At an Airtel event a couple of months ago, someone from their network team explained to me why connections don’t really work very well at toll booths. We were in Gurgaon, a few months after the Gurgaon toll booth had been shut down to allow free passage of non-commercial vehicles. Before that happened, you had to add around 15-20 minutes to your ETA, to get through the toll. Both sides of the toll saw hundreds, if not a thousand cars waiting to go through, during peak hours. It’s not just calls, the Airtel exec explained. Each phone sends out multiple pings to multiple towers for multiple things (I forget which), because of which, the towers get overloaded because during peak ours, too many phones (and people) reach there at the same time.
‘Ping’ is a phrase some of use also use, when asking someone to contact us: “Ping me”. Every message we receive is a ping. Given how connected we are, there are multiple ways of being contacted: via Twitter (message, DM), Whatsapp (messaging or groups), email (or multiple emails), phone calls, text messages.
Each ping leads to a decision that your network makes, and at certain times, the number of pings on your network can be overwhelming. What’s more, as an entrepreneur and a journalist, and someone who is open and accessible, these pings come to me from many many sources, each of a different order of priority, each with a different set of expectations, and expectations of detailing of response.
Each ping is a decision. Even deferring a decision is a decision, every response can lead to more, so each ping can lead to multiple decisions. Decision making is often tough, and too many decisions can be tiring. Some people view my lack of response as arrogance, but I can’t help that.
To deal with pings on my network, I do two things: Firstly, try and reduce the number of pings that reach me. Secondly, respond to them in a manner that makes sense, and take decisions quicker and better.
Reducing pings: Taking control of your time
1. Set up processes to ensure that only important pings reach you: At one time, I used to get around 250 emails from companies and PR agencies each day, many of which were irrelevant. I have over 1200 gmail filters that I update religiously. Most emails go straight to trash. I check trash according to my convenience, and move to inbox the relevant emails. For the rest of the mails (everything from marine fuel, diapers, films releases, book launches, face creams etc), this process saves me a click per mail. A lot of pings avoided. Almost all PR agency mobile numbers are blocked (I love Xiaomi’s MIUI), because the process I prefer is: email –> email again –> SMS –> Assume I’m not interested.
2. Act to reduce the number of pings: In a similar manner, you can choose to mute Whatsapp groups, ask people to not cc you on twitter discussions (it’s sometimes perceived to be rude, but it’s important), untag yourself from Facebook updates. One action saves you the trouble of sifting through hundreds of updates.
3. Make things asynchronous: People expect immediate responses to messages. That’s often not possible for you, because if you did that, you would spend most of the day responding to people, and responding to their responses. Making things as asynchronous means looking into things at specific points in time. Turn off most notifications on your mobile phone(s) and check only when needed. Don’t auto-sync email to your mobile device. I’ve disabled call waiting on my phone. One thing at a time, and if it’s important, the caller can message. Schedule the time that you spend on facebook and Twitter (instead of being always on). Shift to a read-only mode on social media, unless you really have time for a conversation. Ask people to switch a discussion to email, so that you don’t have to respond in real-time.
I defer reading and responding to mails when there is something important that I’m working on, and I’ve struggled to make this a norm: of checking email only in spurts, instead of real-time. I’m reminded of my uncle Deepak Pahwa, who, when on holiday in the pre-email era, would only allow calls from office for an hour in the morning, and an hour in the evening.
The important thing here is: You’re outnumbered, and need to take control of your time. Because if you won’t, others will.
4. Set up processes to allow others to make not-important decisions for you: To address the email issue, we set up a firstname.lastname@example.org address which goes out to everyone. This way, someone apart from me can make a decision on something that isn’t of significant priority to me anymore. We also set up a Google Doc for Work in Progress (i.e. stories that we’re working on), wherein journalists can stake claim to certain stories (so we don’t have multiple people working on the same thing at the same time), and any inputs can be shared voluntarily without being requested.
We also set up a peer review system for stories, which means that each individual helps someone else. This addresses the issue that hierarchies face, where the boss becomes the bottleneck because he has to take too many decisions and keeps deferring them. The added advantage of this is: if you’re critiquing someone elses work, it makes you think, and helps you get better. Responsibility is collective.
There’s also a MediaNama stylebook, where we’ve outlined broadly how to approach specific types of stories. Again, it’s supposed to reduce my involvement (and reduce pings that I receive), and not many of us refer to it often enough, but it’s there in case someone needs help on how to approach a story.
One of the bigger challenges is delegation upwards, but I do think I have managed to reduce the number of pings I get, by following these rules. Importantly, I hope it also means that those who work with us get used to making more decisions, and become better at what they do.
In part 2, when I get the time, I’ll look at something that I constantly struggle with: decision making. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions on reducing pings on network, or how you’ve done this, please do leave a comment.