Tom works in the estimating department of a mid-sized plumbing contractor. As he walks in the door Tuesday morning, he gets hit with the following:
Boss: “Hey Tom, can you check with the sign company to see how our new outdoor sign is coming?”
Receptionist: “Hey Tom, I can’t get this quote to print. Can you help me with that today?”
Salesperson: “Hey Tom, will the Peterson quote be done by 4:00 this afternoon? The bid opening is tomorrow.”
When Tom gets to his computer, he finds three random emails from his boss that contain a total of four questions.
Let’s say you are Tom. Would your colleagues (sorry, your opinion doesn’t count!) agree it is extremely likely that by the end of the day:
1. Your boss will receive an update on the outdoor sign.
2. The receptionist will receive help printing the quote.
3. The Peterson quote will arrive in the salesperson’s inbox by 4:00 pm, OR there will be an email requesting an extension.
4. Your boss will receive answers to all four questions, probably in one well-summarized email that makes sense out of your boss’s randomness.
If your colleagues would say this about you (and assuming you are otherwise competent!) let me suggest your stock is rising RAPIDLY. The skill of organizing and responding to information flows, without things slipping through the cracks, is so rare that someone who masters it quickly stands out.
There are too many channels. Tom (and most people) are bombarded with:
Imagine a McDonalds order-taker receiving orders through all of these channels! It would be a disaster, similar to a baseball player trying to hit balls from eight different pitchers.
I have met people who somehow keep this all in their heads. They are a rare group, and I don’t know the secrets for joining that group.
The larger crowd (most of the workforce) is drowning in absolute overload. Their text, voice and email inboxes are overflowing. Sticky notes cover their monitors. Slacks are going unanswered. Co-workers and bosses are upset, but shouldn’t be, because they’re often as bad or worse.
There is a relatively simple solution that builds on what McDonald’s would probably do if faced with eight channels of orders. I’m calling this the “One Channel Method.”
It works like this:
Step 1. Decide which of the eight (or more) channels you are most comfortable with.
Step 2. Relentlessly convert all information flows into that One Channel.
Step 3. Develop a way to cross off items in your One Channel once they are complete or moved to your calendar (yes, the One Channel Method assumes everyone has some kind of scheduling system).
My One Channel is email. Perhaps 95% of my information flows through this channel. My inbox only has items I haven’t addressed or moved to my calendar. My goal is a zero inbox, although it usually sits closer to 20. Today is a good day — I’m at three.
If I’m traveling and think of something, I’ll email myself using voice-to-text conversion on my phone. If someone leaves a voicemail and I can’t call them back right away, I might send myself an email “Call Joe.” If someone sends a text I can’t immediately address, it gets converted to email. I’ll forget it if I don’t convert.
If text messaging was my One Channel I would divert all information to my text inbox. I’d find a way to archive or delete texts once they were addressed, or moved to my calendar.
If my One Channel was a paper notebook, I would do all of the above on paper. If my One Channel was sticky notes or a whiteboard, I would do all of the above on that.
As I alluded earlier, some information (like a reminder to call a customer 10 days from now) works best if it’s moved from the clearinghouse into a scheduling system (e.g. calendar or project management software). The key is to treat everything in your scheduling system the same as your communication channel — nothing leaves until it is complete.
Which brings me to a massively key point: a task is not finished when you address it. It is finished when IT IS FINISHED. If Tom emails the sign company for an update on the outdoor sign, that is not the end of the task.
The end is when he hears back from the sign company and relays the info to his boss. Only then does it get marked as done. I cringe when I hear someone say, “Yes, I sent them an email.” That is about 20% of the task.
There is a critical caveat to mastering the One Channel Method. After you’ve chosen your one channel and are successfully converting all info into it, you can increase productivity even more by doing the following:
Step 1. Evaluate the people you communicate with regularly. Determine their “preferred communication channel”. Even people who do not use the One Channel Method, often have a preferred channel.
Step 2. Use that channel to communicate with that person.
Step 3. Convert critical information back into your channel.
I’ve found many entrepreneurs are most comfortable texting. Email is my One Channel, but believe me, I text the entrepreneurs who like texting. Any action items get converted to email and/or calendar. I do not leave open items hanging in my SMS inbox.
Using other people’s channels is a minor nuisance. But being willing to adapt to others will ironically improve your own productivity.
We’re in an information crisis that is only getting worse. There are constantly new apps and new ways to communicate. Each new communication channel makes it more difficult to effectively communicate!
The upside? It’s easy to stand out! With the One Channel Method, and a little discipline, you can be in the upper 1–3% of the workforce. That doesn’t make you a better person, but it should give legs to your productivity and your career!