"Don't confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn't make any progress." ~Alfred Montapert

"There is only one proof of ability, action." ~Marie Von Ebner Eschenbach

It is completed tasks that you are measured by, not just activity. Too many times we take an initial step on something but don’t get it across the finish line. Or worse, we have made no progress at all other than “planning” to do it at some point in the murky future. So what are two phrases that we almost all use that are indicative of this inaction and are a clear warning bell for us of where we could have improved?

Phrase #1 to avoid at all costs – “I was going to do that next”

What your boss heard:

  • You haven’t even started – Remember, action is always better than inaction. Not even getting the initial step complete is NEVER a good thing, and gets to the next point.
  • You haven’t prioritized this activity – Clearly you misread the priority of the task your boss is asking about. Though in fairness, your boss asking is sometimes a passive/aggressive way of a boss clarifying the priority. Regardless, you should have either understood or clarified the priority yourself.
  • You didn’t anticipate the next step – Usually takes place in a meeting where the boss suggests what the next course of action should be. When it comes to projects underway and the next logical steps, your boss will often assume you hadn’t thought of the next step until they offered it. Remember, you don’t get any brownie points for knowing what to do, you get the points for what is done.

Phrase #2 to avoid at all costs – “I sent an e-mail”

What your boss heard:

  • You haven’t followed up – You have no resolution or clear next action step, all you have is a big question mark as to what is going on. You don’t know what the recipient will say, what timeline they think they have for responding, and are unable to anticipate future events until these unfold. Basically, if you didn’t get a quick reply, you should have called.
  • You chose the easiest thing to do – We’ve all flown through our Inbox at the end of the day and fired off a dozen e-mails asking for clarification, giving clarification, or acknowledging clarification. E-mail is the worst form of communication and is terrible at getting information (because the back and forth necessary to get clarification takes forever). Truthfully, that’s one of the reasons e-mail is so popular, but that isn’t a good reason for the person asking for a status update.
  • You haven’t prioritized this activity – Similar to the above, if you sent an e-mail in the first place, and haven’t received a reply (to which you haven’t followed up) you clearly don’t understand this task’s importance.

So what do you do to avoid needing to use these two phrases? Given that you do actually have several things vying to be the top priority, often from the same boss, I recommend four things to get you there:

Get priorities straight – First things first, ask where the priorities lie and where this fits in with current projects/tasks. To ease the impression that you are complaining/avoiding the task, be sure to mention what milestones were just reached and what you were working on next.

Take immediate action – Get the ball rolling. The first few tasks are often easy, a phone call, a report request, a customer meeting, get these started as quick as possible (right after receiving the task on the same day is preferable). Remember, the toughest thing about getting to the gym in the morning is the first step…getting out of bed.

Foresee the next step and get it into motion – “We ARE doing this” is very different than “We are PLANNING to do this”. Similar to the above, once one task is complete, get to work on the next without delay.

Five minutes is all it takes 80+ percent of the time – Most of the things we do in our day take less than five minutes, and ALL of us have a few five minute blocks in the day (most of us have dozens). Use these to keep momentum or finish things off.

Keep these four things in mind throughout your day and you will dramatically lower the incidences of needing to use the two dreaded phrases above.

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