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On Productivity | Avoid “If I am there then I have to attend” tasks.



I usually do not write much about my work. But I thought this one deserves a mention. After a very long time, I decided to work from home today. Hold on! Actually for the very first time, I worked from home. I thought it will be a good to share how it felt.

A good start would be to first understand what made me decide to work from home for the very first time. On any given day, my work involves coordinating and interactive with a lot of people. I do not sit at my office reception, but you have to trust me that it does involve a lot of touch points. While things wouldn’t stop moving if I am not there, there are things which need my attention to progress. There are basically a few categories in which I can classify the work I do:

  • Foreground tasks: These are obvious tasks which I need to take up. It could be writing a proposal (yes, on the last day of submission),  interacting with customers, project meetings, taking interviews and what not. The idea is that these are visible tasks and require my presence absolutely. If I skip any of these, it would have an immediate impact.
  • Background tasks: These are not-so-obvious (but not unimportant!) tasks. It could be updating some tracker. Coming up with a sales plan. Feature planning for a product release. Updating some section of the company’s website. Writing a JD for a new opening etc. etc. The idea is that if these get pushed, there’s no immediate impact. They usually keep happening in the background and either have a relaxed or no deadline.  But if forgotten or ignored, they can back-fire in a significant way and make you uncomfortable.
  • If I am there then I have to attend tasks: These are very special tasks which deserve a mention. Of late, I’ve realized that I have to do certain stuff if I am there in the office. These are usually random discussions and meetings which are bound to happen as a part of everyday work. These are completely unplanned and can take up significant time. While I wouldn’t mention examples, these tasks are usually the ones which could happen without me but if I am around, I am expected to participate. Not that I do not add value, but I could skip some of these without too much of an impact. People will manage among them somehow. Recently, I noticed that about 30-40% of such tasks can move on without me with almost no significant impact.

I have been looking for ways to improve productivity for some time now. I am trying to organize and manage work accordingly. I had to put in a focused effort on writing one of the proposals (a foreground work) so I decided to take the plunge and work from home. Here are my observations:

  • Foreground tasks:  I had to work on a critical proposal and spend quality time which is a foreground task according to our classification. I was able to spend quality time. I thought I was quite productive as well.
  • Background tasks: Although I had not planned, I was surprised that I was not only able to complete my foreground task, I was able to wrap up a couple of background tasks as well with a great deal of efficiency.
  • If I am there then I have to attend tasks: You would think I could completely stay away from these tasks. Not exactly. But then, I spent significantly less time on these in comparison to what I spend on any given day.

I was super productive.. I was able to accomplish much more than I had planned. I have the energy and enthusiasm to write this post.  And I am feeling great.

Now that I think of all this, here’s what I think I’ve learnt:

  • It is important to manage your accessibility. If you are too accessible and get-go with any random work which comes up, the productivity is bound to suffer. Even a one minute digression can cost 15-20 minutes. It takes a minute to get out of context, but it takes several minutes to get it back.
  • You can’t multi-task in a literal sense. You need to slice the time effectively.
  • Those background tasks are very important. They should not be ignored. These are the ones which will take you to the next level.
  • Try to stay away from If I am there then I have to attend as much as possible. Choose the ones which actually need you.

It is good to look things from a different vantage point once in a while. I am surprised how I could analyze my own work schedule by just changing the work conditions a little.





Sophistication vs. Simplicity: Organizing emails






The great Einstein had said:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Ever since I’ve started working, the flurry of emails which I receive everyday, is increasing on an average. And this is the case with everyone else I guess. As I see myself, I’ve been quite disorganized throughout my life. When I was in class 2 and the term was ending, I vowed to maintain all my notebooks and workbooks up-to-date from class 3. And no wonder I thought the same when I was in class 11. I never planned to be organized when I was into engineering. I guess I never felt the need.

The first year of my job was also quite OK in terms of managing emails. There were only a few emails related to the project I was working on and then  a couple of ones here and there. Enter into the next phase of my career and suddenly things changed. My work not only required looking into multiple projects, but there were other non-project related stuff which were equally and sometimes more important. And were large in volumes. For a few months, or rather a couple of years, I somehow managed to work through this. This would have definitely hit my productivity. However, the problem was that I constantly had a nagging feeling of not being organized. Whenever I opened my outlook, it was all flat and uninteresting.

Let’s call this phase I. One fine Saturday morning, I decided, it was enough. I will become highly organized w.r.t. email management. I created about 30-40 odd folders like project 1, project 2….project n (all of these under a master folder called Projects), HR, Management, Accounts, Notifications, Personal, Leisure, Hiring, Processes, Sales-Mobile, Web……etc. Then  I took an arduous task of moving all my existing emails into these. What a feeling I had that night. It was such an awesome sense of accomplishment that I can’t explain. So things went smooth for a while. But then, it started hitting me slowly. The problem was that I almost never looked into the specific folder unless I had to search something. What this meant was that my email had to remain in inbox, until I felt  that it didn’t deserve to remain in the inbox. For some emails, I could immediately move into the specific folders, but some of them had to stay in the inbox for a while. And this again got me to the same point where I had started. I had lots of emails lying in my inbox. And now, the feeling of guilt was much more as it looked more disorganized (earlier I didn’t have those classified folders to make me feel so low). And because of this feeling, I always thought, I need to do something better and usually left the emails lying around in my inbox.

Move to phase II. With Gmail web and all the cool stuff of tagging etc., I found a software which could tag my emails and I could configure rules to move them into specific folders. This was what I always wanted! Wow, all sorted now. I could color code the tags, search based on the tags and what not. This went on for a while. Suddenly, I realized that the folders I had and the tags I was putting-in didn’t co-relate always (BTW, I seem to have the same problems with categories and tags on my blog). And one fine day, the tagging plugin to outlook required a mandatory update. Upon updating, all previous tagging information just disappeared. I am not sure if I checked some wrong option or if it was a bug with the upgrade process of the software itself. This left me in a big fix and made me think as to what exactly I want out of this whole process of classifying emails.

Cut to phase III. On my last Riyadh trip, I decided to dedicate a day to get through this once and for all. I thought through and came up with the following key points:

  • Emails are central to almost 90% of my work.
  • All emails which require my attention, should remain in my inbox unless they have been attended to. Mind that just reading the email through may not be enough to move it out of inbox. If the email requires certain action, it should ideally remain in the inbox until the action has been  followed through.
  • Although I had tagged my emails and moved them into different folders, whenever I had to look for a buried email, I almost always did a search on my root mail folder with keywords which didn’t always match with the keyword I had tagged the email with.
  • Almost 90% of the search was based on the from and approximate date range.
  • The gmail web interface (yes we use Google Apps) was a lot faster than the outlook search and I was using it 90% of the time to search through my emails.
  • Unless I myself had a follow-up to do on a certain email, I will invariably get that email with the trail from someone if and when it needs my atttention. So I will most likely not need to search for anything as the email trail would have all the context.

What the above meant, was that I really didn’t need to get fancy to classify and move my emails in such a  complicated fashion. I decided to just have a few folders:

  • Inbox: Well, you already have it. I now just keep any email there until it needs a follow up item on my plate.
  • Read: All read emails get into this. No strings attached. I am able to move about 80% of my emails almost instantly after reading into this folder.
  • Important: Some emails which may not require immediate follow-up, but are deemed important, go here.
  • Personal: All personal emails get in here.
  • Notifications: All those notification emails (bugs, issues etc.) go in here.
  • Recurring: There are some emails which I need to see again and again. Could be some registration information, credentials which I use once in a while etc.

That’s it. I think I made it simple. I am not sure if it can be made any simpler. But if I could, I will definitely make it. I am happy and I am relaxed. As I write this, I just have 7 emails lying in my inbox.  Now when I open my outlook, it is still flat, but it is interesting!


It has been a while when I went to IIT-KGP for a summer project out of my interest in GIS and Remote sensing. Don’t ask me what made me interested in those subjects. For those who are not aware, I am a mining engineer by education and ended up working for the software industry. Well, that is the case with a majority of people in India these days. The software industry is bottomless. It can accommodate without an end (or it could accommodate until the recent crisis!).  I started my education around the same time the .COM bubble burst happened and hit the software industry badly. Not a good time to begin! So I had to come up with ‘Plan B’ in case I don’t end up getting placed. And my plan B was to go for an MS from a reputed university in the US.

I’ve given all the background to ensure that people don’t think of me as one of those ‘studious’ kinds who was so serious about studies. It was a ‘forced’ decision. Anyways, when I visited the concerned professor, I came to know that he was an expert on ‘Mine Closure’ and had spent almost his entire career researching and teaching the topic. Wow! Can you imagine? I could never dream that ‘Mine Closure’ could be such an important aspect of mining. However, after spending a couple of days with him, I could understand its significance. The mine closure had to be planned even before the mining starts! And if you don’t submit satisfactory closure plans, the Government would not allow you to mine. He employed the latest technological advancements like GIS and Remote sensing to plan out and execute the ‘Mine Closure’.

So what makes me write about this today? It has been almost 6-7 years now. Someone has rightly said, ‘Whatever you learn in life, does not go waste’. After spending some time getting to know the software industry, I now realize the importance of ‘closure’.  It does not matter how many projects you ‘start’ well. What matters is how many of them get ‘closed’ successfully and in time. It takes at least 5 times the focus and effort to ‘close’ a project successfully than to start it! It takes a lot of ambition and dedication to do this. ‘Closing’ out projects not only brings in credibility, but it also liberates you of the mental blockade which could hamper other ongoing projects (if you work across multiple projects). It would heavily aid efficient resource planning.

But is everything in our control? Well almost never completely. There are multiple stake holders and it could involve the client, their end clients and so on. Human nature is such that we would like to see new features and improvements until the last moment. And that often spells disaster. Another common practice is to start off new things exactly when something is about to end. Since newer things always inspire us more than what is ongoing, almost certainly they will take precedence over the ongoing activities.

I guess the argument is valid across industries. It would have taken a little for Ratan Tata to start his dream project ‘Nano’, but we all know what it took to successfully get Nano on the roads. In fact we don’t even know what happened behind the scenes to get this through. Hats off to Ratan Tata for pulling this off!

Better said than done. But remember, we won’t be known for how many things we started well, but we would only be known for what all was ‘closed’ well.

Alright, that’s enough of fundas, now let’s get back to work 🙂


Re: Sometimes losers win

While going through this post,  Sometimes losers win which crisply explains how (smart)losers  win sometimes by re-defining winning as being losers,  I got reminded of an age-old wisdom story which goes like this:

Akbar,  who was a successful and able King was known for his witty questions and Birbal, one of his favorite courtiers was known to counter and solve those with compelling reasoning. On one such occasion, to test Birbal’s wit, he drew a line and asked Birbal if he could shorten the line without touching it! Birbal quickly drew another line bigger than the one Akbar did and said, “See, I have shortened your line without even touching it!”

Now I’ll co-relate this story to another common trait in losers who try to win. To prove that you are the best among the lot (team) you are working with, there are two ways:

  1. You really have the capability which gets demonstrated in your day to day work and over time, you are accepted as the best.
  2. You somehow manage to prove that others in the lot (team) are dumb and idiots! The moment you achieve this you’ve pulled it off.

Does the idea behind point#2 resemble the essence of the story above? Well to clarify my standpoint, Birbal was never a loser. I just wanted to illustrate the concept.

This is how some people are able to rise in organizations in spite on their incompetence. I’ve seen this, esp. in big organizations where, usually, there is a disconnect between the leadership and the junior employees. Unfortunately there are numerous re-defined winners in the middle management (because it’s kind of tough to get beyond that by re-defining winning!) This eventually causes a lot of frustration among the people who actually get the work done as they do not get the credit and become victims of the blame-game.

I believe it is very important for any organization, to have a really good and genuine middle-management for two reasons:

  1. It gives the leadership team, the bandwidth to focus on the business as opposed to look into people issues.
  2. They are the only way for the junior people to be “Connected” with the leadership and the company as a whole.

I acknowledge that people who re-define winning to become winners are smart in their own way and can gain a lot personally by doing so in the short-term, there is no way this is going to take them to the top. I feel it is very important for the leadership to identify such re-defined winners either through 360 degree feedbacks for through a defined set of processes and filter them out to ensure a healthy and competitive work culture.

I agree with the following phrase which I have been hearing, ever since I joined the software industry:

“People do not leave companies, they leave their Project Managers.”

This may not be true always, but I believe it is true more than 80% of the time.

All this inspires me to put up another post. So coming up…….

“Everyone can be a Winner!”