Strategy & Marketing

Productivity Tips When Your Career is Client-Driven

Most of my friends know that I’m somewhat obsessed by the intersection between creativity and productivity. I have multiple to-do apps on my computer and mobile devices, I’ve created “Unique” – a popular print planner, I’ve read plenty of the best books on productivity, and I really know how to work email. However, there has always been one hang-up I’ve had with one standard piece of advice:

Never check your email first thing in the morning.

You probably know the rule: Create a morning routine that focuses on what’s really important to you. Write a chapter of your book, read, study, pray, organize your day, meditate, work out – whatever is critical to your success and well-being – put that into your morning routine. That way you don’t let other people’s priorities (like email messages) get in the way of your productivity. Then, later in the morning, dive into your email.

It’s great advice I strongly support and advise you to consider it. However, it never worked for me for two reasons:

1. Our company – Cooke Media Group – is a client driven company. That means we serve a wide range of clients and need to be responsive to them. If you have a full time job, then you also know what I mean because you report to a boss and/or other members of your team. Our clients are our priority. 

2. I’m on the West Coast. In Los Angeles, we’re on Pacific Time, which means that by the time we’re up, most of our clients across the country (and sometimes the world) have already been up for at least 2-3 hours, and some, 8 or more. As a result, by the time I’m up, I already have a list of messages I need to respond to from clients.

The challenge becomes that if I check my email first, then it’s easy to get sucked in, and before I know it, it’s 11am and I’m still answering email.

So here’s how I’ve learned to solve the problem:

When I wake up, I do a quick check of emails from my phone. Is there a client emergency? Is there an important change or request? Is there something I need to deal with right now? In most cases, there isn’t anything critical, and even when there is, I rarely need my computer – I can just respond to it from my phone right then and be done with it. The critical key is the discipline to not allow yourself get sucked into dealing with other non-essential emails that early in the day.

Then I kick into productive mode for the next hour or so: I work out, read the Bible, pray, reflect, plan my day – so by the time I reach my desk, I’m ready to go with whatever’s on my task list.

I’m writing this because chances are, a number of readers have struggled with this challenge as well, and from my perspective, this is a great way of dealing with the problem.

Perhaps more important, understand that no matter what principles of creativity and productivity you learn, as I’ve done here, always adapt them to your personal situation. If you’re not driven by immediate client or company needs, then fine, get up, focus, and do what you prefer to do. But if you have a full time job or clients to serve, then take my advice and feel no shame for doing the quick email and text message check first thing after waking up. But as I said before, don’t allow yourself to get derailed by dealing with non-essential emails first thing in the morning.

I’m writing this post from Helsinki, Finland, so I especially feel the need to respond when I have such a big time difference with most of my clients. But the truth is, I struggle with this no matter what time zone I’m in, and this technique has made a huge difference for me.

Not only will it increase your actual productivity, but it will dramatically lower your level of anxiety, and after all, that’s one of the most important reasons to be organized.

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  1. Great advice Phil! I feel like it’s a constant tension that I have to mention. Being responsive is not just a desire we have of ourselves, but also an expectation that others (mostly clients) have of us as well. I think this is a tension to manage as I don’t know that there really is a perfect solution. Most of the people that I’ve met that seem to have the perfect solution have significantly less incoming messages coming their way. Most leaders want to grow their impact and influence and with this naturally comes increased communication from different places and people. Whatever system you has must adapt to growth and expansion which becomes increasingly more challenging. Add to this increasing communication and interaction on social media.

    The best I’ve seen is a CEO friend who has a virtual assistant manage his email box and prioritizes communication for him to respond to at 4pm every day. He blocks 4-5pm for email every day. That’s it. He is responsive to text messages and his assistant will text him if there is an urgent email that needs to be responded to before 4, but according to him that is rare. This system logically makes so much sense as much of communication is lost in group threads and back and forth throughout the day. When someone knows they’re only going to get 1 reply a day from you, they’ll likely be more thoughtful in their email to you as well.

    I’m going on a tangent here, but I think one of the biggest opportunities that organizations can do to minimize email overload is creating clear communication systems for email and utilize chat tools like Google Chat or Slack for internal dialogue and interactions. These channels can be much more efficient for a lot of the back and forth around various clients and projects.

    Great post Phil and very thought provoking!

    1. Excellent points all around Nils. Your point about expectations is especially good. We have to train people about when and how often we respond to email or we’ll get on a never-ending treadmill. As an aside, I’m not sold on Slack yet simply because it just seems to shift some of my messages to another platform. I’m not sure how that helps when I could just keep them all together in email or Messages. I’ll give it another try however – because you’re a lot smarter at this stuff than I am and a lot of people seem to be using it successfully! Thanks for your insight!

  2. My situation is similar to yours and so is the morning routine I have developed. In my situation, the company I run is open 24-7-365 so there are always agents and clients and people who need something. Given the nature of that business and those demands, my routine looks like this: Alarm goes off at 6:10 and I hit snooze. I spend that 9 minute snooze cycle thinking through and praying over the day ahead. When that alarm goes off I hit snooze one more time and use that 9 minute cycle to look at email and see if anything needs immediate attention and then clear out other notifications from texts/social media/new alerts etc. When that alarm goes off it’s time to get out of bed and get ready for the day. It took me a while to figure out the routine but it gives me a good structure for focus and for meeting client/staff demands so that when my feet hit the floor I’m starting the day ready on all fronts.

  3. Phil, your common sense approach (read to prioritize the emails, since you’re going to read them anyway) is a good standard. I too find it nearly impossible to avoid all email first thing. Too many people “demand” your attention without truly deserving it. The social media world has created this expectation of instant response. Baloney. When warranted, respond. When not. Don’t. You’re the master of your phone and you know your business and clients’ needs. Own it, baby!

    1. Great advice Norm. Absolutely agree. Everyone needs to know that we don’t have to immediately respond to every message or email. Too many people have turned their mobile devices into chains…

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