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29 Mar

Another four dangerous words

Datum: 2022-03-29 16:45

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.

Do this
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.

Con­cretize more
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.