The feeling that there is never enough time to do anything is a common one these days, and I am no different. There are only so many hours in the day and with 7.5 of them belonging to my employer every week day, I have to be very careful with how I use that time.
There are monthly reports that have to go out by specific dates each month, and it is not uncommon to receive several ad-hoc requests for tasks in a single day, requiring an hour or more each. This will usually be Mondays, after people have had the weekend to relax and think about all the things they want next week, or Fridays when the realisation that the next day is the weekend and they were supposed to make a request in the current week.
There just aren’t enough hours in the week, even if I pulled overtime every day, to cover all these requests as they come in and keep on top of reporting.
It’s obvious that prioritisation here is critical, but how? I used to simply focus on my current work until it was done before even responding to additional requests, sometimes leaving them for days at a time.
When I started using Trello I would create a card for some of these tasks and tell the requester that it was on my to do list, but often I would have a ton of other work ahead of theirs as a higher priority and I couldn’t figure out how to describe that to other people. They would just follow up after a day or so asking for an update and all I could give them was the same answer I’d given on the first day, it’s on my to do list.
I was frustrated and frustrating others, until I had a realisation that would make everything much easier; just because they are asking right now, doesn’t mean they need it right now. So I started asking for deadlines.
When you are working on something that is routine or uninteresting, a new task can be a welcome distraction, but some studies have shown that breaking focus and task switching are some of the main causes behind low productivity.
However, high productivity shouldn’t be our only goal at work, my main goal is better ways of working! So if I’m really bothered by my current task and an opportunity to do something different and quick comes up, it can be a welcome break that will make me feel a little better and I can return to the task with renewed energy.
In these situations, if what you’re currently working on needs to be completed as soon as possible and the requester’s task will take longer than 2 minutes, you should ask for a deadline from them. This shows that you respect their time and their needs, but you cannot just pop things into your schedule whenever you want, you have other responsibilities to take care of.
On the other hand, if the deadline of what you’re currently working on isn’t so close but you still feel like you need a break, then you should really take a proper break. It can be tempting to accept a distracting task so that you can break away from what you’re doing while remaining productive, but unless it’s a task that gives you back energy somehow, you should ask for a deadline for the new task and give yourself a real break instead.
Strengthening Your ‘No’
Another thing about asking someone to specify a deadline is that it turns a one-way request into a two-way conversation, which helps in building up your ability to say no. Asking someone how soon they need something from you is much easier than saying no, but because asking for a deadline is a way of indirectly telling someone that you can’t attend to their task right at that moment, you are able to build up the same muscles you’ll use when you do have to say no.
No = “I am unable to fulfil your request”
Do you have a deadline? = “I am unable to fulfil your request right now, but if you let me know when you need it done, I can let you know if I’ll have time to do it before then”
These messages feel similar to us in conversations, although the deadline one is easier to say and easier to receive as well. The more practice you get asking for deadlines, the easier it will be for you to say no when you need to.
Since I’ve been asking for deadlines, I’ve strengthened my no and also noticed that people are more respectful of the value of my time. They are friendlier when making requests, more honest about the importance of their requests and seem to be more inclined to try doing something themselves before asking me, meaning they are improving their skills in areas that they just relied on me for before. Everyone is better off!
With so many benefits, it seems obvious that we should always be seeking out deadlines for all of our tasks, but why aren’t we?
Before I started following deadlines myself, I always felt restricted when they were given. One of the reasons for that, which I think a lot of people can empathise with, is that sometimes we receive deadlines that seem to demonstrate little to no understanding of how much time and effort is required to complete the task. So we can easily develop an image of deadlines being an unrealistic target which you are almost certain to miss unless you cut corners somewhere and turn in something that is below your usual standards. I’ve been there and it’s horrible and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth when it comes to having deadlines.
Another reason for disliking deadlines is that they can be set so far off in the future that you can’t imagine when you would work on them, and then you forget until the person who gave the deadline would helpfully remind you just days before the deadline was up, at which point you have to drop everything else to meet it. In this case, it’s just a process problem, you need to set up date reminders for this sort of thing so that you don’t get surprised by your own forgetfulness!
I put every deadline I receive in a working calendar on Trello now, sometimes with estimates of the time needed, so now when I look at my calendar I can easily see how much there is to do and when it should be done.
Next time you get given a task that will take longer than 2 minutes, try asking, “When do you need it by?”. Some people realise that you’re busy and after a brief chat will go to someone else or do it themselves, some will give you a date which gives you plenty of time, and some will say, “As soon as possible”. Do not accept “asap” as a deadline, even if it’s your manager! If it’s your manager and they need it now, let them know what other work will be pushed back to make time for the new task, if it’s someone else then propose the deadline yourself and negotiate something that will work for both of you.
Requesting and proposing deadlines has not only improved my overall workflow, but has also had a positive affect on my coworker relations, so I would encourage every working person to introduce deadlines into their work where they can.
Deadlines, they’re not bad when you get to know them.