During the course of the average working day, we make a number of promises to get back to people. We make some of them verbally or in writing directly. At other times, we quietly make a personal promise to ourselves.
Many of us are resigned to what we believe is God’s cruel trick – not giving us enough hours in the day to respond to everyone. Others complain that they can never find the time.
The problem is that almost no-one tells the truth – their time management system isn’t doing the job that they need it to do.
What does time management have to do with getting back to people? Isn’t that a matter of simple courtesy?
Well, it used to be, but it no longer is.
In the good old days, we simply didn’t interact with as many people as we do now. In the past year or two, consider how quickly your Facebook network has grown. I had no idea that I knew 1,000 people, yet my list will top that number this year.
With the click of a few keys, I can send each of them a message, pulling them into my life in numbers and with a frequency that was unthinkable twenty years ago. As a result, on any given day, a bunch of them expect me to get back to them about one thing or another.
Many of us fail to respond to this increased expectation.
We are convinced that our memories are just not good enough. We believe that the older we get, the harder it is to remember, and there is a measure of truth in this assertion, according to the scientists. Above a certain age, we are losing brain cells each day, and with them goes our ability to respond.
We also live in the age of distractions – I just read an article in the New York Times that noted that the number of people who are reporting themselves as “injured while walking and texting” has risen dramatically. It’s tough to get back to people when we are pulled in other directions by 200 channels, sexy apps on our phones, IM’s, tweets and the like.
The flood of information coming our way has also been selectively blamed for blocking our attempts to get back in touch. There’s too much information coming at us to process and we can’t possibly find the time to reply to that snail-mail from Aunt Martha, who doesn’t even have a computer.
Fortunately, a real solution doesn’t have anything to do with better memory, less distractions or an escape from information. Instead, it has to do with how we manage our time.
Consider the habit that many have developed when an email arrives in their inbox.
If it requires a few minutes of either reading or thinking, most professionals will leave it for later once they have completed a quick glance. This particular habit isn’t a problem when applied to a single email. However, when it’s done a few hundred or thousand times, it creates a mountain of half-promises that we have made to ourselves, each saying “I’ll return to it when I have time.”
In other words, we are promising ourselves to get back in touch with the sender of the email when we get over our memory challenges, distraction and information overload!
It’s like smoking. Done once in a while, it’s not a problem to our health. Done to excess and it kills.
In the case of unreturned email, it kills not just our confidence in our abilities to stay on top of our game, but it seeps into our relationships, until we become one of those people who “never stays in touch.” All this because of a simple habit that almost all of us practice.
What we don’t see clearly is that we do damage to our reputations and to our time management systems when we don’t manage individual habits. A bad habit that becomes a ritual can drag down our productivity, without our knowing it.
The key is to make the connection: weak time management systems are made up by people who don’t manage their habits. For that reason, it’s a good idea to engage in what the consultants call “kaizen” – a Japanese word for continuous improvement. In other words, in order to prevent a time management system from becoming stale, it’s better to keep looking for habits to make it better.
After all, we are always upgrading our computers — why not something that’s even more critical to our effectiveness?
At the highest levels of performance, the most productive people have upgraded their time management systems to the point where getting back to people is not a problem.
In fact, if you ask them to tell you who is on their list of people to get back to, they give you a quizzical look. It’s not something they try to remember.
Instead, they rely on their time management systems to tell them when they need to get in touch with someone, and they just don’t need to remember who they are.
For them, the problem of getting back to people has disappeared.
For most of us, and especially those of us who have long lists of people who expect us to be back in touch with them, we need “kaizen” programs of our own.