How To Stay Flexible When Everybody Messes With Your Planning

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I cannot count the times I saw those motivational posts on LinkedIn or Facebook which are all about awareness and being kind to yourself. Drink enough, get enough sleep, plan your day ahead and don’t miss the breaks! An exhausted body is toxic. I know! And I do! And I bet most of you also have good habits. But if you are managing one or more teams, it’s not always your fault if something does not work according to your plan. So how can you find the balance between not losing yourself, but still staying open towards all the last-minute requests that come in during the day?

Urgent Is Not Always Now

If someone approaches you with a new task or a new project, take your time to evaluate what this means for you. Here’s a few questions you should always ask yourself:

  • Am I the right person? Especially in smaller companies where functions are more fluent, or if you changed functions within the company, people might come to you with questions and tasks that are not really your job. That does not mean that you should decline everything by mumbling Not my f*cking job though! Instead of focusing on warding off projects from your busy schedule, think of it from the other side: If you’re not really the right person to address the request to, there is someone else in the company whose spotlight you will take away by taking over. You will maybe piss someone off or make someone wonder why they were not asked. If you come to the conclusion that you’re not really the one that should be asked, refer the applicant to the person you identified. This way, you have contributed to that task or project being done, but you have not overstepped your powers nor loaded something onto your pile of work.
  • How urgent is urgent? In the business world, everything seems to be urgent. However, it might depend on the person, day, mood, or task, whether urgent means that it should have been finished yesterday, or that you would need results by next Monday. Even the extra 12 hours can sometimes make it much easier to handle multiple tasks at once. If your company, like mine, offers flexible working hours, you will maybe get a request to do something by today EOB. I have always been an early bird, which means my EOB is between 4 and 5 pm. Finishing the task until then would be horribly stressful for me. If the applicant starts later, this means that I might have two to three hours in the morning to work on the task when they are not yet in the office. By asking when exactly something is needed instead of relying on vague deadlines, you can sometimes get the extra time you need. In other cases, insisting on a deadline sometimes brings even more surprising results – I once got a huge project that I should finish within two days. When I got back to the colleague who requested it, it came out that they would start their vacation in two days and wanted to have that off their chest before. However, they wouldn’t continue to work on it until next month… Long story short: Insist on a deadline and negotiate for those extra hours, if you would otherwise have a horrible day.
  • What are the consequences or follow-ups? If you take over this very task – how many will follow? How much time will this cost you within the next days or weeks? If you’re handling multiple inter-departmental projects, it is important to keep in mind that it’s sometimes not that one task that breaks your neck, but what follows. The person who asks something of you might not have an idea how much of your time their project will take away, or how much it will interfere with other projects that you participate in. Just take two minutes and think of the next steps: If you start this today, how does your next week look? If there’s a major conflict between projects, either clarify them yourself or ask the person who requested the task to do so. You will not help anybody – especially not yourself – if you just clench your teeth and go through with it, hoping that it won’t get worse next week.
  • Who needs to be involved? Yes, of course this is a question that the project manager should answer. If it is someone with prior experience, I am sure they will. That does not mean that they know who should be involved in the task they’re asking you to do. So before you start to do everything yourself, quickly check whether everybody who needs to be involved actually knows about this and is on board.
  • Is there someone in my team who can do this (better than me)? One of the reasons why you should check who needs to be involved is that you as the team leader maybe get asked for a project that you don’t necessarily need to work on yourself. Are there any candidates in your team that could take over the project? Maybe they could even be better, quicker, more efficient than you? Just because you are the team leader, it does not mean that you need to do everything that you’re asked to do. On the contrary – the more tasks you distribute within your team, the more even your workload will be. Additionally, your team will get more reputation and visibility on the company level, and they will learn to work more independently overall. Don’t miss that win-win-win-win opportunity by skipping this question!

With a little bit of training, it will only take you a few seconds to go through those questions in your head, and maybe a few minutes to check back with others about the answers. If you still come to the conclusion that you have to take on that urgent task, you can be completely sure that there really was no other way.

Reduce Your Own Plans

If you are working in a company where last-minute tasks drop in regularly, the first thing you need to do is to adapt your own plannings. If you know that you will only be able to work on your own projects for one or two hours a day, be realistic with your planning. If the project cannot be done below 30 hours, it means that the earliest you can finish it is in 15 days. And that’s if you plan without any additional buffer, just based on your daily workload! Never, ever, make the mistake to think that planning with two hours for that project per day means you plan with six hours of buffer every day. That would be true if you usually sat around, waiting for people to give you something to work on during those six hours. Planning buffer means to plan additional hours in which you theoretically, if nothing else comes up, would sit around, drink coffee, do some yoga or meditate! I bet you seldomly have the time for this in your schedule…

You will be in the situation to defend why you need 15 days for this small-ish project. If you have colleagues who ask that question, just stay calm, and explain your time planning. You can also let them know that if 15 days is far too long for this project, you would need to postpone other projects. Either you can already name other projects that would need to wait, or you can ask them to join a discussion with your (and maybe their) bosses or peers in order to prioritize this. Prioritization is not always very clear – in the end, it’s much better to get it straight from the beginning than to realize on day 14 that it would have been better to finish earlier.

Transparency Is Key

When it comes to your schedule, one thing is often forgotten: You have a limited amount of time, just as anyone else. Unless you’re Hermione and have a time-turner, but we will skip this possibility for now. That means that you can just finish so much during your day, no matter how much you maybe want to do more. Be clear about your workload, and be clear about prioritization. You could drop everything you currently do in the next minute if there is a project that is so urgent that it tops anything else. In reality, you will maybe not drop everything, but there might be things that are worth delaying to the benefit of a new task. As long as you’re clear about this, and let everybody know that you had to postpone something, you will not encounter any problems. In bigger projects, don’t forget to involve all stakeholders before postponing something – they might have the bigger picture and valid reasons why this is a bad idea. Next to transparency, a solid communication is essential for any collaboration – especially in busy times when changes need to be made regularly.

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