Productivity and the Lost Art of Prompt Follow Up

Staying productive while waiting for people to follow up, especially when they possess information I need to move forward, is something I struggle with. Actually, it’s more the loose ends that their lack of responsiveness cause that I struggle with. You see, I’m on a constant quest to minimize the amount of loose ends on my radar screen at any one time.

Following up with people who don’t follow up is draining. First, you have to develop a system to track all of the people you’re waiting to hear back from. And, I don’t know about you, but with the sheer quantity of emails, phone calls, appointments, and everything else that pops up on a daily basis, that’s no small task. To make things more manageable, I try to spend at least 20 minutes a day reviewing the status of existing projects, determining key input sources, and reaching out to the people who have the information I need to move the project forward.

But tracking loose ends is only part of the battle. You also have to follow up frequently… but not so frequently that you come off as a stalker or huge pain. I once sent someone nine emails over the course of three months and finally, miraculously, received a response. Did she apologize for the lack of responsiveness or provide an explanation? Nope.

And then there’s the impact on productivity that comes from being stuck in a never ending holding pattern when you don’t hear from people who possess the information you need to move a project forward. When that has happened in the past, I  was forced to look for other low hanging fruit that I could work on while I was in the lull. In fact, one time I even found myself updating contact information on a fax cover page template because I was on hold with eight different projects. Maybe it wasn’t the best use of my time, but it beat sitting there twiddling my thumbs while I stared at my inbox.

Which leads me to a question I’ve been pondering for quite some time--is there a correlation between career success and responsiveness? In my network of colleagues, I’d have to say there definitely is. Somehow, the people I know who are the most successful and have the most stuff going on in their lives personally and professionally are always the most responsive. I once emailed Seth Godin, marketing guru and bestselling author, with a question about writing a book and he responded within 24 hours. Pat Croce, former President of the Philadelphia 76ers, responded when I contacted him through the University of Pittsburgh alumni database—me, a random guy in my early 20s who’d never even been to a Sixers game.

If I ever decide to pursue a PhD, I’m pretty sure I’ve identified my dissertation topic. Until then, I’ll continue to manage the process of following up with people who don’t follow up. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s much easier to shoot back a quick email than it is to let repeated follow up emails fill my inbox. Instead, I often find myself stressing out over whether I’m being a pest.

Shawn Graham is Director of MBA Career Services at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (www.courtingyourcareer.com).

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