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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? Doesn't sound very effective, does it?
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:
You get added clarity about your projects and workflows since you'll be actively thinking about the different elements required to complete your activities.
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.
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, thus being that much more effective.