The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You

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Offers an easy-to-implement solution to a problem--e-mail and information overload--that plagues millions of people Draws on the authors' extensive experience working with major corporate clients Includes a real-world case study of how the principles in the book were implemented at Capital One Do you spend so much time dealing with e-mails--reading them, writing them, responding to them, responding to responses--that you feel like you're just going round and round and getting nowhere? Meet Harold, an HR director so overwhelmed by email he feels like a hamster on a wheel. Just in time, Harold meets a coach--a leading expert on email efficiency and etiquette with a simple system that helps Harold eliminate needless emails, write better messages, and file and find information in a flash. He gets immediate results--and reclaims his life. This delightful and much-needed fable is based on the authors' extensive experience helping employees at companies like Clear Channel, Procter and Gamble, and Pfizer manage e-mail more efficiently. The book includes a remarkable case study of the authors' work with Capital One, where employees estimated they saved thirteen days a year by applying Hamster Revolution techniques. This book is perfect for time-starved professionals eager to restore balance and order to their busy lives.

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1 Confessions of an Info-Hamster

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I was working peacefully in my office when the door slowly opened and shut with a click. I looked up but no one was there. “You’d better be able to help me!” said a small voice. Was this a joke?

I stood up and that’s when I saw him. Trudging across the floor, tugging on his tie, was a small, nervous-looking white hamster with brown spots. He was wearing a dark blue business suit and carrying a small black briefcase. He looked tired and defeated.

“I hear you’re the so-called productivity expert,” he said. “I’m Harold.”

I leaned down to shake his paw, “Pleased to meet you, Harold. And yes, my passion is helping professionals lead more productive and fulfilling lives.”

Harold raised his eyes hopefully. “Maybe I’m in the right place after all,” he muttered.

Once I’d gotten over my initial shock that Harold was a hamster, I realized that he was my 1:30 PM appointment.

“Welcome, Harold! Please sit down and tell me what brings you here.”

Harold hopped into a chair facing my desk. As he leaned back, his wireless personal digital assistant (PDA) buzzed loudly. Harold looked down at it, lost his balance, and almost fell through the gap in the back of the chair. He scrambled frantically to keep from falling and eventually regained his composure.

 

2 A New Way to Work

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Harold raised his paws in frustration. “So you’re the expert. How do I get off the wheel?”

“You fight back, Harold. There’s a better way to work.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said looking tense, “I’ve taken a couple time-management classes, but they didn’t help.”

“Harold, this isn’t a time-management problem. It’s an information -management problem.”

“It is?”

“Yes! Too much email and information is gushing into your life. Don’t get me wrong; email is an amazing communication tool. But suddenly, it’s keeping a lot of people from getting things done. Most professionals feel like they’re stuck on a nonstop wheel-of-information overwhelm.”

“So what’s the answer?” asked Harold, sounding frustrated.

“Join The Hamster Revolution.”

“Huh?” asked Harold looking surprised. “Revolution against what?”

“Info-glut!” I said. “That’s your enemy: way too much low-value information mucking up your world. You can’t reach your fullest potential when you’re drowning in email! The Hamster Revolution is a strategic plan that helps you conquer info-glut once and for all. Interested in learning more?”

 

3 Email Adds Up!

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As Harold saluted, Emilio, our Senior VP of Finance, walked past my door. His mouth dropped as he spied a tiny, saluting hamster teetering on a chair. He was so distracted that he crashed into a bank of filing cabinets, making a loud noise. Hoping that Harold wouldn’t notice, I launched into one of my favorite topics: The True Cost of Email Overload.

“I love coffee, Harold. To be specific, I love Blue Sky mochaccinos, an irresistible blend of coffee, cream, and rich chocolate.”

“We have a Blue Sky Café in our building, too,” said Harold, looking confused.

“Well, several years ago I noticed that I was buying two or three cups of coffee a day. We were trying to trim the family budget so that we could save for our kids’ college education. Just for kicks, I decided to calculate what those mochaccinos were costing me. It was more than $3,000 a year! Over time, I was literally spending my kids’ college tuition on coffee!”

Harold shot me a look that said, “What does this have to do with email?”

“Email is a lot like coffee, Harold. It’s kind of addicting and it definitely adds up.”

 

4 Strategy 1: Reduce Email Volume

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Once Harold had chosen his goals, we began work on reducing his email volume.

“Okay, Harold, let’s start with the simplest and most overlooked email reduction technique: Send Less — Get Less.”

Harold shot me a look of disbelief, “How does sending less help? I mean, my problem is that other people send me too much email.”

“At first glance, it doesn’t seem like we have much control over email overload. But a closer look reveals something very different. Research shows that for every five emails you receive, three require a response.5 This means that for every five emails we send, people send back three. I call this the boomerang effect. So if you eliminate just one out of every five outgoing emails, you’ll begin to receive roughly 12% fewer emails.”

“Plus I’d save the time it takes to create one in five outgoing emails,” added Harold thoughtfully. “But, I’m pretty sure that most of my outgoing email is necessary.”

“I agree,” I said with a nod. “But most isn’t all. I’d be willing to bet you a coffee that 20% of your email doesn’t actually need to be sent.”

 

5 A Tale of Two Emails

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After a quick break for coffee (Harold paid!), we began to explore ways to improve the quality of Harold’s email. I handed Harold a printed email.

“I’d like you to read this email and stop when you understand the action required.” I took out my stopwatch, “Ready, set, go!”

Harold quickly began reading the email, which was titled One More Thing.

To: Tiger Team National Distribution List

Cc: Ed Henry, Tyler Banks, Sheila Mehta, Cindy Wu

Attachments: NhddMtgNotes.doc, NatSls07.xls

Subject: One More Thing

Greetings.

I wanted to thank you all for your participation in last week’s meetings. It was great seeing you all in sunny Florida. The information that you shared was really helpful and it will help us all to better service our customers in the future. In particular, Brenda’s insights into the Cray account were really helpful. Her approach serves as a best practice for all of us. I am including the notes and action items for your review. As luck would have it, I need to ask some of you to do one more thing for me. Unfortunately, we need to take a look at our March numbers. We have been hearing that some of the numbers are being reported incorrectly. Other people are finding that the numbers are fine. If we want to get full credit for everything we do, we should jump on this immediately. In fact, we might also want to take a look at the February numbers to see if they also look right. This only applies to the East coast team. West coast numbers appear to be fine. So, please review the attached documents and let me know if you see any inconsistencies. I am also including some important information from the meeting including Brenda’s best practices.

 

6 Strategy 2: Improve Email Quality

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“So, let’s begin improving the quality and clarity of email,” I said, handing Harold another small, laminated card. “This is the A-B-C Email Quality Tool and it’s going to change the way you write email.”

A-B-C Email Quality Tool

©2007 getcontrol.net, inc. All rights reserved. Copy only with permission.

Harold studied the A-B-C tool, “Hey, this is neat. You’ve put the best practices in the exact place where they’d fall in an actual email.”

I grinned, “Right. And we’ve also chunked the best practices for improving email quality into two important sections: Strengthen the Subject and Sculpt the Body.” I rose to my feet. “In fact, these two insights are so often overlooked that I’d like you to stand for a special Hamster Revolution memorization ritual.”

Harold stood up on his chair with a nervous smile.

Standing tall, I struck the classic bodybuilder’s bicep pose. I bent my arms at the elbows and flexed as I said, “From now on, whenever we write an email we must strengthen the subject.

I then struck another famous bodybuilder pose known as “the crab.” This entailed leaning forward and lowering my arms to waist level, making fists and bending my elbows slightly. I flexed with all my might as I turned from left and right, posing for an imaginary audience, “and sculpt the body! Now you try it, Harold.”

 

7 Strategy 3: Info-Coaching Sustains Results

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Harold leaned forward in his chair. This was the moment he’d been waiting for.

“So what about everyone else?” he asked eagerly, “How do I get others to send me better email? How do I get them to join the revolution?”

“The key is to become an effective Info-Coach.”

“How do I do that? I’m pretty new at this.”

“I understand how you feel. After all, Info-Coaching is a new concept. Only 15% of the professionals we surveyed receive regular coaching on information-management related tasks like email. Yet 89% believed that coaching could improve the value of email.”9

“Why is it so rare?” asked Harold.

“There are actually three interrelated challenges, Harold.

1. Defensiveness: Some professionals feel embarrassed or annoyed when coached on a common task like email. Sensing this, many simply refrain from coaching.

2. Lack of Execution: When people do learn a best practice or guideline, they often fail to implement it for very long because there is no tool or standard to remind them.

3. Lack of Knowledge: Without training or experience, professionals have no idea how to provide Info-Coaching.

 

8 Help! It’s Not So Easy!

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Later in the week, Harold pinged me via IM. I was finishing up a meeting with a client.

Harold: Coach, you there?

Info-Coach: Hi. On phone-Give me 2 mins.

Two minutes later…

Info-Coach: Okay, I’m back. Hey – You learned how to IM. Congrats!

Harold: Thanks. I’m waiting for the sales team meeting to start. I didn’t want this conversation to be overheard, so I’m using IM.

Info-Coach: I’m impressed, perfect application for IM. What’s up?

Harold: This is the HR-Sales meeting. Remember, the sales team sends those vague, confusing emails from their PDAs.

Info-Coach: Yes. I remember.

Harold: I’m a bit nervous. I asked for time on the agenda to discuss email and Dave Anderson was pretty skeptical. He cut the agenda time I reserved down to 5 minutes and said, “Email isn’t a problem here.”

Info-Coach: Okay.

Harold: Well, what if they think my presentation is a waste of time?

Info-Coach: A waste of time? 15 days for you and them? More sales + less admin = more life.

Harold: Yeah, Yeah. I get it. I still don’t know how to start. The meeting begins in 3 minutes. They’re filing in already. They look grumpy. Maybe they didn’t hit their sales quota. I think I’m gonna barf.

 

9 Harold’s Progress Check

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Our next meeting had been strategically scheduled to occur at Harold’s office in the Foster and Schrubb HQ building. Janet, Harold’s administrative assistant, greeted me with a big smile as I stepped off the elevator. She leaned over and whispered, “So you’re the one who’s helping Harold with his email?”

“I am,” I said with a smile.

“Well, just between you and me, it’s working.”

“What’s working?”

“The Hamster Revolution.”

“You know about the Hamster Revolution?”

“Of course! That’s all Harold’s talked about for the past week.”

“Has anything changed as a result?” I asked.

“It’s made my job a lot easier. I don’t manage Harold’s inbox, but we do send each other a lot of email. He’s suddenly sending a lot less to everyone and the email he does send is much easier to understand. And one other thing…”

Janet stopped walking and whispered, “He seems a little more like his old self, if you know what I mean.”

“In what way?” I asked leaning forward.

“Well you know,” said Janet cautiously, “in his overall, er, demeanor.”

 

10 Chaos in Info-Land

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My files are a mess! I’d heard this confession a thousand times. This was the big, dirty secret of the information age. In fact, 78% of the 2,000+ professionals we’d surveyed reported that they often find it time-consuming and frustrating to locate email and documents.11

“Harold, has anyone ever helped you organize your files?” I asked.

“Not really. A few colleagues have given some advice, but it hasn’t helped. By the way, I completed that homework assignment.”

“Great. So how many emails and documents are stored on your computer?”

“Over 8,000!” said Harold, “I’m amazed that I‘ve accumulated so much stuff.”

“That’s like managing a small town library without any training,” I noted. “Mind if I move my chair so I can see your computer screen?”

“Not at all,” said Harold.

I picked up my chair and walked around Harold’s desk so that we could both look at his computer at the same time. Together we explored the various places where he stored his information.

Harold had email, documents, and links stored in several places:

 

11 Strategy 4: File and Find It Fast With COTA

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“I’ve helped lots of people organize their email and documents so that they could file and find everything fast. After working with hundreds of people with all different kinds of jobs in all different size companies I began to notice an intriguing pattern.”

“What kind of pattern?” asked Harold.

“I started to notice that we were winding up with the same four primary business folders over and over again.”

“But what four folders could possibly work for people from 50 different professions?” exclaimed Harold, looking a little nervous. “There can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution.”

“That’s what I thought at first,” I said. “It went against the grain of everything I’d been taught about storing information. So I kept trying to ignore the pattern, but it kept repeating.”

“What did your clients think?” asked Harold. “Did the system work for them?”

“They were thrilled because the system was easy to use and didn’t fall apart over time. At last they felt organized and in control. The quality of their work improved and their careers took off because the new system didn’t require a lot of thought or memorization. And because the system was universal, they could use it even when they changed jobs.”

 

12 A Blue Sky Wrap Up

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Harold and I sat on tall stools at a small table in the Blue Sky Café. This was our final Hamster Revolution meeting and we were toasting Harold’s excellent progress. Harold took a celebratory swig from his cup of espresso. Although the cup was small, it seemed rather large in his little paws. The staff, who knew Harold as a regular, seemed nonplussed to be serving coffee to a hamster. But many of the customers stared in disbelief. It was easy to ignore their gawking: After all, we had important things to discuss.

“It’s been an amazing week,” said Harold. “I converted everything to COTA and I’ve never been more organized. You were right about email and filing being interrelated.”

“How does it feel?” I asked.

Harold paused, “Calm and focused. That’s how I feel. On the email side, I’m sending and receiving clear, concise, and necessary messages. Just about everyone’s agreed to use the 1-2-3 and A-B-C Email Tools. And COTA has eliminated a lot of the uncertainty in my life. Now I can quickly find the documents I need to get things done. I’m still learning and I still have some fine-tuning to do, but I finally have a plan that simplifies the management of all my information. It’s a huge step forward for me.”

 

Appendix 1: Fast Answers for Busy Hamsters

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Over the next few months, Harold called several times to ask questions. What follows is a summary of those brief conversations.

Harold: Are there any email technology tips I could use to be more productive?

Info-Coach: Absolutely. We’ve created a free Top Tech Tips

Newsletter that you can subscribe to on getcontrol.net

Harold: Should I answer email on the fly or block out time?

Info-Coach: I recommend blocking out 30-minute periods in advance. You can process email more rapidly in batches because you can give it your undivided attention.

I also recommend disconnecting your ding — the sound or visual image your computer makes when an email arrives. Most of the time, you don’t need to be notified every time an email comes in. If you keep your ding on, it’s like planning 40–50 interruptions into every business day. On average, it takes over a minute to regain refocus after being distracted by an incoming email.14 These distractions sap your energy and slow you down. Another way to limit email interruption is to set your email to synchronize every 30 minutes instead of every 2 or 3 minutes. We show you how on get.control.net

 

Appendix 2: Case Study: Capital One’s Email Efficiency Solution

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This case study underscores the value of implementing Hamster Revolution insights across a large organization. This case study can also be found at get.control.net

Challenge: Capital One is an organization that constantly strives to maximize productivity. When internal surveys revealed that email overload was a growing productivity challenge, Capital One’s Productivity Team took action.

Solution: The Capital One Productivity Team partnered with Mike Song and Tim Burress from getcontrol.net to develop a groundbreaking email efficiency workshop. The Capital One Productivity Team played a major role in shaping the program. The workshop contained insights and exercises found in The Hamster Revolution and other getcontrol.net seminars. Over 2,000 Capital One associates participated in this extremely successful learning and development experience.

Capital One (COF) has earned a sterling reputation for innovation, customer service, and leadership in the diversified financial services sector. Capital One manages $103 billion in assets for over 50 million customers worldwide.

 

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