Catching up on work

It’s been a little bit since I posted about the ongoing (over)work issues. Time for an update and some resolution.

Speaking to my boss was the right thing to do, naturally. It took a little bit for us to understand each other, that I normally handle a lot of workload as it is, and because of that if I were to warn every time I got close to my threshold it would be a daily kind of occurrence. She understands now that I do work so close to my threshold, so when I do raise a flag, it’s not just rumblings, it’s a call for assistance or at the very least attention to the problem is needed.

I even ended up speaking with HR, and the company is responding to my complaints positively. They are acknowledging that there is a need for some kind of staffing increase in the department, and HR came into our departmental meeting and asked us for our general pain points. I think it was telling that a lot of what we had to say addressed solving problems, not just symptoms… and the work volume is partly symptomatic of other things. I’ll leave those well enough alone, but it was very nice to be listened  to. We’ll see as it comes down to implementation, but the team has the right ideas, so the battle is more than half won.

Email patterns.

Interestingly enough, a coworker watched me having my panic attacks at work for a week and shared his method of dealing with his email volume. Over this past weekend (labor day weekend, too) I worked my way through the email pile using his method. I think it can work, but it’s a bit more labor intensive up front. I’m still not sure if it will work as well with my client load, but I’m going to try it.

Before I get into the method itself, let me explain how I’ve been working to try and keep up. Typically I have categories in Outlook for each client. When new mail comes in, I scan it  briefly to do triage on when I need to respond to it. Then I let it go uncategorized in the general email bucket if I need to get to it later, or else I take care of it if it’s an emergency, and archive the email once it’s done. Once a week (used to be Monday, then became Friday because I went a whole week without having the time to do it) I sort through the remaining ‘uncategorized’ emails, assigning them category codes and putting their tasks into a formal To-Do list. Every day, I prioritize off of that To-Do list, plus any new emergency items which come up during the day.

The system is actually tried and true for me… but with a client load of 4-6 active projects/clients… and no maintenance work. Project managers generally work on projects… items with a definite ending point. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.  Maintenance clients… that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Can’t predict their needs. Can’t ignore their requests. Hard to prioritize their emergencies, because when a Maintenance client has a Maintenance issue, you need to react quickly since there’s generally at least one someone on the other end of the line who can’t continue their work until you accomplish yours.

So while my system worked and worked well for a project-based environment, a hybridized project/maintenance environment was swamping me. Drowning in emails.

Counting emails?

The internet geek in me, however, started to note that Outlook keeps count of emails when you display them via category. I started to notice that by the end of each week, I had a chunk of emails which had been weeded through to address the important stuff, discard the junk, and represented each week a body of client requests which needed some measure of attention and time to process into tasks and assign out to the team, to do research on, to follow up with communications and consolidated documentation. They weren’t critical tasks, or they would have been done already. They weren’t throwaway tasks, or they would have been deleted when they came in. These were the body of work, the unglamorous, the regular, the mundane.

I tracked them. Not by any academic rigor, just because that number of emails in the Uncategorized bucket was always there. I’d plug away one night overtime, and it would go down by a quarter or a third, and then by the end of the next day, the number was right back up where it had been.  Unscientifically, of course, I came up with the following rough trends.

Daily emails

Every day, I receive approximately 100 emails of all kinds, of which a quarter are threads of conversations started by those “uncategorized” mundane work emails as I did research on issues and follow ups on items. About 10-15 a day are emergencies needing immediate attention and resolution that interrupt everything else and sometimes derail an entire day’s work. Leaving about 60 emails a day of that ‘uncategorized’, mundane work coming in.

Some of those emails get done quickly. 5 minutes, tops. About 10 of them are the quick kinds, usually. Some of them are the really sticky kinds of issues which once you start, that’s what you’re going to be doing for hours, and it will probably involve team meetings and emails and efforts which just can’t get resolved in a single sitting by a single person. Another 5 of those kinds of emails a day, and to be fair, a lot of the issues remain the same, but the sticky emails generate more sticky emails the next day, etc., until there’s resolution on the items. (Several items I tackled when I started at the job. Sticky emails take months to resolve, usually, so they generate constant work until they’re done.)  The rest of the emails take, on average, about 15-30 mintues to resolve, between reviewing the issue, identifying the resources for the job, communicating the client needs to the resources, putting in the right tasks into our internal task management system, communicating back to the client. (Tomorrow those become the 5 minute email types as the clients respond).

Let’s do the math on the rough numbers, and we’ll see why things get out of hand.

60 “uncategorized” emails a day.
10 of them take 5 minutes to do, or one hour of work, roughly, spaced out along the day.
45 emails taking, oh, let’s be generous and say 15 minutes each.  11.25 hours of work right there.
And 5 ‘sticky’ emails which can eat up hours apiece. Let’s be kind and say that after the inital sticky issue is identified and progress begins, it takes about an hour to move each sticky email to the next sticky stage. So that’s 5 hours.

17.25 hours of work, just generated by emails.

Every day.

Reality speaks

Now, the numbers don’t work out that way all the time. But even if my estimates are doubled, that’s still more than 8 hours of work for the day just for emails. Not every month has been that busy. I’d love to actually figure out what the real email timing is. It’s the primary form of business communication now, which is good because it becomes a project’s documentation.  But when email gets out of control, it can quickly swamp your work life.

So this past weekend, I manned up and worked through the weekend, catching up as best I could. Yesterday things actually felt like I was continuing to make progress, so the momentum from the weekend helped. Of course, the price I’m paying for all of this is that I’m running on empty personally, but if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, then so be it. Sometimes, the only way out is through.

Perpetually behind

I spent a good portion of my day today simply cleaning out my email inbox at work. I say ‘cleaning out’ with a qualifier… the inbox is still full, but I’ve read through all of my emails and I’ve gotten everything sorted out and noted down as to what needs to get done which has still been hanging over my head.

It’s kind of insane, really. Hours have been spent already on just trying to organize all of the influx of demands for this job. It’s not a complaint, it’s just an observation. Project management and Account management at the same time makes for a rather unique problem. Yes man account manager and No man project manager share a single set of resources. Instead of spending my day charting out work breakdown solutions, generating estimates, and managing the process of the projects, I’m running around putting out hundreds of tiny fires that hit in waves.

There’s times I just don’t want to even answer the phone, except for the billable hours that brings.

Anyway, I feel like I’m playing Super Mario Bros. 2 and I’m on that level where you can’t stand still. You jump to one platform and it immediately starts to sink, so you have to jump to the other. I question my ability to provide decent customer service when I’m running around like this.

And yet.

And yet that’s precisely why I spend hours of my day organizing my email and generating task lists. I know as a project manager that if I can just get a tiny bit ahead, I can start to pull up out of the day to day view and start taking on the longer range planning that is my stock in trade. It’s a scramble to get on top of the heap, and a scramble to get things under control. But I finally see project management work on the horizon. It just took 6 weeks to wade through the crap to get there.

I know it feels like a waste of billable time, but I spend the full allotment of my General Admin time every day, usually. I have to,  just in order to list out the tasks that need to get done, and maybe if I’m lucky prioritize by a manner besides simply who called most recently complaining the loudest.

Maybe I’ll get there. There’s a lot of proces to follow, white paper trails and checklists and check boxes. Grumble as I might, they’re actually the way to get out of the muck. I know this. I just resist it, really. Boxes, boxes, boxes, and flowcharts, project plans, gantt charts, and scheduling resources. Tis a necessary evil to be able to continue working at such a breakneck pace and to maintain some level of efficiency.

And yet, all I really want to do is land a job where the American ideal of every last productive ounce of blood, sweat, and tears are not yanked from me daily. Where I don’t have to track my billable hours down to every 15 minutes. Where I can not feel guilty about the time I take to go to the bathroom.

Someday. Just keep on scheduling until eventually I ‘get it’ and the system becomes cyclical and maintenance based instead of this vast learning curve.