Getting Things Done QA

3 Skills For Getting the Most From Your Vacation

Dear Justin,

I’m back to work after returning from our family’s annual week-long summer trip. I’ve got to be honest, as much as I love getting away with my family, I dread returning to what piles up in my absence. I stress during vacation when I should be relaxing and enjoying time with my kids. I just now opened my email and I have hundreds of messages. HELP!!

Buried After Vacation

Dear Buried,

I’ve been in your shoes. In fact, I just returned from a week off. I understand how the threat of a backlog can distract and prevent one from enjoying the present moment. Let me offer some tips that should help you on your next extended leave.

Set Yourself Up For Success BEFORE You Leave

Go beyond setting your out-of-office reply and arranging the time off. Focus on getting your physical and virtual workspace “clean” before you take off. This will allow you to fully enjoy your vacation. For example, before I take an extended leave, I will spend 60 to 90 minutes doing a weekly review. During this review, I make sure I have full control over my tasks and calendar by surveying my whole work landscape. I block out time on my calendar for this review weeks in advance, and on the day before my vacation this is what I do:

  • Collect loose papers and materials hanging around my workspace and file or organize them.
  • Empty my head—capture (write down) everything I’m concerned about and what the next actions are.
  • Get my inbox to zero by assessing email messages and organizing them into appropriate action lists or folders.
  • Review my next-action lists and make sure I don’t have any loose ends.
  • Review my calendar for the week ending, the week of my vacation, and the week of my return.

You might try the same. Doing this allows you to step back from the weeds of your daily work and see the trees. You can then, if necessary, renegotiate agreements, notify specific people you’ll be out, and postpone certain tasks to a later time. YOU drive the bus. The bus shouldn’t drive you.

Upon Return: Clean Up First, Work Second

Before you take off, block out time on your calendar for the morning of your return. Then use that time to get up to speed. Now, this does not mean you do all the work in front of you. The purpose of this time is not to work, but to get clear on your work. You might be thinking, “But Justin, I need to get to work. I need to DO, DO, DO in order to catch up.” If you give into this impulse without taking time to review and reflect, your first week back will be busy yet unproductive; you’ll chase emergencies rather than purposefully produce value.

During this review time, you might do what you did before you left—collect loose papers, empty your head, etc.—but you really should focus on your inbox. That’s where the majority of inputs will have piled up, making it the primary cause of potential stress.

Get Your Inbox Current—Maybe Even to Zero.

The idea of getting your inbox to zero might seem like heresy but hear me out. Approach email as something to decide on rather than work on. Clarify what each message means to you and determine where it belongs. How? Consider whether each message is actionable or not. If not, determine whether it’s something you need to FILE, TRASH, or INCUBATE (note: incubate items you don’t want to/can’t act on immediately but may want to do later). If the email is actionable, determine whether you should DELEGATE, DO NOW (tasks that take two minutes or less), or DO SOON.

These are your six rules for processing email: File, Incubate, Trash, Delegate, Do Now, Do Soon. That’s it. When you realize you can respond to email in only one of a few ways, you can more quickly get clear on messages and their corresponding actions.

For example, let’s say you receive a marketing email for a service you’re not interested in. What does it mean to you? Nothing. So where does it belong? In the TRASH. If the content of a message should be saved for reference, FILE the information and archive or delete the email. If you should DELEGATE a message, forward the email to the appropriate person then archive or delete it. If you receive a request you can DO SOON, decide on the next action you need to take and write that on a to-do list. Too often people read an email, decide what it means, then move on because it’s not critical, only to return to it later and reread it. No wonder we rarely feel caught up. Rule of thumb: if you read an email, determine what it means to you and handle accordingly—only once.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Ok, my inbox is at zero, but no work is done.” That’s untrue. In the world you and I live in, much of our work centers on defining what our work is. For most of us, our job is to take vague inputs and transform them into clear actions and outcomes. The late Peter Drucker wrote: “In knowledge work . . . the task is not given; it has to be determined. Results have to be clearly specified if productivity is to be achieved.” Once your inbox is at zero, you can review your to-do lists and see a full inventory of everything you COULD do. Consequently, you’ll be better able to determine what you SHOULD do. And you’ll DO more of the right stuff.

Next time you take a vacation, try this approach. I think you’ll find yourself more relaxed and present before you leave, while you’re gone, and when you return.

All the best,

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at

Special Announcement

VitalSmarts Response to the Retraction of Brian Wansink’s Research

September 23, 2018

Brian Wansink, a researcher we reference in our book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change and corresponding training course, has come under intense scrutiny this year. We want to share our perspective on the different critiques Brian has received.

We use Brian’s research as one, among many examples to demonstrate different sources of influence and specifically how physical factors (Source 6) such as plate size can influence eating behavior. Brian has resigned from Cornell University after a faculty committee found he had “committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship dating as far back as 2008, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”

Summary of Critiques

Misreporting of research data: In two papers, Wansink reported the wrong ages for subjects (reporting them as being ages 7-9, when they were actually preschoolers). While subsequent studies by others have shown that age does not affect the results of these particular studies, this kind of mistake indicates oversights that are likely the result of a factory mentality in Wansink’s lab.

Problematic statistical techniques: Here there are two kinds of problems. First, Wansink has made his share of typos, transposition errors, and statistical mistakes. But that’s not the big deal. The big deal is that he has done what’s called “p-hacking.” He explored his datasets after the fact, looking for significance, instead of confining himself to predictions he made in advance. Technically, this is data mining, not statistical analysis. It’s impossible to prove that this practice affected any of his published studies, but his emails and blog postings suggest that it did.

Failure to properly document and preserve research results: Most journals don’t ask researchers to preserve their raw data (original paper and pencil surveys or coding sheets), but some journals do. Wansink published six articles in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), which requires researchers to keep their raw data, but he failed to preserve this data. As a result, these articles have been retracted.

Inappropriate authorship: Wansink was found to be overly generous with authorship, especially at conference presentations. He gave some of his post-docs and graduate students more credit than they deserved—though this is often a judgment call.

Our Perspective

Wansink is an amazingly clever researcher who has singlehandedly created the field of research called “eating behavior.” He has published 899 scholarly articles in reviewed journals, studies that have been cited in more than 25,000 other scholarly articles. Our own conclusion is that, for a time, Wansink became too focused on publishing. His lab became something of a factory, with post-docs running multiple experiments, and churning out articles as if on an assembly line. We believe his academic misconduct was the result of this “quantity over quality” mindset.

As we conducted our own research for Influencer, we visited Wansink’s lab; we’ve spent dozens of hours talking with him and his collaborators; and we’ve carefully reviewed and even replicated many of his studies. So, while serious, this doesn’t cancel or negate the contributions he has made. And we don’t believe it reflects the Brian we know and continue to respect.

We are not planning to remove or replace any of the training videos of Brian we use in the Influencer course at this time. These videos have proven themselves to be effective teaching tools in helping people understand the sources of influence that impact their behavior.

In summary, when we reference Wansink’s work, we need to acknowledge his misconduct. And at the same time, we believe his research continues to demonstrate the impact one’s environment has on influencing behavior (Source 6). It’s also important to note that our body of research on influencing change stands independent of Brian’s research.

For more information, and links to articles and responses, please reference the sources below:

Washington Post
The Cornell Daily Sun

David Maxfield
Coauthor of Influencer & VP of Research at VitalSmarts

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Get Over a Grudge

Dear David,

I was in a business relationship where it became apparent that the managing partner no longer saw my contributions as valuable. I had watched this partner gun for others in the past and “transition” them out of the company. Now her sights were set on me. So, before things got nasty, I devised my own exit strategy and found a job elsewhere. I tried to take the high road and not instigate a feud, I cloaked my departure in terms of a need for new horizons, etc. And while I did take a financial hit for a few years, things have worked out positively for me. Today, the ex-business partner is always friendly when we meet at events, and she recently suggested we do lunch to “catch up.” I’m conflicted. It feels hypocritical to pretend nothing happened, yet I don’t want to nurse a grudge. Which way is the high road now?

My Compass is Confused

Dear Confused Compass,

First, I’m glad things worked out positively for you. You should take pride in how you handled this crisis in your career. You assessed the situation and protected yourself and your family. You also avoided burning bridges or behaving in ways that would have compromised your values. Good job.

Sometimes I’m asked whether speaking up is an absolute virtue, whether people should always speak up, even when they think it might hurt them or their families. In other words, were you wrong to cloak the reasons for your departure?

My answer is no. Instead, I suggest that people weigh the risks of speaking up against the risks of not speaking up. Will failing to speak up put others at risk of harm? How serious a risk? And how serious are the risks of speaking up? In your situation, it sounds like you weighed the risks and made a sound decision.

So, should you meet your ex-business partner for lunch? You certainly can if you want to, but I don’t think you have any moral obligation to. I don’t see a high road/low road issue here.

For one, you describe your past relationship as a business relationship, not a personal one. Secondly, you no longer have a relationship with this former colleague, and there is nothing I can see that says you ought to. Ask yourself: “What do I really want for myself, for her, and for our relationship?” I suspect your answer will be nothing. But if your answer is different, you might want to meet with her.

Regarding your concern about nursing a grudge, a grudge is defined as a “persistent feeling of ill-will or resentment resulting from a past insult or injury.” It sounds like you do have a grudge. Here is how you might resolve it.

Avoid ruminating, reliving, and reactivating the bad feelings. Obsessing about the way you were treated doesn’t help you or the situation. Instead, place the events into the broader context of your life. View them as a test you passed. Take pride in how you handled yourself.

Finally, as part of this reappraisal, try putting yourself into your former partner’s shoes. Try to avoid making her the villain and yourself the victim. Examine the role you played, and why she might have found you wanting. Recall the facts of the situation and ask yourself whether you could be telling yourself stories regarding her behaviors and motives. Ask yourself why a reasonable person in her position might have behaved the way she did, and why she is acting friendly now. You might come to a new understanding and gain clarity on how you’d like to respond to her requests to catch up.

All the best,

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at