When Your Work Relies on Others, Making It Hard to Plan

November 6, 2023

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A woman wrote in with this:

“I love the podcast and the free course, and hope to someday be able to take your full course! In the meantime, I was hoping you might have some advice about (or could do a podcast episode about…) what to do when the majority of your work relies on feedback from people who can’t boss around (partners, clients, etc.). I’m a corporate attorney and that’s everything I do! It makes it so hard to plan when you don’t know when you’re going to get something back, but once you do you have to turn it immediately.”

Oof, do I get it. This episode contains three strategies you can use in this situation. Enjoy!

Other episodes referenced: Ep. 16 – Curveballs & Fires.

To learn more about and sign up for the Bright Method 8-week program, click here: https://kellynolan.com/the-bright-method-time-management-course-with-kelly-nolan.

Full Transcript

Episode 28. When Your Work Depends on Other People

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey, hey! So today, we are gonna talk about managing your workload when a lot of your work requires you to wait on other people, and that can be such, obviously, like a major curveball of daily curveballs in the plans that you have for your work.

Listener Question – 0:44

So this question comes from one of you, which is so awesome, and she emailed in and said:

“I love the podcast and the free course, and I hope to someday be able to take your full course. In the meantime, I was hoping you might have some advice about or could do a podcast episode about what to do when the majority of your work relies on feedback from other people who you can’t boss around like partners and clients. I’m a corporate attorney, and that’s everything I do. It makes it so hard to plan when you don’t know when you’re going to be able to get something back, but once you do, you have to turn it immediately.”

Oh, gosh. I understand this question so much. I know a lot of you probably do as well, and so, let’s talk about it today!

So if we were working together, I’d ask you a thousand more questions, but I won’t do that in this case. For purposes of today, instead of trying to play with it and experiment with you on what certain approaches might be, I will give you three strategies you can start to use, and hopefully it works for you. If you have any questions, anyone listening to this, on how this works, just shoot me an email. I really love talking about this stuff, and I’m happy to weigh in where I can.

Strategy #1: Start Planning Early – 1:53

So the first strategy that came to mind is to start the project planning portion of a project early, and you’re like, “Yeah, that sounds great. Okay.” But what I mean by that is even if you can’t start the project early, like let’s say you just don’t have time to really fully dig into a project for a while, or you’re just not the type of person who likes doing things really early, you like kind of getting a little closer to the deadline, whatever it might be, what I would encourage you to do is, especially if your work depends on so many other people or even just a couple other people, planning early so that you can kind of think about, “What are all the steps that go into this, and more importantly, which steps are going to rely on other information I get from other people or other people signing off on something?” Those are the types of steps that we want to kind of get clear on the outset so that we can get those balls rolling as soon as we can.

So to give you some context of why I’m talking about this is back when I thought I was going to focus on physical organizing like Home Edit type stuff, that’s what I thought I would leave law for. It’s very laughable given that I’m really not good at that stuff, especially with little kids. I lose things all the time. The idea of keeping physical things organized is really not my deal. But that’s why I love information and time and tasks and all that kind of stuff because that type of stuff I can have more control over than the physical spaces in my house.

Back then, I listened to a podcast by Lisa Woodruff of Organized 365, and in the home organizing context, in the daily maintenance of your house, she has this saying, and it’s been a while, so it might not be her exact words. But it’s something like get the machines running first.

In short, her point is that getting those laundry machines and dishwashers running first is so useful when you’re cleaning your house before you dig into everything else, because let’s say you just start cleaning your house. You get those machines running, and that allows you to basically multiply what you’re doing.

That concept has really stuck with me over the years. I think about it when I’m cleaning my house every evening, and I think about it when I’m working with other people that are involved in whatever project or outcome I’m looking for. Obviously, before we keep going, I don’t think of people who work for or with me as machines, but the concept of intentionally putting things in motion early to kind of multiply what you’re accomplishing is pretty useful. And so, just understand that.

When we’re so busy, when we’re living in the weeds of the things that we need to do (which is just completely understandable), we often don’t look up to have time to think about what could we have somebody else get going on right away. I obviously think about that in the delegating context, which I know is not what the question is about. But while we’re talking about it, as anyone who delegates knows, often we are so busy that we don’t think to delegate something until we kind of need to do it. And so, we can’t delegate it or we can’t delegate it efficiently, and so, we just do it ourselves. Where, if we just started the process earlier and looked up and didn’t even get to the work part but were just like, “What am I gonna have to have other people do,” and got those things off your plate, then by the time you are ready to turn to it, then you have that stuff from the other people.

Now, turning this back to the question that was asked, obviously we’re not necessarily — I mean, we’re kind of delegating out to clients or to partners or things like that. You’re essentially going to give them something that you need their feedback on. It might not be they’re researching something for you, but you’re telling them to do something, and then they’re going to give you something back and then you keep going. Basically, it’s just managing up versus delegating down or across or however you want to think about it within your team.

And so, it’s really valuable, to the extent you can on the front end of a project, even if you’re underwater on a ton of other projects, to take 20 minutes, 10 minutes if you can, and just think, “Who are the other players in here? What am I going to need them to do? What am I going to need from them?” Maybe information from a client, things like that, “and how could I get that ball rolling now even if I can’t touch any other part of this project?”

So that’s one thing to think about. I think for me, especially because the person asking is an attorney, I think of it in that — granted, I was a litigator, so it’s different. But I had clients, and if I could ask them, if I needed information from them, the more compact I could do that in one email and really lay that out giving them plenty of time, the more likely I was to get it.

So that’s just the first takeaway I have is to “get the machines running first” and get things off your plate and onto other people’s plates as soon as you can. And the easiest one to do would be kind of information gathering stuff. A lot of the other scenarios you’re probably giving drafts to people, and if you haven’t drafted it, you can’t really give that to them yet. But what I also want to flag for you is you might not have the work product that you’re gonna need the input on, but you could say to a partner something along the lines of, “Next Thursday, I’m going to send you this draft. It’s gonna be a tight turnaround because of the deadline, so I’m gonna need your edits within 24 hours. Does that work for you?” That helps you issue spot something if they’re like, “I’m gonna be on a flight that whole time. I can’t do it,” or “I’ll be at a conference,” or something like that, “I’m unavailable,” then you can shift your timeline. It also gets their buy in. And so, when you’re asking for that turnaround quicker, they’ve really bought into that, and you can feel a little bit more comfortable pushing for the deadline and the feedback in that timeframe that you asked for.

Okay, so point one is just get started as early as you can. Even if you can’t actually do the work that you need to do, issue spot to the extent you can. Anything that you can get the machines running outside of you, getting information from clients, really spending the time putting together the draft of the email, outlining what you need from the client, if there’s anything, is so valuable to get off your plate, get going, put a deadline in there, when you need the information by. And then I would calendar when you’re gonna follow up and maybe a couple follow ups if you need to just so that you’re not constantly stressed about it. You’re kind of really putting placeholders in your calendar that will remind you to follow up when you need to follow up. And then you can let it go until then and turn back to everything else you need to do. But then, by the time you’re ready to start, you have the information and can get going.

Similarly, with partners and even clients, if you know you’re going to need their input on a certain timeframe, especially a tight timeframe, especially when you’ll need their input on a tight deadline, give them a heads up that that’s coming, make sure it works for them, and make sure that by getting their buy in on that, then you’re gonna be able to enforce that better than you would have otherwise.

Strategy #2: Build In Wiggle Room – 8:51

Point two is really building in some wiggle room into your game plan for them being tardy on getting you the stuff. And I know that’s super frustrating, and sometimes there’s not that wiggle room to be had. I remember — it’s been so long — but in California, I think reply briefs were due five business days later, and that is just a crazy tight turnaround when you’re juggling other matters too and you have to get buy in from clients and partners and all sorts of people that there’s not a whole lot of breathing space to be had. But, to the extent there is, it might not apply in that scenario specifically, but hopefully, generally you have some deadlines that there is a little bit of breathing space. When you’re saying, “Hey, I’m gonna get this to you by Thursday. I’m gonna need a 24-hour deadline turnaround,” sometimes you legitimately do, but sometimes you could get away with 48 hours. And if you can tell them 24 hours and kind of, from an external-communication standpoint go with that, but internally you really could be okay with 48 hours, and you kind of plan to have that, you’re giving yourself breathing space and reduced stress.

So that’s really that strategy. I know it’s, in some ways, frustratingly simple, and we wish there was more to it. But that is really what it comes down to. In scenarios where you can build in the wiggle room, build it in. That might require you to — let’s say you kind of have this kind of amorphous project, but you want to get it done let’s say in the next three weeks, and you normally would start it in a week, so you would have two weeks to do it. You might need to start some of this stuff earlier, at least in so far as we talked about getting the machines running earlier. But even your stuff, you might have to start earlier so that you have the draft to them earlier, so you give them a little bit more breathing space. Even if they don’t know they have a little more breathing space, you give yourself more breathing space on waiting for them to get it back to you. And so, that’s really what I’m aiming for. I know you can’t do it in every scenario, so it’s okay if you can’t. But in some scenarios, you can. And so, build that into kind of your internal timeline that you come up with.

Strategy #3: Follow Up Throughout The Process – 10:53

The third strategy is another one of those simple ones. Really following up throughout the process. I have mixed feelings about this. I just feel like sometimes when I’m emailing people, especially if they’ve already agreed to a timeline and I’m like, “Just a reminder, next Thursday I’m gonna do this,” or “Just a reminder, I sent you this last week, and I really do need the edits in two days.” Sometimes I kind of feel like I’m being pushed into a more admin role than I would like to be, and this is no knock on admins, my sensitivity comes to it as a female. I resist feeling like I’m kind of mothering them or playing a role to them, because I’m a woman, that I don’t want to be in.

And so, I just want to put that on the table that I think this strategy is kind of rife in the, “Do we want to be doing this?” type thing of being the always follow-upper person, but if I’m honest with myself, it’s a little bit ego driven. But I’m not saying it’s all ego. It’s societally legit to worry about this stuff. But it is a bit more ego driven, and I do have a belief that our ego doesn’t always lead us to happiness. And so, whenever I find myself following my ego, I’m like, “Mm, let’s be a little careful here. This is really what’s gonna lead me to happiness? And this is a scenario where I think that kind of applies.

Taking a step back, let’s say you email a client, and you’re like, “I’m gonna email you something–,” again, I will keep using my example, “– next Thursday, I need your responses by Friday,” and it’s the week before. On that Monday of the week before I send that to them, I also might email the client, depending on the client. I mean, everyone knows their clients and how much hand holding they might need, and this goes for bosses, partners, anyone like that as well. I might email them and just be like, “Just a reminder, I’m gonna send you that thing on Thursday, and I’m gonna need a response on Friday,” and then I’m gonna send it to them on Thursday, and I’m gonna say, “Just a reminder, I need this by tomorrow.” And then the next day, if I haven’t heard from them, especially if I haven’t even heard anything from them, no acknowledgement of receipt, I might also be like, “Just checking in. I’m gonna need this by this afternoon, and let me know if you have any questions before we go.”

This obviously all depends on the person. You could really annoy someone by doing this, but some people really need that extra hand holding, and I guess my point is, as to the resistance side of it, I resisted doing this type of stuff where I would calendar all these things. When I laid out the game plan, and I’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna send this today. I’m gonna finish my editing here. I’m gonna send it to them. I’m gonna need their response back. I’m gonna calendar some time to actually input their edits into what we’re doing. I’m gonna build out that game plan,” and then I would pepper little reminders throughout that. Email the client about the plan Monday: email them a reminder of the plan. Thursday: email them the plan, and remind them of the Friday deadline. Friday: remind them of the deadline. Maybe two hours or one hour before, “Do I have the thing I need from them?”

All these little reminders of all the little mental things that come out of making a success of this project, I would get them out of my head and into a system because, one, I need to do them. But I’m gonna be buried in five other cases of little things that I’m doing. I need that calendar alert on my phone or on my desktop telling me, “Hey, check in with that client,” so you don’t realize, at 6:00 PM on a Friday, you don’t have the thing you need.

And so, that’s really the structure of what it was, and from a more theoretical standpoint, yes, I struggled playing that role a little bit as a woman, but I just found that it, more often (not always) led to deadlines being met by the people I needed them to be met by and that led to my own happiness more. Again, built in some wiggle room and things like that so it wasn’t always so stressful. Although, sometimes it is. But I just found that if I could ditch the ego side of me that was a little bit like, “Am I really playing this role,” and more just did it, I would more often get what I needed and would be more happy as a result.

I want to add a caveat here that there’s a great saying, and I wish we could all live by it, that says something like a lack of planning on your part does not mean it’s my emergency or a lack of planning on your part does not an emergency — I don’t know. You get the point. I get it. I love that saying. As you get more senior, I hope you can enforce it in your life. But, for a lot of people, even a lot of senior people, it’s just not realistic to adopt that approach in full. I wish it were, but I just want to acknowledge that it’s not always. Just because someone gets you something really late and they royally screwed up and it’s clearly on them, maybe not to them but everybody else would see that it’s clearly on them, it still can be your mess to have to clean up, and it’s not fair. But I can’t talk to you as if it’s not the case because I don’t think that’s very helpful.

But what I hope is that over time you can adopt that role a little bit more firmly, but in the meantime, that whole lack of planning on their part may be able to be compensated with your planning and communication and staying on top of them so that it does not mean an emergency for you. That’s essentially what I’m trying to do with this, so I hope that makes sense. Not blessing the scenario, like I just think it’s kind of wild how it happens sometimes. But hopefully that gives you some realistic way to help them in their lack of planning, to get you where you want to go with a lot less stress and more happiness.

Bonus Tip: Listen to Episode 16 – 16:45

Okay, a final bonus tip that I want to just throw out there is if this happens to you all the time, as this person who wrote in said, and I get it. I feel like transactional attorneys deal with this — it’s just such a reactive place. You’re constantly moving things forward with a whole team of people, and it can just be a lot. It can be really hard to plan.

I’d love for you to check out episode 16. It was about how to deal with fires and curveballs. Particularly, just listen to the discussion around flex time because I think that this is an area where — I mean, if this is your life — and there are industries like this. If your industry is an area where you’re constantly trying to deal with curveballs and fires from other people, hopefully the strategies in this episode can help reduce the number of fires and curveballs. But I also am mindful that this is sometimes the life of this type of career. And so, what I want you to start thinking about is really how to incorporate some flex time in your schedule so that you don’t overbook your days with other plans knowing but not accounting for all the curveballs that you have coming your way.

So check that episode out. Again, it’s episode 16. I’ll plop it in the show notes as well to help you there, and hopefully the combination of the tips here today and that flex time will help you get where you want to go.

Episode Recap – 18:11

All right! So to recap, get started on projects early. Even if you can’t do the work itself, just get started early by keeping an eye towards, “What information do I need? Can I get those emails off as quickly as I can? What partners are involved? What clients are involved? What admin stuff is involved, and can I give them a heads up of tighter deadlines that I’m gonna have for them to issue spot now if there are conflicts and get their buy-in so that I have more leverage enforcing that down the road?”

Step two is, in that process, build in wiggle room. Tell them you need it in 24 hours, and then you can really have a little bit more breathing space of 48 hours if you need it. You can’t always do that. I totally understand that. But to the extent you can, you just want to be mindful of that. You can push it. If you say, “I need this on a Monday,” and really you could get it on a Wednesday or Thursday or even the following week, that’s even better because in a lot of scenarios, that can happen, but if we’re talking a months-long process, then maybe. So just throwing that out there as an option for you.

Point three is potentially consider being okay being the major follow-upper. Just understand that you are helping bridge their lack of planning to where you want to be from a happiness and efficiency standpoint and help plan for them, and that can be overcommunicated. Obviously, it depends on the person, on the client, on your relationship, on all of that, so you be smart about that. I mean, you know your situation a lot better than I do, but again, you don’t have to do this across the board.

I’m gonna keep using attorney examples just because the person asking is an attorney. If you work predominantly for three partners, maybe two of them don’t need this but one of them does, or you have ten clients, and eight of them don’t need it but two of them do. You decide when you need to do this. For those clients where you do, think about it and then use your calendar to plot out when you’re going to do that so you’re not constantly worried about it. You have little moments built into your day, your weeks, your months, where you check in on clients. And if they did do it by then, you just delete it. Sometimes I use the, “If no word from so-and-so, follow up RE: this,” and then I have the email in the calendar invite. But it can really help if you don’t need to do it, you delete it. If you do need it, it’s very helpful to get it.

And then the final bonus tip is to listen to episode 16 on how to deal with fires and curveballs at work, particularly keeping an eye towards that flex time.

All right, I hope that helped! It’s such a hard spot when so much of your work depends on other people, especially other people who don’t really stick to a plan, and that can be really, really frustrating. I hope that you got a couple nuggets in here to help give you a little bit more breathing space. This is something that evolves, and it is something that you kind of experiment with, that you’re gonna experiment with what works best for you, what you feel comfortable doing, what fits with your own preferences. And then also it evolves with the type of people you’re working with. And you might want to start small with someone, but then as they get used to it, you start building from there.

It’s kind of funny. For some people, you might be annoying them. But I have found, in my experience, most of the awesome people I’ve worked with either don’t need that follow up to that full extent, or they do but they’re hugely appreciative of it and receptive to it. And while it can still be annoying to have to do it, that is not a bad place to be either. Your job, often, is to project manage, and that is what you’re doing in those scenarios, and so, you can own it a little bit more. And if you get pushback on it, you just roll with it and learn with it. But let’s get you, as best we can, towards having deadlines met on time so that it means a lot less stress and late nights for you.

Join Me in The Bright Method Program – 22:01

If you enjoy practical strategies like these, I hope you join me inside of The Bright Method program. My next program is running from late January to mid-March, and enrollment is actually open now. The reason I open it so early is just because, I mean, I know your plate is full. In order for you to protect the time for the program in late January and February and March, you really need to kind of block that time now probably. And so, that’s why I make it available now. You get all these add-to-calendar things so you can block your calendar now for the program.

And what it is is you learn the whole Bright Method system. It is a realistic time management system designed for bright women seeking bright lives. It helps you manage all of your personal and professional tasks in a way that will give you a lot more clarity, a lot more confidence drawing boundaries, a new ability to get help from the people that can help you at home and at work, and so much more. I really love helping women reclaim peace of mind of managing it all as they accomplish the things that they want to accomplish and just help them enjoy their lives more.

If that’s something you’re interested in, just check out www.kellynolan.com/bright. I’ll put the link in the show notes, but again, it’s www.kellynolan.com/bright. And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. My email is ke***@ke********.com. I have helped people know when it’s not the right program for them or it’s not the right time for them. I truly believe that time management is so personal, and I want you to feel confident going in that it is the right personal fit for you.

So let me know if you have any questions! Again, you can check everything out at www.kellynolan.com/bright, and you can email me at ke***@ke********.com. If you decide not to join me, that is also completely fine, and I look forward to seeing you in the next episode. Talk to you soon!

[Upbeat Outro Music]

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