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Time to Question Your Old Work Habits

Are your work defaults helping you stay organized, on track, and productive? Or are they bad habits that sap your energy and creativity? Today, Modern Mentor shares some bad habits to watch out for at work.

By
Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #673
The Quick And Dirty

Some of the most common default habits worth questioning to keep yourself on track are:

  1. Saying yes to the meeting
  2. Responding immediately to that email
  3. Accepting every assignment your boss offers
My dad has always been a runner. So, when I graduated from college determined to bump up my own fitness, I took up running. Because in my family, fitness was running.
 
Two years later, slim and grumpy, I had an epiphany. I HATE running! I had defaulted to running as a means of fitness simply because I’d never stopped to question it. But in 2003 I joined my first gym, and a whole new beautiful world opened up to me. Today, I do everything at the gym…except run. And I’m fitter now than ever. Sorry, Dad.
 
The point is that sometimes we hold onto assumptions about the way things are or should be. We stick with routines and habits. Not because they’re true or good. Just because we’ve never questioned them. And sometimes those old assumptions can get in the way of our best results.
 
I see people doing the same thing in the workplace. We do things on autopilot out of habit. But it’s time to stop and question some of these defaults. 
 
Today let’s talk about the most common habits that have us stuck, and the tactics we can use to break out of them.

1. Saying yes to the meeting

When a meeting request comes in, chances are you check your availability. And if the time is open on your calendar, you accept. Right? I was guilty of this for years. 

But what if we asked better questions? Instead of asking “am I available?” what if you tried asking…
  • Do I believe that whatever is on the agenda for this meeting actually warrants a meeting?
  • Is there something specific the organizer is looking for me to deliver in this meeting or is it just to keep me in the loop (in which case, a quick email after the meeting would suffice)?
  • Would attending this meeting help me to deliver on my goals and commitments?
  • Will this meeting provide me with an opportunity for exposure or connection to someone important?
  • Is participating in this meeting the best relative use of that hour?
If your answers are anything but yes, then you owe yourself the gift of a pause before you hit “accept.”
 
Being invited to a meeting doesn’t—or shouldn’t—obligate you to donate an hour of your time to someone else’s agenda. An open slot on your calendar doesn’t have to equate to an implicit invitation to anyone else to snatch up that time.
 
Next time you receive a calendar invite, pause and reflect before you hit yes. Your time is a precious resource, and part of your job is to manage its expenditure wisely. 
 
Is that meeting indeed the best use of your time? Or is saying yes just a habit worth breaking? 
 

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2. Responding immediately to that email

An email in your inbox commands a quick reply…right?
 
There are emails that do indeed command immediate attention. Ignoring that customer complaint, that question from your boss’s boss’s boss, or even that electronic tap on the shoulder from HR might be a dangerous move.
 
But so many of the emails tortuously hitting our inboxes daily are, frankly, things—issues, questions, and concerns—that if given a bit of time to air out will likely resolve themselves.
 
My husband has mastered this one. I’m notorious at losing things and he’s my go-to finder. He gets countless texts and emails from me each week whining about something I’ve lost. He ignores me for a while knowing I’ll find 90% of it on my own. And for the sake of our marriage, once I’ve survived the waiting period, he will indeed help me find that 10%.
 
The same concept applies at work. Your colleague is having trouble interpreting the data you’ve shared, or can’t recall where you filed that monthly report, or is wondering whether you can help her fix this glitchy thing.
 
I’m not suggesting you ignore her completely. I’m just suggesting that you sit on it for 24 hours or so. Because in that time, it’s likely she’ll figure out the data, find the report, and realize she just needed to restart her computer…because restarting your computer is the answer 94% of the time (in my experience).
 
By letting go of your default habit to answer every email right away, you win back time, energy, and attention you can better direct elsewhere.

3. Accepting every assignment your boss offers

You want to be a good citizen at work. But don’t confuse saying “yes” to everything with being the most strategic team member you can be. 
 
Bosses, on balance, are busy. They don’t always have the time or presence of mind to track all they’ve asked you to do or to assess the strategic relevance of each project.
 
Last week, one of my clients was complaining about Essie, his director of strategy. “I asked her nearly two weeks ago to deliver a report to me and I’m still waiting on it.”
 
Out of curiosity, I asked him how many other things he’d asked of Essie in the past few weeks. He did a quick scan of his “sent” box and realized he’d asked 7 different things of her in the past 3 weeks. He wasn’t tracking these things and suddenly realized he had asked a LOT of her. 
 
He needed to help her prioritize. But Essie needed to be asking better questions of him. 
 
Next time you’re in Essie’s position, challenge your default to say yes, and try asking your boss:
  • How should I think about the priority of this project/task/activity relative to the others on my plate?
  • What is the outcome you’re hoping this project will deliver and is there a faster or more efficient way for us to get to that same outcome?
  • Might anyone else in the organization be working on something similar that could leverage?
Play the role of strategic thinker to ensure you’re spending your limited time and energy in the most productive ways.
 
What are some of the other default habits you find yourself falling into? Maybe you’re chasing the next promotion…without asking yourself whether you really want it. Or you say yes to every invitation to network with someone…without wondering whether this introduction will serve your goals.
 
Don’t be afraid to look at your own default settings. What is the one thing you really need to start questioning, and how might doing so move you forward in a more intentional way?
 

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.