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The Lever #006: Reduce Communication Overload

Productivity is about Leveraging you’re your most valuable asset - your Time.

Reducing obligations on the front side and managing the remainder on the backside is an important step in doing this.


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Rise of the Knowledge Worker

Before the 1950s productivity was largely confined to industry and the manufacture of goods. With the rise of the "knowledge worker", the term coined by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book "Landmarks of Tomorrow", came a gradual shift in how work gets done, and who does it.

This led to management by objectives with the worker largely responsible for determining how they would meet those objectives. This requires a level of self management that was not previously needed.

The next major shift in knowledge work came with the advent and rise of email. Suddenly, messages were instantaneous. And replies expected immediately.

The trouble is that while it's easy for me to send you a message I don't have visibility into your workload. So if I'm prioritizing a request and you have not finished the last priority request, then the work starts to pile up.

Various systems have been implemented over the years - most notably Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen. While complex, if followed correctly it does give excellent visibility into everything you have to do.

But why is such a complex system needed in the first place just to manage your work?

The reason why you can't keep track of it all is because of two things:

1. Increased incoming communications

2. Increased number of obligations

Communication Overload

This communication overload is largely driven by email. While more progressive companies are transitioning towards chat tools such as slack for internal communications and saving emails for external communications, these are the exception and not the norm. And even if you work at one of these companies it doesn't help with your personal email accounts.

This leads to a flurry of incoming (especially on your birthday!)

These days every app widget and program wants to be talking to you all the time. Each ping of a notification on your cell phone is also an incoming communication.

The volume of incoming that we have to deal with in the modern age is truly staggering.

Increased Obligations

The second reason for managing personal productivity is the increased number of obligations we carry.

In the olden times, before knowledge work (BKW), our lives would largely consist of two or three major focuses. You had your work, your family, a hobby, some community involvement, and that was it.

These days, we don't just have work. We may have two jobs, all while building a side hustle. All while hoping that one day you'll be free to control your own time.

If you have kids they have activities year round (called "programming" these days) designed to create well rounded little members of society. And with the current state of technology if you aren't giving them something to do then they will very likely just sit and stare at a screen. Good for consumption not good for production.

Add an attempt to have some adult friendships, to participate in some form of community, and to exercise enough to combat the modern day diet and you start to get a pretty full plate.

Full Capture

To combat all this inbound and increase we have developed 360 degree systems for managing your personal time.

The first step of these systems is typically to capture every single thing that's in your head.

Full capture was popularized by David Allen in GTD however was first coined by his mentor Dean Atchison.

The concept is simple: by getting everything out of your head and onto paper, then reviewing that paper regularly, you make sure that nothing gets missed.

Everything you start but don't finish becomes an open loop. And these open loops turn round and round in your brain until closed. Unless you put them into your second brain.

Reduce Inbound

If the root of your increasing anxiety is too much inbound, then the logical first step is to reduce or eliminate it as much as possible.

An easy way to get started is to turn off all cell phone notifications (do it right now!). Do you really want your tech telling you what to do? When to pay attention? Approaching this mindfully is easier than you'd think.

Email is trickier because for modern day knowledge workers it is largely unavoidable. Delete your email account and you essentially delete your entire job.

But there are still things you can do:

• Never opt in to anything

• Unsubscribe from everything

• Create a system of slash and burn inbox zero

If you want to take it all the way, check out Cal Newport's book "A World Without Email".

Reduce Obligations

Reducing obligations is also tricky.

We have so many things to do. And only so much time to do them in.

The solution therefore is to get 100% Perfectly crystal clear about the vision you have for your life, your goals, what's truly important, and what you actually want to spend your time doing.

The next step then is to create time to actually do those things, while avoiding the trap of piling new activities on top of existing old activities. Reduce or eliminate unwanted obligations to get control of the time you have to give yourself the best chance of success at your personal goals.

And the ultimate tactic - Just Say No. If it doesn't move you towards your goals, say No (politely!) and move on.

I have created a tool called the obligation audit to help with this. It starts by listing everything you've already committed to in each of the Big-5 areas of your life, analyzing them against your goals, then coming up with strategies to reduce or eliminate any that aren't serving you.

You can read more about this system and more in my book, Peaceful Productivity.

Understand that these systems and this level of detail isn't for everyone. However if you are a knowledge worker and find yourself stretched thin, then it's probably for you.


1. Reduce incoming communications

2. Reduce your obligations

3. Full Capture the rest


Thanks for reading today.

If you know someone who would benefit from these ideas, please share this issue.

Questions or comments? Let me know on Twitter @SeanPHogue

Yours in Productivity,



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