I vividly remember asking a well-known professor if he would be on my dissertation committee. In my little academic world, he was godlike. Insanely productive and capable of giving feedback that could determine my career success.
I spent days crafting the perfect message to ask (more like beg) if he’d be willing to be on my committee. It was detailed and organized with no stone left unturned.
His response was simple. Literally one word: Committee?
He wanted to know who he would have to work with. I dutifully crafted a thorough response with perfectly cultivated profiles of the other committee members.
His response was again simple, and one word: Yes.
The contrast between my long-winded and detailed questions and his one-word responses sticks with me to this day.
Perhaps the reason he is so productive is that he doesn’t waste time. He gets to the source of the problem and makes a decision. In his case, as long as the other committee members were easy to work with, he was game.
We spend a great deal of time and energy talking through all the scenarios, options, and caveats. In some cases this is helpful, but in others, it’s a waste.
Get to the core of the issue first. Then make a decision.
Here’s how most feedback sessions typically unfold:
First, they tell you something that you are doing really well.
Second, they tell you something that you could improve, but it’s minor and unimportant.
Third, they tell you another thing that you are doing really well.
This is the sandwich method at its finest (the “bad” comment is hidden in the middle). In these conversations, the feedback recipient learns nothing, but they get a nice pat on the back. The feedback giver escapes the session without offending, and life goes on.
It’s up to you to set the context for these conversations.
Make it clear that you don’t need feedback, you want what’s called constructive criticism. Constructive criticism skips the fluff - the things we’re doing well - and gets straight to what will actually help us in the future.
Also, make it clear that you’re not asking the other party to declare what you are doing wrong. Instead, you’re asking them to help you think through ideas for how to grow, develop, and learn. This takes the pressure off the other party and ensures a candid conversation ensues.
I was excited to share my big idea, so I invited a mentor to lunch to explain my plan of action. He patiently listened.
When I was done, he responded with the following: “Everything sounds amazing over a beer or a cup of coffee. If you really want to know if your idea is any good…write it down.”
The insight here is understanding how to align the medium - talking versus writing - with the goal at hand.
If you’re at the idea development stage, talk it out. Have a two-way dialogue where you brainstorm, ask questions, and get feedback.
If you’re at the idea execution stage, write it out. Writing creates structure and clarity. It requires linear and logical arguments.
My problem was that I was attempting to execute an idea in a conversation. Instead, I should have used the conversation to flesh out new perspectives that could have eventually been solidified in written form.
Talk first, write second. You need both and in that order.
Email is a ubiquitous workplace communication medium. And the inbox never stops filling up. To maximize productivity, it’s important to have the right mindset when you check your email.
The goal is not to read or reply to emails, the goal is to “triage your inbox.” Here’s the process (and it goes in this order):
(1) Delete emails you don’t need.
(2) Move FYI emails to appropriate folders.
(3) Answer any emails that only need a one-sentence response.
(4) Tag emails that need more than a one-sentence response to be addressed during deep-thinking time.
Too many of us go straight to #4 when we check our email, but we don’t have the time or space to craft an appropriate response. Instead, triage your inbox and make time for the important emails during designated time frames.
Research illustrates that doing two things at once lowers our applied IQ to both tasks. This means that multi-tasking literally makes us dumber.
We’ve all been there - we’re on a zoom call, we’re not a key presenter of information, and our role is to passively listen because something might apply to us. But you’re busy. Can you check your email? Can you clean up your notes from the last meeting?
I would argue that yes, you can. Why not be honest with everyone? Perhaps be transparent and let everyone know that you have a few urgent items you’ll be simultaneously addressing while listening in. That way everyone knows to ping you and bring you into the conversation more directly when appropriate.
I would also argue that, in some circumstances, meeting organizers should let non-active participants decide for themselves whether they have the time to “sit in” on the call.
The working world has not yet figured out the true potential of asynchronous communication. The meeting organizer should record the video and take note of relevant points for individuals not in attendance.
If there was something pertinent that a non-attending colleague should know about, then they should send them the recording, and direct their attention to the conversation point of interest.
Time is precious. We should respect each others’ time and we should be transparent about how much time we have available.
The goal of appointment scheduling software - Acuity, Calendy, HubSpot, etc. - is a noble one. No more back-and-forth emails trying to pin down a meeting time.
I love it when people let me see their availability and pick the day and time that works best for me. But I rarely use this software for my own meeting invitations.
If time is money, then pinning down a meeting time is a negotiation. If someone lets me pick my ideal time, I win, because I get to pick the time that perfectly aligns with my productivity cadence.
I have a few standing meetings that appear every week or two. My goal is to only schedule ad-hoc meetings that are immediately before or after those regularly scheduled meetings. In effect, what I’m creating is a window of time where I’m in “talking mode” over the course of several meetings.
Having random meetings across the day is distracting, it leads to energy depletion, and it makes it harder to get into a state of flow. I take this to the extreme and try and create talking days for teaching and meetings, and non-talking days for deep thinking tasks like writing and analyzing data.
Scheduling software is amazing, but to my knowledge, none of them are smart enough to accommodate the level of customization necessary to ensure that my days are scheduled the way I want them to be scheduled.
I’m fine with a few back-and-forth emails. The cost of those few minutes pails in comparison to the cost of distractions.
Almost every time I go to my local, big-box grocery store, the cashier and the bagger are complaining about their work. The coworker who was late. The supervisor who said no to a request.
It makes me uncomfortable. And it degrades my perception of their organization’s brand.
But wait, I do it too. I’m embarrassed to think back on how many occasions I’ve complained about something work-related to a friendly colleague.
In the moment it feels right. It’s a form of emotional coping, and it can also build stronger bonds with coworkers.
But perhaps these short-term benefits should be weighed against their long-term detriments.
For one, it signals that you’re willing to talk behind people’s backs. Second, it reinforces close-mindedness.
Sometimes people just make mistakes. So will we. Sometimes people just have a different perspective. And that’s okay too.
Are you second-guessing your off-the-cuff use of a curse word to make your point?
On the one hand, research suggests that swearing signals a lack of professionalism. On the other hand, research suggests that swearing signals authenticity or passion for a topic.
As usual, the context should dictate. The more informal the culture and the more you know the crowd, the more likely your swearing won’t offend.
Curse words, by definition, have some degree of stigma as being taboo. So when you do use them, they have the potential to wake people up. They carry an emotional impact.
However, if you really need to use a curse word to have an impact, the problem is probably the content of your message, not the delivery.
How often do you have text message conversations with friends and family during your work time? Let me guess - the dozen or so texts are spread out over 30 minutes as you toggle back-and-forth to your work tasks. This is not ideal.
We know that distractions are bad for productivity. However, you can’t ignore friends and family, right?
My colleagues, clients, and students respect my worst-case scenario, 24-hour turnaround time. This is unlikely to fly with friends and family. It’s personal, therefore, it’s rude to not respond quickly.
But what about a compromise? What if we promised to do all of our non-work responses during a specific window of the after-work evening hours? Would that be so bad?
This aligns with the common productivity philosophy of “chunking versus sprinkling.” The more we can chunk together common tasks, the better we’ll be at staying focused on the task at hand.
The downside is that not everyone will be available when we’re ready for our scheduled chunk of communication. Perhaps that deserves a coordination message where you give each other a window of availability.
The upside is that we’ll actually be engaged in the conversation - not multi-tasking with work concerns in the background. Additionally, if we stay focused on getting work done during work hours, we’ll free up more time to engage in more non-work interactions.
Every so often I find myself stuck in a conversation with someone that I wish would end.
Sometimes I’m in productivity overdrive where every minute counts, and I just don’t have time for small talk with acquaintances. Other times it’s someone I know well and care about, but I’m in the middle of something.
This is especially problematic for those of us in “deep thinking” jobs. Losing your train of thought can mean a major loss of momentum.
I’ve tried body language. They don’t notice. I’ve also tried to be polite by going with the flow, keeping it short, and steering the conversation towards a close. It doesn’t work.
I think the solution is two-fold:
(1) Respond with purpose. Make it clear that you genuinely don’t have time or need to finish something. The context should dictate how much you explain.
(2) Respond Immediately. The chances of stopping a conversation after one back-and-forth are slim to none.
Although it might feel cold while in the moment, it’s actually more disrespectful to pretend you are interested or only be partially engaged.
Be prepared for your next encounter. The chatterbox always tends to appear when you are in the middle of something.
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