It’s urgent! (Really?)

I’m not exaggerating when I say that since I joined Basecamp, I’ve been questioning everything about the way I’ve traditionally worked. For example, let’s take the knowledge worker’s staple — email. Most professionals (including me) went from using email to communicate asynchronously, as intended, to expecting people to be trapped in email all day. Once we started reading email all day, we promoted it to the job of handling urgent matters — something it wasn’t designed to do. And if we are stuck in email all day, we aren’t really making progress on any other kind of work.

When did the inbox become the center of the work universe?
The fear behind “ASAP”
Every company has its own culture, which is reinforced by the actions its employees and leaders take and the stories they tell. One particular company I worked for valued being in the know — knowing every little detail. In this environment, it was not OK to say, “I don’t know. I’ll get back to you.” And that created fear.

In a company like that, to make sure you never get caught saying, “I don’t know,” you over-prepare for meetings. You email your team for ASAP help when you’re in meetings. And if it’s your boss in a meeting, you stand by for those ASAP bombs in your emails. In the meantime, you attend meetings all day long during which hardly anyone actually participates because they’re reading email.

When I worked at companies where this was the norm, if I had 30 minutes in a day when there were no meetings, I did the dance of joy. That was my time slice to “work.” Ironically, I found that if a meeting got cancelled, I was able to get more work done in that one hour than the entire rest of the day. 
And of course, as fewer people got work done, we needed more meetings to check in to see why work wasn’t getting done. Meetings became the way we kept each other updated. Those meetings spurred more email, and the cycle was painful.

That’s the old way of working.

Don’t let false urgency throw you off your priorities.

Fast forward to the present.

The other day I received an email to which I replied, “Please call me if this is urgent.” I didn’t have time to deliver on the request the sender put in his message, and I wasn’t going to be in the office the next day, a Friday. (One of our benefits at Basecamp is a four-day work week during the summer.) But then, I thought about that. If I replied that way, I’d have to check my phone and email all day — my day off — for an “urgent” message. The more I thought about it, I realized, how could this email be urgent? The external sender didn’t even state a timeframe. And I didn’t know him.

When did every email become urgent? When people started hanging out in email all the time.
Unfortunately, if you’re expected to monitor email all day, you can’t get any work done. We’ve changed what the meaning of work is — in a bad way. We’re splitting our attention between responding to emails and attending meetings (that demand more email). Maybe you’re reading this post and looking at your email right now!

Email was never intended as a platform for doing work. It has no intelligence. There’s no prioritization. It lands in your inbox chronologically. And yet, when you’re replying to or sending email, you feel busy. You feel like you’re doing something. But are you really? When you’re reacting to email, someone else is setting your priorities.

The heartbeat of your day shouldn’t be your inbox.

Now, some things are truly urgent, but real emergencies won’t likely come through your inbox. And while it may be ego-crushing to admit this, so little of what we do in the tech industry overall is truly urgent. If you stop monitoring your email for imaginary emergencies, and you start working on your own priorities, you’ll get stuff done and you won’t need to attend a meeting to explain to others what you’ve been up to. There will be no fear at the end of the day that you weren’t productive. And that’s a great feeling.
 If you’d like to continue this dialog, you can always send me an email. Just don’t mark it “urgent.”