How many times have you heard, or uttered or written those oft-abused famous words?
Look, most of us mean well, and want to be thorough and responsive. But we end up succumbing to the onslaught of email, text messages, phone calls, voice mails, blog and web site comments, forum messages, and various and sundry other communications launched our way. It is almost impossible to keep up, and to be responsive, no matter how hard we try. Often times, the harder we try, the more behind we fall, until, that notorious crack in the earth opens up, and something we needed to do, some very critical deliverable or commitment, some absolutely critical milestone or element with a mission essential deadline, falls right through that fissure.
So, what to do? How do we prevent these cracks from springing up like a mad crocodile, swallowing up items on your to do list? Well, if anyone tells you that they have a silver bullet that will prevent anything you are responsible for from ever falling through the cracks again, run, don’t walk away from them. Because that is never going to happen. But read on, because, while we can’t be perfect, and can’t commit to being completely responsive all the time, and can’t guarantee that nothing will EVER fall through the cracks again, there are some things I can share with you that will help. In fact, there are FIVE tactics we can employ to fight the fissure monster and prevent him from swallowing your credibility and reputation. I have used these tactics successfully over a 40 year career, spanning multiple industries, cultures, and geographies. Here they are:
- Develop a System for Dealing with Received Requests, Emails, etc.
I’m not going to solve ALL of your REQUEST and COMMITMENT problems today (After all, I have to leave SOME things for future blog posts, you know?). Requests do come at us from many sources, such as Support Forums, FAQ sites, phone calls, formal escalation and request systems and applications, in person, and even snail mail. But for me, the vast majority of requests and potential for things dropping through the cracks, come to my email inbox. So, that’s what I’m going to concentrate on here.The system I use to manage the onslaught of emails is called Inbox Zero, and I have to admit, I am a confirmed zealot. I learned it from watching and reading Merlin Mann’s videos and material, including the stuff at 43 Folders. In fact, I so much believe in this philosophy, that I developed a course on it, teach it on line, and have even delivered it to my entire staff. I’m about to deliver this material at a Lunch and Learn for our entire department soon. Check Inbox Zero out via the links above. Though the principles behind Inbox Zero are way too much detail to get into here, the point is, you need a system so that your inbox doesn’t overflow to the point where cracks consume the things you need to do.
- Put in Place a Simple Follow Up System – Track Yourself and Others
Well, this is what it is all about isn’t it? Following Up and Following Through. I advocate strongly the use of simple systems for everything. It may seem obvious, but, I think it’s worth restating. If something isn’t simple, and if you can’t make it part of your everyday life, you won’t use it. And if you won’t use it, it won’t work. So a simple system to follow up on things you need to do, so they won’t fall through the cracks, is essential. I create an email folder that I just happen to call “Waiting For”, then create a simple rule (it’s an Outlook Rule since my primary email system is Outlook). The rule allows me to add my email address in the BCC: line for any email I either originate, or reply to, and when I press SEND, a copy of the email gets deposited in that “Waiting For” folder. Daily, sometimes several times per day, I will scan that folder looking for things that need to be followed up on. Sometimes, the “Waiting For” action is complete when someone sends me a response or handles a task I may have delegated to them. Sometimes, I have competed the task myself. Either way, once the work I was “Waiting For” is complete, and the original commitment I made is fulfilled, I delete the email in that “Waiting For” folder, and I am done. Simple as that. You can get more elaborate if you wish, but, remember, my rule is, the simpler the better. As long as that folder does not get too big, and I am disciplined enough to scan it at least once a day for the status of things I am “Waiting For”, life is good.
- Create and Utilize “Templates” for Standard Responses
This one is rather straightforward. There are things you do in the course of fulfilling requests, answering questions, and meeting people’s expectations that are repetitive in nature. For these, I use a standard template; a word document, spreadsheet, email, etc., and I pull that out of my file folder, and use it to respond to an email, or a request, simply by filling out the template that already has a lot of standard repetitive information on it, and I’m good to go. Why re-invent the wheel, right?
- Institutionalize Use of Methodical Calendar Planning for Work to be Done
Calendars are not just for meetings. The real beauty of a calendar, is that you can, and should, use it to reserve blocks of time for work. Real work (so meetings are not real work huh? Heh heh…). Some requests and commitments will require a certain amount of my attention and time to complete. So, these merit an estimate, and a calendar entry. Once I estimate it, and find a spot for that amount of time to get it done, on my calendar, I can then commit to the person who made the request, reasonably assured that I can deliver what was asked for and when it is required.
- When It Has to be NO, Say NO to Requests as Quickly as You Can
I don’t like to say NO. I prefer to negotiate WHEN instead. However, I believe that it is preferable to say no, when it is a foregone conclusion that the request cannot be fulfilled, than to create an expectation that will not be met. So, it makes sense to review and categorize ahead of time, if possible, those kinds of questions, and requests that are against policy, or that can never be honored. Getting those off the table as quickly as possible, clears the decks of clutter that could potentially impede progress and steal resource and time for real issues that can be addressed.
That’s my list of 5 fairly straightforward tactics. I don’t believe it takes sophisticated Time Management courses, or Techniques, or even special tools or applications to, if not win this war outright, at least make a major dent in the face of things that are contributing to missed commitments and expectations. I believe that if you implement these tactics, they can help to avoid you having to utter those totally embarrassing words, “sorry, your request fell through the cracks”.
I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about all of this. Leave your comments below. And if you wish to get a PDF of my E-Mail management training, go to my web site, sign up for the newsletter, and indicate in the comment field that you want a free copy of the Better E-Mailing Practices PDF. I’d be most happy to send it along!