How to improve work performance

Intro 

I don’t want to downplay the importance of some foundational principles that precede everything I’m mentioning in this article. Eating healthy, staying hydrated, exercise, etc. all play a critical role in your performance at work and how you feel overall. 

There are tons of other articles out there with advice on how to improve those areas, but here I want to get more into the mechanics of the work you do in the office. 


How to Keep Coworkers Accountable

You’re one person, and there’s only so much you can do in a day. You and your coworkers must function as a team and become interdependent on one another to get the job done and get results. 

However, you need to be realistic. Understand that not everyone is going to perform at their best 100% of the time, and neither will you. Regardless, that is not an excuse to let projects or tasks slip through the cracks or miss deadlines. You need to take Extreme Ownership of everything around you, and that starts with keeping yourself and others accountable. 

It boils down to a few main points:

  1. Ensure expectations, responsibilities, and deadlines are clear from the start

  2. Set up a routine weekly or biweekly meeting to review project status

  3. Have reminders in place to follow up, follow up, and follow up

Seems easy enough? It’s not. 

Here are some other ways to implement accountability:


Discuss - Confirm - Log - Reiterate - Confirm 

It doesn’t matter if it’s an email, a text message, a phone call, IM, or whatever. For any conversation:


  • Discuss the issue and get an update on whatever the topic is.
  • Confirm what you are hearing from the other person at the end of the exchange. 

Example: The end of the call might sound like,

"John, thank you for taking the time to discuss this today. Just to confirm everything we've discussed:

  • We will be moving forward with the modified advertising campaign.
  • There will not be a budget increase for the 'x' ad campaign next quarter.
  • And I will you get a breakdown of the results of last quarters campaign by next Tuesday.

Is there anything else I missed writing down? No? Well thanks again John, looking forward to speaking next week."


  • Log this information in OneNote, Excel, Project Manager, or something!
  • Type an email to be sent to all those inolved in the project containing:
    • ​Summary bullets of what was discussed
    • Action items going forward with dates and who's responsible.
    • A request to the person you spoke with to correct anything missing, wrong, or inaccurate in your notes.


This simple process is the easiest way to avoid conflicts in the future and ensure everyone performs his or her role. As those action items are completed, update your personal notes, and update the rest of the team at the regularly scheduled meeting. 


Make use of Gantt or waterfall charts that everyone can see

Having dates written out in a text format like 7/1/20xx is explicit and easy to read, but it doesn’t offer any relative idea of how far off that is. It could be months away, or it could be days away, and 7/1/20xx is still only a static date. 

teamgantt.com example

Instead, Gantt charts, as I like to call them, provide a visual indicator of the relative time frame. When someone can see there are only 4 weeks until launch vs. telling someone there’s 4 weeks until launch, I believe the visual is much more effective. 

In addition to the benefit of visualizing time, these charts allow everyone to see what the next step is, who’s responsible, and what it depends on. Most software has assignment features, note trackers, and more that can aid in organization. However, if you’re on a budget, you can make these in Microsoft Excel, although they won’t be dynamic like a cloud software. 

Personally, I use TeamGantt. It’s a very simple cloud based software that starts at $9.99 a month and does everything I need it to do. Below is a screenshot of mine for a recent project, although I have had to block out a lot of specific information... sorry.

brian fischer teamgantt.com project


Have Information Ready on a Moment’s Notice

You never know when your boss is going to call you, walk through the door, or otherwise request some specific piece of information. As I’ve started to learn, especially in sales, there’s certain information that repeatedly comes up, so having that prepared will save you time, and you’ll be known to be on top of things by your boss. 

Sometimes you might not have all of the information you need. If that’s the case, you can sometimes estimate some numbers based on historical data, unofficial numbers, or other relative points. 

By doing this, if a request is received, you can inform him or her that you do not have a final calculation yet because you are waiting on someone else (who you’ve already contacted). However, you expect it could be in this ‘x to y’ range, based on ‘z’ assumption. 

If you’re in a new role, this will take some time as you learn what your boss (and others) most frequently ask for. Make a note of the most common items and start to work those numbers whenever you have a minute. 

Excel macros are incredibly helpful if data is structured the same in each file and the formulas you need will remain constant.


Plan Meetings the Right Way

Everyone has been in a meeting where the person running it was ill-prepared. They didn’t have the right files ready and did a piss-poor job of reviewing what was discussed in the previous meeting. Don’t be that person. 

There’s already enough pointless meetings in the workday, and no one wants to be in one longer than they have to be. Remember that other people’s time is valuable and they shouldn’t have to waste it because you don’t know how to plan a meeting. 

evernote meeting template screenshot

Evernote's meeting template is perfect for nearly any industry. Not to mention Evernote is a free app available on all devices.

​For meetings that aren’t part of a regular schedule, like for an ongoing project, send a brief description of the purpose of the meeting and what you want to get out of it. 

Timing can be tricky, but try to find a time slot that’s open for all required people. Include a note in your email that if there’s information you need from someone who can’t make it, to send it to you.

If everyone is on Outlook, there’s a built-in scheduling assistant. Otherwise you can create a Doodle Poll, where everyone submits their available times. 

Create a meeting outline (Evernote has a really good one as a template, pictured above), and stick to it. Include:

  • The time, date, and location
  • Who is in attendance (physically and on the phone)
  • The meeting outline
  • Notes regarding discussions
  • Action items going forward, with persons responsible and deadlines if necessary

Following the meeting, send out a summary to all who were initially invited with notes about the discussion, the action items, and what any other next steps are. Plan a time to reconvene if necessary. If not everything was taken care of, make a note for why and determine how to resolve that task. 


Think Like a Marketer

There’s a reason why McDonald’s advertises on billboards along the interstate just a few miles before an exit where a drive-through is open. Time and Place - it’s that simple. 


Calls and Emails

Sometimes getting people to answer your calls or emails is difficult. This is especially true for remote workers where the person on the other end can keep putting you off until the last minute. 

More than likely, you’re getting ignored, not because they don’t like you (they might not, who knows?), but…

  • They’re in a meeting
  • They’re out of office
  • They saw your email earlier and meant to reply but got distracted and forgot
  • They don’t like you

But in all seriousness, ensuring your call or email is in the right place at the right time is vital to get whatever task on hand done. Here are some times I would speculate are the worst to reach out, especially if you need an immediate answer:

  • Monday/Wednesday mornings - most people are in meetings
  • Late Friday afternoons - don’t be that guy.
  • Anywhere from 11:45 AM to 1:15 PM - shouldn’t you be eating?

I don’t have any statistics or references to back this up, but this is what I’ve found to be the worst times.


This is when I send my emails

For email requests late in the day that are not urgent, I will use an email scheduler so that the email gets sent off first thing tomorrow morning. The first thing most people do in the morning is check their email, and if the one I sent is at the top of the list, there’s a higher chance they’ll respond quickly.

Personally, I use the Outlook plugin, Boomerang.

If they don’t respond by that morning, I can give them a call late morning or mid-afternoon to follow up. More than likely, they saw the email, are currently addressing it, or simply procrastinated on it.

The mid-afternoon follow up is right for me since it breaks up the day a little bit and is productive, although a less mental-intensive task. 


Setup your Inbox Like a Pro

Going through emails sucks. When you sign up for every newsletter out there, emails suck even more. You waste a ton of time reading pointless emails, let alone trying to organize the important ones from the junk ones. 


Don’t sign up for what you don’t need

Pretty obvious, right? Not as easy in practice. Make sure when creating an account on new websites, you check the terms and conditions of those ‘checkboxes’. There might be a chance you can win a free cruise, but is it worth giving out your primary email address? Remember, that email address is going to be sold and given out to other companies a hundred times over.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. There are a lot of websites that start capturing your information the second you type it in the form field. Not after you submit, literally, as you type information keystroke by keystroke. It gets logged well before you hit the submit button. 

facebook terms and conditions checkbox

Does anyone read the terms and conditions?

I’ve worked with companies who have shared some of these marketing secrets with me. 

Then that information gets packaged up into lists and demographics and sold off to other companies that are going to spam your inbox. Remember, if the service is free, you’re the product. Think twice about signing up for things you don’t need. 


Have two or three addresses

For some services, you will need to create an account to access content, receive notifications, etc. Not all websites are nefarious, but that doesn’t mean you should give out your email address willy-nilly. 

I highly suggest creating a second Gmail account or another free account. Use that email for sign-up forms and non-work related communications. Even for communications that are relevant to your industry, like for conferences or conventions, those will be better off in a separate inbox.

If you’re concerned about being able to retrieve a registration, receipt, or important email, just forward it to yourself from the secondary inbox. 


Use inbox filters and folders

If you’ve stayed on top of the other two tips, then your inbox will hopefully be pretty lean at this point. This is where you’re going to automate a lot of the organization. As much as I would like to give a walk-through, this will vary significantly based on your company and industry. 

What a filter does is it looks for specific criteria you set, then performs an action based on that criteria.

Imagine you come home from the grocery store, and you have several bags that all look the same. You have fruits, vegetables, frozen pizzas, milk, crackers, soup, and more. These are your emails coming from John or Phoebe down the hall, the metal supplier, or maybe one of the accounts you manage. 

They all come in the same way - through your front door. Now you have to figure out where to place them. Using your brain, you know frozen pizzas go in the freezer. Fruits, vegetables, and milk go in the fridge, and the crackers and soup go in the pantry. 

Each of those different areas - the freezer, the fridge, and the pantry are your various folders. The thinking you do is what your email program will do to sort them into those folders, automatically!

I may create a video or write an article that goes more in-depth, but that is beyond the scope of this article. See the video below for a couple quick tips!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78z5Spx7elA  


Follow Up the Right Way

When you need to follow up on a request or task, you might feel like you’re being a nuisance. I get that feeling often, and in some cases, I probably am being one. However, failing to follow up and ensure tasks get done falls back on you if deadlines are missed.

Merely sending an email does not alleviate you from the responsibility to ensure a task is completed. Setting the task in motion (aka emailing, calling, etc.) is only 10% of the job. The other 90% is making sure it gets done; however, you need to do that. 

But let me save you some time and hassle here. For projects that are worked on daily, you likely won’t need this depth of information because it will be fresh in everyone’s mind. However, if a week or longer goes by, providing specific points is helpful to everyone in moving along quickly. 

Let’s break down a hypothetical email for a fictional electronics manufacturer. This email is going to Engineer John. Project Manager Luis is requesting this data so other people on the team can begin their role.

Email Subject: 489M1636G001 MK2 Magnet Tolerances 

Good Afternoon John,

I’m reaching out to follow up on the discussion we had 2 weeks ago on MM/DD/YYYY regarding part #489M1636G001 - the MK2 Headphone Assembly.

We are approaching the deadline to have magnet tolerances submitted to the customer, which is on Wednesday, MM/DD. 

Where are we regarding the completion and submission of that data?

Jordan, at the manufacturing plant in Atlanta, is needing this information to finish submitting safety data to Sony. 

Thanks,

Luis

Email Subject: 489M1636G001 MK2 Magnet Tolerances 

Good Afternoon John,

I’m reaching out to follow up on the discussion we had 2 weeks ago on MM/DD/YYYY regarding part #489M1636G001 - the MK2 Headphone Assembly. 

...

​From the start, it is obvious what the subject of the email is. The part number and project are specifically called out in the subject line of the email and in the first sentence. 

Following the scope of the email is a subtle reminder of which task is needing to be done. This sentence also answers the question of why John is being emailed. Also, note the date is explicitly stated after the day of the week. 

Do not use any descriptions that could be left up to interpretation. Wednesday could be interpreted as this week, next week, or even the week after. Remember that some people don’t read. Seriously. So include a precise date. 


...

Where are we regarding the completion and submission of that data?

...

Notice the question is open-ended. “Where are we in regards to the completion and submission of that data,” sounds much less threatening than, “Why has the data not been submitted yet,” or “When will the data be submitted?” Using the pronoun ‘we’ also helps to reinforce that person isn’t being singled out and this is a team effort.

Using an aggressive or threatening tone will only increase the chances someone won’t respond or will drag their feet even more in getting the task done.

...

Jordan, at the manufacturing plant in Atlanta, is needing this information to finish submitting safety data to Sony. 

Thanks,

Luis

Lastly, the final paragraph is crucial. It provides a reason for why this task needs to get done. People perform better in their roles when there is a little bit of pressure on them. A gentle reminder that “Hey you need to get this submitted, or else it’s going to delay everyone else,” won’t hurt anything.  

Pro-Tip:​ Being explicit is especially important when you work with individuals whose first language is something other than English. I do not want to sound demeaning, but using simpler words, instead of larger words or complicated sentences makes communication clearer for both parties to understand. This avoids discrepancies later.

Story Time: I shit you not, as I was writing this at 10:45PM my time, I received a call from a customer in a time zone much farther ahead. It was morning for her, and she had been following an email thread between one of her product managers and me. 

9 times out of 10 I wouldn’t answer this, but it seemed odd she was calling given she knows my local time. I thought it could be urgent, given the state of the world, as I write this (Coronavirus, COVID-19 Pandemic).

Luckily it was just a few questions regarding the emails. She was confused why I had said we would be increasing prices on 6 or 7 part numbers when we had just negotiated new, lower pricing the week prior. I was confused because I didn’t recall ever saying that. 

I apologized and said we wouldn’t be doing it. I again apologized for making it seem like we were. We walked back through the email, and we were both reading the same line that said:

“Despite the adjustments in these parts, we will not be increasing prices.”

I asked her if she was seeing the same thing I was. She even repeated the sentence, word for word, including the “not.”

I had to push for some clarifying questions, and eventually, she started laughing. She profusely apologized and kept laughing, realizing her mistake. Apparently, the “not” was lost somewhere in the Nepali (Nepal) translation. Like a game of telephone, word spread, and others were stirred up by the non-existent increase. 

We had a good laugh, discussed a few more things, and wished each other well.

​It sounds like I made up this coincidence, writing about communication, and then having this happen. Yeah, right, I’m not that creative.

Anyways, just goes to show that clear communication is key, and sometimes even simple things can get lost in translation or overlooked.


What if you don’t get a response?

That’s how it goes sometimes. You won’t always get a response to every email you send out. Sometimes people forget or are putting it off until they have an update to provide. Much of it depends on the urgency of a project.

If the project is urgent, a phone call is the next logical step, or maybe the first step. For those in an office where every employee is located, walk to the person’s office or cubicle. Don’t be confrontational, but explain the urgency, and reiterate your request. Be tactful, but firm. 

If you work in a remote position as I do, and your phone calls get ignored, move up the chain of command if all else fails. If I can’t get a hold of someone at a plant, I can call someone else at the plant, and they’ll have an answer or will work to get me one. 

I’ve never had an issue with someone ignoring me on purpose - work gets busy, and some projects get pushed to the backburner. Remember, your project is not the center of the company, and there are many going on at once. 


Final Words

The takeaway here is taking notes, clear communication, and accountability are key to reaching those essential milestones that keep you on track for larger goals. 

When in doubt, it’s better to ask too many questions than not enough. Be clear and specific in your questions and requests. At the end of the day, it’s 100% on you whether or not a project or task gets completed.

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