Don't help everyone all the time

December 5, 2017

How many people have you helped today? How many of them had you already planned to help? How many just walked in and asked for your help? Because you’re nice like that. You’re that person everyone knows, and everyone loves. You’re good at what you do. Good at a lot of things. And you like to help people. So you help loads of people, every day.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: helping people is valuable. There’s really no way to over-state the value in helping people get their work done. That’s what makes this a particularly difficult blog to write. Because as valuable as it is to have this person that is there for everyone, it is also a huge pitfall.

Helping others is good

So again, how may people have you helped today? And how many of these people just walked in? There’s a good chance that many of the people you helped today weren’t on your radar when you walked into the office this morning. You actually planned to get some project work done. Or work on removing some tech debt from that hacky piece of code you wrote 3 weeks ago but haven’t had the time to clean up. And because of all these people you decided to help today, you didn’t touch that bit of code. Again. And then there’s that other thing you were supposed to deliver before noon, which turned into a hack job during lunch. That important meeting… that you totally forgot about, so now you’re bugging Janet via Slack during dinner to find out what you missed. And after that, you’re just going to spend a few hours on the couch working on the last-minute requests you found in your inbox at 5:30PM.

Does this sound familiar? Is this you?

You are doing it wrong

There you have it. There’s not really a nice way to say this, but you’re doing it wrong. Let me explain how, and why.

  • You are losing grip on your planning: you planned to do one thing, but are doing several other things. You are either not doing the things you planned at all, or you are doing them at a different time, like at night or during the weekends.
  • You are compromising quality: because you are constantly short on time, and because you have lost grip on your planning, you are compensating by doing things faster. As a result, you are taking shortcuts, and quality suffers because of it.

The most important thing to realize here is that these are choices you make. You choose to sacrifice your planning, and maybe even quality. And you may be fine with these sacrifices, but your choices will affect others as well. That meeting you skipped because you were busy? Those people needed you, and even asked for your time and attention upfront. It’s not OK to be bothering Janet over dinner just because you decided to sacrifice your planning. That hack job you did over lunch? The one you just shipped without adding proper error handling or testing because you were in a rush? That thing is going to break in production soon, and someone else will have to fix it when it does.

We over-estimate ourselves all the time

Generally speaking, we, reasonably smart people, haven’t got the slightest clue about our effective cognitive capacity. We have no clue how many things we can really do properly in one day. We completely fail to realize the impact of helping that co-worker-that-just-walked-in, until the office is empty, everyone has gone home, and we realize that we actually failed to complete any of the work we planned on doing.

Don’t help everyone all the time

Helping others is good, but only if you can do it without compromising on the work you actually should be doing. So how to find that balance?

  • Scope: not everything is your problem. Define what kinds of problems you can help with, and what kinds you can’t or won’t. Do you really need to be fixing the coffee machine? Are you really the only person that knows how to attach a laptop to a projector? Or order batteries?
  • Time: unless your job is ‘service desk engineer’ where you are supposed to be approachable all day, define time slots. You need to be able to get your planned work done. If people want your help, that’s OK, but only in certain time slots. Define these time slots, and don’t compromise on them.
  • Planned vs Unplanned: does everything have to be done now? As much as people need your help, don’t turn other people’s lack of planning into your emergency. That’s a disservice to yourself. Can you quickly help out? Does it only take a few minutes? Sure, do it now. Is it a lot of work? Does it take more than a few minutes? Turn it into planned work.
  • Quality First: unless your only job is to help people that walk up to your desk, you need to consider your priorities. If you are, for instance, a software engineer, your primary concern should be delivering great software. Delivering quality software comes first. Everything else comes second. If helping someone else means compromising on that quality, you shouldn’t be doing it.

Take time to look back

You won’t make the right choices all the time. That’s just how it is, and that’s fine. But do take the time to look back and assess where you made the right choice in (not) helping someone, but also where you didn’t. Try and become better at assessing. Try to become better at saying ‘No’, as hard as that can be. Don’t cave in when someone gives you a ‘Yes, but..’. If you want to remain in control of your planning and your quality, you should be in control of whether or not you decide to say ‘Yes’.

Just don’t say ‘Yes’ all the time.