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Blinkist Labs: How not to Write an Email (and 4 Other Non-Guides for Better Office Productivity)

From pens to snacks to the common cold, when you’re seated five feet away from your co-worker, sharing everything is a cinch
by Caitlin Schiller | Jul 16 2015

Much of my stuff ends up on Linh’s desk, and for the most part, it’s a joyful mishmash of personal effects (though I do know she covets my Doctor Who iPhone case, so I’m keeping a close eye on that one). We collaborate regularly throughout the day, and if I’m very lucky, she shares her snacks imported from Vietnam, right through that space between our monitors.


And yet not so long ago, to discuss final details of an article we were shipping off to a syndication partner I sent her:

Not a Slack message.
Not passed note.
Not even a meaningful look.

I sent her an email.

An email that probably took longer to compose, send, and read than it would have to run around the block three times and buy the whole office ice cream cones.

In talking with my colleagues in and out of Blinkist, I can say with confidence that this isn’t just a me problem.

Email, conference calls, online calendars, and chat apps help us keep in touch and on track when we’re far apart. The tool, however, is only as effective as the hand that wields it. Knowing when to use each of the apps at your disposal and how to get the most out of them can make all the difference between hours wasted and products shipped.

At Blinkist, we work on making reading and learning more efficient, so streamlining is in our DNA. When we noticed that communication could be more efficient even in our tiny team (and in Linh’s and my case, even in our team of two), we set about figuring out what was happening that kept us from working our best. Surprise: it was our tools! Or, rather, how we were using them.

With some kind tutelage from A+ productivity wizards in the office and a little reading, we found that we could get more done just by optimizing how we use our everyday tools.

Today, we wanted to share the common office tools that we’ve been mashing away on in hopes that what we found will be valuable for you, too. Read on to learn how to fix your form and ramp up your productivity.

1. Email

The Fumble

As easy as email is, there are a lot of ways to get it wrong: using email as a vehicle for a long debate and for one-­word answers that could be nixed or relayed in person, for instance (this introverted writer is supremely guilty of exactly this).

As tempting as it is to use your email chain as a place for extensive argumentation with documentation, email is no place for critical discussions around project details. What you’re doing in each of these instances is adding complication and lag time to your activities and those of your team.

The Fix

Think of email as your way to kick off a discussion or set an agenda, so when you sit down with your team to make the magic happen, it can.

For important or urgent tasks, meet up face to face so you can address issues head on and get answers faster. By doing it live, you’re not just protecting your own time, you’re helping your co-workers, too. If everyone knows that urgent news never arrives via email, there’s no reason for constant inbox refreshing and people can focus on getting things done instead.

2. Conference Calls

The Fumble

Conference calls are beautiful—you can do them anytime, anywhere—but because they can feel more casual than in-­person meetings, they can also cause efficiency issues.

First, because they feel informal, it’s easy for too many people to get roped in. The result is that instead of being able to attend to critical work only they can do, your team is trapped in a meeting of dubious usefulness.

Second, it’s easy to overlook that, though they may seem more casual, they can be very mentally taxing. Conference calls require preparation and intensive listening, which takes a big bite out of your daily ration of focus. Schedule one too early in the morning, and it can sap your focus for the day. Pencil it in after hours, and you’ll be dealing with a day defined by anticipation of your late-­night work session.

The Fix

First, keep in mind that not everybody has to be invited. Instead, involve people who are informed about the project and are critical contributors. Have one person in the meeting take notes and share with the rest of the team so that the others can focus on work.

And remember to choose your call time wisely. Whenever possible, don’t schedule conference calls first thing in the morning or late at night. By finding a time in between, you’ll be safeguarding your focus.

3. Chat

The Fumble

Inter-­office chat, particularly for companies located on more than one floor or in different locations, is a very useful surrogate for face-to-­face: it happens in real time, it allows for instant transfer of files, and it facilitates spontaneity (plus, GIFs!). But as with conference calls, the very virtues of chat are also its flaws.

The main problem with office chat is that people feel freer to write off-the-cuff questions because they’re not technically interrupting—the recipient can still choose whether or not to respond. The thing is, we’re reactive creatures, and we feel that we need to stop what we’re doing and attend to the people who ping us.

Even though your intention with getting in touch by chat is to be unobtrusive, you have little control over whether your colleague’s work is interrupted. If she sees a message notification, chances are she’ll look. Even if she doesn’t respond outright, a portion of her focus will now be diverted by your remark or question.

The Fix

In general, chat should only be used for quick questions that are keeping you from moving forward with your work, or to set up a time with a co-worker to talk through a larger issue. Anything else, put in an email so you’re not disturbing your colleagues.

And if you’re on the receiving end of too many chats? Turn off notifications just as you would for email. Many chat services also allow a user to go “invisible,” which is a nice way to stay involved (particularly if you’re part of a constantly updated group chat) without feeling obliged to respond.


A third option: go to the cave. When I’m having a day that requires heavy brain use and unbroken focus, I tell my colleagues that I’m having a “Writing Cave” day. I pop up an away message that says just this, and ask them to direct further inquiries to email. As a result, crawling into the cave is almost without fail the most productive part of my week.

4. Calendars

The Fumble

The #1 misuse people make with their calendars is treating them like to-­do lists. If you take a look at your calendar and see anything that resembles, “pick up milk” or “schedule a haircut,” it’s time to rethink how you’re using it.

Another calendar misuse is failing to use it to protect your time, rather than just organize it. When you’re approached with a proposal for a new project and your calendar tells you that you can fit it in, remember that it doesn’t necessarily mean you should. It’s important to take a look at your goals and values first.

The Fix

Aim to keep your calendar a sacred space for meetings and events that are either bound to a specific date and time or involve people other than just you. You can start changing your calendar practices with a to-­do list for tasks like calling your doctor or picking up flowers.

In the classic productivity book, Getting Things Done, David Allen reminds that crossing off small tasks is immensely satisfying. By putting them on a manageable list, they’ll take on a different character—one that allows you to see them as fitting in between important events rather than becoming events unto themselves.

And don’t forget to always align new opportunities with your role and your goals. Anything that doesn’t match up in the here and now or to your wished-­for future doesn’t belong on the docket (or on your calendar).

With just a few simple tweaks, you can use the tools at your disposal to get more done. Share these tips around the office, and your whole workplace will be way more efficient before you know it!

Want to read a little bit more about getting yourself organized? We suggest you start with the David Allen suite: Getting Things Done and Making it All Work. You can come check out the 19-minute summaries on Blinkist for free, too!

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