Catching up and getting ahead in today’s ‘always busy’ workplace.
You know, I just don’t hear anyone say ‘behind the eight ball' anymore. Maybe it's the decline of pool as a spectator sport, or the fact that youth don't hang out in pool halls, but no one I know is saying it. What they are all saying is how they are swamped, busy, slammed, and even drowning in work. Everyone is always behind and just working on enough ‘fires’ to keep things from blowing up or crashing down. I can’t remember the last time someone even talked about making their deadlines on time. It has just become accepted that everyone is so behind that everything is going to be late or at least rushed out at the last minute. This behavior is so epidemic that when I suggested to a coworker that we try to get something done early I was looked at like I had just suggested that the Loch Ness Monster would do our work for us.
This outlook has severely affected our ability to set goals and deadlines. We have become incapable of committing to a timetable for anything and when we do we try to set it as far out as possible. I often have seen people pad estimates by three and four times as long as they think things should take. Not only does this show our lack of confidence in our own abilities, it shows our inability to be responsible for the things we request from other people. It usually sounds like this.
Alice: "Hey Bob, when can you get me the numbers for the Johnson file?"
Bob: "I’ll need to get them from Carl, and he’s swamped right now, so it will take till next Monday at least. Then I need to work them up, but I’m buried so that might take a few days. How about 2 weeks?”
Alice: "OK, just let me know when you get them in."
Now whoever was waiting on Alice to get those numbers will be waiting for at least 2 weeks, assuming that it happens on time, for what might be just a few hours of actual work. In my experience most of that work will happen within the last days just before the deadline hits. Bob won’t email Carl to ask for the numbers till tomorrow some time. Carl won’t get them put together till Monday afternoon because Bob said he needed them Monday. Then Bob will just put them on the pile till Friday morning. After all He had told Alice that it would take that long. Then at the last minute he gets them done and sends them on to Alice Friday afternoon. And if it is late, Bob will just explain that he said he was busy and that makes it all OK.
So what can we do about the constant flood of ‘busy’ we all suffer from and how do we defend against the Bob and Carl syndrome in our own workplace? First we can keep ourselves from becoming part of the problem. When our own Bob and Alice ask us for things we can give then real deadlines and then get them done early. Schedule time on your calendar for working on the things you have committed to so that others can’t just fill up your time with meetings. Sometimes your ‘working on project a’ appointment will get overruled by higher priority meeting but then it’s much easier to reschedule if it’s already on your calendar. Another tip is scheduling time to ‘do email’ and then actually doing it then. This can break the cycle of constantly checking email freeing up time to work on the things that the email is about.
Hopefully some of this can help you meet your deadlines on time or even ahead of schedule. If Alice says she needs the numbers by Friday, give them to her on Tuesday if at all possible. If that means calling up Carl asking nicely to get the numbers faster then do it. Maybe you know that Carl isn’t just sitting on the numbers but is waiting on something else from Dan. (I don’t know about you but this is exactly how things actually happen at my work.) Then you can call up Dan and see if you can help him get his piece done and to Carl sooner.
I know that there are some of you out there saying "But I shouldn’t have to do that. I should just get my work done and everyone else should just do theirs. Then all this wouldn’t be necessary." I hear you and understand, but unfortunately that’s just as likely as the Loch Ness Monster doing my work. The reality is that if you want to get your stuff done, sometimes you have to help other people get theirs done. Also, you will be amazed how much easier it is to get things quickly when people get their things quickly from you.
Now that we have avoided being a time roadblock ourselves we can focus on holding others accountable for the promises they make to us. However, this can be tricky and should always be done professionally regardless of how much frustration we feel. Get the actual day and time when people will get things to you. "So your going to send me that by 11 AM on Thursday, Right?" Get them to say "Yes", out loud if you can. Also, the more specific you get, the more likely you are to have your stuff done. Monday at Noon is better than "Sometime Monday" which we all know means Tuesday morning. Then follow up, politely, and get a new deadline when they miss the last one. "So you can have it done by 3 today?"
By getting our own stuff done and getting the things we need from others in a timely fashion, we can find ourselves less buried and more able to breath. We can feel on the ball instead of behind it.