Emails Are Not For Real-Time Requests (and Other Rules)

Email by Christopher Holm-Hansen from The Noun Project

Email by Christopher Holm-Hansen from The Noun Project

You probably know of at least one person who uses emails for real-time requests. They annoyingly ask if you’ve read their emails, sometimes instantly after sending them. This expectation puts unnecessary pressure on you to interrupt your productivity by incessantly checking your inbox.

For those of us working with such people, consultant Cyrus Stoller has come up with some rules on using multiple channels to reach each other instead of just email. With smartphones, we’re able to create a simple system of sorting and escalating priorities.

He says that if you want a response from him in…

…30 minutes, you should call him. “This gives you an opportunity to make sure I understand exactly what you need done and you know exactly when I received your request. If you don’t feel comfortable interrupting what I’m doing to make a request to me directly then it probably isn’t that urgent and can wait a little while.”

…two hours, you should text him. “This gives me time to gracefully wind down what I’m doing and call you back.”

…sometime today, you should IM him. “Instant message works well for slightly more asynchronous communication. You’re interested in getting a short response promptly, but it doesn’t need to be right away. This is less disruptive than calling or texting. This works well when you need to find out a concrete piece of information before you can proceed.”

…a day or later, email him. “Most people I know feel like they have too many emails to deal with. Think twice about whether email is the right way to communicate your information. You should expect email threads to be truly asynchronous.”

With our workdays more fragmented than ever, we need such rules to keep our systems running smoothly. Read Stoller’s full blog post.

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  • Jim Hunt

    There are days I can’t differentiate between the stock ticker and my email in-box. I have often said email makes me feel like a short-order cook and I am definitely in the weeds on that one.

    • Hamza Khan

      It’s worth mapping out how you currently receive life’s random inputs and then designing a system that deals with them in a way that keeps you calm and focused.

  • Tina Pusse

    Seriously?? And as a result, you have to jump between 4 channels of communication instead of just one.

    • Hamza Khan

      But why not use them cleverly to filter out the real emergencies??

      • Tina Pusse

        The problem with “real” emergencies is, that when I tell my colleagues or students that they should ring me if there are real emergencies, they’d ring me ALL the time. For a someone not able to meet a final deadline and wanting to let me know why and ask for another day, that is a REAL emergency. For me, that’s nothing that couldn’t wait until my next “checking emails” time slot a few hours later. IM is just an invitation to mix up professional and private conversation. The chat will start of with something really (!) important, but as soon as that is solved you can be dragged into a 1 hour conversation about nothing. And you can’t always be abrupt with that person, if he or she is your boss or otherwise important or a just someone you like and don’t want to be rude to.

      • Hamza Khan

        Ah, I hear you Tina. As a teacher myself, I quickly learned that the rules have to be much more strict in a classroom setting. For the first week, I opened the floodgates and before I knew it, Facebook DMs were taking up my day. Facebook groups, or some sort of closed group, with a reminder for to you check in once or a few times a day, is much better in this context where everything seems urgent and important.

  • Christine

    I actually really really dislike receiving written business communications via text or IM. Text is probably the worst because responding back is a royal pain. It REALLY kills me when business associates message me on Facebook. Guess what – my FB notifications go to my personal email address, not my business email address. To me, only appropriate use of things like IM and texting in a business situation are for thinks like – I just sent you an email…wanted to make sure you got it. Or, I need to talk with you about XYX, when would you be able to take my call?

    • Hamza Khan

      I’m with you on not wanting to receive business correspondence via Facebook. Facebook is where I prefer to rant and stalk, not talk shop. Google Chat is where I do most of my IM’ing.

  • Pete

    I hate the over reliance on e-mails as much as the next guy, but I hate voicemails even more. I usually don’t even bother listening to them. I will just call the person and ask what they want. Texts are good for yes or no questions or when a real short answer is required. IM, especially if the person isn’t online right away is just a catastrophe waiting to happen.

    • Hamza Khan

      For voicemails, why not just have them convert to text?

  • Stephan

    I really don’t agree with this article. I have spent years “teaching” my clients to send emails and not call me. I feel that phone calls are so much more disruptive than emails. With emails (or other non-instant communication) I have the chance to finish one task and choose when to open the floodgates of the inbox. I have no Voicemail on my phone, and I almost always respond to emails within an hour. If I would ever write a book about how to succeed as a freelance designer with too little time, this would be my top tip…

    • Hamza Khan

      Interesting. May I ask what field you work in?

  • Terry B.

    I like the phone calls too. But what bothers me is when the caller doesn’t specify what they actually want. Often, the matter could be resolved even if we keep missing each other.

    • Hamza Khan

      THIS. If phone calls had subject lines, I’d reconsider my stance. Somewhere, Google is working on a telekinetic upgrade to Glass.

  • Frustrated

    Yes but how the heck do you get on with work with all this interruption?

    I find that a typical day for me is answering phone calls, replying to texts, hour long IM sessions for a simple edit and a full inbox of questions, quote requests and more.

    How can I stay responsive and timely to requests AND complete my major projects when I have a myriad of ways people can interrupt me and everyone expects everything done within an hour regardless of the communication method and how many times I tell them things similar to the above rules.

    Lately I’ve been steering everyone towards email and replying within 24hrs, it’s the best I can do to stay productive and responsive to my clients. However I do find that half my day is still taken up by these interruptions and if I don’t reply within 30-60mins they send through an email every ten minutes until I reply.

    • Hamza Khan

      Sorry to hear. However, it seems like your trouble is there being too much work for one person. May I ask what industry you’re in, and how many client projects you juggle in a typical day? It may be time to expand your team.

  • Keith Smith

    Have to agree with the other concerns. As clean and logical as this appears at first glance, practically speaking, it’s a bear to monitor all those channels. I much prefer email for most comms and then IM as a replacement for tactical, real-time discussions where I’m less concerned about archive and search.

    • Hamza Khan

      The beauty of this proposed system is that you can go about your day working on important projects. Only the real emergencies will come to you via phone and text. By communicating your system with your team, it’ll out the onus on them to reevaluate if their priority is actually an emergency in the first place. Win-win, if you ask me.

  • Héctor Muñoz Huerta

    For work I’ll only use email and direct phone calls.

    • Hamza Khan

      No matter what you do, keep it simple.

  • Thad Puckett

    Excellent list. Too many people think the email inbox is the perfect place, but it can be the slowest!

    • Hamza Khan

      Thanks! I’ve long since replaced email with Asana.

  • Bianca Landis

    This is great information! Thanks for sharing, this is something I will be using as a staple.

  • Guy Smalley

    As a freelance illustrator there are some clients I have to charge more because I know they interact more. New clients when I talk to them and ask questions I can generally after 40 years get a feeling of what I am in for. After the first phone call I really try to keep it to emails to have a record and to control the time spent interacting

  • GTrain

    I always skew communication to email and after that conference calls where I have a few people involved. I freelance for music and TV companies and not only does email help keep details straight, it provides a record that keeps everyone honest. I shudder to imagine some of the situations I’ve been in with my only backup being “But on the phone you said…” To me texts feel intrusive in a business context.

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How Pessimism Can Improve Your Life And Work

A new video by The School of Life explores the unappreciated wisdom of pessimism. Negative thinking gets a bad rap, but in fact it can ironically have a positive effect on your productivity and creativity. As The School of Life argues, pessimism prepares you for the worst, reduces your expectations, and protects you from disappointment—all helpful for your psyche as well as your creative output:

We live in an absurdly and painfully optimistic world. Mostly, that’s the result of all the businesses out there trying to sell us things, and understandably using cheerfulness to do it. And partly, it’s the influence of technology, which is always getting better, coloring our view of life as a whole, which often isn’t improving. …

For centuries, religions peddled dark messages. Buddhism told its followers that life was suffering. Christianity spoke of the fallen state of mankind, and of the inevitability of earthly imperfection. That was helpful; it kept our expectations in check.

The psychologist William James came up with an equation: Happiness = Expectations / Reality. So there are two ways to ensure contentment. Change reality, or change expectations. Pessimists know to reduce the expectations.

Writer Barbara Ehrenreich takes the espousal of pessimism a step further in her acclaimed book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. As she writes in a piece for The Guardian, it’s not just that pessimism has benefits for us; optimism can actually be psychologically harmful:

Like a perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, like an inescapable jingle, the injunction to be positive is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to identify a single source. Oprah routinely trumpets the triumph of attitude over circumstance. A Google search for “positive thinking” turns up 1.92m entries. A whole coaching industry has grown up since the mid-90s, heavily marketed on the internet, to help people improve their attitudes and hence, supposedly, their lives. …

[But this] ideological force in American culture… encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.

You undoubtedly have, and will continue to, hit roadblocks on your path in life and work. But by recognizing that cheerfully assuming everything will shake out in your favor, and maintaining unrealistically sky-high expectations, is dangerous and unproductive, you’ll be able to clear those roadblocks in such a way that enables you to learn, grow and—most importantly—move on.

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How (and Why) You Should Read More

Book by Mike Ashley from the Noun Project

Book by Mike Ashley from the Noun Project

There’s no question that reading enriches your life. Reading imparts fresh inspiration, keeps your brain sharp, improves your writing, can relax you, and even benefits your health. Devoting the time and mental energy needed to read an entire book, as opposed to the snackable content (tweets, blog posts, email newsletters) that makes up the Internet, is a deeply rewarding experience. You go on an intimate journey with an author, by way of which you become much more immersed in the topic at hand than you’d be able to after a few hundred words of “like”-able discourse.

But how to make time for reading books (physical or e-)? From Rype’s blog, a few handy suggestions:

Learn To Read Faster

… Since the average reader reads around 250–300 words per minute, being able to double your reading speed at 500–600 words will allow you read twice the number of books in the same amount of time. …

a. use a pointer

Use either a pen or your index finger to keep track of your speed when reading. This will be useful for the second technique.

b. expand your peripheral vision

Start reading 3 words in from the first word of each line and end 3 words in from the last word.

Schedule It

Reading more books can simply come from making more time for it.

Scheduling your most important tasks can become one of the most productive things you can do, whether you’re making time to read, learn a language, or master a skill. …

It can be as little as 15–30 minutes in the morning before your work, or during lunch hours.

Drop It If You Don’t Love It

… If you want to read more books, retain more, and double your knowledge, you need to have a passion for what you’re reading. …

Don’t be afraid to quit if you don’t love it.

It’s what will lead to what you love.

Keeping track of how many books you read each year can be a huge motivator. You get the satisfaction of adding an item to your list each time you close the cover of a book for the last time, and can challenge yourself to increase your total each year. Sites like Goodreads and Shelfari help you log your read count and set an annual goal.

Reading is one of the three R’s of childhood education for a reason. And assuredly, Sir William Curtis—credited with coining the phrase—had books in mind when he said it.


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The Method Actor Approach to Design


Legendary graphic designer Michael Bierut, Pentagram partner and protégé of design legend Massimo Vignelli, lets the world into his creative process in his new monograph How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things. A particularly interesting element is his “method actor” approach to graphic design, as he tells FastCoDesign:

[S]omeone says you want to do the signs for the New York Times?… [T]o do the work properly, I have to talk to editors, I have to sit in on the page-one meeting where they decide how page one is going to be laid out…

If you just have a request for proposal where the client says we need X, Y, and Z, that really just gives you the shopping list… It’s sort of like saying, I need a pair of pants and a shirt. But then, where are you going to wear it, how much are you going to spend? I’ll stand you in front of a mirror and you have to feel like you’re the kind of person who can wear those clothes.

So going to all those meetings, if all I cared about were typefaces or colors, I’d be sitting, fidgeting, thinking, “Why am I here? This is boring.” Instead, I was thinking “I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe that without ever taking a journalism class I’m actually sitting with the top editors at the New York Times and I’ll know before any other civilian does what’s going to be the story that appears in the first column on the left of tomorrow’s paper.” I had that momentary thrill.

Wrapping yourself up in the topic of your work so that you’re truly invested doesn’t just translate into more effective and impactful work. It also keeps you more fulfilled and motivated as an artist. Because the method actor approach to acting isn’t just about inhabiting the character fully so that you never lift the veil to reveal your true self until after the project is completed. Ultimately, method acting is about just being, as opposed to putting something on or performing. And if you can get to that place in your work when you’re not feigning interest or curiosity, but truly “feeling it,” that’s where the art lies.


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Austin Kleon: How To Be a “Scenius”

By Austin Kleon

By Austin Kleon

Writer and artist Austin Kleon, of Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work! fame, is a big supporter of creatives that can contribute to an artistic community as opposed creating in their own vacuum. In FastCo Create, he borrows the term “scenius” from the musician Brian Eno to encourage artists to change their end goal from being a genius to being a creative contributor:

Kleon cautions against the artistic myth of the lone genius pounding away in a garret somewhere…. He created his own scenius online. Kleon says, “I think what has been the most remarkable in my career is that I’ve never been part of a geographical scene. I didn’t move to New York after college. I didn’t move to L.A. I moved to Cleveland, and there’s not a whole lot of a scene there. But what I did have was the Internet, and I became part of a scenius by putting my work out there. I started blogging in 2005, and back then, we were all connected, we just didn’t have social media in the same way as we do now. You’d just post things to your blog and people would send you comments or emails and you’d slowly find people as they stumbled across your work. When I did work I really liked and put it online, it attracted the people I wanted to meet. For me, being online, that was my scenius. That was my moving to New York in the ’70s. Or Paris in the ’20s.”

Kleon notes that you don’t have to be in the same medium as the people in your scenius. In fact, it helps if you’re not. He says since moving to Austin, he’s fallen in with musicians and filmmakers in addition to writers and artists, and those relationships have informed his work.

The key to being a scenius is to create something every single day. A constant stream of creative outpout ensures that you remain a vital part of a creative community. As Kleon told 99U in an interview:

We all get 24 hours. No one gets more time. Sure, you might have your job, you might have a kid, you might have a family—I had all of those things when I was writing my first book—but when you get ruthless about what you really want to do, there are so many gaps. So many little spaces in the day where you can find the time….

It happens a lot of in creative work that you finish a project and you don’t know what to do next. It can be a bit disconcerting. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have a daily practice that you do no matter what you are working on.

Your work, no matter what it is, matters. When you put it out there every day for your creative scene to absorb and consume, you cultivate your own brand and the community in tandem. That’s what being a scenius is all about.


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Achieve Goals By Gamifying Them

Benoît Bossy

Illustration by Behance member Benoît Bossy

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggests the secret to successfully achieving goals is working up to them level by level, video game style. The idea is that you make incremental changes to your existing behavior over a period of time, pausing along the way to master each level before progressing to the next. He took this approach to losing weight:

Like a video game, the way to changing your health habits is by starting out at the first level, and only going to the next level after you’ve beaten the one before that. The problem is that most people start at Level 10 and fail, and wonder what happened. Most of us want to skip several levels, but we’re just not ready.

So the secret is to start at Level 1, and only advance once you’re done with that level. One level at a time, you’ll master the game of losing weight and getting healthy….

Level 1

1. Start walking just for a few minutes every day.
2. Reduce your eating by a little bit. A very little bit.

Level 2

[D]on’t go to this level until you’ve had a streak of seven days of doing Level 1.

1. Walk every day for a few minutes more. If you’ve been going around the block twice, make it three times. Or add 5 minutes to your walking.
2. Eat a little less than in the previous level. Just a little less — not really noticeable.

Level 3

If you’ve successfully done Level 2 for another week, you’re ready to add more:

1. Walk a little more.
2. Eat/drink less of something that’s empty calories — less soda, sugar, bread, pastries, sweet coffee drink, chips, cookies, pizza. Don’t drop any of these completely, just eat less of it.

And so on. Minor tweaks collectively add up to major changes. The trick is having the patience and diligence to stick with those small shifts and implement them week after week until you’ve achieved your ultimate goal. To stay motivated and track your progress, try using a goal-centered app like, LittleBit, or or a more analogue system like Jake Lodwick’s Standards self-management technique.

There’s no bonus round in real life, so make the one you have count.


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How to Deal When You’re Disappointed In Yourself

By Burnt Toast Creative

By Burnt Toast Creative

Creatives are no stranger to experiencing crushing disappointment. No matter your medium, it’s easy to equate your work with yourself, since your product is a reflection of your inner humanhood. Whenever you’re disappointed in something you’ve produced, or else your failure to actually produce that thing, that feeling of frustration may bleed into general dissatisfaction with yourself as a whole.

Of course, self-disappointment does nothing but further quash your motivation and productivity. If you feel like what you create is worthless or falls frustratingly short, you lose your inspiration to create anything at all. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits offers a few poignant suggestions for overcoming this feeling of not living up to your own standards, including:

See the Greatness of the Present

Let’s turn from the self we haven’t been, to the self we have been. This self might have “failed” at X, but it has also succeeded in lots of other ways. This self has tried. It has gotten a lot done. It’s not perfect, but it has good intentions. This self has been the best it can be, even if that means imperfection. This self has cared, has loved, has strived for better, has made an effort, has wanted the best for others. Not always, but it has. This self deserves that kind of recognition, and love for being the best self it can be….

Work with Curiosity

[G]oing forward, let’s practice tossing out our expectations of how we’re going to do today (and in life in general), and instead adopt an attitude of curiosity. We don’t know how we’re going to do at work, or in our relationships, or with our personal habits. We can’t know. So let’s find out: what will today be like? How will it go?

Be curious, in an attitude of not-knowingness.

It’s fun to find out things!

Yes, expectations will come up for us, and we will fail to live up to them, and we will feel frustration and disappointment again. This will happen, and this too will be a bit disappointing, because we want to be perfect at being curious and present. We’ll have to repeat the process when we notice this happening. That’s OK. That’s how it works — constantly renewing, never done.

But as we get better at this, I promise, we’ll learn to see things with a new curiosity, with a gratitude for every moment that we meet, and with a more loving and kind view of constantly failing but constantly striving selves. These selves are wonderful, and that realization is worth the ever-constant journey.

This combination of mindfulness, self-compassion, and curiosity enables you to move forward in your creative process and continue thinking and making. To take it one step further, you can dig out of a self-disappointment hole completely, as you use the above tactics, by removing direct internal fault-finding from the equation. As Janet Choi comments on what psychologist Ethan Kross has found, avoiding the first person, and addressing yourself as “you” instead, can have powerful positive consequences in silencing that inner critic:

When you get out of “me,” “myself,” and “I,” you mentally gain distance from yourself and get out of your own head. Much like you can gain perspective on a piece of art by stepping back a few feet, you can gain added insight on your thought process by putting some mental distance between your present mindset and your typical nervous, anxious self.

As you’re focusing, per Babauta, on thinking about your next project with a sense of possibility and openness, do so by asking yourself, “Who are you most excited to talk to about this piece?” or suggesting in your head, “You should carve out an hour tomorrow morning to work on this first thing, while you’re fresh.”

Just as you require multiple artistic implements at your disposal to complete a creative project, you need a variety of self-help techniques in your toolkit to conquer inner disappointment.


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When You Should Design “Badly” On Purpose

By Yen Divinagracia

By Yen Divinagracia

As a talented creative, you probably shudder at the thought of purposely designing something badly. Why would you possibly do such a thing, other than out of passive aggressiveness towards an infuriating client? (Bad idea.) UX content strategist Jerry Chao suggests that purposely designing badly can be a great tactic for conquering creative block:

There’s a big difference between having no good ideas, and no ideas at all. Chances are, the more bad ideas you have, the more pressure you apply to come up with good ideas. In these cases, the best way to beat designer’s block is to get all the bad ideas out of your system.

Try designing a mockup in which you make all the wrong decisions on purpose. You may find it strangely productive.

For starters, you’re exercising your design muscles a lot more than just staring at a blank screen: designing badly is better than not designing at all. On a deeper level, designing a purposefully bad mockup forces you to think critically on the same topics, but from a different perspective. If you can figure out the worst place to stick a call-to-action, for example, that will shed some light on the best place. This kind of productive distraction allows you to think about solutions without actually thinking about them.

This process uses the same mental muscles as when an editor considers a piece of writing by placing it upside down or backwards, forcing him- or herself to focus on the bare bones of the work: paragraph structure, word choice, syntax. The technique makes it impossible to glaze over while reading, and can surface interesting patterns or qualities of the work.

Coming at a project from an intentionally awkward angle can offer a refreshing new viewpoint that affords that much-anticipated creative breakthrough. Just don’t publish your bad-on-purpose project to your portfolio–at least without an explanation of the exercise.


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