Reading and writing carefully

It seems so obvious, and yet there is so much to read and so little of it meaningful, that it's almost impossible to do it in the Internet age. Which means that we need to learn how to write better to help other be able to read what we write.

At 6PM December 1, 2016, I had received 135 meaningful emails that I had to read just to keep up with the day to that point. Each of these involved reading at least a sentence or two in the context of the related activity, and in almost all cases, acting on it in some way.

I sent out 43 emails as of that same time today, almost all in response to incoming emails, which means that about 90 of these emails involved some other activity - entering data in a Web site, reviewing a document, storing something for their records, writing a check, doing a transaction of some sort, making a call, and so forth.

If I worked only 8 hours a day, this would come to ~16.8 inbound emails per hour, or about 3.5 minutes each. Every 6 minutes I would have sent an outbound email. Today I also wrote this article and another one, had two ~45-minute phone calls, bought several computers during a shopping trip, and will have to get them configured, wrote a paper check (yes we still use them), dealt with several minor banking issues, started forming a glossary for a project, reviewed a due diligence report, had discussions with several potential new clients, responded to an agenda request, and I don't even remember most of the rest. I have about 14 hours in so far today, and it looks like several more to go.

And my load is not all that unusual. Many business people, especially startups, operate this way most days.

Overload and dealing with it

This is called information overload. But perhaps far worse is the excessive load I put on others by my writing. We will forget the mistakes - like the typo I made entering "not" instead of "now" (or was it a spell corrector - easier to blame it on that, but not in this case). "I am now in this business" - changed to "I am not in this business" - followed by my reading it and correcting it right afterwards. Talk about a typo!

There is a tradeoff between reading it all and writing it all right and getting it all done. I find my self wishing I had an assistant or 10. But every time I try to do this, I end up taking more time to guide them than I take to do the work myself. It's not them - it's bad business design by me. My business requires me to make lots of good decisions every few minutes of every hour of every day. And that means it will have its failures. The best I can do is to try to make the failures as little impact as I can. I automate what I can, get as systematic as I can, and that means I can handle all the more emails, which means I generate more of them, which only makes the problem worse.

It is sometimes called the hamster wheel of pain. The better hob you do tactically, the more you end up having to do, and the worse you do it. The Peter Principal - you rise to your level of incompetence - in this case the point where your mistakes override the good work you do and you exceed the threshold of diminishing returns into the realm of negative returns.

My name is Fred and I am a workaholic.

Most of my best friends are workaholics. We do get out of course. I walk for at least an hour every day, watch TV, leave the house for meetings, shopping, and meals several times a week... the more I write the worse it sounds... pretty bad eh?

But even a workaholic like me cannot keep up with the eternal pile of information overloading me. Putting it in video or audio does not make it better. Making pictures can help if they are demonstrative in the right way, but in truth, the only thing that really helps is good writing.

Good writing

When I say "good" w.r.t. writing, I really mean brief and to the point.

See how easy that was to understand compared to the rest of this article?

One of the folks I work with is so overloaded that he won't read an email with more than bullet points. And he responds in the same way. I'm not sure whether it's just that he works mostly from his phone, but I suspect it's not that. It's that the information he needs can be provided in a few words and the responses he needs to give can be that short as well.

I am well known for answering complex questions with "Yes" - or commenting on a long discussion with an "OK". Sometimes it seems impolite in emails to the reader, and I am trying to be more polite in my responses these days, and frankly, a bit more thoughtful as well. But I think there is an important point to be made here - so naturally, I will bury it in the middle of a paragraph, followed by a lot of useless other words.

Getting to the point - is the point.

See how easy that was to read? It replaced the entire previous paragraph and more. And if I write this entire article titled "Get to the point." with no other content, you would look, read, and likely tell me that there was a problem with the article. And yet that would have been a far more efficient way to say what I am basically saying here.

In summary

Try to get to the point quickly.

If I want to know more, I will ask.

If you want to know more, you should ask.

Or put less precisely but perhaps more politely, spending a lot of words and taking a lot of other peoples' time so they have to extract the meaning may in fact be less polite than simply telling them what you want to tell them. Or as I like to explain to those presenting to angle investors, a 3 minute pitch is a lot harder to do well than a 30 minute one. But if you can learn to do it well, it will get you a lot more interest and investors.

Copyright(c) Fred Cohen, 2016 - All Rights Reserved