I have a great fondness for the number 73 London bus (or the ‘dear old 73’ as my mum might have described it). In my 20 years studying and working in the capital I lived on the 73 route at three different locations – Oxford Street, Islington and Stoke Newington – so I had lots of opportunity to ride on it at all times of the day and night. Those journeys bring back a variety of memories – associated with the state of the roads, the state of me (the amount I’d drunk), other passengers, and things going on in my life at those three locations (being a student – swatting, being employed – sweating, being married – swooning).
I was thinking about no 73 buses recently when discussing business advice with a recently retired consultant. She said she was enjoying her ‘new life’ because she no longer had to deal with small businesses that would “like London buses, come along in threes”.
Since I’m also involved with advising would-be business owners it got me thinking about whether I have had the same experience – demand coming in peaks and not a lot in between (actors know the problem…) I think this may be partly our mind playing tricks – we remember the busiest and slackest periods and the more manageable flow of enquiries goes by unremarkably. But I do have peaks and it’s of my own making.
I send out a fortnightly business support bulletin – Free Lunch – to my contacts* and I often get a mini flood of communications in the days after it goes out. And that’s the point – in nearly 20 years of advice-giving I’ve learnt that a short regular bulletin is a good way to remind people I’m around (as well as, hopefully, sending them some useful and interesting hand-picked information). It’s easier than a phone call, although I admit it’s also easier to ignore, so it’s not the only way I nudge people to do what we agreed they would do.
I’d like to say I deal with the rush of enquiries through an organised system of triage. I decide which communications are urgent and important, or one or the other, and aim to send at least a holding response within 12 hours and clear the whole thing off my desk, ‘touching the paper’ (metaphorically speaking in these digital days) only once, within 48 hours. I’d like to say that’s what happens… but it doesn’t. My response is much less consistent and systematic – but it largely works.
First, if it’s an e-mail I look at the sender and the subject line – but often that’s simply the same subject line as my bulletin mailing so that doesn’t always help – although it proves my particular nudge technique works! Next, I look at the nature of the enquiry – is it clear what the person is asking for (not a given), is the request polite and reasonable. Finally, how long will it take me to respond? And after that it depends on what else I’m working on – the importance and interest relative to the incoming enquiry.
But how do I build my responses into a wider consideration of what needs to be done and when? There’s some really useful advice from Stephen Covey in the form of his now-famous Time Management Matrix – it’s worth sharing here.
Covey argues that we get too distracted by things which are urgent but unimportant (quarter lll in the matrix) – they get more of our attention than they deserve simply because they are urgent. He also says that we tend to spend too little time in quadrant ll – areas of work which can enrich our working lives and keep us healthier by not having to rush from deadline to deadline. In reality of course, we spend too much time in the lower righthand corner – because it’s the line of least resistance and it can be more fun!
The new twist in the tail for my work-flow system is that new data controls (the GDPR – General Data Processing Regulations) mean I need to ask the current recipients of my fortnightly Free Lunch bulletin to opt-in to receive it after the end of May. This will probably decrease the circulation list to single figures and I’ll then be delighted if one bus comes along each fortnight, let alone worry about three at once!
*If you want to see the sorts of free business support items I share, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/free-lunch-business-support