One aspect of structure that especially amuses me at the moment are the details in how we formulate what we have to do — in other words, how we choose to formulate to-do-tasks. As a child I was never fascinated by philately but it turns out that I have a keener interest than I thought in collecting words. Especially dangerous ones.
When I am working with a mentee and process e‑mails (meaning, sifting out to-do-tasks from all the mail they have received), empty their mind of anything they keep thinking that they have to get done at some point, or skim through notepads searching for things they promised others they would get back to them with, I am sometimes startled as they are formulating a to-do-task. I stop them by saying ”Wait a minute! Isn’t that a bit too vague? Could you try to be more specific when describing what you are going to do? Will you really understand what you mean by that abbreviation or phrasing later?”
I have previously written about a structurally dangerous word (referring to the word ”continuously”), but I have recently discovered another four words.
Which ones and why?
This particular gang of four are:
- ”Check” (… out, … if, … with): This could be referring to many different actions and things we do, in different contexts and involving different tools. It could be looking something up on the Internet in which case we need to have a stable internet connection to perform the task (hence be in the context @internet). It could mean that we need to e‑mail someone and ask something. If the e‑mail is even just slightly complex we might want to have the opportunity to look up information online, so we cannot be outside in the rain or snow, and we probably need to sit down (so in a context such as @café, @office, @airplane, @train, @home, @computer). It could be referring to that you need to call someone, and in that case it needs to be in a somewhat quiet surrounding, we want to keep both hands on the wheel if we are driving and if the matter is of a more sensitive nature, we want a bit of privacy to make the call (giving us options such as @office, @undisturbed, @daytime, @phone). As you can see, the seemingly innocent verb ”check” can mean many different things and require us being in many different contexts. If we use the verb and then see it on our to-do-list, chances are that we aren’t in the proper context and hence unable to do whatever we needed to ”check” this time. This in turn results in that we feel scattered, lose focus and get stressed by being reminded of something we have to do but cannot do anything about at the moment.
- ”Make sure that”: This is the sibling of ”check”. This phrase can also indicate a variety of things, such as calling someone, e‑mailing a request for a meeting, sending an e‑mail, bringing something up with someone when you meet them, or something else. Besides, I think it has a harsher ring to it. I get a picture of a shadow of myself raising a warning finger and telling me to ”make sure that …” (or else…). This only increases my bad conscience for not doing whatever it is, and instead of doing the task, I risk procrastinating it just because I now feel guilt.
- ”Prepare” (… for a meeting, … something): The problem with this word is not that it conceals a variety of contexts, but rather that there are so many ways in which to prepare yourself or something. Sometimes it means that we need to read a material (which we have saved in a specific location). Other times it might mean preparing the agenda for a meeting. It can also mean obtaining a progress-report regarding the project we are working on by checking in with a handful of people. We might need to assemble a clever presentation, or put the plan for our continued progress into words. Preparing something can refer to so many different types of tasks that if we neglect specifying what we mean by preparing this time, we might start to postpone this particular preparation and end up working very late the night before the kick-off to complete the last parts of the presentation (for instance). Besides, ”prepare for the meeting” is much more difficult to check of your to-do-list than ”make a draft of the agenda for the meeting”.
- ”Fix”: This is a very wide concept that could include a whole new project (”Fix all upgrades and updates for the computer”). Since it has such a broad connotation, part of what needs to be done could be things which are to be completed by others and which you are currently waiting for before you can ultimately say that whatever is, is ”fixed”. The term hence does not necessarily refer to something you in particular have been assigned to do, and it might then be better to make note of the task on your overview of more extensive tasks and projects you are working on over time, from which you extract the next steps in terms of proper to-do-tasks such as ”call someone”, ”e‑mail something”, ”send something to someone”, et c.
When you are composing your to-do-list, avoid fuzzy and ambiguous verbs such as those mentioned above. Strive to phrase your tasks using words as ”write”, ”send”, ”call”, ”speak to”, ”purchase” and so on.
That is all you have to think about when it comes to these deceptive words.
If you formulate your to-do-tasks using concrete and specific verbs, your to-do-list will become much easier to read. You will find the right thing to do right now much faster, and you will not tend to postpone things which are fuzzy or unclear until the very last minute. It will simply be much easier for you to get whatever you need to do done. And isn’t that what structure is for?
What words do you avoid?
What else springs to mind when you think of ”dangerous words” in terms of structure? Tell me!
By the way, if you want more tips on how to create good structure at work — here are many ways to get just that.