Ian Hallett: how I saved 35 hours per week of wasted time

The Lloyds senior executive reveals the remarkably small changes that transformed his life

We are all suffering from email and meeting fatigue.

The once brilliant features that email has brought to the working environment have turned into the biggest burden on the day.

And meetings are getting worse. Unconsciously, we have turned meetings from decision making forums to information sharing forums. We don’t have time the read the papers in advance (if they aren’t sent two minutes before the meeting that is) because we are too busy (normally doing email). That means the person chairing the meeting feels compelled to walk you through the papers in baby steps to ensure you understand what is going on.

This happens every day, for millions of people that work in normal office jobs.

It was happening to me and this is how I attacked it head on and saved 35 hours from my working week, reduced my stress levels, empowered my team more and delivered even better results. Yes that’s right, 35 hours. I now spend 15 hours per week doing things that once took me 50 hours. It has been life changing.

Email first

I was spending 15 hours per week managing my email. I was always on and I’d had enough. I returned from holiday in 2012 with literally hundreds of emails that I felt obliged to read and respond to. The benefits of my holiday disappeared at 8am on my first working day back. It took two weeks to catch up and I felt I wasn’t on top of things.

In that month I sent over 1,000 emails. I thought it was a one-off due to my holiday but after checking previous months I saw it was normal. Email was sucking 3 hours per day out of my life and had created an addiction that meant I couldn’t stop checking my Blackberry after work. It was often the last thing I did at night and the first thing I did in the morning. I wasn’t alone: people were emailing me when I was asleep.

Stage one – saving 5 hours per week

One simple email rule saved 5 hours per week. I created an auto rule that routed every email I was copied on into a separate folder (called ‘Copied’, imaginatively). I allowed myself to check it only once per day.

I found that 50% of my email went to this folder and 90% of it could be deleted without a second thought. I had rapidly reduced 50 emails worth of daily noise to 5 emails I needed to deal with.

I also noticed I wasn’t missing out on anything important or urgent. People would send me emails and call me and send me a text message and come and find me. After a few months, that gave me confidence to reduce checking this folder to once a week. I actually think I could automatically delete these emails, which might be my final time saver.

I had saved 5 hours per week. However, there was still more work to do.

Stage 2 – the next 5 hours

This is where I really started to notice the difference: I significantly reduced the number of emails I sent. I noticed that a huge amount of my email traffic was a direct response to emails I sent. The more you send, the more you receive.

Yes, people probably thought I was being a bit rude. I saw an increase in people asking “did you get my email?”. “Yes” I would reply, “thank you, and my response is…”

My phone bill increased because I phoned people to reply to emails. They were often surprised I would do that, but I found in these conversations we spoke about many other things and this reduced the need to email each other at all. I was more connected with my colleagues, felt I got to know them a bit better, and that I was responding to their needs more effectively.

Accounting for the additional time on the phone, I had reduced my email time to one hour a day. However, I was still addicted to checking it in between meetings and at night.

Stage three – email in 10 minutes per day

The last 5 hours was the hardest, and it is still hard: I had to cure my addiction to checking email and feeling the urge to respond.

Two actions made all the difference:

1. I disabled email access to my Blackberry. You might think this is madness, just like the IT guy that came and did it for me. It took him three hours because he had never been asked to do it before. I didn’t want to switch phones because I still wanted to access my diary on it. But, when done, no more red flashing light and no ability to check email easily when I am not in the office. Time saved: 30 minutes per day. Importantly, my nighttime addiction of checking email was cured.

2. I scheduled email checking to 10 minutes per day. I diarised it at the same time. After experimenting I found that 4pm is the best time. Normally I would interact with a lot of people during the normal course of the day and I find this interaction reduces the need to email each other. I never look at emails outside this prescheduled time. Time saved: 20 minutes per day.

In three stages, almost 15 hours per week of wasted time was eliminated.

Now, to meetings

How many meetings have you been to when you said nothing, learnt nothing and made no decisions? I had lost count. I was spending 7 hours per day in meetings, back to back, from the start of the day to the end. Limited breaks. No time to read papers in advance. Going with the flow.

I have to say, it was an easy way to make a living, but not very rewarding.

With the confidence I gained from reducing my email, I decided to attack the wasted time I spent in meetings. I applied a simple set of rules to my diary:
1. No meeting lasts longer than 30 mins
2. No meetings before 10am
3. No meetings between 12-2pm
4. No meetings after 4pm

That’s it, overnight I reduced my allowable meeting time to a maximum of 20 hours per week, from an average of 35 hrs per week. 15 hours saved.

Next, an unexpected productivity gain. I have time to read the papers beforehand. This led to two benefits:

1. I don’t need to go through the papers in the meetings. I start each meeting saying I have read the papers so let’s focus the discussion in the key points. I don’t tolerate others that haven’t read them.

2. Often, I phone the meeting chair and to say I have read the papers, agreed with the recommendation (or understood them) and would not turn up. 1 hour per day saved though eliminated meetings and shorter meetings.

35 hours per week. Really?! What did you do with the time?

Let’s quickly count up the 35 hours per week saved:
- 5 hours: checking copied emails once per week
- 5 hours: stop sending emails and start speaking to people
- 5 hours: scheduling 10 minutes per day to do email
- 15 hours: restricting meeting availability to 4 hours per day
- 5 hours: reading papers before meetings.

With the time I saved I:
- stopped doing email on the train to and from work and wrote a book (and a blog)
- stopped checking email at home and played with my kids and chatted with my wife
- leave for work later and have breakfast with my kids
- leave work earlier so I could help my wife put the kids to bed
- spend more time with my colleagues, helping them to be successful
- spend more time developing and helping my work network
- take on additional accountabilities and increased my contribution to my employer.

And it has for my colleagues too. They tell me I am more available, better prepared, more empowering, more responsive, more able to help, more relaxed, a better leader.

It has transformed my life. You need to try this.


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