Treat Email Like Laundry — and Other Tips from Google’s Productivity Expert


CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

We have a complicated relationship with productivity. Businesses like to look at outputs, revenue goals, outbound calls, completed projects, maybe it’s lines of code written or the promotions won by your team members, but you have your own goals too, and it’s not always that hitting the established targets is the same thing as feeling really productive.

Part of that comes from how expectations seem to keep going up. Each day we’re supposed to churn out more, and the number of hours we need to be on to get our work done seems to rise. Well, today’s guest can sympathize. She has helped coworkers and executives at one of the world’s largest companies become more productive.

Laura Mae Martin is the executive productivity advisor at Google and the author of the new book Uptime: A Practical Guide to Personal Productivity and Wellbeing. And she’s here to share some of her tried and true methods to become more productive in the best way possible.

Hi, Laura.

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: So one view of productivity is that it feels like a means to an end. We just have to push harder for a little longer, and then we’ll be able to retire and relax or something. You think about productivity differently, though.

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Yes. I think that kind of like you mentioned, a lot of productivity, the focus is on output: so what are you churning out? What are you crossing off your to-do list? But I like to argue that productivity has multiple parts. So it’s not just about how much you’re executing, it’s also about how much you’re bringing to the table long-term.

So are you having creative vision? Are you doing big picture thinking? Are you bettering yourself, and your company, and your role in addition to doing those other things? And so I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not just about the total output, it’s about avoiding burnout. And I like to even give the example that if you have an intention to relax and you set aside a Saturday, and you clear your schedule, and you binge-watch TV the whole day, you could argue that that was productive because your intention was to unplug and decompress, and relax, and enjoy a show. You set aside the time to do it, and you executed it on it. And so that would be considered productive, even though it’s not our idea of productive in the normal sense.

CURT NICKISCH: How did you get into this? How did you become the person at Google to sort of help everyone else be more productive?

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Yeah, so my sister likes to describe me as always being that annoying productivity person. So even when we were baking cookies when we were younger, I would say, “It would be a lot faster if we just frost, frost, frost, frost, frost and then get out the sprinkles and sprinkle, sprinkle.” And she was like, “This is cookie decorating. It’s supposed to be an art.” And I’m constantly thinking about how to get it done faster.

And so at Google, I was in a sales role, and I was managing my own email a certain way with lots of clients’ inbound emails coming in. I was managing my time a certain way, and it started to become something that people were asking me about, “Hey, can you teach me how to do my email like that? Can you teach me how to organize my calendar?” And so I started teaching through our Googler to Googler training program, just started teaching classes on the side, and eventually started working one-on-one with the executives, and developed it into a full-time role, and started the Productivity at Google program.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s interesting that you started this in your free time at Google. I mean, Google is famous as a company where each employee is supposed to have that 20 percent of time to work on independent things or work on things that really excite them. And you basically turned that into a role for yourself. Where do you see most people trip up when it comes to trying to be more productive, but they just end up spinning their wheels?

LAURA MAE MARTIN: I think two pieces, one is overcommitting and having that calendar that’s back to back, or too many priorities, too many things going on, and sometimes less can be more. And in the book, one of the principles I talk about is busy is not important. And sometimes we have that language around, “Oh, I’m totally slammed. I have so much going on.” And if you watch Seinfeld, the George Costanza episode where he talks about looking stressed at your desk makes your boss think that you have a lot going on.

So I think we all fall into that trap sometimes, and it’s important to realize that that’s not always going to set you up for the best output. And so really being intentional about having space in your life and having space in your schedule, and I always tell people, shoot to under commit because you end up then committing at the right level. Shoot to that 80 percent, and that’s really where you end up being involved in the right amount of things.

And so I think that’s definitely one of the pitfalls I see. And then the other one, I would say, is just not being super intentional about your time. And so that can mean one just fitting in work time wherever it falls. And so I have meetings all morning, so I’m going to work in the afternoon. Well, is that when you produce your best results? Are you more of a morning person? Is that the best time to work on that task?

And so thinking about when am I actually productive and then doing whatever you can to adjust your time that way. And similarly, using the time you have wisely. So we all know that hour where you say, “Okay, I’m going to block an hour. I’m going to work on this project, and it’s nine to 10. And now, here we are, and it’s 9:03. And I’m going to check my email real quick, and now I have to get back to one thing I was doing. And now, I’m going to flash over and I had a chat.” And all of a sudden it’s 9:45 and you’re just like, “Where did the time go? It’s too late to even start. And I have a meeting at 10,” and so people think it’s time management, but it’s really a combination of your energy planning for your energy and then focusing on your attention during the time you have.

CURT NICKISCH: So let’s talk specifically about things that work to help you avoid being overcommitted. You talk about really setting priorities and to be able to identify every week, and every month, and each day what your top three priorities are. Explain that.

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Even just thinking through what are my priorities is the first step, and I can usually tell… I ask that question as the very first question when I’m doing one of my coaching sessions. And it usually shows me: has this person really sat down and thought, “Where should my time be focused,” and/or are they just kind of thinking, “Oh, this is important, and this is important.”

And so it’s important to actually label those things even as just a commitment to yourself, but then also beneficial is to share those with a team, a colleague, a spouse, whatever that is, because it helps just frame why you’re doing the things you’re doing and why it’s okay to say no to things that don’t really fall into those priorities. And so, it’s really important to name them upfront so that you have that framework for yourself.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. And you recommend printing out your calendar from the previous two weeks and then just circling things on there to see if they actually fall into those priorities-

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Exactly.

CURT NICKISCH: … and do a little bit of an audit that way. Just say, “Is the percentage of time I’m spending on the things that are my top three priorities, is that reflected in my calendar?”

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Right. Because the calendar doesn’t lie. You can say, “These are the things I’m focused on,” but what focus really comes down to and what it means to prioritize is that you’re spending the right times on the right things. And so that’s just a little bit of a gut check to say, “Am I actually aligning with those things when it comes to how I’m spending my time?”

CURT NICKISCH: Now, what do you tell people who say, “But stuff comes up. It’s just important that I get to this right now because my boss asked me for something, or my team needs this, or we’ve got this fire to put out?” What do you say to that when people say that really takes away from their priorities every day?

LAURA MAE MARTIN:  Yes, there’s no arguing that there are roles certainly where urgent is important. And so when you have a role like that and it’s something that’s continuously happening and you feel like your schedule is blown to pieces because of all these things coming up, what I usually suggest is making urgent matters a top priority. So I give the example of an ER doctor is not also scheduling regular patients and well visits during the day. The ER doctor knows that she’s going to see people all day coming in that need her attention immediately, and so that’s something that is planned for.

And so you want to think the same way about your workload and your schedule if your job consistently deals with urgent. So you may say things like, “Oh, I would love to join this committee, but I need to leave my schedule free for these types of issues that come up.” Just making room for it ahead of time so it doesn’t totally rock your schedule.

And, of course, even if that’s not normally part of your role, again, they’re going to come up. And so another tactic is just discussing urgent versus important. Again, giving it a label. If this is urgent and important, I feel good about committing to it and blowing out my schedule, and that’s fine because it’s in that bucket, but if I feel that it’s urgent and not important, now I need to understand, should I really engage with it? Is it something that I can delegate or deal with later?

And another tactic that I actually learned from an executive and have then shared it is he had an hour every single day blocked for urgent, and everyone knew about it. So when things came up in the morning, I think it was midday, maybe like 1:00 PM, everyone would say, “Okay, he’s going to meet with us about this at one. We already know. We haven’t heard back from him, but we know that that’s when we’re going to, so we’re going to need to have everything in place sent to him by this time. We need to clear our own schedules because we know when we’re going to meet with him.” So it just kind of allowed – again, he kind of undercommitted for the day by one hour, just always leaving that time. And then it became known that that was when he was available, and if nothing came up, that became work time. And so it just left that breathing room in his schedule.

CURT NICKISCH: When you do this calendar audit with people, what do you typically find?

LAURA MAE MARTIN: I think some people almost are – I equate it to your subscriptions for TV channels, where it’s helpful once in a while to go through and say, “What am I actually subscribed to? What am I actually watching? Do I really need this channel?”

The same thing goes for your calendar. I recommend using a zero-based mindset. So, of course, zero-based accounting, you’re going into a new budget without looking at last year’s budget because that is going to bias you into thinking, “Oh, we’ll just use what we did last year for events.” So you want to truly start from scratch.

And so same thing goes for your calendar. You kind of want to take that zero-based mindset because your priorities are changing, and your work relationships are changing. And you want to constantly… Even if it’s once every three months, look at your calendar and say, “Would me today sign up for this commitment, this meeting? Now that I’m in another meeting with John, do I need to have an hour each week, or could it be bi-weekly, or could it be 30 minutes?”

And so a lot of people, they are so busy that they kind of just let these things linger without always being intentional about whether they should still be on their calendar for that time, for that frequency, and if it still makes sense for their schedule based on their current set of time and priorities.

CURT NICKISCH: One interesting thing you wrote about is just changing the default time for your meetings from a half hour down to 15 minutes or from an hour down to 45 minutes, or just perhaps you need some of those same meetings, but can you just lop them off? Do you really need the time that’s been allotted to them?

LAURA MAE MARTIN:  Yeah. I think people just automatically think, “Oh, one meeting 30 minutes.” But you constantly want to be thinking in the book I talk about. I use The Office rule because I love NBC’s office. I think to myself, “I have a really good idea in my head of how long an episode of the office with commercials.” That’s a really easy way of me to think of 30 minutes.

So I ask myself, “Does this agenda need that full slot?” And a lot of times the answer is no. It can be 15 minutes. So, I’ve changed my settings in Google Calendar to say default to 15 minutes because it requires me to make that really intentional move to 30 minutes. So even such a small change as that can help us to constantly be thinking, “What’s the actual time I need?” Because 15 minutes, four times a week here and there, adds up to another hour of your time.

CURT NICKISCH: I’m sure some of the people you coach say, “I don’t know. I can’t… I’ve been meeting with this person every week, or monthly, or whatever interval it is for this amount of time, and all of a sudden if I’m cutting back the time I spend with them, it’s going to seem like I’m not. I don’t care about them as much, or they’re not that important to me anymore.” And that’s not true. Changing your calendar does change your… It’s to reflect your priorities, and it sounds like you’re deprioritizing people by doing that. So how do you manage that kind of communication?

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Yeah, that’s such a good question. And I think so much of the book, I talk about maintaining social capital, and that relationship with your colleagues, and that aura of availability and friendliness, but also being really intentional about your time. So I call it kind of that friendly shark. I’m a shark about my time, but I’m friendly about it. And I want still to be liked, and want people to work with me. And so that spans so many parts of work, whether it’s setting boundaries, declining meetings, whatever that is.

And so I think that what I find sometimes is you don’t know what people are thinking you think you do, but I’ll talk to a manager, and they’ll say, “You know, I’ve been really thinking about shortening my team meeting, but I feel like my team wants that extra face time with me.” And then I’ll happen to coach someone on their team, and they’ll say, “I feel like our manager’s meeting could be shorter,” but they probably want us to be in it and talk to them and update them that whole time.

And so, you don’t always know. So one thing I recommend is to do a survey. If you do own a meeting, especially if it’s a group meeting, you can do what I like to call the Goldilocks survey just once a quarter anonymous. Is this meeting too short, too long, too frequent, not frequent enough, just right? And just get those quick gut checks because you really just don’t know what people are thinking, and you might all be thinking the same thing.

The second piece is just being really open and honest about your communication with someone and setting it for maybe a temporary time period. So, “Hey, I know we’ve had this weekly one-on-one. I was thinking we could try doing it biweekly since I have a lot of travel coming up. Let’s check back in two months and see if that’s still enough time or if we need to go back to weekly.”

So a lot of people think of changes in their schedule as permanent, but you can just think of them as little beta tests and tell people that so that they feel like you’re still going to check in with them and make sure you’re available. I also really think things like office hours. It’s a good way of saying, “I’m open. I’m available. I have time that you can meet on an ad hoc basis, and we don’t have to have something right on the schedule.”

You know, sometimes when execs are making big changes to their schedule, I encourage them to send an email and just be completely open about why and talk about how they are available in other ways, or “I’m doing this so that I can focus on some of the bigger picture things that our team is doing in the next year.” And these are those things and get people excited about it. Sto if you silently decline a meeting or silently shorten a meeting, I think that’s kind of where you get that negative vibe, but you can do things to mitigate it.

CURT NICKISCH: A big part of avoiding overcommitment is also saying no. And you come up with five ways to say no. And also just how to think through your own psychology to sort of avoid committing yourself. Because we always… We want to say yes. It’s really hard to say no. And then we end up in the situation where we’re doing more things than we should have. And this thing that seemed like it was going to be a nice thing to do when it actually comes around, you’re like, “Why did I say yes to that thing?” How can we help ourselves avoid getting into that situation?

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Yeah. So that goes back to one of the principles that I talk about in the introduction that makes its way through the whole book is the connection to future you. And so we actually… Psychology shows us that we have this disconnect between our current self and our future self. So we don’t always put them together. We try on a clothing item in the store, and we think, “I don’t love it now, but I might wear it later.” And it’s like, “Well, we will be the same person later. We just have that weird distance.”

And so one of the best things you can do for your productivity and for your boundaries is thinking of yourself as future you, so constantly setting up future you. And instead of thinking, “Is current me going to accept this meeting? Is current me going to accept this travel commitment? You think, would future me want me to do that?”

And so actually putting yourself in the place of thinking through, “Okay, it’s Monday morning. I just got back from a two-week vacation. What is future me on that Monday morning going to wish that I had? Definitely some time to catch up, some time to dive through my emails, not an 8:00 AM meeting.” And so thinking about yourself at the end of the year, at the end of the quarter, “Is future me going to be glad that I spent my time on this or am I going to wish that I spent less time on this?” So for some reason, putting yourself in that place can really help you set yourself up.

So even as simple as, “Oh, I have a 8:00 to 1:00 meeting on Thursday with a 30-minute break and then a 1:30 to 4:00 meeting, what is future me? 1:00 PM me on Thursday. What is that person going to wish that I did right now with that break in my schedule? Set at another meeting? Absolutely not.” And so when you think with that mindset, it makes it a little bit easier to figure out the right things to say yes or no to, and then to do it with conviction because you’ve already played it out in your mind of how it could go for the way of committing and not committing, and then which one feels better for future you.

CURT NICKISCH: We have to talk about email. You’re a big fan of Inbox Zero, and I mean, email is a complicated thing. What’s your style? And let’s go through some of your best practices for it.

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Yes. Email always comes up as one of the first things that people want to address about their individual productivity. And a lot of it just has to do with how personal email is and how much it’s kind of in your face. It’s something you see all the time. And if you’re feeling out of control with your email, it’s easy to feel that anxiety start to rise. And so when I say Inbox Zero, sometimes people say, “Oh yeah, right. I’ll never get to Inbox Zero.”

And what I mean by Inbox Zero? I encourage people to kind of forget the concept of email and instead think of laundry because we all have a pretty good idea of how to do laundry. And so imagine you’re doing your laundry, and you take out one pair of pants, and you fold that pair of pants. And you walk it up two flights of stairs and put it in the drawer. And then you come back down and you have a shirt, but it’s still kind of wet. So you throw it back in with the dry clothes, and you have just one sock. You can’t find the other sock, but you put it in the drawer anyway, and you open your dryer door 15 to 30 times a day just to see how many clothes are in there, but not really fold. And at the end of the night, you just say, “You know what? I’m going to turn it back on and try again tomorrow.”

So as I’m saying that, most people are thinking, “Wow, that’s a super inefficient way to be doing my laundry.” But that’s exactly how we’re doing our email. We’re responding to one thing, but not everything we have. We’re sorting things, but also throwing red things that we don’t feel like dealing with back in with the dry clothes. We’re not taking the time to find the sock, the thing we’re waiting on to finish that email. And so instead, you should think of it the same way. You should empty your dryer. You should get to Inbox Zero. That’s what Inbox Zero means. It means I’ve emptied the dryer, and then I’ve put emails into laundry baskets based on what I need to do next. So again, I’m setting up future me.

I’m telling future me, “These are all the things that you need to respond, review, and read.” And then because they’re grouped together, it makes it much easier to batch through them and say, “I’m going to fold, fold, fold, fold, fold,” or, “I’m going to respond, respond, respond. I’m getting in the groove. I’ve set aside time to do that, and I’ve set aside the right time. So maybe I have 15 minutes between meetings unexpectedly. I have a laundry basket full of emails I just need to review, just need to look through industry articles. And that’s a great time to do it.” And so again, it doesn’t even mean that you’re necessarily folding all of the clothes each day, but you’ve only touched email twice max. So you’ve told yourself, “I’m going to do this.” And then if you have an email that you’re like, “Oh, I think I saw that.” You know it’s in that basket. You know where it is. You’re never feeling like, “I don’t know. It’s just somewhere in the dryer, and I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

CURT NICKISCH: Let’s go over those three baskets. I think you called it respond, review, and read. Explain kind of how you sort that incoming mail into three baskets.

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Yeah, there’s really only no matter who you are and what your role is. Of course, there’s variations on this, but there’re really only four things to do with an email. One is respond, or action, or to do it means that me and my time and energy are needed to move this email forward. So it’s something that I need to look at, digest, respond.

The second piece is something you’re waiting on. So it’s that gray area of, “I am waiting to get an answer on this to get back to my client, but I’m not the one who can get the answer, but I still need to keep an eye on it.” So I need to review those on a pretty consistent basis to make sure that they’re moving along, bump back up to people, and then read is… If I never read this, nothing would really happen. So it’s more of those industry review, nice to know case studies, things that I just need to kind of browse through, but they’re not waiting on me for a response.

And then the last one is things I don’t need. So when an email is done, that means that the email has no action. And so everything you pull out of the dryer should have one of those buckets. And of course, you can split them even further. If you’re in sales, you might have an internal to-dos or respond and an external respond or something like that. But in general, they’re those same types of action.

CURT NICKISCH: I mean, you coach a lot of executives. Are there extra-level tricks that you’re able to help executives find even though they’re already very accomplished people and very good at managing their time and work?

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Yeah, I would say a lot of times. Like I mentioned about the urgent time block, it’s me learning from them just as much as they might be learning from me. And so that’s one of the best parts of my role is working with all these different individuals with different types of jobs and different parts of the company and external as well.

And I also think that a lot of times it’s just when maybe, let’s say, you’re taking on a new team, and it’s just that moment of maybe, “Okay, this is a good time to really be thoughtful about my schedule,” or just defining for yourself. Some execs like to say, “I actually don’t want to have my email be the place where most things are communicated towards me. I’m an in-person person. I’d rather have my schedule full of a couple 10, 15-minute meetings here and there, and that’s how I want to be communicated with, or I prefer instant chat.” And so, sometimes it’s just those type of things, just defining where the communication should flow. It could be readjusting based on a new team, or a global team, or a new organization, or new to the company and figuring out the right way to start off and structure.

And so a lot of times they are super productive, and that’s why they’re successful. And I’m just there to fill in some of the gaps, or to make suggestions, or just to be a partner in something like a time audit and really looking at that from a objective perspective. And so it’s great for me to take some of those learnings and like you said, there’s so much that they’re already doing that makes them where they are. But I think a lot of us still struggle with some of those smaller things. And a lot of people think executives have completely different issues than a young professional or a new employee, but a lot of times it can be very similar.

CURT NICKISCH: So what’s your advice to people who feel like all these ideas are great, calendar audits, and zero-based calendaring, and changing your inbox approach, and how you set up filters, and folders, and baskets for all your incoming mail so that you can batch things more efficiently. It still all might seem like some big changes at a time when they’re really busy and so what’s your advice to people to get going or who might see the benefit, but it just feels like a lot?

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Yeah that’s a great question and really, how am I supposed to actually do this? I’m slammed here or I don’t even have enough time to finish this. I think the important thing is that you don’t need a radical change. If you make a tiny change here and a tiny change here, a little 15-minute meeting from a 30-minute meeting, those small, small things add up and just start lifting you out of that mental cloud and clutter and having a more well perspective on your work life.

CURT NICKISCH: Got it. So what I’m hearing you saying there is that just that small changes lead to big changes.

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Yes.

CURT NICKISCH: You see the benefit, you get encouraged by it, and you start doing a little bit more. Laura, this has been really great. Thanks so much for coming on the show to share what you’ve learned and what you’ve learned and get to help other people with.

LAURA MAE MARTIN: Thank you.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Laura Mae Martin, executive productivity advisor at Google and the author of the new book, Uptime: A Practical Guide to Personal Productivity and Wellbeing.

And we have nearly 1000 more episodes plus more podcasts to help you manage not just your time, but your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, senior producer Mary Dooe, associate producer Hannah Bates, audio product manager Ian Fox, and senior production specialist Rob Eckhardt. Thank you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.



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