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Four Instructive Questions for Instructions

Four Instructive Questions for Instructions

Instructions

    Whether you’re telling the new intern at work just how to file a new client’s folder, or giving your sister a rundown on how Fido likes his dinner prepared, you’re giving instructions. As a general rule, it’s easier to give instructions in person — the instructee can ask for clarification on anything he doesn’t understand.

    When you’re writing down instructions, though, it can be much harder to explain each step needed to complete the task. Think about doing your own taxes: the IRS’ instructions are enough to drive some of us to paying hundreds of dollars just to avoid dealing with the dratted things. As you write your instructions, keep the following questions in mind to make both writing them and following them at least a little easier.

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    What is the end result?

    “Rinse. Wash. Repeat.” The typical shampoo instructions bother me on a fundamental level. It’s mostly that I’m not sure when I should stop repeating. Just how shiny is my hair supposed to be in the end? How will I know when it’s clean enough to stop washing? I try to avoid getting existential in the shower, but this set of instructions shows the problem with half the directions that cross my desk. There’s no end, no goal, no product that makes it easy for the person following along at home to know that she can stop.

    When writing a set of instructions, the first thing you should make note of is the end result. Even a good title can take care of this task: a cook following instructions on “How to Boil a Pot of Water” can probably figure out that he can stop when the water starts boiling. Want to prove the point? Leave an untitled set of instructions on an office assistant’s desk and head out for the weekend. Long before you get to the beach, you’ll be getting a phone call to ask just what is sitting on the desk.

    Do you have the same starting point?

    I once wound up driving almost fifteen miles out of my way trying to get to a friend’s house. I followed his directions to the letter — I thought. Turns out, he had given me directions from some place quite close to his house, assuming I could get there on my own. And I probably could have gotten that far without directions, if I had known that I needed to start there.

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    Make your starting point clear, whether you’re giving driving directions or telling someone how to hook up their new television. The starting point may not even be an address; it may be a list on ingredients or necessary equipment that your user should have ahead of time. Think about running a combine out at the farm. If you had to run one, you might be able to, with good instructions. But would you recognize the combine in the first place?

    Are you speaking the same language?

    My version of the English language doesn’t quite match one of my clients. I mentioned that perhaps we should use social networking to market his business. He was with me to that point, but when I put together a list of steps for how we should proceed, he wasn’t familiar with a whole set of terms: “What the heck is tweeting? Do I need to buy a bird?” Some times we get so used to the jargon or dialect of our day-to-day conversations that we don’t realize that someone new to the concept — the exact type of person needing instructions — doesn’t use the same words in the same way.

    Your instructions don’t need to devolve into tasks within tasks and attempts to introduce that new intern to all the office terminology in one go. Just write your instructions to a less knowledgeable audience — think about your dear grandma who just isn’t up on modern day slang while you’re writing.

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    These questions can apply to visual instructions just as much as written directions. Symbols and icons don’t always communicate well, despite the claim that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ One lasting example is the sign on the ladies’ room door — that all-important instruction on just who is allowed entry. In the U.S., we have that funky stick figure with the fins on either side, meant to represent a skirt. In many Middle Eastern countries, though, the ladies’ room is indicated with a veil. Icons can trip us up just as easily as words.

    Can you test it?

    A set of instructions don’t need the same user testing that your new website design should probably undergo. But handing it to the guy at the next desk over, and asking “Does this make sense?” can speed up the time it takes someone to follow your directions by hours. Even thirty seconds of minor corrections is not too much effort, especially if you’re paying someone by the hour to complete this task. In some situations, of course, testing is impossible. It’s worth the effort if you can arrange it, though.

    If you are planning to use the same set of instructions multiple times, it’s worth asking the person who carried out the task to let you know of any specific problems. Clear them up now and you can minimize problems down the road.

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    Last thoughts

    And even perfectly-phrased instructions aren’t a guarantee that everyone will figure out what you mean. But they do up the odds that your new intern will survive her first day in the office and that you’ll manage to keep all of your hair. So write your instructions, breath deeply and relax with the knowledge that you’ve written a darn good set of instructions.

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    Last Updated on October 15, 2019

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why we procrastinate after all

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    So, is procrastination bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How bad procrastination can be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article:

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    8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

    Procrastination, a technical failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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