When I was a kid, I lived on my bicycle. Not literally of course, as that would have made bathing and sleeping impractical, but hardly a day went by when I wasn’t in the saddle at some point.
Now there weren’t many hills where I grew up, but the highest one was famous among us school kids as a place where you could test your nerve. Turn your front wheel down the hill and even without pedalling you would soon be going very fast. Badges of honour were awarded to those who made it all the way down the hill without touching the brakes, and we timed each other to see who made it down fastest.
Being pretty competitive, I was interested in what made the fastest kids so fast. My sense was that equipment was important, and the kids with the bikes built for speed had an edge. But in the end what seemed to be the decisive factor was confidence. Some kids just had a different perception of what “fast” meant. Their speed was somehow effortless, and watching them swoop down the hill I sometimes imagined they were fundamentally different creatures from those of us who grabbed the brakes at the first sign of a wobble.
I was thinking of this the other day as I was working with a long-standing client in a coaching session. He was working his way through his email inbox, and he was really moving fast. Each email was dealt with quickly and decisively.
First email – confirmation of a contract. No action to be done, but he wants to keep it. After a quick keyboard shortcut it’s safely stored in a reference folder. Next email – from the boss regarding a situation with a member of staff. My client decides it’s too sensitive to be handled in an email. After a deft mouse action the email is converted into a “next action” reminder to discuss this with the boss next time they’re together. Next email – it’s trash. The delete key dispatches it quickly. Next email is a request for an approval and just requires a quick response – rather than create a reminder, he deals with it in the moment.
And so it went. Within about 10 minutes, he had made decisions about each of the 20 emails that had come in before 10am that morning. For those emails that required further action, he had created reminders. For those that were reference material, they were stored where he could quickly find them. The trash had been deleted. He had actioned several that only required a quick response. And, perhaps most importantly, he had finished the thinking about all those emails, so that when he chose to focus on something else, he could focus completely, without distraction.
What enabled him to go so fast? Part of it was having his system set up properly so that as he worked there were places for everything to go. Reminders of next actions? They go in the task list or in the calendar. Reference material? Outlook folders. A place for everything and everything in its place.
He was also equipped with efficient ways of thinking about things. “Next action thinking” allows him not to be overwhelmed by things, to think effectively without creating mental residue.
But perhaps most importantly, over the past several months as we’ve worked together he has changed his perception of what’s possible. What previously seemed an overwhelming volume of email (he gets 200 a day, on average, with gusts to 250) now seems quite doable.
As the last email was dealt with and removed from his inbox, he leaned back, smiled and said, “I had no idea I could go so fast.”