The 48 hour break

In his book “Ready for Anything,” David Allen shares a story about being stuck at a certain level learning Karate. Try as he might, he wasn’t able to break through to the next level. Out of frustration, he decided to take a break for a few weeks.

When he came back, he found himself breaking previous barriers with ease.

The lesson he shared in the book was one on the power of re-entry – “When you most feel you don’t need/can’t take a break is often when you most need one.”

Despite reading this book nearly a decade ago, this story is one that has stuck. Over the years, I’ve made an effort to be deliberate about breaks and re-entry. While these efforts have taken different flavors, the flavor I’m thinking about today is the weekend break.

Thanks to this story, I’ve experimented with various kinds of weekend breaks over the years. I have tried 24-36 hour technology black outs, no email Saturdays, and other such flavors. The current version that I’m liking a lot is the 48 hour break from work email. This means no looking at work email between Friday evening and Sunday evening.

I’ve implemented this over the past 18 months and have found that it gives me the space to re-evaluate how I’m approaching my work week while gaining much needed perspective on the challenging puzzle-of-the-moment. Most importantly, it provides the downtime to wholeheartedly connect with people that matter.

And, as I re-learn every week, re-entry is a powerful thing.

Fixing typos and email friendships

Over these years, I’ve been fortunate to get to know some of you via email. Some of you write in with feedback and counter points, some share ideas for future posts, and others write in with notes of appreciation and encouragement. These are my favorite kind of email.

Many of your notes give me ideas for future post and help me articulate what I’m learning better. Over the past months, however, I’ve been receiving a special variant. John from the screenshot below (email redacted) writes in from time to time with a link to the post in the subject and a list of the typos I need to fix.

The email above is a recent example with just one. I have, however, received notes with 8-10 typos and grammatical errors that John thoughtfully helps me fix.

With a 2.5 year old and ~1 year old, getting these blog posts out is nearly always a rush job these days. That, in turn, means I make more of these mistakes than I did before. So, a big thank you to John for making these better for all of us.

And, on that note, thank you to the many of you who share your notes and reflections with me from time to time. Your notes add so much positive energy to my life – they mean a lot. I really couldn’t be more grateful for your time, attention, and thoughtfulness.


Tools like slack and email on the phone have made it easier for us to go back-and-forth with colleagues on questions. I’ve been paying attention to the many times I’ve been guilty of initiating these sorts of conversations.

These start with an unassuming “Hey, quick question -” and soon spiral into – “Oh, does that mean….?”

Every once a while, these back-and-forths exist because of the complexity of the problem. It is hard to ask that next question if you know little about the problem. But, more often than not, a little bit of upfront thought could help us lay out the 4-5 questions we actually do want to ask.

Giving that extra bit of thought upfront and batching our questions can make a big difference to the productivity of the person on the receiving end.

Here’s to doing that.

Thinking about perception when responding to email

I know it has become fashionable to complain about email – “too many emails,” “I’m not able to focus,” etc. I, however, am yet to find a more useful communication tool for folks working in the connection economy. Until then, I’ll continue to love email and be thankful that it exists.

Email management is a skill I’ve consciously sought to learn over time. I’ve learnt that I like keeping an empty inbox. The big difference it has made in the past few years is that I stopped viewing my inbox as my to do list. Clearing email was a chore and I did whatever was in my inbox. Inbox zero changes the dynamic. Now, I own my task list and priorities and email just becomes a way to connect, communicate, and coordinate.

The inbox zero approach follows a simple logic –
1. If an email can be responded quickly (~2 mins), do it now.
2. If it takes longer, leave it in.
3. If it is not for you, re-direct.
4. If it is information necessary for others, forward.
5. If it signals a longer task that requires thinking, file into a “work-in-progress” folder and make sure it gets on your task list

This flow becomes so natural that you don’t stop to think about it. I have, however, realized that there used to be a limiting factor that stopped me from achieving this flow – it was the fear of perception. When I saw email coming in, I would wonder if I should respond because of variants of a question – “What would these people think – would they  think I had nothing useful to do except sit in front of my email?”

So, I’d wait – till I could assuage these doubts over perception.

Over time, I realized this was a pathetic waste of time. Most people don’t care. And, if you find people spending their time judging you instead of doing their work, I’d stay away from them. The beauty about getting into a flow with email is that you don’t waste any unnecessary time. Clearing email stops being a battle. It is just part of the flow. Sometimes, part of the flow is also acknowledging you won’t be able to do justice to every email and that you’ll make mistakes.

That’s okay. Like all things, this is all about process. Make peace with the process and enjoy it. That’s generally a sign that a thing will be done well.

The email tool

Email has been around for 30+ years now. And, despite its ubiquity, it still polarizes. Email has also been declared dead many a time in these 21 years but still manages to stick on. If you read Cal Newport’s excellent blog, you will likely see regular posts telling you – it’s okay to be bad at email. There are tons of productivity blogs who’ve written about inbox zero, the 2 minute rule, etc., etc. So, which is the truth?

Here’s how I think of email –

1. Email is a near-ubiquitous communication tool. It is important to think of it as a communication tool and not a getting-things-done tool or productivity tool. Email just helps get messages across.

2. This leads us to the question – where is email most useful? Email is most useful in any work that requires connection because, well, it helps connect people. “Duh” – you might say. Forgive me for stating the obvious.

3. So, for researchers who need to spend more time reading and digesting complex scientific paper, Cal is absolutely right. Email isn’t a necessity.

4. However, if you work in the “connection” economy, I believe it is essential you learn how to use the tool. If you lead a team of really busy people or a team of people at different locations (increasingly the norm), for instance, being bad at email is really not an option. A CEO who doesn’t do email well can repeatedly stall an entire organization.

5. Did we communicate well before email? Sure, we did. We survived just fine without computers too. While we could argue about whether our quality of lives have improved, the fact is – things have changed. As things stand now, email is the norm for a tool of communication. Figure out a way to deal with it.

6. Notice, my message isn’t to respond to every email. Just figure out a way to deal with it – set expectations on how you respond and help folks who work with you understand what to expect. This may become easier as you become more busy/sought after/important as people understand you have a lot on your plate. But, I’d argue that it probably never gets much easier.

7. You can definitely choose to view email as a necessary evil. But, given many of us spent at least 30 minutes to an hour on our inbox in our working lives, I’d imagine that view isn’t doing us much good. Every once in a while, I get a completely serendipitous email from someone I haven’t heard from in a long time and I feel really thankful for the awesomeness that is email. If you aren’t getting such emails, be that someone and send someone you are thinking about a nice personal note..

8. Also, email can be incredibly helpful in making connections with people you have never met. I’ve been fortunate to meet some really cool people after some persistent emailing. So, if you haven’t gotten around to using the email tool for that, well, it is about time..

Email is a tool we’re going to have live with. I’d recommend the following – Take some time really think about how you plan to work with it, learn to use it to your advantage (it is definitely a skill) and love it. Love is a verb, after all.

Email and constructive communication

I was once part of a heated email chain a couple of years back. As with most heated email chains, this began with a misunderstanding which was only amplified with time. I was the junior-most member of the team and was more the by-stander who was being called on from time to time to produce one number or another.

At one point, our senior-most team member sent an email to a couple of us on one side of the argument that read something like this – STOP REPLYING TO THE EMAIL CHAIN. WE WILL TAKE THIS OFFLINE AND SORT THIS OUT.

He immediately set up some time with each of us, listened to us, focused on the next steps and  methodically worked his way through the issues. And sort it out we did.

Emails are good for a whole lot of things – sharing status updates, ensuring information is shared, asking questions and engaging in discussions, and setting up real life conversations. They are, however, not good for any communication that isn’t constructive and almost always make things worse. Deprived of context and facial expressions, we always assume the worst.

The learning for me was simple – the moment you sense an email thread going negative, take it offline. And, as my wise colleague would say, STOP.