A Better Way To Work TimeBack Management

About Dan Markovitz

Dan Markovitz is the founder and president of TimeBack Management. Prior to founding his own firm, Mr. Markovitz held management positions at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger. Learn More...

Leveling; smoothing out the flow; e.g., doing two performance evaluations a day for 3 weeks, rather than ten a day for three days -- and then needing to take a vacation because you're so burned out.
Overburdening people, process, or equipment; e.g., people working 100 hour weeks for months on end -- come to think of it, like most lawyers and accountants.
Uneveness or variability; e.g., leaving work at the normal time on Thursday, but having to stay at the office till midnight on Friday because the boss finally got around to giving you that project...at 4:30pm.
Waste; activities that your customer doesn't value and doesn't want to pay for; e.g., billing your customer for the really expensive 10am FedEx delivery because you didn't finish the document on time.

TIMEBACK BLOG Syndicate content

How we put a man on the moon without email

Posted May 11, 2008 @ 6:50 PM

Last week I worked with a group of R&D engineers at a high-tech company. As for so many others, the blessing of email has turned into the bane of their existence. Each person gets a minimum of 200 emails per day (the vast majority of which aren't terribly important or relevant), and the burden of reading all that email keeps them from spending time on the stuff that's really important to their customers.

After I pointed out that email is nothing more than the high-tech equivalent of two dixie cups and a string -- just a way of transmitting information, but not actually one's job -- one of the engineers wondered how NASA's engineers managed to put a man on the moon without tools like email. His point, of course, was that despite the problems caused by email, in the end there's a net gain in productivity.

It turns out that there is an engineer at the company who worked on the Apollo project, and the leader of the R&D group once asked him precisely that question: how did you manage without email? The engineer explained that the team met from 9-10am three days per week. The rest of the time they were actually working on solving this enormous puzzle of landing on the moon. As Nathan Zeldes, a principle engineer at Intel puts it, these guys were "plan-driven," not "interrupt-driven." And when unexpected problems arose, they actually talked to each other.

I used to work at a dotcom company in the early days of instant messaging. I remember sitting across the aisle of the giant cube farm from my friend Jennifer and exchanging IMs about having lunch together. It would take about six or eight messages -- read: interruptions -- back and forth to decide on a time and a place to eat. Prior to IM, of course, we would have simply talked for about 30 seconds to make our plans. One interruption: no muss, no fuss. But yielding to the siren call of new technology, we used IM, and ended up being far less efficient in accomplishing our goal.

It's true that organizations today are more complex and more far-flung than the original Apollo group at NASA. And email makes it easier to overcome some of the difficulties inherent in such complicated companies. But you have to choose the right tool for the job. Just because it's free, easy to use, and readily accessible to all does *not* mean that email is the best way to get things done. Sometimes actually talking with someone is a much better way to solve problems than reliance upon email or IM.

Remember: email is a tool to help you get your job done. It is not your job, anymore than the phone is. If you treat it as such, you might find that it's less of a millstone around your neck and more of a true productivity tool.

email can be a big nuisance.

email can be a big nuisance. It can become a habit to check too many times, so best to only check once in a great while so you don't waste too much time constantly checking.


Spot-on as usual, Dan. The more I think about these issues, the more I think of them as generalizing to all sorts of situations in which the wise course is to remember that "Just because we have Tool X doesn't mean we have to use it."

The edge case might be nuclear weapons, but it also applies to everything from television to electric can openers. Maybe grandma needs an electric can opener because her arthritis keeps her from using a manual one - but what about you and me? Spend a tiny fraction of the money for the manual one, which (a) fits easily in the utensil drawer, and (b) will last you years and years without your having to worry about the motor burning out.

As for my e-mail habits, I've been much better lately about shutting Outlook done while I'm working. I find I can go a couple of hours during the workday without checking it - with no penalties whatsoever.

Well said!

I read my email once an hour (maybe a little more). I've turned off the visual popups and noises Outlook makes. I get more work done, and the only time it becomes a problem is when people who run their lives via "Email as IM" walk round to my deck and accost me with "why haven't you meailed me back X,Y and Z - it's urgent!". They need a little re-eduction, and over time it will come.

As a dope-smoking cobalt programming ex-folk singer once told me, "Do the importnant, not the urgent"

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