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:


Defying Gravity

I know, it sounds like the language of a circus barker, “Come see the Flying Zucchini Brothers as they defy gravity.” However, I am talking about much more than entertaining circus talk. “Defying gravity,” is a terrific description of the way effective leadership teams learn to operate.

If you sit on an elder board at your church, the board of directors for an organization, or even the leadership team of a business, I am going to guess that you find yourself frustrated at times. We have all been there in those meetings when we thought, “are we really spending our time talking about this? Why are we mired in such small stuff when there are really big and strategic issues that need to be addressed?”

You see, the natural path of any organization is downhill. Leadership teams feel the downward pull of gravity through press of the urgent, the reality of fatigue, the desire to feel in control of something, or the relentless demands of the crowd. Gravity draws us toward the path of least resistance, away from altitude-giving perspective, and down into the miry clay of micro details. It is hard to resist gravity.

In contrast, effective leadership teams execute the dance of leadership in a way that defies the gravity plaguing most organizations. It not easy. In fact, defying gravity demands disciplined attention to four courageous behavior patterns.

As you read a summary of these four disciplines, ask yourself, how are you shaping the work and focus of the Board or leadership team you are part of? Is your team plowing the mud at ground level or have you found a way to lead at perspective-giving altitude? For each of the disciplines below, what kind of a grade would you give yourself?


Maintain enough altitude to connect the dots between where you have been, where you are, and where you need to be going. “Staying above” means attending to the important more than the urgent. It requires all out war against the desire to exert control through the self-important posture of micro-management.


One of the core entrustments of a senior leadership team or governing board is the long range direction of the organization. “Staying beyond” means courageously choosing to resist the lazy posture of perpetual reactivity. Instead of drilling down into the present or simply reporting on the past, conversations and decisions are focused 2-5 years out. Gravity defying teams discipline themselves to think and act on the preferred future.


Human nature is profoundly self-centered and self-protective. However, strong leadership teams go a different direction and choose to fight for one another. They stay honest, open, trusting, and emotionally current with each other. They approach problems and challenges by staying on the same side of the table relationally while the issue lives on the other side to the table. The result? High EQ and the release of collaborative effectiveness, a team where 1+1=100.


It is easy for a leadership team to become consumed by the responsibilities they carry and the demanding tasks they face at the expense of their souls. My leadership world is primarily the church and Christian ministry organizations, so perhaps I am especially attuned to the cost leadership teams pay for not traveling deep spiritually. However, believing that we were made for lives of intimacy with our Creator through Jesus Christ, it is obvious to me that effective leadership teams learn to practice spiritually forming rhythms together. They are unafraid of unfinished agenda work believing that time in prayer, time spent in God’s Word, and time exploring issues of the soul are matters of greatest priority. Staying deep spiritually releases to defy the gravity of anxiety and drivenness over the demands of everything crying for attention.

What are your thoughts? … Your observations?

I would love your comments.


March 30, 2011

p.s. Thanks Todd, (my pastor) for throwing out a couple comments this past weekend about how our elders work. Thanks too, for leading in these ways. Your comments and your example unlocked the insights in this article.

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?

A Leader’s Prayer

I have often quoted the axiom, “a difference between a leader and a follower is PERSPECTIVE. And, a difference between good leaders and better leaders is better perspective.”

There are things we can do to provide perspective, ways we can gain the leadership equivalent of altitude, but perspective is more than a strategic issue. The greatest perspective is actually spiritual, and as such, it calls for the work of the Spirit.

After all, James promised that if anyone lacks wisdom he/she should ask of God who gives generously.

Therefore, in that Spirit, I wrote a Prayer for a Leader. I literally printed off a copy and clipped it into my day planner so that I would be reminded to pray these thoughts every day until it becomes second nature.


A Leader’s Prayer

Lord, help me

see beyond…

Help me see beyond…

… my experience

… my training and knowledge

… my wisdom and insight

… my intuition

… and beyond myself.

Help me see beyond…

… the surface

… the obvious

… the urgent

… easy options, familiar approaches

and obvious personnel

to see beyond what is, in order to see what could be.

In every situation, help me see beyond the…

… human

… organizational

… and strategic factors

to see the real spiritual issues and dynamics in play.

And, while helping me see beyond…

grant me the ability to see, understand, and embrace

present reality

with unwavering courage.

Change :: Leading is Change

I am fascinated by the ways and reasons we resist change. We don’t just resist changes that are big and scary, we resist change on every level. We laugh at Einstein’s definition of insanity while pretending we don’t live by it every day, “doing what we have always done, expecting different results.” Leader face this resistance constantly. At the same time, leaders often miss the subtle ways they stand in the way, too.

Last week, something hit me afresh: Even leaders who seek to help the people or organizations they lead take new ground—aka: make productive and profound change—are tempted to limit the changes they are willing to lead to those within the boundaries of their own comfort zone. To say it another way, it is easy to ask other people to make major change as long as that change is contained within the realm of what we are already comfortable with. In other words, even as we call for bold change in others we are being careful to avoid the implications of those changes in ourselves.

However, leading is about change. Leaders look at where they are now and where they need to be. They admit that it is not possible to get somewhere new doing what they have always done. Great leaders are willing to go back to the drawing board to unlearn, relearn, and become students of whole new disciplines and skills. They are willing to put it all on the line for the sake of what needs to be achieved. They literally, “walk naked into the land of the unknown.” (Robert Quinn, Deep Change.)

Leading is change, it is not about polishing the status quo. Therefore, to be a leader of change I have to allow change to begin in me.

But here’s the deal. Change is destabilizing and risky. You cannot guarantee a return on your “investment” of change until you are all in with no way of going back. Change is an act of faith to trust your best wisdom and intentions. But there are no guarantees. It is possible to pay the price of change and not achieve what you hope for. So, given the facts that change is risky, that people resist change, that change leads to loss and destabilizes an organization, it is no wonder that courageous appropriate leadership is so rare. There are lots of reasons to play it safe.

However, we will never get where we need to go by staying where we are. (How’s that for a brilliant quotable quote.)

Time for a little personal inventory:

  • What is the new territory you long for with your team or organization? What do you dream of achieving?
  • What actions, decisions, or new growth have you been putting off?
  • What risks will you have to take to start leading toward that new future?
  • and the most important question: Who do you know who could help you discover and develop the new skills or disciplines you will need to lead at a new level?

    CHANGE :: End of the 40/40 World

    Not so long ago, I listened to a talk given by Alan Roxburgh where he described the end of what he called, the “40/40 world.”  I am not sure I agree with the exact timing of his observations, but I think his point is right on the mark. In my own words, the point is as follows…

    For a generation or two we lived in a world where the average family had one parent who worked a forty-hour week for a company where they were employed forty years. In addition, most families were able to make it on the one income so that the other spouse could devote full-time attention to the job of household management and child-rearing. Among other things, this meant that when the working spouse returned home at the end of the day, the house was clean, kids were finished with homework, and dinner was on the way.

    In this environment the American church refined its programs and rhythms. Because there was a reserve of energy available for evening activities, it was very common for active church families to spend four or five days a week in church based activities—Bible studies, committee meetings, choir practice, prayer meetings, mid-week suppers, children’s programs, vacation bible schools, etc.

    That 40/40 world ended sometime near the end of the last millennium. It was replaced by a world where everyone essentially works as a consultant, a world where job security is only as good as the current project you are working on. It’s a world that requires people to put in however many hours it takes to get the job done. And, now both spouses work in this same environment replete with the anxiety, fatigue, and long hours that come with it. Families no longer have a reserve of time and energy available for multiple church or community activities. Volunteerism cannot be taken for granted.

    Thus the leadership challenge. We can bemoan the loss of the older ways all we want to, but the reality is we live in a new world and must adapt to it. We must begin to own the fact that time and energy of our people are the most important resources of any organization. Understanding how the realities of this new day severely limit people’s time and energy is a starting point from which a leader can begin to effectively adjust plans and expectations.

    The end of the 40/40 world calls for creative alternatives. Programs designed to serve people must be built on the principle of multi-usage, delivering value on multiple levels. The quantity of commitments expected of people needs to be downsized without value judgments. Every program, every commitment, every invitation must have a crystal articulated purpose and/or vision.  It will not work any longer to attempt enlisting people  out of  a sense of duty.

    Leading in a world when people had active reserves of time and energy out of which they can serve was much easier than having to compete for diminishing availability. However, the reality is, that older world doesn’t exist anymore. And, when the world you live in changes, the way you lead must change as well.