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My personal productivity is often dependent upon other people completing tasks as promised. For example, my doctor promises to send an important health certificate to a third party so that I can be granted something.

But I too often find that even professionals simply don't do what they've promised, and I usually find out about their failures at a late stage. This causes huge problems for me --- my productivity is disrupted or even breaks down. At the same time, I don't want to constantly call people verifying that they're doing their jobs.

What is the best way of handling external factors like this in your private lives, to minimize the risk that somebody fails to deliver as promised?

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Provide proof that you did your part, but the others did not. Of course, and unfortunately, this is not occupationally acceptable :) The only other tool left is to explain it to your manager, and hopefully he will do something about it. – Juha Untinen Sep 17 '13 at 10:06
@Juha Untinen: Good advice for occupational setting. However I am more interested in dealing with this in one's private life. – Gruber Sep 17 '13 at 10:13
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Kramii's answer has a lot of good ideas for ways to manage the dependencies on other people, and improve your relationships with them so they're more likely to do what you need.

The step I don't see there is one I find essential, keeping a "Waiting For" list. That's a list of all the things I'm waiting for other people to do. Most of the items on the list have a deadline on them, which reminds me to follow up if it isn't done yet. Because I keep this list electronically (RememberTheMilk) I also have an alarm at the deadline for a more assertive reminder.

I use a list, because my experience with putting these reminders on my calendar has not been good. Too often people actually do what they're supposed to and then I can't find the reminder to delete it. I ended up getting reminders for things that were long ago completed.

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At the end of the day, you can't force people to do what you need them to do, but there are ways you can encourage people to do so:

Some ideas:

  1. Set clear expectations. One of the reason people procrastinate is that they aren't quite clear on what they're supposed to be doing or by when. For example, when your doctor promises to send your certificate, ask when the recipient can expect it.
  2. Make other people's behaviour public. For example, don't just check with the doctor that sent your certificate, but also that the third party received it.
  3. Make it easy. For example, if you're expecting someone to send a document, supply an appropriate stamped addressed envelope.
  4. Take control. Don't always rely on other people - sometimes you need the certainty of doing it yourself. Get a copy of your certificate and send it yourself.
  5. Make the task visible. Ask the doctor to send a copy to you as well as to the third party. That way, if you don't receive yours then the other party probably hasn't got theirs, either.
  6. Reward the behaviour you want. When the doctor does what she said she'd do, send her a thank-you note.
  7. Put the situation on a commercial footing. If you're paying someone to do a task you can withhold payment until it is done. That's much harder in a personal situation. So, choose a private doctor over the health service option.
  8. Work with people in person rather than over the phone or email. Most people are more responsive to the personal touch. So, get to know your doctor and the staff at the surgery.
  9. Take the time to check up on people. It can be a pain, but the cost of badgering people can be less than the cost of the job being left. Call the doctor and check that the certificate has been sent.
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Excellent ideas. Some of these methods will come close to ensuring success if you add tasks to your own calendar, for example "Verify that you've received copy of health cert.", so that you don't forget about them (which easily happens if you assume somebody else is taking care of them). The downside is obviously the inflation of tasks and associated overhead work, which stresses the need for having a great task management system. – Gruber Sep 17 '13 at 12:24

I don't want to constantly call people verifying that they're doing their jobs.

You have to determine what is going to disrupt your life more: the other person not doing their part or your making a phone call? Sometimes you do have to settle for the lesser evil.

The key is providing consequences. Provide the service I expect and I will in return be a good customer; otherwise, I'm going to be a bit of a pain and/or take my business elsewhere.

Not enough people let managers know there was a problem. It's not always an employee's fault for a failure to follow-up. Ask a manager at a busy restaurant why doesn't she hire more wait staff. Maybe the doctors office should use a service that will send follow-up messages or phone calls or why don't they have a backup person when someone is on vacation.

With some email systems, you can have an email sent at a future date. Set it now while the concern is on your mind. Then a day or two before you expected something from someone, they get an email. There is a risk that they have taken care of it, but you're the customer. They'll get over it.

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In private life, people sometimes feel less obligated to follow through (depending on personality), so the best way to achieve results is of course a reward on completion. It can be something simple, like a trip somewhere, or plain cash. But for most people, at least here in Finland, work goes before anything else, so it really depends on their own work situation in their jobs. If they are having a stressful time at work, they are less inclined to do extra work in their free time.

I would still say the best way to give an extra nudge is a reward when their task is finished.

As for how to minimize the risks, I have always found it best to do everything yourself :) It may take longer, but it is always exactly like you want it...

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One way to cope with this is to use one or more of the following:

  1. "Waiting For" list, like in classic GTD implementation
  2. Put a reminder in your calendar
  3. Use a "Tickler File" also from GTD

While it is true that you cannot change other people's behavior, it is possible to influence them. If the person promising you something is not writing it down, it is immediately clear that she will certainly forget about it.

You can ask that person to write it down. You can offer to provide your contact details for reporting the item back to you. You can also voice your desired outcome: "if I understand correctly, when you finish, you will notify me via xyz, am I correct?"

Anyhow, it will be your ultimate responsibility to look out for what you need. All the best.

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I've always found it effective to make sure that all parties know at the beginning how important their tasks are to your being able to complete the project at hand.

Depending on your relationship with the people involved you can have fun with it (emails, texts, half-jokingly referring to how they are holding you up)....or you can just be professional (even with personal stuff).

The key, though, is that everyone needs to be aware, early on, of how important their tasks are to the project - and if they are aware of this -- any follow up you do, if done nicely, is almost always effective.

And when they do complete tasks that help you get your stuff done, make it a habit of thanking them as publicly as is appropriate....increases the odds that they'll do more to help in the future! :-)

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