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How to weather the unexpected (with your plans intact)

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Work in Progress

July 27 · Issue #45 · View online
The newsletter about work

Hi everybody,
Sticking to a work schedule often depends on how well you can deal with interruptions.
Last week I wrote about how to handle frequent requests from the outside – when you need to respond to questions from clients, for instance, or man the phones. And we started the year out with 5 steps for getting back on top of things after a break, which can be helpful here too. (Forgive my oblivious tone at the beginning of that one – had no idea what 2020 had in store for us.)
A reader recently asked me this related question: How do you deal when your work plans – big or small – get derailed? Considering how common that is, it seemed a good topic for this newsletter. Great question, Chiel!
Interruptions can’t be stopped. But they don’t have to stop you
Interruptions and the unexpected are an absolute given. No way of working will change that. And you could argue it’s what makes our work and our lives interesting. However. Most interruptions are far from welcome. Chiel brought up the case of a supplier being stuck in traffic, which then throws off your own plans for the afternoon.
First off: After years of planning my work (and years of experiencing interruptions), I still swear by my calendar. More often than not, I manage to get done what I planned.
Maybe it’s like that weird statistical certainty – even in rainy Holland – that when you bike to work every day, you very rarely get caught in the rain.
So have a plan and make sure it’s grounded in your calendar. That’s the best way to deal with interruptions swiftly, with little need for deliberation. You’ll know at a glance how much room you have to move tasks around or postpone. And you’ll know who you need to contact when an interruption takes longer than expected. 
What to do when things go awry
But what about when you can’t complete the work you’d planned? Perhaps a supplier didn’t show, or someone’s out sick, or you’re waiting on work from a coworker before you can get going. Two thoughts for that moment things start to go awry: 
1. Do what you can. We tend to grab any chance to postpone work. And while that may seem to make sense at times, it’s not a good idea. Odds are that any work you do instead won’t be nearly as important as what you’d originally scheduled. So push on.
Let’s say you still need some figures for a report you’re drafting. Don’t let that hold you up; do everything you can without the data. Or say a Zoom meeting keeps cutting out for some reason. Just pick up the phone instead. Or see how far you can get on your own.
In short, find a workaround. Don’t give up easily, and resist the urge to instantly jump to Let’s reschedule for next week. Do what you can today.
2. Work ahead in your calendar. When plans fall through, you may be tempted to tackle urgent but unimportant tasks instead. And if you’re at all frustrated by having to change your plans, you’re not exactly in the best position to assess what matters most. 
I try to get into the habit of starting another task I had scheduled for today. After all, I’d already decided that’s important. Working on something important to you also helps get you back into a positive frame of mind.  
How to avoid this bind in the first place
There are ways to avoid getting into a bind in the first place. Here are some things that can help:
  • Use shadow deadlines. Did you agree on a Friday delivery with the client? Then make your own deadline a few days earlier. More here on what deadlines can do.
  • Take on key parts first. When you start a project, identify the most complex components, the things you’re most unsure about. Do them first. That way, you won’t hit the hard stuff right before the deadline. 
  • Plan more white space in your day. Do you close out each week running for the finish line, stressed out by all the interruptions? It’s not always easy, but the trick is to do less and do it well. Take on less work, and focus on quality. You’ll start wrapping up your weeks feeling proud and pleased with what you’ve accomplished. 
A final thought: Anytime you deviate from your calendar, it can provide new insight for your weekly review. If you have another delivery coming up from the supplier who’s always late, plan a little leeway around that appointment. You’ll be less frustrated when delays hit and keep your own work on track. 
Thanks for the question, Chiel! And have a great week, everyone. Hopefully without too many disruptions.
Rick

PS Do you have a question you’d like to see addressed by Work in Progress? Drop me a line! I may write about it in a future newsletter.
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