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Working with People Who Don’t Understand Productivity

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This is a guest post by Joe Buhlig. Joe is one of those technology geeks who love to build systems. He’s always exploring new ways to use (or not use) the digital to welcome real life and loves helping others do the same. He writes about his experiences and systems at and talks about them on Twitter.

As an Asian Efficiency reader, you likely have some system to help you keep track of tasks and methods of maintaining focus. You understand the value of taking breaks and know the effect that has on your motivation.

I also hope you understand that not everyone works that way. Yes, there is a large group of people who understand productivity in one way or another. It ranges from making a paper list of the day’s tasks to the full OmniFocus and Agile Results power setup with AppleScripting. If you make any kind of list or work at being efficient, you understand the productivity world to some degree.

But I have a news flash: It’s not for everyone.

Personalities are vastly different. And to some, the thought of using a tool like OmniFocus is ridiculous. Just ask my wife.

Neither of these groups is right or wrong. But I’ve learned that the way I work sometimes contradicts the way others work. If I let that bother me, I can become irritated, impatient, and angry at my coworkers. To be honest, I’ve been bad at this in the past.

But if I understand these differing views, I can learn to be patient and give grace where needed. I can see where my methods need to be relaxed a bit in order to work together. It might drive me mad, but I know our working relationship is better in the end. It will also prevent me from driving everyone else mad in the process.

Here are some of the most common situations I’ve run into when working with folks who don’t work the way I do:

1. Focus

VisionStaying on task is hard. That’s why there are methods like Pomodoro and tools that temporarily block websites and apps on your computer. Tricking my mind into focusing on a single task is something I’m constantly learning to do. I would say that most of the productivity space eventually boils down to methods of finding and focusing on one task at a time.

Obviously, the fight to find focus throughout the day is not universal. There are a lot of people who haven’t ventured down this winding path. And it shows in conversations and meetings that are easily derailed by a random thought or distraction.

You start talking about the latest report you put together and end up talking about data collection methods. It may be a good topic to discuss, but you still need to finish the original conversation. Otherwise, you’ll never get the feedback you need on the report, and you’ll have to have the conversation again in the future.

Actions to take:

  • If a meeting goes down an unexpected path, ask if the new topic can be discussed later and decide the next action necessary to make it happen.
  • Use the “parking lot” method. When a new topic comes up, write it down so the person or team can see it, finish the original topic, and come back to the new topic.

2. Forgotten Task

I’m on a call and someone commits to doing something by Friday. Friday comes around and it’s not done. You contact the person to find they have forgotten about it and need an extension. I get it. People forget, myself included, and don’t get to a task when they think they will.

It’s not possible to let someone know you’re going to miss a deadline if you don’t remember that you’re doing the task at all. This is the number one reason I ask people to get into task management. There’s just too much going on to keep it all in our brains.

Actions to take:

  • Remind, remind, remind. If you really need it on time, remind the person a day or two ahead.
  • Let it go and move on. The work is never done, so find the next action to get the task done, refocus, and keep going.

3. Time

Time management word cloudI’m sorry to say that I still get pretty bent out of shape on this. I have a thing for time. If you and I commit to coffee at 7am, I want to be there at [6:55] to respect your time and mine.

The same goes for ending times. I want to end on time so I’m not stealing extra time from you. Yes, there are instances when I’m on a call and we agree to go further if we can. That flexibility can go a long way. But acknowledging that the end time is here shows others that you value their time.

Actions to take:

  • Start wrapping up meetings 10 minutes before the set end time.
  • Try to be as clear and honest as possible when defining how long something will take.
  • Show up on time and don’t worry if you need to wait on someone. Take advantage of it.

4. Organization

Not having set procedures in a business or organization can lead to chaos. When people don’t know where to find the information they need, they spend too much time looking for it. If they don’t know how to do something, someone else may end up doing it for them. This cycle can short-circuit people’s ability to seek their own solutions and undermine personal responsibility in the company.

In any scenario, a lack of organization can waste time and dollars. Make sure there’s a way for everyone to find any and all documentation they need, and make it easy for everyone to contribute as necessary.

This also applies to the tools that a company uses. If there’s not a single tool used for IM or online meetings, you’ll always be trying to figure out how to use a new one or you’ll be teaching someone to use what you use. Either way, there’s valuable time being lost in trying to get tools to work.

Actions to take:

Be careful with the first two. Most organizations are resistant to change and prefer not to alter their methods. We are creatures of habit, so tread gently.

5. Breaks

Managing your energy levels is more important than managing your time. It’s not an easy concept to wrap your mind around, but it’s true. And when you start to realize the value in it, you’ll notice yourself taking breaks more frequently. You’ll sense the times when you’re getting tired and learn that stopping, even for five minutes, can re-energize you.

This concept has created big gains for me. I know that stopping can actually help me do more and be better at it. But it’s counter-intuitive. How can I get more done if I’m not working? If I put in long hours, I should accomplish more, right? But it doesn’t work that way and there’s a lot of science out there that proves it. Besides, I really like naps. I just have to convince myself to take them.

Working lunches, long days, summer-long sprints, and working over drinks at night—I’ve done all of them. I can’t say how productive the latter of those was, but they were always interesting at least. There were usually a lot of really fascinating, but terrible, ideas that came out of them.

In every case, the assumption was that we would get more done. And in most cases, the bulk of the work was finished by 5pm. Anything after that was a rehash of what we’d already talked about.

Actions to take:

  • When asked to work long hours or do long meetings, either step out for bathroom breaks or simply ask not to talk work over meals. Be intentional about it.
  • Suggest earlier stopping times. Most people understand that good work doesn’t happen when they’re tired. Just making the suggestion can open the door to realistic expectations.

6. Mental Storage

FrustratedRelying on my brain to remember everything is dangerous territory. It reminds me that I need to change our kitchen light bulb when I’m developing a digital marketing strategy. It kindly remembers that expense report I need to complete when I’m changing the kitchen light bulb. Let’s just say it’s not efficient.

I can only assume that I’m not the only one plagued by this chaos. And that leads me to think that those I work with are struggling to keep track of everything as well. It also means that it’s only a matter of time before a concept, strategy, task, or meeting is forgotten.

Actions to take:

  • Write things down.
  • Encourage others to write things down.

7. Multitasking

I still catch myself doing this even though I’m a big proponent of single-tasking. There’s been so much media coverage and science about the failures of multi-tasking that I’m surprised we even try. But I still find myself on phone calls where it’s pretty obvious that the person on the other end is writing an email or paying attention to something else.

This even shows up when we meet a friend for coffee or have an in-person meeting. How many times do we check our phones while we’re together? It’s a form of multitasking and some consider it rude.

Learning to stay focused on the task at hand (see point number one) can have really positive effects. They’re even bigger when you focus on another person. Refraining from doing other things while you’re with people can open the door to forming deeper connections and more meaningful relationships.

Actions to take:

  • Turn off your phone when you have an appointment with someone.
  • Keep your computer closed when you’re in a meeting and encourage others to do the same.

8. Ownership

What’s the next action? That’s a question that GTDers know well. What is the next task I need to complete in order to move this project forward? It’s a powerful question.

But what happens when the answer to that question involves a decision? “Decide which application to use for project management.” Great. But can you make that decision? In some cases, yes. In others, no. When it’s not your decision, you have to give it to someone else to decide.

And what happens when it’s not a single person that needs to make the decision? What if it’s a group of people? You now have to pull the group together, talk it through, and decide collectively.

It’s OK to make a decision as a team. But once the decision is made, there needs to be an owner defined. Who will own the task of following through? Who will make sure it gets done? Giving it to the collective team will only create headaches. If more than one person is assigned a task, it will never get done. You need to pick an owner.

Actions to take:

  • Ask questions. If you realize that a task has been defined, but the owner of the task hasn’t, ask the simple question: who’s going to do that? Make sure a single person takes it.

9. Planning

Person writing list of goals, close-up of handCountless times I have received a phone call on a Friday afternoon asking for a report by Monday morning. I typically don’t work on weekends. When I start asking for details on this report, I often find out that they’ve known about it for a couple weeks. They sat down to put together their presentation for Monday and realized they didn’t have the data they needed.

This is really frustrating. I know that sometimes things come up quickly and fast turnarounds need to happen. But when they’ve known about it for days or weeks and nothing has been communicated, I get irritated.

Actions to take:

  • Be patient. Explain the time needed to do something and the lead time needed to make it happen.
  • If you can, say no.

10. Urgent vs. Important

This is one of the most common issues I see. Some folks only work on the task that is pushed the hardest. If you consistently remind them and give short deadlines, they’ll get things to you right away. But if you need something for an important project that doesn’t have an actual deadline, it will likely never get done.

This quickly creates a reactive environment. You start doing the task that screams the loudest and work on whatever shows up that day. There are some positions where this is expected as part of the job, but that’s not usually the case.

In most instances, you’ll need to prioritize the work that comes in and weigh it accordingly. At least, that’s what we should do.

There are some people who don’t do this. Completing the urgent tasks makes the requester happy, and it’s nice to work with happy people. They also know that they can do the important tasks in a couple days, so it’s OK to put them off. But those couple days may never come, because more urgent requests inevitably pop up.

Actions to take:

  • Simply reminding others about the task that needs to be done and sharing the “why” behind it can go a long way. Don’t be a nag, but friendly reminders can help.
  • If it’s your place, make it acceptable to say no to urgent-only requests.


There are times when I’m guilty of every one of these less than productive habits. It’s a fight to be as transparent and efficient as possible. But not everyone is aware of the battle. I’ve learned to be OK with that. And I’ve learned that resorting to my passive-aggressive self damages relationships. I need to be patient and learn to work with people in the way they work.

This is a guest post by Joe Buhlig. Joe is one of those technology geeks who love to build systems. He’s always exploring new ways to use (or not use) the digital to welcome real life and loves helping others do the same. He writes about his experiences and systems at and talks about them on Twitter.

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1 Comment

Posted by Paul  | January 23, 2016 at 2:41AM | Reply

I can totally relate to all of these points. Some people seem to have no idea and it’s frustrating as hell. I don’t know how they find their way through life.

I get particularly bugged by point 2. I’ve had someone who worked for me in the past who frequently missed deadlines because they forgot that the task needed doing. Aside from trying to (unsuccessfully) recommend task management tools the only real solution was to set myself reminders to remind them that the deadline was looming. An inefficient add on to my system.

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