So far, we have endeavored to explore the topography of email usage – first by tracing the pitfalls associated with its use, and then by attempting to climb the possible heights this technology can aspire to. Now, we begin a series of profiles on people that embody the very spirit Mailcube strives to achieve: inventiveness and out-of-the-box thinking with productivity and quality of life in mind.
Gonçalo Gil Mata is a computer engineer and founder of Mind4Time, a coaching company with a focus on better time management. On the occasion of the publishing of his latest book, we sat with him for a conversation on email and beyond. This is part one of that interview.
Mailcube: Starting off right at the beginning: you began your career in a very straightforward job in IT, correct?
Gonçalo Mata: I had a very traditional early career, both by choice – as I wanted to have as much responsibility as possible – and by necessity, since product development at the time was a very straightforward process. After product development I moved on to implementation consulting, and product management. So, all in all, very par for the course.
MC: But then you went on a motorcycle trip from Buenos Aires to New York and everything changed. What happened there?
GM: A time came when I got tired of the predictability and routine, and finally embarked on this trip that I had been planning for some time. From Buenos Aires to Patagonia, from there to San Francisco, and finally all the way to the east coast and New York. All told, 7 months and 40.000km of road all by myself, since no one was willing to quit their job and take this crazy leap. When I returned, I knew I wanted to do something different and specialized. With the experience I had in project management and my own personal accomplishments, I decided to go into consulting on time and life management for business. I got myself certified in coaching on executive and business coaching, and eventually founded Mind4Time. As the team got larger, we started delving into interpersonal activity and both vocational and motivational leadership.
MC: Your style, if I may put it so, seems to be a hybrid of rigid discipline and an acceptance of our own flaws. Despite motivating the creation of routines, you also seem to be mindful of what makes us human.
GM: Precisely. I called my latest book “Haven’t Had The Time Yet”, but its subtitle is “7 steps to be productive with less discipline”. This comes straight from one of the areas we study closely here at Mind4Time – behavioral economics, within cognitive neurosciences. This field is usually focused on our most visceral decision making processes – our most intuitive processes, if you will. Think of it as a sort of “scoring” system: tasks that we maybe “score” highly for being economically rewarding, could find themselves attributed a lower score by our own brain. This can happen because the nature of the tasks can be repetitive and seem inefficient – and we have a highly-attuned internal notion of what is and isn’t efficient.
MC: But the field of coaching and productivity is notorious for prescribing routines and repetitions.
GM: That is what we find in traditional literature on the subject. All the time management systems that rely on rigid rules tend to fail, tend to derail. This happens because our brain is aware of the inefficiencies taking place. This is the crux: being able to steer our productive time to agile methods that don’t demand more energy than is necessary.
MC: Having ‘audited’ high-level executives on time management issues, you’re in a privileged position to diagnose the usual mistakes when it comes to productivity. Would you care to give us a glimpse into all the things people do poorly?
GM: We work with executives not just on time management, but also in the operational processes. We insure people’s motivation for carrying out their work, but we also dig into how they work. As for their processes, they tend to induce efficiency through pure logic, not taking into account the motivations we have as humans. And trying to do a task while at the same time removing the motivation for accomplishing it is not sustainable – on a long enough timeline, the task will simply be abandoned. The only way to prevent this happening is by having constant coercion on the team, and that’s another variety of friction. Not only this, but the processes must reflect the values of the company – you can’t have an organization that strives to be flexible and agile and have your team be weighed down by morose processes.
MC: Do you find a parallel to this in email?
GM: The same thing happens with email. As a tool of communication, its form must always follow its function. For example: you go to a seminar and a speaker recommends keeping emails short and simple. But then your boss keeps replying asking for more information. Whatever the productive changes we want to effect on our tasks, they must be reconciled with the needs and values of our organization.
MC: Is there any golden rule on email you hold true for any type of work environment?
GM: The quantity of emails sent and received. This number needs to be as low as possible. This is an elementary but often overlooked practice. When we’re focused on a task and get interrupted, it takes us a long time to go back to the previous level of attention. If I have a daily email load of, let’s say, 100 emails – that means I won’t ever have 15 minutes to focus on something if I keep checking them. One of the first things I tell people is to absolutely turn off all kinds of notifications: sound, popup, mobile, everything. Of course, this can also clash with the values of the organization I’m in. I can turn off notifications from email but suddenly get a call from my boss wondering why I haven’t replied. That’s why we also get into processes beyond motivation: losing productivity for fear of the hierarchies is paradoxical, ridiculous – and often found in organisations.
MC: Trying to get executives to understand they can’t call up an employee because of things like that must be an uphill battle.
GM: It’s much easier to help someone lower in the organization understand that they’re missing details and beats than a CEO. A CEO is a strategist, he has a global vision of the organization and misses the more minute beats of the operation. So he often can’t see how his actions ripple out.
Click here for Part 2 of the interview, delving into productivity and email.