How Best-By Dates Make Us More Effective

Have you ever had someone ask you to do something and you didn’t do it “in time” because they didn’t tell you when they needed it done? Have you ever been frustrated when somebody didn’t get back to you “in time,” even when you didn’t tell them when you wanted them to get back to you?

I’m guilty of both, too.

We often don’t tell people when we need to have something from them because it seems pushy. Saying “I need this by Wednesday” requires a lot of confidence and trust that the person on the other end isn’t hearing that they’re being told when they’ve got to do something. It’s also hard to give someone a deadline when they don’t work for you or when you don’t want to step into their creative space.

What ends up happening, of course, is that we don’t communicate at all about when something needs to happen. This is a recipe for communicative disaster. If I don’t know when you need it, I can’t prioritize accordingly or let you know that I can’t meet your timeline. If you don’t know if I can meet your request, you just have to wait, check your email, and hope that I’ll get it done.

Best-by dates are a handy way to let people know when you need something without imposing a deadline. They are similar to the best-by dates on orange juice – you might finish the carton before or just a little after the best-by date and everything’s okay, but too far past that date and it’s gone bad.

For added effectiveness, add “so [reason]” behind the best-by date. Instead of asking someone for their TPS reports via email, you could say “Hey, please submit your TPS reports. A best-by date on this is Wednesday so I have time to review them before forwarding it on.” A when coupled with a reason why is much more effective than just relaying the request because your recipient has an action date and a purpose in mind.

There are three unexpected benefits of using best-by dates in your requests:

  1. You get added clarity about your projects and workflows since you’ll be actively thinking about the different elements required to complete your activities.
  2. There’s a clear date in which you know to follow-up about the request. It’s easy enough to follow-up the day after the best-by date if you haven’t heard back from your respondent.
  3. You can stop worrying about the request until that best-by date.
    This keeps you from checking email just in case they’ve gotten back to you.

Most people like knowing when something is expected of them. Be careful that you don’t give a best-by date and expect someone to respond sooner than that, though – the point is to give them clarity and autonomy so they can get back to you in their own time. Obviously, it’s another matter if they didn’t acknowledge the request.

Also be careful not to give people too much information about your timelines and project actions. Unless they ask (or are supervising your project), they don’t need to know about all the inner workings of your process and telling them will probably overwhelm them. A simple when and “reason why” is quite sufficient.

So, the next time you request something that you need in a certain timeframe, let your requestee know when your best-by date is. It makes it much more likely that you’ll get what you need well before you need it.

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  1. Shirls says

    Now this is a fabulous idea. As you say, Charlie, so much more effective than just diarizing a follow up date and stewing if it’s not done by then. And so pleasantly polite, too. I’ll definitely be using this one.

  2. says

    Good call. I’m going to start using it right away. In “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive,” Robert Cialdini et. al. talk about “because” as a super-powerful tool for influence (as in, “May I skip ahead of you in line because I am in a hurry”).

    I like the idea of keeping it simple, too. Give them only as much as they need to know… I used to be awful about giving people so much irrelevant info that their eyes would glaze over and they’d go comatose… I’ve since cut back, and it’s been awesome :)

    Thanks for the post, Charlie.

  3. says

    So clear and practical, Charlie, as usual.

    Lately my favorite application of the “best by” principle is with the commitments we make to ourselves. It’s easy to be casual and non-specific when we tell ourselves what we are going to do. Stopping to make a conscious and clear “best by” request of ourselves can make a huge difference in whether or not we follow through.

  4. says

    Perfect timing. Driving home tonight from our Canuckian Thanksgiving Day with family, my dh was lamenting on his web host/designer/friend who procrastinates, and how to get him to do what dh needs done to his site. Now you gave us a tool to try without bossing our friend around. Thanks big time.

  5. says

    Early in my career I had a boss who taught me to always ask for a due date whenever someone asked me to do something. This is some of the best advice I ever got.

  6. Erica says

    Fantastic–I’ve been having trouble with getting information from my client for their website and newsletter. I’ll have to try this out to see if it gives me better results!

  7. says

    Hey Charlie, providing a reason why is key. I have seen some studies in Social Psychology that show how providing a reason (even when it doesn’t really make any sense) can make people much more accepting of your demands.

  8. says

    I stress a lot when I commit to doing something but don’t know when the person needs it by. I end up emailing them 6 times asking when they need it by because I’m afraid of missing the date. I don’t know why people are so reluctant to give dates. If I said I’d do it then my worst nightmare would be getting it done too late: Not only would I have wasted all my time and effort but I would have let the other person down. The fact that I didn’t know the due date would make me feel worse not better because I’d kick myself for not asking when I said “yes.” — Think of giving “best by” dates as doing the other person a kindness. (Thank you for explaining it so well, Charlie!)

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