Occasionally someone, a colleague for instance, asks us to do something and we respond ”Sure, I’ll help you! When do you need it?”. The colleague might say ”Oh, it’s not urgent, sometime soon will be fine.”. Alright. This means that we can prioritize other things which are more important first.
But, unfortunately we were wrong to assume as much.
A day or so later the colleague pops by again and asks ”Hey, have you had time to do that thing you promised me? I need it more or less right now.”. And as it so happens, right now is a particularly bad time for you to do that thing you said you would without interfering with your schedule since you now have more highly prioritized tasks to attend to.
For you who prefer listening to reading, this post is also available as an episode of the “Done!” podcast:
Alas, once again we are suffering the consequences of having defined a task ambiguously. ”Sometime soon” can mean something entirely different to me than it does to you. Perhaps it indicates ”next week” to me, while to you it is equivalent of ”not necessarily today, but at the latest tomorrow morning”.
We are often painfully aware of that what we perceive as being ”urgent” differs greatly between different people and can be quite arbitrarily defined, but speaking for myself, I was until recently unaware of the structure-trap that lures in the seemingly innocent words ”sometime soon” before my client Malin told me about an episode that illustrated the consequences of this potentially problematic expression.
If we misunderstand how fast something needs to be completed, we might find ourselves in a situation where we set our own structure and schedule aside in favor of helping someone else, since many of us have a tendency to prioritize our colleague’s urgent task before everything else we have to do. Our schedule is turned upside down and we end up having to work a few hours overtime — in spite of originally being on track with all our tasks.
If you have not done so before, from today onwards, do not settle for the response ”sometime soon” when someone delegates a task to you and you ask when it needs to be done. Ask again just to make the expectations clear. You could for instance reply ”Great! So would Tuesday afternoon be OK with you?”.
If you tend to overdo it in terms of delivering before things are due, add 50% of the time you originally estimated the task would require to the deadline you suggest, or if you feel daring, try doubling it. The worst that can happen is that the colleague will ”meet you half way” and you will agree on an earlier, but now clearly defined, deadline.
Regardless what time frame you eventually set, it will now be explicitly clear to both of you what you have agreed upon. What at first was ”sometime soon”, has now become ”Wednesday at 10 am”. It becomes much easier for you to plan your work, the risk of having to finish last minute is greatly reduced, and the colleague will have what he or she delegated to you in time.
What is your method?
How do you make sure you concretize a clear and reasonable deadline for the tasks others delegate to you? Do you have a particular question you ask every time which makes the agreed time frame crystal clear? I am curious to hear of your particular method, so feel free to email me.