This is a guest post by Nicole, winner of the competition for the best answer to the question: “How can you avoid being let down by other people’s poor time management?”
The only way to avoid being let down by other people’s poor time management, is to make sure that their time management problem doesn’t become *your* problem. That’s easy to say, but it can a bit difficult to actually achieve.
The way to avoid making other people’s poor time management your own problem will be different depending on the relationship you have with that person. When you’re dealing with a boss with poor time management skills, you can’t just say “It’s your problem, you solve it.” For example, your boss may come in with an urgent question that he needs you to answer for him today, but you’re still busy working on the urgent project that he assigned you last week and that’s due tomorrow. The only way to solve this is to let your boss make the call on what can wait. Point out what your workload is, what you can deliver in what timeframe, and let him decide on what’s most important. This way, you’ll make it clear that you’re willing to do your part, but that you can’t do the impossible, so if he keeps asking the impossible it will be his problem, not yours.
Sometimes you’ll have to deal with poor time management of co-workers. If you know this beforehand, make sure to agree with the person you’re both reporting to where the boundaries of your mutual responsibilities are, and point out where you are dependent on work by others. This is actually not different from common project management techniques: try to figure out beforehand where the risks are, factor in enough time to deal with the risks, or have a plan B in place. Don’t fall into the trap of doing it yourself when work promised by others is not delivered. Apart from making you a very popular co-worker, this will only signal to your co-workers and to your boss that they can get away with it, because any problems they’re causing will be solved by you. When a project is very important you may do this once, but do this repeatedly and you’ll burn out very quickly.
A third situation is when you’re dealing with poor time management in subordinates. In this case, you need to give them just enough assistance to get them going, but not so much that you’re doing significant portions of the work yourself. Coach them into creating a schedule for what they committed to doing, and make sure it’s their own schedule. Ask them if they think it’s a reasonable schedule, and what they will do if something turns out to be more work than they expected. If they agree to a reasonable schedule but still fail to stick to it, let them explain why. If there was an emergency, could they have foreseen it, or factor in additional time to compensate? This way, you keep them accountable for what they committed to, instead of making their time management problem your own problem.
In all these cases, it’s very important to be clear about your own commitments. If you promise to deliver, make sure you deliver. You have to make sure that you take your own commitments seriously, because that’s the only way you can expect the people around you to do the same for their own commitments. Also make sure to remind people about their commitments. If a co-worker promised to deliver a report by Monday morning, remind him by noon if it’s not there. If you wait till Tuesday you’ll give the impression that it could have waited anyway, so next time he will not take your deadlines seriously. If for some reason it’s not possible to set a crisp deadline, you still want to remind them periodically about it. Putting a task for this in SuperFocus, for example “Remind J about policy document?” has proved very effective for me. When this task stands out, it means it’s bugging me enough to start bugging J about it. If it doesn’t stand out, apparently it’s not important enough yet to bother with it. This way, my own time management system helps me clarify my own priorities to the people I work with.
Usually you don’t need to evangelize about your time management system to your co-workers. People will notice that you’re reliable to work with, and they will want to work with you. As a result, you can be picky about who you agree to work with and of course you’ll choose to work only with the reliable ones. In the last job where I had a direct boss, it took him only a few months and one project with an unreliable co-worker to realise that I would be far more effective working with the people I chose to work with instead of the people he assigned me to work with. Problem solved!