When Sending Email is Stupid

Sometimes sending an email is really stupid. I know, my Mom tried to teach me that calling someone or something stupid is not very nice. But, I can’t think of any better way to say it. Simply put, there are occasions when you are being stupid to send an email.

Danger: Email Ahead

In my last post, I wrote about the need for a personally effective and efficient solution for managing the deluge of email. But today I want to rant about two mistakes I see all the time. I am amazed, not just at how often these happen, but how surprised people are at the fallout from their actions.

Stupid Action #1::

Using Email to Communicate or Resolve Relationally Complex Situations

Can I just ask, what are we thinking? We all know the majority of communication happens non-verbally. The statistics I remember are that only 7% of all communication happens through the words we use. 40% of meaning is picked up through body language and 53% happens through tone of voice.

Yet, all the time, I read emails from people who are trying to express a complicated matter or resolve an interpersonal problem through email where all you have to work with are words. That’s like trying to swim across the English Channel with your hands tied behind your back. You are leaving 93% of what it takes to communicate effectively off the table.

The result? On the best days, this approach sets you up for three or four rounds of emails to explain, re-clarify, and soothe over what was misunderstood in your original missive. More often than not, these ill-advised email bombs leave emotional shrapnel in the very people you had hoped to serve with the information in the first place.

I know that email is easy, but more info

if you face a situation that is complex, a situation where relationships are going to be effected, or are delivering emotionally charged information, DON’T DO IT! Find a way to connect in person, even if only by phone. At least by phone you have 60% of your communication horsepower.

I know that writing an email is is easy and accessible, but why would anyone choose to communicate in such a handicapped way?

Stupid Action #2::

Including Your Private or Volatile Opinions in Email

Here’s the rule: unless you want what you write broadcast to the world, don’t put it in an email!

How many times have you seen someone send an email that is actually confidential information? I’ve seen things that range from unguarded caustic opinions about a co-worker, to blatant gossip, to personal data.

To be repetitive, what are we thinking?

Once you put something in print, it is out of your hands. You have no control when and where it gets sent. Sure, you can ask that your comments be held in confidence, but it is common for an email thread to be forwarded to someone else in the future. And, all it takes is for someone to forget your confidential opinions were included earlier. Voila!  Scroll down and your earlier ‘confidential’ comments are posted for all to see.

You wouldn’t publish your credit card information out there for all to see, so why would you put other volatile opinions out there? At least when it is your own personal data, you are the one who will be effected. But, when unguarded opinions and other confidential information are spread around other people are hurt.

Let me make it simple. On those days when you need the cathartic experience of vomiting your frustration to someone who you think might care, just don’t do it on email.

To make it even simpler: Stop It!

Surviving Email

Niagara Falls is stunning. The beauty, the noise, the sheer volume of water, it’s mesmerizing.  At the same time, get underneath it and you’ll drown. Email is a lot the same.

One of my colleagues, specializes in coaching the development and effectiveness of leaders around the world and trains other coaches to do the same. A few weeks ago Keith and I were talking about the challenges of managing email and he told me, “the most common single subject leaders ask me to coach them through is how to manage the relentless flood of email.”

A pastor once said to me, “some days I feel like I spend my life clicking keys on a keyboard.”

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with email. I use it all the time. It gives me a simple way to share information, ideas, and documents. It is an elegant solution to working with and relating to people from a distance. But, every time I open my mail software it feels like I am putting my lips up to a fire hose. And that brings me to todays post.

We know that in a changing world leaders have to be learners. We have to master new skills. But, ten to fifteen years ago, who would guessed that an efficient method for managing email was a non-negotiable skill for every leader? Leading people effectively in this decade not only calls for the classic qualities of character, inspiration, and courage, today a leader must get their inbox under control. The line between serving people face to face and online no longer exists. Avoid executing a personalized strategy and discipline for managing your email to your peril.

Do you have a personal strategy? Is it working? It doesn’t matter what works for someone else, what matters is what works for you that you can do consistently?

In a moment I’ll share what I have discovered, but if you are underwater, there is help. Check out Merlin Mann and his 43 Folders website. Watch his video presentation to Google employees or look at his posts on getting your Inbox to zero. David Allen, the GTD guru (Getting Things Done) sends out a free newsletter Productive Living that is regularly worth the read.

Now it’s my turn. As someone who went for a long time being hounded by an inbox that would frighten the boogie man, this has been a profound transformation. And, knowing that most people need to see a model before they can figure out their own, here is what I have found that works for me. Maybe part of my solution will help you find your own. You could call it, “Gary’s Personal Strategy for Surviving Email,” or…

Email: How to Enjoy the Falls without Drowning

Process Email–don’t check it.

That is, don’t scan email and leave then in the inbox as some sort of amorphous to do list. Look at an email, make a decision and act on it.  For me there are four possibilities for action:

1. Respond right now.

This is the right action if it is something I can do in a sentence or two or it is appropriately urgent.

2. Sort it.

This is my most important discovery! Just because an email lands in my box now, doesn’t mean i have the time or the information at hand to respond to it. So any email I need to act on, but can’t right now, I sort into one of three folders:

1.  ACTION — NOW:  Needs attention and/or reply within the next 24-48 hours.

2.  ACTION — Soon: Needs attention within the week.

3.  FYI:   it contains information I would like to read sometime.

3. Trash it.

Read it, scan it, or ignore it. Then delete it.

4. Store it.

I have one basic file for email I want to keep. I named it “Archives.” The ability of email software to easily search and find things makes the need for complex email filing systems obsolete. (Two exceptions: if it is something I am waiting on the other person to act on, I have a folder called “waiting for response.” The other is exception is that some complex projects require a communication thread handy. I will have a short term fold in for that need.)

Block Time to Work Email

Instead of dreading the constant nagging voice of unanswered email, I block time proactively during my day and my week to read and reply to email. And, the email I work on first is the email in the ACTION–NOW folder. An hour a day is often not enough, but it is a starting point.

Clear Out the Inbox 2-3 Times a Day.

A long time ago, I decided I wouldn’t sit at the computer with my Inbox open and dinging at me every time I get a new piece of mail. I open it deliberately a few times a day and when I do, I process what is there. Generally, first thing in the morning, sometime late morning and then late afternoon.

Your thoughts or Secrets?

I would love to hear what you have learned about managing your own flood of email or what you think about my approach.

Next Post: One more thought on email, “When Sending Email is Stupid!”

Kerry’s House of Pain

This afternoon I will willingly walk in the doors of what I have started calling, “Kerry’s House of Pain.” I know that the front of the building reads “physical therapy,” but honestly I think that is Latin-based code for “place of torture.”

I wish I had a glorious reason for needing PT, something that would sound good like, I was playing Rugby or crashed while mountain biking down half-dome. Nope, it’s embarrassing. I sprained a ligament in my knee doing a simple domestic chore and that’s all I will admit to. Either way, my doc wanted me to do PT as a way to guard the healing and strengthen or retrain whatever was the mitigating cause.

So, twice a week for a month now, my therapist engages in polite conversation as she simultaneously uses her fist or elbow to plow furrows in my thigh where my IT band used to be. Then her assistant smiles as she assigns me one exercise after another that is designed to stretch or strengthen some obscure muscle group no one knew they had. Translation, “feel the burn.”

And, twice a week I find myself thinking about how growth and character development really happens. Sure, I could sit with Kerry and share the same personal stories over a latte, but it would do nothing for the healing and long term health of my knee. It might even position me for greater long term pain and trouble.

I can see multiple parallels to personal growth from this experience.

  1. There is no comfort based alternative to personal growth. I cannot simultaneously pursue comfort and take new ground in the formation of my character.
  2. When I lean into pain and difficulty, by being attentive to the internal conversations and observations of my soul, I sow the seeds of real character formation.
  3. There is no magic pill. The attitudes and perspectives that still lurk in the dark recesses of my heart are stubborn and will not be dealt with through some simplistic approach.
  4. I cannot get there in a day. Personal growth and transformation happens much like the healing process in my knee. Even as the initial pain in my knee begins to subside, I know that the work is not done. I have to embrace the reality that repair and retraining of all the muscles, ligaments, and tendons connected to this injury takes time.

So, what difficulty or challenge are you facing these days? What would you like to avoid or dismiss?  Is it possible that your “house of pain” could be a place of rehab or retraining that will serve you in a deep way?

Lord, Teach Me to Number My Days

Yesterday, we had a normal text conversation with a really close friend of ours about the custody hearing of his daughter regarding her child. Then at 7:14 this morning my phone rang and I learned that this same friend and daughter were shot and killed by her ex-husband last evening.

Emotionally I’ve spent the day vacillating between shock, sorrow, anger, and indignation. This was a good friend and truly a fine caring man. He was a loving generous grandfather who gave himself in sacrificial ways to his family. He and his wife had hopes and dreams about their retirement years. There are many things I could say about Russ, but since you don’t know him I need to write about the personal reflections I cannot escape.

In the words of David, the great song writer, “Lord, teach us to number our days.” (Ps 90:12)  In my own words, “Lord, help me put today in perspective, by attending to the fact that each day is a sacred gift, a limited commodity. Help me live aware of the fact that I will never know how many days I have ahead of me.”

The truth is, in my entire life, all I ever have at my disposal is one day: today! Yesterday is a memory I can celebrate, treasure, learn from, etc. Tomorrow is a day I can plan for. But, the only day within my grasp, the only day where my purpose and priorities and values can be actively lived out, is today. In a tangible way, the real number of our days is ONE.

“Lord, teach us to number our days aright, that we might gain a heart of wisdom.” Wisdom, not drivenness. Drivenness would be the American way–run faster, do more, strive harder, live in a panic. On the contrary, embracing the reality that only one day lies within our grasp should lead us to depth, direction, and the de-cluttering of our lives.

I think this is one of the core messages of my life: the power of one day. When I live in the light of one day, it keeps me sensitive to the sacred nature of my own life and the people who populate it. It focuses my attention on the direction of my life and how I might lived connected to the Kingdom. It keeps me passionate about living in intimacy with Jesus as I seek to follow him. Today is the day when I get to live out my convictions, give my life away serving the potential of others, participate in the redemptive work of the Gospel. Today–every day–is pregnant and holy and fragile.

In all my life, I only have one day at my disposal. So, Lord, as I lean into the sorrow and loss of my friend, show me more about how I might live into the sacred trust of life called “today.”


p.s. I have touched on this theme of life as fragile and sacred before. Here are a links to some of those posts:

Life is Sacred:


– Grieving and the Health of my Soul:


– Life is Long and Fragile:


Law of the Pencil and Stone

I want to talk about having goals and plans. I think they really matter. I am not compulsive about them and don’t let them rule my life, but for me they are essential to living an intentional life. I hold life as a gift to be stewarded, an entrustment to be handled with care.  Setting goals for my personal development and for the things I believe God wants me to work on is one key to intentional focus.

However, there are some complicating factors. How do you balance having goals with being sensitive to the ongoing leading and direction of the Spirit? How do you align yourself with goals and pursue them intentionally without becoming driven?  How do you live in that dynamic tension that calls for daily dependence on God and his direction at yet at the same time align your behavior, decisions, and priorities to what you believe you are supposed to be working on?

In other words, how does a leader live by and provide focused direction while simultaneously remaining responsive to the dynamic leadership of Christ?

I would like to suggest a principle that I believe serves individual leaders, families, churches, and ministry organizations of any size. I call it, the “law of the pencil and the stone.

It works like this.  Knowing that circumstances are always changing, at any given moment all I have to go on is my best understanding to date. I never know every detail or nuance that is important. At any moment God may break in to to redirect, clarify, or interrupt what I understood I should be doing. Therefore, I imagine my goals and plans are written on that elementary-school paper with the really wide lines by one of those finger-thick pencils. They aren’t fancy or polished, just my best understanding to date, and therefore I hold them with a loose grip. Anytime God has a new assignment, I am ready to relinquish those goals for another sheet of penciled writing on elementary school paper.

At the same time, because they are indeed my best understanding of God’s priorities, plans, and direction for my life I need to live in obedience to those goals as if they were written by the finger of God on tablets of stone. Yes, they might change, but until they do they are the best I know. In fact, during my entire life all I will ever have is my best understanding to date. I need to align my life to that understanding and live in obedience to it.

That’s it: holding onto your goals as if they are written in pencil while living them out as if they were written by God on a tablet of stone unlocks the potential for responsive but focused obedience.

It’s Not hard to understand, however I need to address what might be the issue beneath the issue. A great many people and organizations resist setting goals. Something in us likes keeping our options open. We dislike the feeling of having limits. We like the freedom of going with the flow and dislike being accountable to stay on task. And we are really good at masking this personal resistance in some lofty language. In the Christian community, we talk about being Spirit-led — as if the Spirit can only lead in the spontaneity of the moment.

One final thought: When it comes to a group of people, be it a family, a ministry team, or a church, clear agreed upon goals and plans are the way a group of people lives in obedience as a community. The law of the pencil and the stone is a powerful posture for a group that longs to follow Christ together.

So, I have to ask, how has God been directing you?  Isn’t it time to take those good intentions and put them into action?

— Gary

P.S.  By the way, in a changing world and changing marketplace, the law of the pencil and the stone has great value as a corporate posture as well.

Inertia and the Boogie Man

Remember being scared of the “boogie man” as a kid.  Far from the fuzzy lovable “Monsters Inc.” version, the real boogie man spooked a lot of kids. Lurking in the closet or under the bed, he was there to pounce—whatever that means.

For you conspiracy-nuts, I’d suggest someone look into the possibility that the boogie man was invented by the night-lite industry—just a tip.  The point is that all you need to destroy the death grip of a boogie man is a small amount of light. Turn on your Lightning McQueen night-lite or poke a flashlight into that foreboding closet and poof, the boogie man is history.

OK, now make a leap with me. I’d like to suggest that inertia is like the boogie man.  When you postpone something that needs to be done, allow the backlog of unfinished tasks to accumulate, fail to make a decision, or procrastinate the start of a new initiative, the gravity of inertia grows geometrically.  Self-defeating self-talk starts to swirl in our heads and before we know it, the size of the task feels paralyzing. That project feels more like Mt. Everest than a freeway on-ramp. We begin to convince ourselves that success is not possible. But, here’s the deal, inertia has no real power, it is all in our head. It is the self-defeat of inaction.

It doesn’t take much effort at all to replace inertia with movement. Just like the power of a tiny night-lite, in the realm of self-leadership all it takes is the first proactive step. Make that phone call. Write that note. Make a first decision. It doesn’t have to be the perfect first step, and it doesn’t have to be a big step, any first step with do. Just take one and instantly you are “unstuck.” Instantly you have emasculated the boogie man of inertia. He has no more power over you. You have unfrozen the situation and poof, inertia is history.

So, where are you feeling the oppressive gravity of something unfinished, unstarted, undecided, unresolved? Pick the biggest scariest boogie man of them all and do ONE little thing right now. Take one first step today. Open the closet door and shine a light into the darkness.

The freedom you will experience is exhilarating.

In one first step you will begin to replace inertia with momentum. And, momentum is a great experience. What are you waiting for? What is that step you need to take today?

Change :: the new status quo

“We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Sure, Dorothy’s line is now cliché, but it captures the disconcerting wake-up call that we all have at unpredictable moments all the time. Change is the new status quo and when least expected it catches us off guard knocking us off-balance.

Here’s what I mean. Two weeks ago my Uncle asked me to help him get his television working. It’s a simple problem really—unless you are completely behind the curve of technological change. His television is one of those old portable 13-inch screens in a box the size of an ice chest that weighs about 25 pounds. The assisted living facility where he lives told him that the problem is he would need to order cable. He has never had cable and doesn’t understand why he can’t a good signal with a pair of old-school rabbit-ears.

So, picture the scene. Here I was, trying to explain the problem of a 30-year-old analog TV in a flat-screen high-def digital age to a technologically illiterate senior citizen who is almost deaf. He just doesn’t have the categories.

Think about his dilemma on a deeper level. The changing world we call home has put him in a place where the ‘rules’ he knows for how life works no longer apply. He cannot apply “rabbit-ear solutions” he understands to a “digital world” he doesn’t. His desire to wind the clock back to a day where solutions and approaches he understands still work is perfectly understandable. It is an unavoidable experience in a world where constant hi-speed discontinuous change is the order of the day.

These are the waters we all swim in. It is the reason why I chose the image of a sailboat cutting through the waves by harnessing the wind as the metaphor for this website. Learning to embrace and navigate change is life for all of us and it is the meat and potatoes of leadership.

I am fascinated by change, by how it happens, by the way it impacts people, and especially by what it takes to lead it effectively. I have been making observations and logging insights into leading change for a number of years now and it’s time to put more of them in writing.  So, consider this an introduction. For a number of weeks, I will devote my entries to different thoughts about change, including:

–       The end of the 40/40 world

–       A 5-dimensional approach to leading change

–       Leading is change

–       A battleship vs. a zodiak

–       The need for heretics

For today, the question is a simple one: what is one area of change you are tired of and what could you do to embrace it rather than fight it?

Our Little Black Book

I am big on the significance of milestones in life and the opportunity they give for perspective and re-alignment. Last week was one of those milestones. It was not only the first week of a new decade, it was our 32nd wedding anniversary.

Margaret and I went away for a few days to celebrate, relax, and to take a look at where we are at, how we are doing. We actually have a ritual that we follow each year on our anniversary. Since it is so close to the beginning of a new year, Margaret and I take a morning and do a “state of the union” review on our life and marriage.

It’s rather simple. We have this really cheap blank book and in it we capture our perspective on four or five basic categories. Some years we do a bit more, but we always include:

  1. Where are we now?(a brief summary of current reality for each of us and our kids.)
  2. Looking Back: the major events, themes, and developments of the past year.
  3. Looking Ahead: our dreams, priorities and big plans for our life together in the year ahead.
  4. Growth, change, or goals the Lord is prompting us toward during the next year.

    We’ve been around the block enough times now to know that “drift” happens. All that stuff of life creeps up and new patterns develop in your marriage as you react to them: busy travel seasons, challenges at work, illness, financial set-backs, etc. Without some mechanism for getting altitude and re-calibrating life, subtle drifts become dangerous currents.

    Now, Margaret and I weren’t this intentional when we first started, it just seemed like a good idea to do some annual reflection at the beginning of the year. But, over the years we discovered that this tradition is really a sacred time to talk to each other about how we are doing and about the re-alignment that needs to take place as we go forward.

    We started this tradition on January 1st, 1978, six days before our wedding. We were dirt poor, so we rented a table at McDonalds and for a few hours made two pages of notes about the previous year and what we saw ahead for our first year of marriage. Over the years there were a few times when somehow we didn’t get our thoughts written into the book, but even with a couple gaps, we realize now that we have also documented the map of our journey through life together.

    our anniversary book

    That little blank book is pretty ratty these days. We will fill it up in a couple years, if it holds out that long. When it dies or gets filled up, we’ll start volume II. On January 7th thirty-two years from now you will find Margaret and I sitting someplace simple with that second volume asking the same questions and making intentional plans for the year before us.

    The Easiest Way to Avoid Change

    It is December 30th and that means we are in the red-zone for the annual “get your life together” rhetoric calling for New Year’s resolutions to fuel personal growth. But, what do you do if you don’t buy into this annual opportunity for a fresh start? What if you would rather avoid another attempt at change and the potential disappointment that comes with it? What if you like things just the way they are?

    If you’d rather avoid the risk of change, this is your lucky day!

    I would like to let you in on a secret. It is the easiest way to avoid change with the least amount of effort. In fact, by simply mastering the well-timed use of two words, you can indefinitely avoid the unpleasant risk and hard work of change on a personal level or even thwart an initiative for change in any group you are part of.

    The secret?  Learn to use these two magic words:  not yet.
    Here’s how it works.

    Imagine you have or let’s say you “know someone” who has a few pounds to lose. By simply saying, “I really need to lose some weight, it is really important, but not yet. I have this holiday to get through or that trip to take first.

    Perhaps you need to get your financial house in order. If so, try this one: “I am working on a plan for how to do it, but with all the Christmas bills now is not the time, at least not yet.”

    Or, maybe, you need to make a few changes at work or you are facing some other challenge that will require courageous change.  Look yourself (or anyone else that matters) in the eye. Affirm the need for change, but in sobering tones finish your sentence with, “but the timing just isn’t right. I’ll need to make the change soon, but not yet.”

    The secret power of this little phrase is nowhere more transcendent than in a group setting, let’s say at your church. Picture the scene, some leader suggests changing a program or tradition you find personally meaningful all in the name of greater impact on other people in your community. Sure, maybe at some point in time it would be a good idea, but not yet.

    Instead of suffering in silence, this is a perfect time to speak up and wax eloquently on why this proposal is a fantastic idea. But, before anyone can shout amen, continue right on and in the most sensitive manner point out to the group that considering all the current challenges at hand, now is not the time.  “It is clearly a great idea, but not yet!”  Pontificate that before diving into the disconcerting waters of change on something so important, it would be good to do more study, more preparation, more shoring up some of the core programs and practices that already need attention. Thank those that have offered the proposal. It is a good idea, but not yet.

    Before you know it, by your skillful use of the non-taxing strategy of “not yet” you will have postponed change indefinitely. You will have avoided all risk. You will have been able to maintain status quo. What could be more comfortable?

    I know that “they say” if something needs to be done, there is no time like the present. And, I know thatin the Bible James warns us about walking away without making any changes after looking in the mirror and seeing exactly what needs to be done. Even the book of Hebrews says, ‘today if you hear the Lord’s voice, do not harden your hearts…” But certainly all these people understand that now is not the time to seize the day and make those changes that have been nagging at you for some time.  They are good ideas, but not yet.

    Unless of course change is actually needed.

    Raising My Game

    Two weeks ago the Lord spoke to me about the disciplines involved in writing for this blog and provoked me to get my act together and write more often. No, it wasn’t dramatic. No smoke or lightning, but the stomach grabbing awareness that he was trying get through to me was undeniable.

    From the inception of aboutLEADING, my goal has been to write about observations and insights that occur at the intersection of life and leadership. It is the intersection where I live and a place I long to make a contribution. The discipline of writing for this blog forces me to transform an intuitive “a-ha” from raw concept into a more articulated form.

    However, as my life and responsibilities ran wild, my writing rhythms took a back seat and my production pace diminished to about one article a month.

    Sorry, that just doesn’t cut it. It is time to raise my game.

    So, on a recent flight, I did a little review of the Moleskine™ notebook in which I log key ideas and lessons and realized that right now I am sitting on more than 150 ideas and insights that have stirred me and for which this blog is perfectly designed. Without ever working on anything else, that pool of ideas would provide three years worth of fodder for weekly entries.

    And that’s the goal.  A new entry every week. Sure, there may be times when I miss a week, but we are all big kids and a missed week won’t defeat the basic plan.  At the core, this is one simple way I am committed to give my life and my learning away to a community of friends and colleagues.

    I’ll see you next week.

    BONUS:  By the way, if you don’t have a personal method for capturing the ideas and lessons you discover along the way, drop me a note and I would be glad to share an easy approach to doing just that.