Getting Things Done QA

How to Be More Decisive

Dear Justin,

Many tasks I work on involve getting info and answers from colleagues. I’ll initiate the contact and let them know what I need, then move on to my next task. And of course, as soon as I’m immersed in that next task, I’ll hear back from them. Here’s my dilemma: I can’t decide if I should keep working on the second task or switch back to the first, now that I have what I need to complete it. It’s amusing how confounded I can get trying to decide! Any guidance or a rule of thumb that can help me cut through my indecision?


Dear Undecided,

Happy to help. I’m going to give some general thoughts about focus and interruptions, and also address your question about judging priorities. Here are a few truths I’ve come to know and a few tips to put them into practice.

Some Truths

You’ll get more done in less time and do better quality work when you can focus 100 percent on a task. This is true whether you’re writing marketing copy or cooking spaghetti. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, determined through his research that “control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

It’s not in your best interest to switch from one task to another too rapidly. Of course, you’ll work on different tasks throughout the day, but you don’t want to switch between tasks so often that you never settle into real focus. If you do that, you’ll get 10% done with 100% of your stuff, which is another way of saying you’ll finish nothing.

So, expect the unexpected. Plan on surprises. Here’s the challenge: you don’t know when a surprise will come or where it will come from. So you need some habits that enable you to manage those surprises and still get stuff done.

Some Tips

Have a location for “bookmarking” things. If someone drops a note by your office, for example, make sure you have a way to capture or file it without having to completely shift your attention. It may seem very 1980s but having a physical in-tray in your office is a great approach. Let your teammates know that if they need to drop something by, leave it in the tray. Then YOU need to make sure you process the stuff in that tray every twenty-four to forty-eight hours. If not, they’ll stop leaving stuff there and go back to bothering you until you divert your attention. Having an inbox allows you to receive incoming information without disruption. And remember, your email inbox captures things automatically for you. So, it’s ok to close your email app while you focus on that client call. You can’t focus on both, so don’t bother “kind of” reading email during the call.

Keep things clean. You can’t prioritize a disorganized pile of stuff. You might be wondering what this has to do with your question. Here’s the thing: when your coworker’s response comes back, your job is to determine whether you should now complete the related work, go back to what you were doing, or do something else entirely. You can’t make that determination if you don’t have clean edges between all of your tasks, projects, and new inputs. If you have a bunch of half-read emails, piles of sticky notes all over your desk, and now a response from your colleague, how can you determine what the RIGHT thing to do is? This is why people are often “busy but unproductive.” They don’t have clean lists and calendars and office space, so they opt for doing all the new stuff that shows up because the task seems clear. Urgent seems important. But when you keep your email inbox clean and your papers and sticky notes processed, you can determine what’s actually important.

Work in modes. Dedicate time to each of the following three modes of work:

Define work—process inboxes and new inputs.
Do defined work—work from calendars or lists.
Surprises—handle work that shows up unplanned.

Without boundaries around each mode, you’ll spend all of your time attending to surprises—the latest and loudest tasks—instead of key priorities. To ensure important tasks are completed, respect others’ time as they communicate what mode they are working in. And ask them to respect your time in these modes as well. You’ll get less done if you try to do all three of these modes at once.

I hope these tips help you stay focused AND flexible at the same time.

All the best,

Crucial Conversations QA

My Coworker is Late Every Day. What Can I Do?

Please welcome Lisa Vermillion as a new author to the Crucial Skills Newsletter. Lisa joined the VitalSmarts team in September of 2019 as a Master Trainer and Client Solutions Engineer. Her professional background includes designing curriculum, writing books, coaching business leaders, and speaking and training.

Dear Lisa,

My coworker walks in after 8:00 a.m. every single day. They never get to work on time and are five to fifteen minutes late every single day. I have spoken to my manager who has spoken to my coworker several times but my coworker goes back to their old behavior. I am disgusted with my coworker and it’s causing resentment and even a feeling of “I cannot stand this person.” Unfortunately, we share a common job and I have to sit near this person every day. I am at my wit’s end. Can you advise?

Boiling Pot

Dear Boiling,

I hear your frustration and desperation! Working in close proximity with someone can often be challenging. Most everyone has experienced this challenge, and many of us have tried to ignore it and suffered in silence. Eventually, the feeling that “I’ve had enough!” may reach a breaking point that can result in some kind of outburst that we will likely later regret. How can we make these conversations productive, not destructive?

At first glance, it seems that it is your boss’s job to address this problem—again. However, I suggest to you that because the issue has degraded to the point where it affects your relationship with your office mate, the responsibility lies with you. It is still your boss’s responsibility to correct the behavior, but you need to have a conversation about how it is affecting your relationship.

The first set of skills in preparing to hold a crucial conversation is to Work on Me First. Many of us would rather skip this step and continue to wallow in blaming the other person, but it is absolutely necessary before you broach a difficult conversation in order to have true dialogue. So, I have a few hard questions for you to consider.

  1. Why does your co-worker’s behavior upset you? Perhaps you have to cover for them while they’re gone. Maybe you are a stickler for being on time and expect others to be the same. Or perhaps you feel they are “getting away with” something. Whatever it is, the first thing to do is examine your own heart and mind. In the end, no one can “make” us mad or resentful. We create our emotions by how we interpret events. We call these interpretations our stories.
  2. What do I really want? For myself, for my co-worker, for the organization? This question takes us beyond the immediate frustration and to a greater understanding of what outcomes we want. You already know the outcome of not saying anything, and it isn’t acceptable. You can probably predict the negative outcomes of speaking out from the place of your exasperation. So, what outcomes do you really want? You probably want to feel calm and not frustrated, and you want your coworker to come on time. But more importantly, you likely want to have a good relationship with them. How would you behave if that were your motive for the conversation?
  3. What stories are you telling yourself about your co-worker? Here are some examples of stories you might be telling yourself: they are irresponsible or inconsiderate, they don’t have a good work ethic, they are the boss’s favorite so they can get away with things like that. Your stories may be different but understanding how you interpret your co-worker’s behavior can help you to turn down the intensity of your emotions before holding a conversation. Because here’s something to consider: what if your stories are incorrect?
  4. Why would a reasonable, rational person do this? Could there be other reasons beyond what you have assumed that would explain why this person is chronically late? For example, do they have to drop off a child at school or daycare at a certain time? Is the bus schedule difficult? Have they never been accountable for lateness before? Do they stay 10 minutes late to make up for the missed time? Do they have chronic insomnia that makes mornings a challenge? Have they come to an understanding with the boss that you don’t know about? There are many stories other than yours that could explain the behavior. Before we approach a crucial conversation, we must be willing to consider and listen to different motives and explanations. Approach the conversation with curiosity and respect in order to allow space for real dialogue.

Once you have really examined your own motivations, stories and emotions, you are ready to use your STATE skills to plan how to hold the conversation. Remember to make it safe for the other person to open up, and to keep judgement and blaming at bay. That way you can have true dialogue. Will this fix your co-worker’s behavior? Perhaps not. But it can go a long way in resolving your frustration and restoring the relationship.

Good Luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Changing Behavior in Adult Children

Dear Joseph,

My daughter just turned 40 and has gained more weight than ever. Conversations about her weight gain over the years have mostly been negative, though she did actually lose weight with the help of a trainer about eight years ago. She says her schedule doesn’t allow time, but I disagree. I need help on how best to approach her again without offending and/or causing her to stress and eat even more. Thank you.

Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

My advice to you will be simple but hard. These three words will not give you control, but they are your own path to healthy influence: Let it go.

Her weight is not your job. We can debate about whether it was prior to age 18. But we’re long past that. She has been an adult for 22 years. You refer to “conversations about her weight gain over the years” which leaves the impression that you have been on a run about this for a while. And the fact that the conversations have been “negative” means she is telling you clearly that she doesn’t want your help. If you are, in fact, having a debate with her about whether or not she has the time to go to the gym, you are way past any healthy boundary.

Let it go. Her weight is her responsibility, not yours.

I can sympathize with the plight of a parent who sees an adult child doing something that you know will cause harm. I have felt it many times myself, and sometimes with things far more threatening than obesity. But it is crucial to both your own emotional health and your relationship with your daughter that you learn to distinguish what you care about from what you are responsible for.

Learn to calm yourself when you panic about her choices. Learn to detach yourself from your need to fix her problems. Learn to think of her choices the same way you would someone you see ordering more in a restaurant than you think they should. Because that is who she is today.

I know what I am suggesting will take enormous work from you. But it is, in my view, your only path to peace.