soon, something you have to do in a couple months or something, or you know you have to reply back to that email but you want to wait a couple of days strategically for some reason. How do you handle that, those type of emails and those things, so they don't bulk up your inbox?
Jeff Robertson: That's where the more manual list comes in. I use OneNote but I used to use a notebook on my desk. It was just here's the stuff that you have to do but not today. I have a OneNote tab for that where it's just here is all the stuff that you need to keep in the back of your mind and schedule at some point but it's not going to get done today. As far as how to keep my inbox pretty small, that's ... I think when I first started reading about Inbox Zero I was enamored with it but I was just like that's just not realistic. I'd spend all my time sorting emails instead of just deleting them or dealing with them.
Jeff Robertson: What I found out is, at least my theory on the whole thing is that there's too much coming in and you can't reasonably sort it or delete it or take an hour to clean it out. You're going to be overwhelmed. It's going to get you. The way to fix it is to make people stop contacting you, which sounds insane. So far, again some days better than others, it works. I protect my inbox. It's very similar to not accepting voicemail. First off, if you're not going to check it, don't even have it. If you don't listen to your voicemails then say in your greeting that you don't take voicemails. If you don't use Slack and you're not going to read it, not going to respond to it, don't waste the people's time by having them contact you and wait for a response and then try some other method. Just turn it off.
Jeff Robertson: That's one, that's just kindness to others, but then it's truly protecting the one that you use, whatever that method is. For me it's email and the things I do to protect it are, first off, everything that is a marketing message that is not of interest to me, unsubscribe from it immediately.
Jon Voigt: Yeah, a lot of people don't. Even spam ... You get spam in your inbox and people are like oh, I'll just delete it because I know it's spam but a lot of spam things have an unsubscribe that people don't realize.
Jeff Robertson: Yeah. They're obviously can spam and all that, they're legally required to if they're a legitimate business. The spam filters are good enough that most of what you're getting that people say is spam, that depends on your definition of spam. Spam used to be, at least in my mind, was junk.
Jon Voigt: Trying to trick you almost.
Jeff Robertson: Yeah. It was the Viagra emails. That was spam. Something that was a newsletter from some company that I'd contacted five years ago, I may not want it, but it's not spam. I'm legitimately on their list and they're sending me a legitimate message and following the laws. There is an unsubscribe button and if I click that unsubscribe button, I'm off the list.
Jeff Robertson: I forget who argued for this so much, I wish I could credit them properly, but it was all about the cognitive load put on you by even just scanning your email inbox. If you have that marketing message or that newsletter and you know you're not going to read it but you think you should read it, every time you see that message in your inbox when you're scanning for the things that you need to do you've just wasted a tiny bit of brainpower going what is that, oh yeah, should probably read that someday, moving on. Multiplied by the hundreds of times that you scan your inbox, that one message has wasted a whole lot of your time.
Jeff Robertson: But let's say you delete it. It comes in, you instantly delete it, oh I'll never read that. Well, there's going to be another one. You've wasted your time that time to see it, process it, delete it, even if it only takes a second, literally, one second. Well there's going to be another and that's one second, and another, and that's one second, and you multiply that by the hundreds of companies emailing you, it adds up to a whole lot of time. Just hit the unsubscribe button and yes, takes a whole lot longer that first time, might take you 20 whole seconds, but in the long run it's a net gain for your time.
Jon Voigt: So recommendation number one is unsubscribe, stop subscribing to things you're not going to read that aren't important for you.
Jeff Robertson: Absolutely. And what I've done as well is make an Outlook quick task, or whatever system you use. I have an Outlook quick task for unsubscribe. When I get one of those that it might actually be personal, I don't even know, but one where I can't tell how to unsubscribe instantly, or where they ... those not very nice people who say to unsubscribe email me and say that you want to unsubscribe.
Jon Voigt: Put opt out in the subject or remove, yeah.
Jeff Robertson: Exactly. Well here's the deal. I don't think that's legal, I think that they have to honor any unsubscribe request, so what I've done, made an Outlook quick task that hits reply, puts unsubscribe in the body, sends the message without me looking at it, and deletes the original. When I get one of those I just scroll to the bottom and if I don't immediately see the word unsubscribe that I can click on I just hit my unsubscribe quick task and it's gone. It's actually the same number of steps as deleting it, it's one click, and then I don't get another one.
Jeff Robertson: But then that's just a little bit of the problem. Unsubscribing from marketing messages, that's a little bit. The next problem is internal. When you get an email from your colleagues or from your HR department or from anybody that's trying to tell you something, if it's not important or is vague or just doesn't ... it shouldn't have been sent, you got to tell them that it shouldn't have been sent, otherwise they won't know.
Jeff Robertson: I've tried to do this very nicely and some people have gotten offended and that's okay. I think it's important enough that we have to do it. You've got to help people be conscientious of what they're sending. The ones that I really call people out on ... I don't do it much when they CC me on stuff, I'm like okay, I probably need to know that I guess. It's the ones where ... the two worst ones. One is when they just email a whole bunch of people and it's forwarding something and it says help.
Jon Voigt: Right, and not directed to a person.
Jeff Robertson: It's directed to like 10 people because they don't know who can help. Well, that is your problem sender. That is not my problem that you don't know who to contact. It may be there's things in the organization you can do to help them know who to contact and all that but that's on them. If it is your issue and you've gotten this request from a client or from someone else in the organization and you need to know who to talk to, go ask someone who to talk to. I've always heard ...
Jon Voigt: Start with one person on your list and if they can't help you go to the next one.
Jeff Robertson: Go to the next one.
Jon Voigt: You don't have to disturb everyone. It's kind of like standing up in the middle of a room and yelling out, "Help, everyone help," versus just going to the person next to you and saying, "Do you have an answer for this? No? Okay, I'll go to the next person."
Jeff Robertson: Right. Especially when you're talking with your peers, hopefully, if they know, or at least have an inkling of an idea of who to talk to, instead of them saying, "No, I don't know, go to the next person," they could at least say, "I think it's Jimmy in accounting and I've copied him. Jimmy can you help with this?" Giving it to a person rather than just giving it to the world and hoping that someone will essentially do your job for you. That's a really rude way of looking at it but that's what you're asking is I don't know who to contact so everyone please stop what you're doing and tell me the thing I don't know.
Jon Voigt: The crazy thing is, let's say you did blast it out to five people and three of those people read it and really think about solving it. Those three people took some time, some brain power, to think about how to solve it. Maybe one person replies before the other two got to reply, but you just used three people to really think about a problem and the inefficiencies of that ... I go on and on about talking about doing more with less and being agile and all these things and your team can't be agile, you can't do more with less, if everybody is solving the same problem at the same time when one person already h