Changing bad practices around you

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One of the most common grievances I get when I am coaching people in personal efficiency is that they feel the inefficiencies of their environment let them down; it prevents them from fully embracing their own productivity methods. Here are some examples:

  1. “I keep getting emails which have useless subjects, even though I my email subjects are to the point.”
  2. “I run meetings that keep to time and agenda, but I keep getting dragged into other people’s meetings which get out of control.”
  3. “I never CC unless specifically necessary, and yet I am cc’d on everyone else’s stuff.”
  4. “I check other people’s schedules when I plan a meeting, but people keep inviting me to meetings over my plans.”

Essentially people feel that their good practices in personal efficiency are being negated by the bad practices of their peers. That is correct only to a certain extent: yes, their waste eats your time but that does not mean that you should just give up your own good practices. More to the point is that your practices can influence them and change theirs for the better. Let’s look at each example.

1. “I keep getting emails which have useless subjects, even though I my email subjects are to the point.”

Subjects are important because they help both in scanning your inbox quickly but also help file information properly. If you need to save a badly subjected email, remember that you can change the subject yourself before you do. If you are going to forward that email, change it too. You do not want to be the culprit of a sloppy email subject. Imagine a university administrator got an email with the subject ‘student’. Particularly useless as that administrator’s job likely is only dealing with students in all manners. If the subject read ‘student #B0027543; invoice problem, spring 2018 term’ that is something which can be worked with. Who, what, when is a good rule of thumb.

So, what do you do with the original sender of this badly subjected email? It seems unpleasant, but you will have to confront them. That can be done in painless ways. For example, reply to the email (with the new subject) and start with a sentence that you have changed the subject for better clarity. Another way is to formalize recurring communications by requesting that emails of this type follow a standardized subject format. You can argue that this way their email will get higher priority as you will be able to filter them out faster from the rest. The sender will certainly be happy to hear there is a way to get priority in any inbox!

2. “I run meetings that keep to time and agenda, but I keep getting dragged into other people’s meetings which get out of control.”

Meetings are the bane of any organization if there is no culture of good meeting practices. The very basics are having an agenda which is sent out with the invite, agreements on action plans and have notes taken at the meeting which are then distributed immediately after. Not having this is the reason why meetings get out of control, run over time, get nothing done. If you are in a position of authority the solution is quite simple: tell the organizers that if their meetings don’t contain this, then you won’t be showing up anymore. If they want you to be there, then they will change quickly. If you are lower on the ladder and are obligated to show up, you can take the initiative by doing these things yourself. Start with the notes: very few people like taking meeting notes and the organizer will likely be happy for the volunteer. The secret of the notes is that when you write them you are subtly controlling the agenda for the following meetings, and you can control the meeting with questions like “As note taker I need to ask, what’s our action on this?”. At one point when people are more used to a structured meeting, you can ask if notes can be taken by someone else and step back.

3. “I never CC unless specifically necessary, and yet I am cc’d on everyone else’s stuff.”

I cannot repeat this often enough: ‘To’ is for action, ‘CC’ is for being informed. Then ask yourself, does this person really need to be informed? (Probably not.) If you are CC’d too much there are two quick solutions: respond saying ‘please take me out of cc’ until they stop, or filter all cc’s with a rule into a separate folder that you check less regularly. (After all, if they wanted you to act then they should have put you in the ‘To’, and you can tell them this when they come to complain why you hadn’t taken action on something that you were CC’d on.) Ultimately, to stop the CC culture you simply must tell people to stop. Make it an agenda point in whatever regular meetings are coming. Ironically, I see that the high you go up the chain of command the worse it gets, almost as if people think their managers need to know everything. The perverse result is that they get so much information that they read nothing.

4. “I check other people’s schedules when I plan a meeting, but people keep inviting me to meetings over my plans.”

This is partially a technical training problem, as a lot of people are never taught the basics of whatever calendar system they are using, for example Outlook. Almost every modern system will have a scheduling assistant so that you can look inside the (unspecified) agendas of others. If you notice that you are being double or triple booked, either the sender doesn’t know how to see your agenda or doesn’t care. The former is solved with simple training. The latter is more problematic: if I see that someone already has appointments and I book them anyways, what does that say about my interest in having that person in the meeting? Or my respect for that person’s time? Ask yourself the question if you really need to be there, and if not ask to be removed from such meetings.

All the problems listed above have the same theme: you need to communicate with your peers about their work methods if those methods infringe on your work. Discussing how we work is often as important as discussing the work itself, otherwise there will never create a cycle of improvement. Or conversely, you can just tell them to contact PEP WorldWide for some personal efficiency coaching.

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