E31 - Don’t live in your inbox! Interview with Dermot Crowley, productivity expert
Dermot Crowley, Australia’s leading productivity expert, and author of best-selling book, Smart Work, shares:
- How to have good relationship with your email
- Get your inbox to zero at least once per week
- Key tips in using the three-part productivity system of Capture, Consider, and Commit
- How to use email, calendars, and task lists for maximum efficiency and effectiveness
- Guidelines on when and how often to check emails
- How to use email like bubblegum
- The best way to use your task list: the rinsing system of file, schedule and sequence
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Speaker 1: Welcome to the Zoë Routh leadership podcast, your source of strategies and insights to make you a better leader; influence, improve, inspire.
Zoë Routh: Hi, this is Zoë Routh and I am super delighted to bring you Dermot Crowley on today’s podcast. Dermot is Australia’s leading productivity expert and he has spent the best part of 20 years working with companies big and small around productivity habits and systems.
Now he says somewhere around 2002 he noticed something, he noticed that technology had really suddenly changed but people’s habits and systems haven’t and was really holding us back. We had not adopted our behaviour to what the tech was allowing us to do. His whole business is around adaptation and being able to do smart work. He is also the author of the bestselling business book; Smart Work and he is really about helping us use tech so we can be seamlessly productive. Welcome Dermot.
Dermot Crowley: Thanks Zoë, what a lovely introduction that was and that really nailed what I’m about. Thank you.
Zoë Routh: Yay I’m glad I got it right, that’s a good thing. Well, the first thing that people are going to notice apart from my funny Canadian accent which I’ve explained many times is your funny accent. Where is your funny accent from and how did you end up in Australia?
Dermot Crowley: My goodness, some people would take exception to that and go, “Well I don’t have a funny accent I’ve got a nice accent that’s not funny, it’s not like yours,” no, well picked up. I am originally from Dublin, Ireland. I came out here about 25 years ago and to be honest I was a backpacker when I came out to Australia. I was on a year working visa with my mates, having a great time drinking my way around Australia.
Zoë Routh: Really?
Dermot Crowley: Then I went and fell in love with a Sydney woman, settled down and got married. I also fell in love with Australia, I felt that when I came to Australia that I came home. I had that real sense of this is where I belong and that hasn’t left. I still drive over to Sydney Harbour Bridge 25 years later and go, “Oh my God I live in Sydney that’s amazing.”
Zoë Routh: It is a beautiful city and I have that experience every time I visit Sydney too it’s like, “Wow this is spectacular.” I have it less so in Canberra, but I think we just become too accustomed to our own surrounds. I think that’s also probably we’ve become too accustomed to our habits also which I think is one of the hallmarks of your work, is talking about habits and productivity so it’s interesting. How did you go from boozing backpacker to productivity expert?
Dermot Crowley: To boozing productivity expert I didn’t give that up, scaled it down a little bit. Look I kind of fell into what I do, I worked in the retail industry in Ireland and actually worked for a wine company and was very honoured to work for one of the few masters of wine in Ireland. That was my whole background retail.
When I came to Australia I wanted to do something different and I fell into a sales job selling productivity training for a time management company. This was back in the days of paper diary systems so; there was no tech, there was no email, there was no Microsoft Outlook we used to teach people how to use paper diaries.
Again I fell in love with the whole idea of productivity and being organised, I wasn’t naturally an organised person myself and I really love the idea of scheduling and prioritising. I suppose probably after about five years working for that company I had an opportunity to either go find something else to do because I was made redundant or start my own business. I chose to start my own business and start running productivity training myself and I never looked back.
Zoë Routh: Wow, that’s really cool and you know what I still meet people who have paper diaries an you believe it?
Dermot Crowley: I believe it, I know.
Zoë Routh: You’ve seen all that stuff I’m sure. I’m gonna ask …
Dermot Crowley: It is a bit scary when you say it, yes.
Zoë Routh: Well they have plenty of reasons rationale why they do it and yet I feel sorry for them. One, because it just adds heaviness to the stuff they have to carry around and two, it’s so inefficient you can’t search anything.
Dermot Crowley: Yeah, so that’s right and they are normally trying to carry their paper diary and their iPhone at the same time. What they don’t seem to have realised is their iPhone can have; their whole schedule, their to do list, their emails all of that all in it.
I know there is lots of arguments with people saying, “I don’t want to be connected to my email on my phone.” I think if you’ve got a good attitude towards your inbox on your desktop then you can have a very healthy relationship with email on your phone and it’s only going to make you more productive.
Zoë Routh: Healthy attitude towards email and a good relationship with your inbox, it sounds very deeply personal. Tell me a little bit about that, what’s a good attitude to email about?
Dermot Crowley: Well, I reckon that email is probably the biggest issue that I’m asked to certainly talk about even though it’s not really what productivity is about. In fact email gets in the way of a lot of productivity but at the same time it helps us to do our work, so I don’t want to make email the bad guy.
Most people I’m working with are completely overwhelmed by their inbox. They are often getting a hundred plus emails a day and there is lots of executives that I’m working with who will get three to 400 emails a day and they think that that’s kind of normal.
Zoë Routh: Wow.
Dermot Crowley: There is a lot of information that’s coming at us and while a lot of it is just noise, the fact is we get it every day and it’s overwhelming. In amongst that noise is some signal, some emails that we actually do need to be across, so we need to action or we do need to read.
I tend to find that people are just struggling to keep on top of that, they are overwhelmed by their inboxes and most people have very bad relationships with their inbox. They tend to use their inbox as a bit of a filing system and a bit of a to do list and it’s actually the worst to do list in the world. It’s just a big pile of stuff and some of it needs action and some of it doesn’t.
When I talk about having a healthy relationship with your inbox it’s about understanding what your inbox actually is for; it’s to receive emails, it’s a workspace. Just like your desk, if you imagine your desk being completely piled up with paperwork everywhere all of the time it’s kind of stressful to work like that. The same with your inbox, it’s a workspace and if it’s full of emails all the time you are always going to feel like you are behind the eight ball and things are slipping through the cracks.
What I try to do to make people have a healthy relationship with their inbox is to teach them how to get their inbox down to zero on a regular basis. My expectation is at least once a week you should have absolutely nothing in your inbox. I don’t mean just that everything has been read, I mean that you actually do not have any emails in your inbox.
Zoë Routh: Whoa and how do we do that?
Dermot Crowley: I reckon what you need to do is set up good systems around how you manage your work and this is why I’m so excited about what technology can do for us in terms of our productivity. Most of the corporate work place that I would work with would use either Microsoft Outlook which is by far the dominant productivity tool out there. I would say 90% of the workforce is using Outlook and then the other 10% are probably using Gmail or something similar.
Either way these are not just inboxes, they are not just for managing email they are also designed to help you to manage your workflow. There is a part of each of these tools that’s designed to manage what I would call actions. You’ve got two types of actions; you’ve got meetings and you’ve got tasks.
Most people have made the connection between their inbox and their calendar. Because when you receive a meeting invitation and you press accept I know what will happen is the email will disappear from your inbox, but it will actually put the meeting into your calendar so that you remember that you’ve got a meeting at three o’clock on Thursday.
Most people are okay with that idea now and that means that they always manage their meetings in their calendar, which is a purpose built tool to help them to remember where they need to be and when they need to be there. When it comes to the other side of your actions, your task workload and your priorities the problem there is most people don’t have one centralised tool to manage all of that, they tend to use fragmented tools.
Some of the things you need to do are in your inbox, some of the things you need to do are in your to do list, some of them are in your meeting notebook, some of them are in the piles of paper that are still on your desk, some of them are on little post it notes on your computer screen and many of them unfortunately are still, they are just being carried round in our head. Because, sorry Zoë go ahead.
Zoë Routh: I was …
Dermot Crowley: I’m I describing you?
Zoë Routh: Well, a lot of that was until you hit post it notes I’m like, “Thank God I don’t have that problem.” Then I was like, “Thank God I don’t try and keep anything in my head, it’s already a mess as it is.” I have a few of those other habits.
Dermot Crowley: Sure.
Zoë Routh: I need to fix this.
Dermot Crowley: I guess what I try to do is I try to help people to centralise their work in one central tool. All of your meeting should be in your calendar and that gives you one place of truth to make sure that you don’t forget to go to a meeting.
I also believe that all of your tasks should be in one centralised task list, and that’s why I go beyond teaching people how to use the inbox in a tool like Microsoft Outlook or Gmail. We also need to have a look at how do we use our calendar and how do we use the task list in these tools to effectively schedule and manage our priorities.
One of the really cool things you can do in both of these tools is if you receive an email that you need to action, it might be something that you need to do but you don’t have to do it right now you are usually able to just press a button and turn that email into a task and schedule it into your scheduling system.
Microsoft and Google have both thought about how do people manage workflow and they build tools around this. The problem is most people don’t do this, they just use their inbox as a very ineffective way of trying to keep on top of what they haven’t done yet.
Zoë Routh: This is one of my challenges, I’m wondering if you can help me Dr. Dermot this illness I have.
Dermot Crowley: My pleasure.
Zoë Routh: Is that when I try to do this thing like you are talking about, putting the tasks into the calendar what I’ve noticed is that I greatly over estimate what I think I can do in the time allocated. Then I get to the end of the day and half those tasks haven’t been done and I neglect to drag them forward into the next possible spot to do them. I reckon there is a couple of illnesses in there what do you reckon, what’s the fix for that challenge?
Dermot Crowley: Look it’s a very common issue, so again it comes back to understanding the difference between a meeting and a task. For me meetings are a type of work that I would call fixed, so a meeting is an activity that needs to happen at a very fixed time and will usually have a duration. Because it involves other people what we need to do is choose an agreed time and lock that activity into that time in our account so that it’s in all our accounts at the same time. That’s what I call fixed work and a calendar is the perfect tool to manage that type of work.
Your tasks and your priorities are a little bit different, they are what I call flexible work. You see tasks are generally things that you need to do, but you are often doing them by yourself so they don’t involve other people and they don’t have to be done at any specific time. They might have a deadline that they need to be done by, but you don’t have to do that task at ten o’clock or at three o’clock or at 2:15. You just need to make sure you do it before the workshop on Friday.
Tasks need a different system to manage them effectively, they need a more flexible system. Putting everything into your calendar the down side is this, yes sure you were scheduling time to do your work, that’s great but things change and you were ... Like it’s human nature, we always over estimate how much time we’ve got available and how much we could possibly get done.
The things that you don’t get done in your calendar you physically have to remember to reallocate a time to them. Whereas if you started to use a tool like the task list in Microsoft Outlook or in Gmail whichever you are using, it manages this for you. Often these systems will make sure that if you don’t do a task on a particular day it will automatically roll forward to the next day so you don’t forget to do it. Using a task system to manage your priorities also has the benefit of being able to mark things complete.
A common friend of ours, Dr. Jason Fox in his book The Game Changer he talks about the idea that we’ve lost a lot of our motivation in today’s modern workplace because we tend to work out of our inbox. Every time we deal with an email 10 more are arriving on top of it so you get no sense of progress. Whereas if you are used to managing your priorities in a well-structured task list you’ve got the ability to mark things complete and you actually get a sense of motivation as you work through your day.
That’s missing when you put things into your calendar because there is no tick box to say, “Yeah that’s been done.” There are some very compelling reasons to actually use a proper task system to manage your priorities I reckon.
Zoë Routh: Thank you, well that makes me feel better already because that was just pain. I thought I was like, “I’m trying to do it right but it’s not working,” so that’s good.
Dermot Crowley: Exactly.
Zoë Routh: Having a really, so really useful well organised task list system is the critical point here. You are right, like I get such a sense of satisfaction that little dopamine hit as you go tick and you had that line go through the item so that’s really good. Do you recommend booking times in your calendar that are task? Like you could just put general topic of complete tasks or task on task list as opposed to itemising them?
Dermot Crowley: Yeah look I guess it depends on how compressed your schedule is. If I’m working with someone who doesn’t have a very heavy meeting workload they might have a couple of meetings a day or a few meetings in a week. Then they don’t have a lot of compression on their schedule, so they probably don’t need to block time out to do tasks.
When I’m working with an executive who tends to spend most days in meetings all day, one of the first issues I often need to deal with and this happens very often at the senior management level. We give too much of our time away to meetings and we don’t protect time for doing task workload. What then happens is, they are in meetings from 8:30 in the morning until 6 at night …
Zoë Routh: Oh my God.
Dermot Crowley: … with no room for dong any priorities. Then they end up working from 6 at night until ten o’clock at night trying to catch up on their other work. They end up working longer work hours and they have a real problem with work life balance and all of those things.
What I try to do in that situation is to get them to protect a certain amount of their week for getting important stuff done that is not meeting driven. I’ll often recommend to an executive to protect maybe 30% of their core working hours for doing tasks. In that case they would block out general time to say, “Okay I’m going to block out two hours here two hours there and I’m going to protect that for doing task,” so that’s one strategy.
Second strategy I would suggest is if you put every task into your calendar it becomes too inflexible as you’ve found, but you can put some tasks into your calendar and it serves you. My rule of thumb is anything that’s going to take me an hour or more of my time I’ll probably block it out on my calendar and what I call I’ll hard schedule it into my system, rather than just soft schedule it in my task list.
That helps me to number one, protect the time for that piece of work, but it also reduces the chances of me procrastinating over that piece of work. Because it’s when it is in my calendar it’s going to pop up an alert to say, “Okay it’s three o’clock you need to put everything else away and do that piece of work.” When you use it in certain situations it works well I reckon.
Zoë Routh: Okay cool that is very helpful for me thank you, hopefully other people too this is not just for me but I am grateful.
Dermot Crowley: This is such a selfish thing you do, yes.
Zoë Routh: Absolutely, so I want to talk a little bit more about productivity system that you expand on in your book. The three components are; capture, consider and commit. What are the biggest, if you could explain what those mean actually and what you find are the biggest objections or problems people have in those areas.
Dermot Crowley: Sure, so when I’m especially around managing actions I think that what we need to do is to get really clear and make visible what needs our time and attention. That means that we need to have good capturing systems.
David Allen who is an American productivity expert, he wrote a book called Getting Things Done. He talks a lot about this idea of capturing everything that you need to do and making it visible in a central place so that you’ve got real clarity over what needs my attention.
Work comes at us in different ways, so yes you do receive emails but you also probably receive; phone calls, voicemail messages, interruptions, meeting actions and what I call minds clutter where you are constantly thinking of things that you need to do. For me the first step is get really good at capturing stuff and having a place to put it.
Every time I think of something I need to do what I’ll do is I’ll, if I’m at my desk if it’s something urgent I might do it straight away but if it’s something that could wait till later or tomorrow or next week I’ll put it straight into my task list. I don’t let it bounce around in my head, I capture it in my task list and that way I can let go of it from my head.
If I’m out of the office and I think of something, I’ve actually designed an app for this on the iPhone and on Android devices called task, sorry excuse me I don’t even know the name of my own app called Memo Mailer. It is cool, it’s a free app so any of your listeners could go to the App Store and either or for either of those and download it. It’s a simple voice memo recorder that allows you to very quickly capture a thought or an idea or something you need to do.
The cool thing about it is it automatically emails that voice memo straight into your inbox. You don’t need to do anything expect press a button on your phone to capture the voice memo, the minute you let go of the button on the screen it will email that sound thought straight into your inbox. That for me is a really good way of capturing stuff, getting it out of my head and making sure that it’s in somewhere. A place that I trust if you like.
Zoë Routh: Yeah I think that’s really great and I’ve heard people who use Memo Mailer and they take their phone with them when they go walking. That’s often when your creative ideas come out and it’s like, “Damn it, I’ve got nothing to write this down with,” and they go, “Memo mailer hello,” and there you go.
Dermot Crowley: Exactly, yeah so that would be the first thing that I would think about.
Zoë Routh: Okay let me just mention the show notes because I’ll put a link in the show notes to the app so people can go and have a look at it. The show notes are going to be at Zoërouth.com/podcast/smartwork. There will be links to David Allen’s book, to Dermot’s book, to Memo Mailer app. Okay so that was your first recommendation, what’s your second one?
Dermot Crowley: Yeah, so that’s the kind of capture piece. When it consider and that really is, it’s about prioritisation. Once we’ve captured the stuff that we have decided is a good use of our time, either in our calendar so meetings or in our task list as priorities. Then we need to work out okay what comes first and what do I need to do now and what could be done later. I’m very much a big fan of having a dated task list, so I don’t just have one big list of things I need to do.
In my system in Microsoft Outlook I’m able to schedule task for today or tomorrow or Thursday or next week or next month or whenever I want it to appear in my schedule. That’s actually a prioritisation technique in itself.
I believe that the three common ways that we prioritise work are by; filtering, scheduling and sequencing. I tend to filter as work is coming into me, so when I check my email I will filter out the low value stuff, stuff that is not of good use to my time so I’ll delete stuff or I’ll file stuff or I’ll delegate stuff to other people. Then I get rid of those emails from my inbox, but I filter in the stuff that is a good use of my time.
The things that I decide, “Yes I need to do something with that,” I’ll either do them straight away if they are urgent or they are quick or I’ll schedule them into my system so they either get scheduled into my calendar or into my task list. By filtering my work at point of entry then I’m ensuring that only the stuff that is a good use of my time ends up in my system, so that’s the first type of prioritisation.
Then what I do is I actually schedule work. If I make a decision that I need to do something today and I put it on my task list for today, that’s me prioritising that piece of work. If I made a decision that no that could actually wait until Wednesday when I’m in the office, I’m also prioritising it. I really see your schedule as a way of making decisions about what should be done upfront and what could wait until later. That’s a second type of prioritisation.
A third type of prioritisation is what I call sequencing where my task list for the day, what I’ll do is as a part of my daily planning I’ll actually sequence my task list from most important to least important. I’m able to drag my tasks up down the list and that’s my way of getting really clear about my day and getting really clear about what are my top priorities.
How that helps me is, because I’ve done that little bit of thinking to say, “Okay that’s my number one priority, that’s my number two and that’s my number three.” When I’m not in meetings I’m really focused about what I need to do next. If I’ve got half an hour between meetings what most people do in that situation is they’ll go, “Don’t really have enough time to do anything meaningful, so I’m just going to do a few emails.”
Whereas if I’ve got half an hour between meetings I’ll go straight to my plan for the day and go right what’s my top priority. I need to send that email, okay let’s get that done. It drives my day with a lot more intent than if I didn’t bother prioritising my list to begin with.
Zoë Routh: Yeah that’s lovely, that’s awesome. What’s the commit piece about?
Dermot Crowley: The commit for me is about fighting for your priorities. It’s you know you said it yourself that sometimes it’s easy to schedule things into your calendar but you don’t actually do them. I know I don’t want to pick on you Zoë, I know that you are a very productive person thus and it does happen.
We often let the urgency of the day take over and we procrastinate about the more important things that we need to do. Probably the biggest frustration that I have when I work in organisations is the fact that there is often a very reactive culture in place where people lead everything until the last minute and they only do things when they become urgent enough that they can’t put them off anymore.
That means that they are also delegating work to other people at the last minute, putting pressure on them. People then get into this cycle of just purely reacting to everything that’s going on and I believe that we need to work a lot more proactively.
For me the commit piece is put a plan in place on a daily basis, you should have a daily plan which is about focusing yourself. On a weekly basis you should take time out to plan your week and get yourself organised for the week. Even on a monthly basis I think that we need to take some time out to step back and get some prospective and get some clarity around what are my top priorities for the month ahead.
Those three personal planning pieces for me are all about getting clear about what’s important. Making sure that the right actions are scheduled in our system and then committing to them and fighting for them and not just letting the urgency of the day push them aside.
Zoë Routh: Cool.
Dermot Crowley: Does that make sense?
Zoë Routh: Yeah, that’s perfect and I feel very happy with that. It’s outlined really well on your book too that whole piece about daily, weekly, monthly and horizon planning. That’s a strategy I’ve used for a number of years now is to reverse engineer my life, so starting with bigger horizon 10, 20 years boiling it down to yearly plans then to quarterly then to monthly to weekly to daily.
Dermot Crowley: You’re not the complete basket case.
Zoë Routh: No, just the partial one. I have two questions to ask you about some more familiar recommendations around email and time management. There has been lots said in various forums about how to manage email, do you just like only check email once a day, twice a day. What are your guidelines around email checking processing?
Dermot Crowley: Look, I think most productivity books or courses will talk about the idea of number one, turning off your email alerts. It’s such common sense that it pains me to have to say it yet most people don’t do it until you say it to them. You shouldn’t be getting email alerts, you don’t need to get a bing or a bang or a sliding pane across the screen to tell you every time an email comes in especially if you are getting a 100 plus emails a day. It’s just a distraction so turn them off.
Then set up a proactive routine around how often you check your email. Now, there are some philosophies that would say check your email twice a day and that’s it. I find that probably a bit too limiting for most people, although lots of senior executives I work with they probably don’t get near their inbox more than twice a day anyway so that works fine for them.
What I try to do is just give people a more practical solution which is this, I will check my emails thoroughly twice a day. Once in the morning I probably spend 30, 45 minutes on my email and then once in the afternoon I probably spend another 30 minutes on my email. They are my main two processing zones and that’s when I’m doing the heavy lifting with my email; I’m making decisions, I’m clearing out my inbox, I’m turning emails into tasks, scheduling time on my calendar for certain things.
Then outside of those two times I probably check my email but this time it’s just a quick five minute check to see if there is anything urgent that I need to be across. Often it’s on my phone and I might go in and; delete a couple of things, file a couple of things, deal with a couple of things but then I put the email away and I get back focused on my daily plan. I find that’s a reasonable rhythm with your email and most people find they can do their jobs perfectly well with that sort of healthy rhythm.
Zoë Routh: Okay, so it’s not really just strictly thing it’s sort of like do intense and then periodically check which I think that works well for me. I do a lot of process work through my emails and I get messages and so on, so the twice a day thing would never work for me in terms of if that was the only time I got to do it.
Dermot Crowley: That’s right and if I’ve got a task in my task list and the task is to email a set of dates to one of my clients, so I’ll have to go into my inbox and send an email. I’m going to close to close my eyes so I don’t see any emails that are in my inbox that would be kind of crazy. You’ve got to be loose and relaxed about this and be light about it.
I guess what we are always trying to do is to get people to get their head out of their inbox and not living there, so I often find that the inbox is the main screen the people have open all day long. If you think about it if your main screen in Outlook or Gmail is your inbox, then what you are looking at most of the time is an organising system for everyone else’s priorities because that’s all your inbox is; it’s an organising system for other people’s priorities.
What I do is I make my daily plan in my calendar, my main screen in Microsoft Outlook so that’s what I look at most of the time. That’s an organising system for my priorities, very different focus and intent.
Zoë Routh: That’s awesome, great tip. I have a couple of questions that I got through Facebook so I put it out to my Facebook group about talking to Dermot productivity expert, what should I ask him. I have a couple of question from people from Facebook and one of them is around versions of the Pomodoro Technique.
This particular person wanted to know the recommendations are, work for 25 minutes take a five minute break or only work for 90 minutes and then take a break. Do you have any guidelines around; focused work, deep work and break times? Is there an ideal routine?
Dermot Crowley: Look, I’m a big fun of that type of work. Again, I’m not hard and fast around the number of minutes, I’m not going to say 23 minutes is the optimal time that we can concentrate. I think everyone is different and I think you need to find your own balance for the amount of time that you can concentrate in deep work at one time.
Whether it’s 25 minutes or whether it’s 90 minutes I am a big fan of the idea of; focus intensely on what you are doing, turn off distractions for those deep tasks but then give yourself a bit of a break. Whether that break is you get up and go for a walk, you go and get a coffee or you check your email.
That’s one of the reasons why I like to kind of check my email once an hour because for me email is bubble gum. It’s life, it’s relatively easy so I like to just chew some bubble gum once an hour and give myself five minutes to go, “Okay, this is happening and I don’t have to think too hard about this.” Once I’ve done my email for a few minutes I then go, “All right let’s focus again.”
Zoë Routh: Yeah, that’s great, I love that analogy email is bubble gums like yeah, pop on a bubble gum chew get some dopamine and then get out again, that’s wonderful.
Dermot Crowley: Yeah, not a lot of nutrition but it’s kind of nice.
Zoë Routh: Yeah, all right here is a bigger picture one from one of the people on Facebook. He says, “The fusion of AI and robotics is going to progressively replace all the jobs according to your different perspectives but there is a general consensus that AI and robotics will take up a lot of jobs in the pursuit of productivity.”
He asks, “What does it mean for a human being to be more productive? Do we need more productivity in a world awash with stuff material and digital.” I think he’s speaking to the bigger picture of what are you actually trying to do when we’re becoming more productive and is this going against what we really need to be doing as humans. What’s your perspective on that Dermot?
Dermot Crowley: Yeah, very good question. Look, there is no doubt that AI is here and it is going to have a dramatic effect on how we work. I reckon that AI can, in the short term anyway as far as I can see to the horizon; I reckon it’s going to help us to be more efficient but it’s not necessarily ready to help us to be more effective.
What I mean by that is, robots are going to take the manual task the drudgery work away from us and hopefully free humans up to focus more on the creative work or the decision making or the strategic work that computer is going to find it very hard to do. In the foreseeable future there will be a time when computers can do that as well, but for the moment I think that that’s the opportunity for us to spend more time doing that.
I think if you go right back to Henry Ford and his Model T motor car, one of the things that he did when he created the production line was he enormously enhanced the efficiency of how we made a motor car. Because you had a bunch of people who would make motor cars all together, they would all stand around the chassis of the car and they would all do their stuff and it was a very slow laborious process.
When he actually went out into the wider industry and he saw that really people making cars there was nothing innovative out there, they were all doing the same thing.
He knew if he wanted to find a better way of making cars he needed to look outside of the motor industry and he actually came up with the idea for the conveyor belt or the production line from a meat processing plant. Where they would put carcasses onto a hook and then they’d pass them down a line of butchers so each had a specialised job to do.
It was far more efficient and they could deal with a lot more carcasses and he realised that if he did the same with a motor car, then he could increase the output enormously. I think he reduced the time it took to make a Model T Ford from somewhere around 11 hours down to one hour 45 minutes, massive increase in efficiency.
Effectiveness is different because effectiveness for me talks to not just about how much work you can churn out, it’s about the quality of the work that you do. When I work with people around their inboxes and that yeah I’m trying to make them more efficient.
Really the whole point of me helping someone get their inbox down to zero is not so they can do more emails, it’s so they can get their head out of their inbox and they can focus on the really important creative strategic things that are going to have an impact. I think that’s what AI is going to do for us, it’s going to actually allow us to do the work that really has an impact and I think we need to see that as an opportunity and not a threat.
Zoë Routh: I like that perspective; I think that’s … It’s a very proactive abundant way of looking at what’s coming potentially. It’s like whenever I talk about this future of robots and AI there is always two different world views, there is the one where it’s the job apocalypse and we are all going to hell and the other version which is pioneered by Peter Diamandis which is the world of abundance.
Where all of this AI and robotics will actually free up as you’ve mentioned capacity for creative thinking, so we can actually tackle the bigger picture issues that we’ve got on our plate. I think that’s sort of what perhaps my Facebook reader was talking about is like, so just doing more stuff and it’s good to know that no it’s not about doing more stuff it’s about doing better stuff so we can progress as he narrates.
Dermot Crowley: There is a great book by a guy called Michael Bungay Stanier and I’m mispronouncing his name, I know. He wrote a book called Do More Great Work and he talks about the idea of in all of our roles we’ve got bad work, we’ve got good work and we’ve got great work. What we need to do is to try and eradicate the bad work, the stuff that really is not a good use of our time and I reckon AI can help us to do that.
The good work is business as usual stuff, it’s core to our role so we all need to maintain doing that. We need to make more time for the great work because the great work is the stuff that will actually have a real impact.
When I’m working with people I’m always trying to find a bit more time in their schedule to do the great work, because that is the stuff that’s going to leave a legacy and that is usually the stuff that really has an impact in five years’ time not just today or tomorrow. I think there is a nice overlap there as well.
Zoë Routh: Great, thanks. I have one last question for you speaking of zooming back to the immediacy stuff, what are your favourite animation apps, software that kind of stuff?
Dermot Crowley: Sure, well first of all the stuff that’s already at our figure tips. If you are using Microsoft Outlook that is by far my favourite productivity tool that has ever been invented. There is lots of productivity tools out there, but it’s the one that’s been built from the ground up as a true productivity and workflow system. The problem is most people don’t use it the way it was designed to be used, they only partially use it and we’ve talked all about that.
The first thing I would say is if you are using Microsoft Outlook or indeed if you are using Gmail as your email client, learn to use the full system rather than just using bits and pieces of it, so that’s number one.
Number two there is a lot of new tools coming online now because we are all working in the cloud and if you are not in the cloud yet, you’ve got to get yourself into the cloud. Because what the cloud allows you to do is make sure that you can work anywhere on any device and have access to your information. There is lots of cloud based productivity tools that have emerged over the last couple of years, especially around project management.
Things like Trello, Asana, Basecamp, Slack they are all different variations on being able to collaborate on more complex work with other people. I think that there is very exciting space where if people learned how to use these tools effectively at a team level, then their productivity would also increase. I won’t say any one of those tools is better than the other, they are all really cool. What I would say is choose one and use it well, don’t try and use them all because they just compete with each other.
Another favourite of mine is from a contextual point of view is a tool from Microsoft called OneNote or if you are not in a Microsoft environment Evernote would probably be the equivalent.
Zoë Routh: You can do OneNote on a Mac, on an iPad and stuff like that it is compatible.
Dermot Crowley: That’s exactly right yeah but it’s still a Microsoft product.
Zoë Routh: Okay.
Dermot Crowley: What people in corporate would probably find if they are using Microsoft Office they’ll already have OneNote and it’s free. If you are working in a Gmail organisation they are not going to have Office because they are using Google Docs and that, so they might use Evernote. Either way I see a tool like Microsoft Outlook as being a chronological tool, it helps you to manage your time and to manage activities within the time that you have available.
Whereas a tool like OneNote or Evernote, they are contextual tools. They help you to manage the information within the context of a project or a meeting or a discussion or a relationship.
Again, well I’m so frustrated when I go into organisations and I say, “Who uses OneNote,” and I might get one in 10 would put up their hand and say, “I use it,” and yet it’s on the desktop. It’s a tool that they’ve got access to but people haven’t made the mental leap to putting away their paper note pad and harnessing the power of digital, because it’s far more powerful than your paper notebook.
Zoë Routh: I agree with that and I love that you pick up on these tools, so I’m like, “Yes tick I’m doing my things …” Well, I use Trello and Slack and Wunderlist which is, those are the three cloud based apps that we use as a team.They are just so good it just makes life so much easier to be able to collaborate that’s for sure.
Dermot Crowley: That’s right yeah.
Zoë Routh: I have about half a dozen other questions for you on productivity and cultures, but I think what we might do is stop and save that for a different interview if that’s all right. Because I suspect …
Dermot Crowley: We could yeah, because I think there is a whole lot in there we could talk about it in a different one.
Zoë Routh: Yeah, and I think we’ve got heaps of great tips and insight from what we’ve covered already today. I just want to say thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing your infinite wisdom. Your funny little Irish larrikin accent.
Dermot Crowley: I’m going red now Zoë.
Zoë Routh: Well you already mentioned that.
Dermot Crowley: My pleasure.
Zoë Routh: There you go, your book is fabulous and it is a bestselling business book that Wiley put out, was it just last year 2016?
Dermot Crowley: It was the 1st of January 2016 yeah.
Zoë Routh: Yeah and it’s fabulous so I’ll put a link to that in the show notes which are Zoërouth.com/podcast/smartwork so thanks again Dermot.
Dermot Crowley: My pleasure bye, bye everyone.