Saturday, March 2, 2024

How I Manage Too Many Emails, Not Enough Time

A Foreign Service mentor of mine I really admire once told me, "You'd be amazed how far you can get in this career just by responding to emails." As an entry-level officer, I didn't understand what she meant but now that I'm hitting my mid-career stride I completely agree. Like most modern office workplaces, the State Department is overflowing with emails: newsletters, administrative automated emails, meeting and event invitations, requests for clearance (what we call required approvals on documents or courses of action), networking messages, missives from mentees or mentors or colleagues or friends who need advice or are hoping to catch up or are responding to you - some of which require your attention or approval but some of which are just for your information. Of the ones that need action, some have deadlines and some are open-ended. Either way, I have yet to meet someone in the mid-level Foreign Service and above who isn't sick of the overwhelming number of emails.

In this environment, it is very tempting simply to relinquish control of one's inbox and give up. I have met plenty of people - including those in essential jobs where a missed email literally could alter someone life - fall into this camp. Alternatively, some let Outlook rule their lives, spending every night and weekend combing through emails to make sure they've read every word of every email that comes through just in case they are needed. I don't think either of these extremes is healthy or contributes to a positive work culture. I also don't think there is a one-size-fits-all solution for every person or every job: people need to find the email management system that works best for them.

At the same time, I'm happy to shared what has worked for me because it has served me well throughout all four of my tours in the Foreign Service so far. I love my system so much that I use the same one for my personal email and work email: Inbox Zero. Yes, this means my inbox is empty or nearly empty a majority of the time. (And it feels great!) TechTarget summarizes the key tenets of Inbox Zero, which I quoted below followed by my own commentary:

  1. "Some messages are more equal than others." This is the most challenging one for me, because I like to go in order from oldest to newest email by default, but sometimes you have to go through your emails in priority order or the top priorities will fall through the cracks. It's not enough to have a goal of taking care of five emails by lunch: the most important and urgent emails need to be addressed and treating all emails as equal can tempt anyone to do the easier or more fun emails first.
  2. "Your time is priceless and wildly limited...Accept that your workload exceeds your resources." This means saying no, delegating, or asking for help when you need it. In the Foreign Service world, I find this reminder very helpful when I see a cable about a very cool grant program that I might be able to apply for and manage but I really don't have the time or the bandwidth to put in the necessary effort to make the program successful. It's better that I just ignore the cable announcing the opportunity than spinning myself and others up to feel like we need to submit something.
  3. "Less can be so much more." For instance, I used to feel like I needed "thank you" and "you're welcome" responses to emails all the time, but now a simple thumbs up in Outlook or even a quick instant message in Teams does the job without cluttering both our inboxes.
  4. "Lose the guilt." If someone doesn't like your quick or curt response, don't beat yourself up over it. I will add a caveat that in the Foreign Service context it is crucial to be attuned to local cultural communication differences and not to be rude (by the standards of your counterpart's culture) in email communications. Even if you do find someone was hurt or offended by your quick and short response, shaming yourself over it doesn't help. Thank whomever helped you learn, resolve to do better, and get back to work. There are plenty of other ways to streamline efficiency, including in other emails, so don't feel like including all the proper introductions and how-are-yous and flowery signoffs is a waste of time if it's meaningful in that culture.
  5. "Lying to yourself doesn't empty an inbox." I most often see this in bad estimates of how long an email will take to handle. If it needs more time, don't try and dive in five minutes before you have to run to a meeting. If you need to consult with people before responding, consult with them and then respond instead of cluttering everyone's inboxes with unnecessary back-and-forth.

There is a key feature in Outlook and Gmail I find essential for maintaining my Inbox Zero lifestyle: snooze, which allows you to remove emails from your inbox to a "snoozed" category and schedule them to re-enter your inbox at a specified later date and time. I snooze emails with reckless abandon in my personal and work systems whenever I don't have time to respond in the moment or whenever I might need to follow up later. (It's worth noting the snooze feature is more reliably available in web Outlook than the desktop version, at least for State employees.) Did I get emailed tickets with a QR code for an event on Thursday? I snooze it for Thursday evening right before the event. Is there an administrative task I need to make sure gets done? I snooze it to next week as a reminder to follow up if I haven't heard any updates by then. The possibilities are infinite!

Where I differ from the traditional Inbox Zero approach, which recommends aggressively deleting or archiving emails as you go through them, is that I file completed emails into folders due to federal government records retention requirements. I can't just delete my work emails because technically my work emails involving official business are federal government records that must be kept according to specific laws, regulations, and policies. They can be requested due to the Freedom of Information Act, and sometimes historians, political scientists, and other academics use our unclassified or declassified emails for their research. I have periodically archived my emails to assist with storage space, but I don't have the same freedom to archive and delete work emails that I do with my personal inbox.

Alternatives to my system include a long list of automated rules and filters and color-coded labels, which I've seen some people use to great effect. For me, I prefer a few simple rules that are low-stakes enough I am confident I won't miss something very crucial that may require my action. For example, I have a "Roundups" folder in Outlook where my automatic rules put media summaries, political and economic highlights, newsletters from headquarters, and other large-distro items that summarize things that may be of interest to me. These are pretty much never urgent and consolidating them in the Roundups folder instead of cluttering up my inbox allows me to review (or more often skim) them when I have a good chunk of reading time or when I'm in the car on my way to or from a work meeting. My rule leaves new messages in the folder unread so I can see where I left off once I do get reading time, and the rules are very specific (i.e., from a certain sender to a certain distribution list with certain words in the subject) so nothing requiring my individual attention or response accidentally skips my main inbox.

I hope this information is helpful to readers; I think the sooner you transition to Inbox Zero (or whetever email management system works for you), the easier your work life will be. I still think State Department culture has a long way to go on things like calling people for truly urgent tasks instead of expecting them to check emails around the clock, but there are things we can do to make it better and save ourselves from burnout in the process.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Work (and Family) Trip to Thailand

Sometimes, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) provides trainings overseas, and I was delighted to participate in one of those in Bangkok, Thailand. I'd traveled to Thailand once before but I was so young I didn't remember. Now, I had the opportunity to spend a week there and we decided to make a family trip of it.

I took a course on Propaganda and Disinformation, which is typically tailored very specifically to Public Diplomacy (PD) Officers but this year was opened up to more reporting officers (our catch-all term for Political and Economic Officers) interested in collaborating with PD on these issues. I learned a lot from the instructors, guest speakers, and the other students. To my delight, many local staff joined for the course. In my opinion, officers and specialists and local staff and EFM (Eligible Family Members, or family members of Foreign Service personnel) employees are kept separate unnecessarily far too often.

After my training each day, I got to spend time with M and S exploring the city a bit. I loved the cultural vibrancy as we went many places with no English (and communicated extensively with gestures) and stumbled across beautiful temples and shrines everywhere, such as Erawan Shrine (pictured above). The cost of living was incredibly affordable compared to Dubai, and I was stunned to find myself regularly purchasing fresh, substantial meals during my lunch break for about one dollar. I bought several clothing items, too, including the very stereotypical touristy elephant pants.

My favorite place we visited was Chatuchak Market, the best street market I think I've ever experienced in my life. It's only open on the weekend, so I'm glad we got to Bangkok early enough before my training to go. The market's scale was enormous, and it felt like you could find almost anything there. We stumbled on a sprawling fine art section, and if our suitcases weren't so full I don't think I would've been able to resist buying one of the many stunning paintings or sculptures we saw. People recommended we go early to beat the crowds, and that's exactly what we did.

We tried the famous coconut ice cream, which I found so refreshing in the heat. I also had the spiciest food of my life at a street stall where each skewer of vegetables, fish, or meat cost 10 Thai baht (less than 30 cents). It was so good I devoured all five of my skewers even though my mouth felt like it was on fire. We didn't take S's stroller because so many blogs online said the metro and the street market were not doable with a stroller but I'm here to tell you that all those other blogs are wrong. M and I both felt our excursion was stroller-friendly and even saw a few other families with strollers. Especially if you have a sturdy stroller like we do, I think it would've been worth it especially so we could have used the stroller fan for S and had a place to put his backpack.

I enjoyed some cultural activities in the evenings as well, including a private Muay Thai (Thai martial art sometimes described as Thai boxing) class outdoors that got my heart racing while M and S cheered me on. The instructor was kind enough to let S put on the kid gloves, which he loved. I also took a tour that included trying on traditional Thai clothes, of which there are apparently many different kinds. I happened to find a top and sash that matched my existing outfit perfectly (the first photo of this post). I also took a lotus folding lesson and learned that folding lotus petals properly and beautifully without ripping the petals off the bud is a lot harder than it looks! Here I snapped a photo of three different styles I did: sunflower style, peony style, and star style. Lastly, I got more massages in a week than I have in months and discovered a new love of the Thai style of massage (which is usually clothed, without oil, and has more muscle stretching than a Western standard massage).

We also met up with some of my A-100 colleagues, and it was so good to see them again. One of the most fun things about being in the Foreign Service is bumping into people all over the place (and for some a different part of the world every single time you see each other). So having seen some old friends and made some new ones in my training, we wrapped up our Bangkok trip energized and rejuvenated to come back home. (I will say, the older I get the more I miss my pillow and my bed when I'm gone.) I feel so grateful for this opportunity, for the supportive leadership that allowed me to take it, and for the chance to spend some extra time with my family. (And I certainly hope that's not the last time I get to visit Thailand!)

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Beach Glamping in Ras Al Khaimah

We went beach glamping as a family ages ago, and I'm only getting around to blogging about it now. We stayed at Longbeach Campground in Ras Al Khaimah, one of the northern emirates that make up the seven-emirate federation of the United Arabic Emirates (UAE), along with a few other families from the U.S. Consulate. Ras Al Khaimah, sometimes abbreviated RAK and pronounced "rack", has a name that means "head of the tent" in Arabic and supposedly traces its origins to an actual tent that was once erected there for navigation. It seemed like an especially appropriate place to camp!

It was our first time camping in a tent with S, and we were very nervous about how much sleep any of us would get. My anxiety spiked when we arrived a bit early to the campsite and the tent was a sauna. We were sweating buckets and hoping it would cool down. Thankfully, once we opened up the tent the ocean breeze and setting sun did their thing. By evening the tent was not only cool but very pleasant.

The campground had family-friendly activities including a mini-zoo and kids' playroom, which we really appreciated so we could relax while S had a safe place to run around. The food was also buffet-style with a huge selection, which we not only love for ourselves but for making sure there's something that will fill up our ravenous but sometimes unpredictable toddler.

After we put S to sleep in our tent with the babycam, M and I had a romantic stroll around the campground and lounged by the ocean under clear skies next to crashing waves. We also miraculously snuck into the tent without waking him up, a feat I know other parents of small children will understand is one of the sweetest victories this phase of life has to offer. The whole experience was so restful and healing, and it was so nice to get away from the city and taste some nature.

On the day we left, I noticed a ton of morning glory blooms, and that's my favorite flower. RAK lives up to its reputation as a wonderful destination for getting outside, and I can't wait to explore some more of it while we're living in the UAE.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

My 2023 and 2024 New Year's Resolutions

I know New Year's Resolutions are controversial, but I love them for myself and I have a pretty good track record of meeting whatever resolution I set out each year. So let's take a look at how I did with my 2023 resolution and what I'm hoping to do in 2024.

In 2023, I had a very specific goal: exercise more days than not in the calendar year. This meant I needed to exercise 183 out of 365 days, and I'm happy to say I accomplished this one (by the skin of my teeth at exactly 183 days). I used a habit tracker color-in calendar from Etsy and color-coded the days I exercised by the type of exercise. It's interesting to see certain patterns, like more orange when I was in the States when I had a gym membership for Orangetheory Fitness and more brown in Dubai when I got a membership at Fitness First. I also don't work out on Sundays for religious reasons (unless I'm traveling and go for a hike or something wherever I travel), so it was more challenging than I expected getting a majority of the remaining six days of the week. There were also times I was sick or for other reasons couldn't exercise, so I can see my ability to do many days back to back ebbed and flowed throughout the course of the year. I do feel like this resolution helped me get back in the swing of exercising regularly, and I think I'll be able to continue that heading into 2024.

In 2024, my New Year's Resolution will focus on mindfulness. I plan to practice mindful eating and mindful sleeping for healthier habits. I also want to be a more engaged listener and be less distracted by things like my phone when I'm talking to others. Spiritually, I hope to improve my practice of and experience of prayer, which has become a bit of a rushed and chaotic exercise for me lately. And I would also like to meditate more. (I'm using the Headspace app, which I've found to be wonderful for meditation newbies.) Lastly, I want to be kinder to myself and let more things go.

My 2024 resolution is a lot more amorphous and less quantifiable than my 2023 resolution. But some years I find that just having a mantra or priority word like "mindfulness" is enough to lead me to make big change in my life. At every fork in the road, I can ask myself, "Is this choice supporting my goal of bringing more mindfulness into my life?" I'm looking forward to investing in my wellbeing this year and making some small progress towards a better, healthier, more peaceful self.