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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Field Reports: Guerrilla Office Tactics

I've started collecting stories -- some of which may be entirely apocryphal tall tales -- of the purported lengths to which people are going to filter noise and to ensure that their time and attention aren't ceded to bad ideas, thoughtless people, or garden-variety time burglars.

Here's a few of the more novel ones I've picked up. I'd also love to hear your favorites from amongst the cheats, tricks, and squirrely rules you've heard about:

Before you flame me

I’m not saying I necessarily promote or recommend any of these for you (or anyone, for that matter) — I just think they’re a fascinating snapshot of the lengths people need to go to today in order to get a semblance of order in their environment.

  • Bozo filter - Filter into a "holding" folder every email message for which you are not the sole "TO:" recipient. This filter includes lists, "CC:"s, "BCC:"s, and any number of other bulk-y messages that were never destined for you alone. Then you check that folder once a day, and create compensating rules as needed.
  • Smoking the bacn - Similar to my "no press releases" trick, filter any email that contains the string "to unsubscribe." Although many of these certainly will be valuable (sign-ups, Google lists), that string means there's a good chance they're also bulk messages that are being generated automatically. And some folks want to only see those sorts of emails, again, once or twice a day -- and only when they have extra time (read as: don't interrupt me whenever someone on Facebook wants me to be a zombie, or whatever).
  • Trusted (and lazy) filter - For a very noisy, high-volume list, filter all messages except those by 2-3 people whom you really respect. When those people chime in, catch up with what they're responding to -- chances are good you haven't missed much and can use their appearance to get up to speed.
  • Lessons from Mr. Hand - One minute after a designated meeting time, the door to the meeting room closes, and latecomers ain't welcome. (I'd also note that this can have unintended consequences if you're the "late" guy and you happen to hate going to meetings)
  • No gadgets - Put a table by the door to the meeting room. If you want to come in to the meeting, any electronic device you brought with you stays there, powered-off. No grazing until a break or when the meeting is over. The thinking: if you have time to fiddle with your iPhone, you're clearly not needed in that part of the meeting, so why are you and your device even there?
  • Remove the comfort - Related to the "no gadgets" rule, some groups are reportedly trying to reduce meeting time by making it less fun and comfortable to sit around for an hour or two. This can range from no longer "catering" meetings with food and water, to shutting off wi-fi, to more extreme measures, such as no-chair meetings.

Yeah, sure, some of these are extreme, and some may get you fired or punched in the nose. But you have to admit, people are conducting some fascinating evolutionary experiments. Tempting stuff.

The Question to You

Have you heard of any tricks that teams and individuals are trying to keep the madness at bay? Any that you can verify are being used in your own group — and are they succeeding or failing? For the mentioned tricks you find abhorrent, what solutions do you think might work better?

Berko's picture

OK, you've touched a nerve

I wholeheartedly embrace protecting my time and attention even if it means pissing some people off. The problem with this is that I am looking for an internship right now and after that, a full time gig with good pay and benefits. My fear is that these time wasting masturbation substitutes are so ingrained in the culture of many organizations that I might be seen as antisocial or not a team player or some other pejorative term. How do you deal with that? Having to explain to someone that you didn't get their cute email yet (and might never depending on the gates in place) or won't watch that YouTube video or forward the warm fuzzies on to 50 other innocent bastards even if your nuts turn black and fall off because of your vigilant protection of your time and attention is likely to waste just as much time as dealing with the other bullshit.

So, all that ranting aside, how can we get others to play nice with systems that aren't psychotic? (I have worked in the mental health field so please don't go Dr. Phil "You can't control other people..." on me.) Is it operant conditioning? Booby trap the cubicle entrance? Wet noodle lashings? Autoresponders? These could quickly cruft up others' inboxes.

I implement these kinds of principles in my personal life and my business, but I am really having a hard time (and a sense of despair actually) about trying to maintain these principles in a corporate environment.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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