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Help a little, chill a little. How best to deal with your chaos-loving colleagues

Hi there, A few months back, I shared some suggestions for staying on track in the midst of a crisis

Work in Progress

July 6 · Issue #42 · View online
The newsletter about work

Hi there,
A few months back, I shared some suggestions for staying on track in the midst of a crisis. But getting a handle on your own work isn’t enough. Coworkers also play a big role. What can we do to make things easier on the people we work with? And what if those around you choose chaos over structured methods?

Be proactive about sharing how you work
We tend to think that our colleagues consciously choose a chaotic way of working, or that they don’t want anything to do with structure in any form. But the opposite is often the case: People simply don’t know where to start.
You can help. What by now may seem like simple tips to you – use your calendar for your own work, clear your head with a good to-do list, and schedule blocks of time for checking email – can be real eye-openers for others.
The best strategy is not to force anything, but to share those things that help you when the time’s ripe. When your coworker asks for help with something, take the opportunity to say that you’ll have to check your calendar real quick: “I keep track of my own work there so I don’t overcommit.”
Or when someone asks if you’ve seen their email, you could say you’ll get back to them by the end of the day, but add: “I try to check email just 3 times a day, so I can focus on other things the rest of the time.” 
You could consider sending out a short and personal this-is-how-I’m-getting-through-all-this email. Taking the time to share what works for you can be just the thing a colleague needs to change their own situation for the better. Feel free to raid my archive!
Take the long view
I’m convinced that smarter work habits start with separating the act of choosing a direction in your work from doing the work itself. What I mean is you don’t continually reevaluate during the workday, weighing what’s important and why. You’ve already laid out a clear path. You do that each week in your Friday recap, and maybe every few months in your quarterly review (it’s time!), or once a year, on your YearPlanDay. Those choices are reflected in your day-to-day calendar. That leaves you free to focus on carrying them out.
Here are some suggestions to help the people you work with take a longer view too:
  • First of all, and this may sound too easy: Ask people about their ideas for next week, next month, next quarter. Everyone’s so busy that important work keeps getting pushed to mañana, mañana. Even folks who’re setting priorities for the group tend to do this. So ask. It lets people know you’re looking for a wider perspective. And it helps others look beyond the urgent matter they’re working on today.
  • Turn what you know into a roadmap for the work ahead and share that. Don’t write down what you yourself want, but note all the projects and priorities you’re aware of. Share this overview with your manager and ask if it’s accurate. 
  • Try to develop a rhythm in asking your coworkers what’s important. Add a round to your standup or weekly meeting where everyone names the one thing that has top priority for them. Then establish a collective top 3 each week: the things the team will definitely get done.
What if your boss or manager is a chaos muppet?
Working with a super-creative boss or a chaotic manager isn’t always easy. And it can be complicated further when the team’s grown too big or the workload is too much. Even so, there are things you can do to make working together easier for you both.
  • Talk openly about your different styles. When I get this question, the first thing I ask is: Have you spoken with your manager about your frustrations? The answer is almost always no. Step 1: Discuss what you need to do your work better and consider what your boss needs from their vantage point.
  • Experiment with how you communicate. Do your suggestions and attempts at structure go ignored? Try another approach. Maybe it works better to pick up the phone than to send yet another email. Or try typing up a super short proposal instead of a detailed one.
  • Fans of structure and organization often find it hard to understand why that approach doesn’t work for everyone. Try to make structure easier and more accessible. If your complex spreadsheet doesn’t win over your manager, try a simpler doc or paste a table in the body of your email.
  • Anticipate Anticipate Anticipate. Even the most chaotic manager has patterns to their behavior. Maybe you don’t know what they’ll come up with next, but you know it will always happen on the weekend. Account for that in your calendar, and build in time Monday morning to deal with new ideas and directives.

Have a good week!
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