My Waiting On List is ridiculous
May 16, 2018 6:46 PM   Subscribe

How does one manage their time or stress levels when working on multiple projects when so many of these projects involve waiting on responses from people who take a long time to get back to you only to demand you reply to them IMMEDIATELY or it's over?

I'm working on multiple projects at the moment - a one-day-a-week remote day job, another semi-regular writing job, a major performance project that takes up a lot of my time, and a number of smaller projects here and there (mostly to help earn extra money). Pretty typical for the industries I'm in.

I've been trying to manage my time around these projects while also having time to recharge but it's been incredibly difficult because people are SO SLOW in getting back to me, yet when they do I have to respond to it now or else we can't go ahead. I try to plan around those timeframes, even trying to set deadlines for other people, but always there is somebody that slacks off and sets everything back, even after multiple reminders (and then there's other people waiting on those responses who pester me because I don't have answers for them). And yet sometimes the very people that are slow in getting back to me are the same people rushing me and expecting me to drop everything right now.

Hell, sometimes they'll say "I will get back to you by X Date!"...and then never do...and then I have to bug them to ask about it because somebody else has imposed a strict deadline on me. For example, for my major performance project, we got offered a venue but they gave us a deadline of a week to accept or reject the offer. We couldn't really do so until we heard back from a couple of other places we applied to which both promised to inform me either direction at a specific date before that week's deadline - but that date came and went and we heard nothing. My producer and I had to bug those other two places to ask them for an answer so we could proceed with that venue offer.

This has been a constant problem for me even before these projects - I'm very efficient with my time but key people aren't. For example, I've had my Masters application delayed despite sending everything I can send ahead of time because my reference letter writers took forever and my Bachelors university plain forgot to send over transcripts until somebody asked me about it and I asked them (this is also why I hate applying to anything that requires reference letters upfront). When I was applying for Australian permanent residency they took five years to process my app (including 6 months of nobody being assigned to it) only to demand that I get my medical reports and police reports sent in by under a month (I told my agent to tell them that some of the agencies won't get back to me until at least 6 weeks out so deal with it - thankfully it worked out). It's an ongoing struggle.

Somehow I've still managed to get a lot of things done despite all of that, but it's getting to me. I can't even track my time because there's just so much ad-hoc stuff. Trying to designate specific days to do X Project or Y Project does not work because there are many days where I just cannot proceed without somebody replying to me about something and they never follow my schedule. I do everything primarily remotely - none of my jobs or projects involve an office. (Some will involve in-person meetings, but it's not like I go to X Building one day a week and do work dedicated to X in that building.)

And because I'm constantly fighting fires, finding time for myself or my own projects is hard. Sometimes it gets to the point where it's SELF-CARE OR DIE and then I have to scramble to find a last-minute respite. I've had personal projects that weren't dependent on deadlines fall by the wayside because everything else takes precedence. (I tend to make a lot of my personal projects something that I can assign a deadline to, e.g. 'turn this performance idea into something you can present at Blah Cabaret' or 'pitch this essay idea to a publication' so I have an actual reason to do them.) Taking breaks is problematic because I can't plan them - my "breaks" are often because I've got nothing I can do in the meantime but I'm always on high already for when that's going to change without me knowing. I often fantasize about someone throwing me a surprise party or taking me out on a surprise treat - basically doing something nice FOR ME that I don't have to plan AT ALL and get into Waiting On limbo.

Absent the ability to force people to follow my deadlines, how do you cope with this? How do you manage your time when there's just a lot of waiting and people get back to you at weird hours? How do you not get so stressed out?
posted by divabat to Work & Money (9 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Are you me? First of all, sending total empathy your way!

1) Drop a project.
No seriously, do it. The world won’t end, even though you think it will. I know because I am you, and am very excited by creative projects and my projects = work = life. You can only handle at most three projects at a time until the cognitive load of switching overwhelms you and makes you super unproductive. Which three projects would you keep? Which do you delay?

2) Don’t use email.
Call people, seriously. Every time you send an email, you make work for someone else, and mental work for yourself remembering that you’re waiting on the email. Then they reply, and now you have work to remember to do. Calling is so much faster and nicer and friendlier and you can get so much done in a 5 minute call than 1 day of emails back and forth. Even magical, you can get people to tell you things that they wouldn’t over email (guesses, ideas, feelings) This was a minor revelation for me.

3) Meet your collaborators IRL (or over video chat) and hold a regular rhythm.
A meeting every two weeks is sometimes more productive than email every day. Seriously. Or try a video chat every week. And end your meetings on time, even if you haven’t done everything, because if you regularly turn hour long meetings into hours and hours, people will start coming late, starting late, ending late, etc.

4) Take it out of your brain.
Find a process where you don’t ever remember everything but you have a process to deal with this. Easier said then done. Don’t go overboard with software and GTD - something simple that feels simple.

I have so many other thoughts, but these come to mind first.

And remember: email is the mind-killer. Avoid at all costs.
posted by suedehead at 7:35 PM on May 16 [9 favorites]


Use your calendar. Use other people’s calendars.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:42 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


This will work more or less well depending on your power relative to theirs and to some cultural factors, but how much do you remind people?

At the really-reminding people end of the spectrum, you could imagine something like,
  1. Negotiate a deadline.
  2. Immediately email them to document that agreement.
  3. About when they really need to get started, ask for a progress report.
  4. About when they could barely get anything done, ask for an update.
  5. The day of, ask for the work. If they don't have it, negotiate a new deadline.
  6. Goto 1.
Another model is to impose smaller deadlines, so that when they fall behind schedule it becomes visible earlier.

Also, what are the consequences when they miss their deadlines? If nothing bad happens to them, it would be actually kind of wrong for them to prioritize your deadline over all the other things that they're probably juggling in addition to you, at least some of which will affect them if dropped.

As for the mental load, I used an issue tracker where I logged every communication and scheduled my next contact. Every time I opened it up, I could see all the people I had to bother today, and none of the people whom I had already decided didn't need to be bothered today.

I do recognize that all of this assumes some amount of power over your counter-parties. If there are powerful entities that can destroy your projects at no cost to themselves, you can't productivity-hack your way out of that because your productivity is fundamentally not under your control.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 7:47 PM on May 16


You are getting really good advice here. I was a PM/AM for a busy company and here's what worked for me:

1. Check in daily. I like to send and email and do a phone followup, but some folks respond better when you phone exclusively, so learn what works for each contact. Use escalation strategically. Keep careful notes on who you contacted and when.

2. Build relationships. If people do nice things, or (let's face it) when they simply do their jobs, make sure they get credit for it personally and with their team and management whenever possible. If people know you send out kudos, they tend to be more helpful and it tends to help offset a more aggressive approach.

3. Be respectful of time, but be firm. Also part of building relationships is acknowledging and being respectful of their time. "Hey, I know you're absolutely slammed right now, but do you have a minute for a quick question?" "Hi, I know it's been bonkers this week, but have you had an opportunity to review the QA notes for project C? Ah, I see. When do you think you might get some time? Hmmm... Could you do tomorrow morning? Great -- You're the best! I'll check in tomorrow." Essentially, hound people, but respectfully.

4. And this is the most important. Info requests should be like a hot potato and you should always make sure nothing is cooling in your hands. Your status should always be that you followed up VERY recently (in my case this was sometimes hourly, ymmv -- this was back when I worked in finance). If you're spending more than a day or two waiting to hear back on something, you've already lost the trail.
posted by mochapickle at 8:08 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


I do recognize that all of this assumes some amount of power over your counter-parties. If there are powerful entities that can destroy your projects at no cost to themselves, you can't productivity-hack your way out of that because your productivity is fundamentally not under your control.

Yeah this is about 80% of my situation with projects: the people I wait on a lot are either people in a supervisory position to me or they're external folk who I have zero power over and who pestering them may be counterproductive.

The stuff I have more control over I can remind more or delegate the reminding to someone else. But even that's not foolproof.

Phone calls and IRL meetings often actually exacerbate this problem. Trying to book a time takes ages (because again people don't reply soon enough or people pull out last minute) or sometimes there isn't anyone I CAN call. I spend a lot of energy chasing up people to meet. Email or text ends up being more effective if not my only option. (And even then it's not enough; I'll call them and they'll be all "oh I'll reply to you by email" and never do) I work in the arts. Getting everyone together in the same room at once is nigh impossible.

One of those projects ends next week so that's a load off at least!
posted by divabat at 8:24 PM on May 16


I use Boomerang to bounce emails back into my inbox at strategic times, so I have a reminder to nudge people. And I change the subject line but also copy-paste in the thread with some edits so it's clear at a glance that they're letting me down by not replying.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:42 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


For example, for my major performance project, we got offered a venue but they gave us a deadline of a week to accept or reject the offer. We couldn't really do so until we heard back from a couple of other places we applied to which both promised to inform me either direction at a specific date before that week's deadline - but that date came and went and we heard nothing. My producer and I had to bug those other two places to ask them for an answer so we could proceed with that venue offer.

In this example, you could consider failure to respond by the specific date as a "no", in good conscience.
posted by thelonius at 2:38 AM on May 17 [7 favorites]


In this example, you could consider failure to respond by the specific date as a "no", in good conscience.

Yup. Sounds like you're in a position where you'll need to start making decisions for people whenever possible instead of waiting around for them to participate. Instead of "we need to hear from you by X date", try "we are going to go ahead with Y action if you don't give us specific instructions otherwise by X date". And the same info in at least two emailed followup reminders.

Say it nicely so they don't feel like you are bossing them around, but you gotta take more control. People don't respond because they don't want to figure things out. They don't want to worry about it. They don't want to think about it. They'll work around your decisions unless it's actually important to them.

For your self care, is it possible to simply be totally unavailable at consistent intervals, e.g. between Xpm and Ypm or after a particular time on a specific day? I don't know how urgent the fires you put out are, if you're on call or what, but sometimes it is easier to establish an expectation that you are consistently unavailable at a specific time or day than to try to schedule self care on the fly.
posted by windykites at 8:00 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]


You need to establish relationships, 'contracts' and schedules with people. If you have those three things, you are doing a great job. Schedules can include things like effort, duration, dependencies, and lead / lag time. I know that sounds like pedantic PM'ing but it could really be as simple as this:

"Ok guys, great meeting, so here is a recap of the plan......... ( show this on a screen everyone can see ):

Andrew will deliver the first draft of the document barring any torpedoes on March 1st and notify Amy when it is complete.
After Amy receives notification, she will need 4 days to review with a target delivery date of March 5th.
On March 5th we will have a 2 hour working session from 9 - 11 to review the document, make final edits, and submit to Mark.

Is everyone in agreement with this?
Andrew, any risk to not making the 1st?
Amy, once you receive Andrews first draft, you said you need 4 days correct?
Ok, we are locked on a plan here guys. We will reconvene on March 5th. Should anything change, please notify the team immediately via email. I'll send the notes you are seeing on the screen ( which everyone formed a contract around verbally ) right after this.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:45 PM on May 17


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