The Traffic Light System

In a professional context, you are often asked to do things. Clients, managers, direct reports, peers – it can seem like a constant deluge of requests for your time and effort. How do you keep yourself from being overwhelmed?

I’m going to detail a tool here I call the Traffic Light System. This is a tool that helps you respond appropriately to requests, track those responses, and then turn them into a system for proactively controlling the flow of your requests.

Step 1: Build The Traffic Light

Take this image, print it out, and stick it next to whatever you use to communicate with your coworkers. Put it next to your computer, make it the background of your phone, whatever you have to do to give yourself a constant reminder that these are the three acceptable responses to requests.

Note: An unequivocal “YES” is not available as an option!

Why not? Because any task you’d say “yes” to, without any qualifiers, is already the base job that you’re already doing. Your day already centers around those tasks; you said “yes” to them when you took the job, and those tasks probably do a good job of filling your time. What you need to manage is the flow of everything else.

So what do these answers mean? “No,” means… well, it means no. It means that someone has incorrectly identified you as belonging on a certain task. You probably won’t use a pure, red-light “no” that often, but it’s a viable answer. If someone asks you something outrageous like “Hey, can you finish that project up on Christmas Eve and have it on my desk first thing Christmas morning, even though I won’t actually be back in the office until February,” it’s a perfectly reasonable response. Likewise for things like “hey, can you adjust the code to the customer’s specs for me,” when you’re in sales and don’t know the first thing about coding.

But for most other requests, you’re going to do some variation of the yellow-light “no, but” or the green-light “yes, if.”

“No, but” means that you can’t or won’t do the task, but you’ll give some help to the person asking so they can get their problem solved. If you’re going to be out of the office on Friday and someone asks you to come in for a meeting, you can say “No, but I can clear some space in my calendar Thursday or Monday for you,” or maybe “No, but Sophie is filling in for me that day and she knows how to work on that project.” You’re still helping, you’re just not sacrificing your own needs to do so.

“Yes, if” is when you agree to a request, but you initiate an exchange. If your week is already packed and you get a request for a task that you’d like to do (or think is appropriate to do), then you can say something like “Yes, if you can do a quick calendar review with me and let me know which of my other tasks you’re okay with me pushing back to next week in order to free up room.” Just as reasonable: “Yes, if you approve the overtime!”

The underlying principle here is that you need to provide signals to others in order to let them know what the traffic conditions are like. Otherwise, they don’t know! Most people aren’t trying to overload you with work, any more than motorists are trying to cause accidents. But without a little traffic direction, both can happen.

Step 2: Track the Traffic Patterns

Using that visual aid to help you respond appropriately, start tracking those requests. Each time you use one of those responses, make a note of which one and what the request was. Even if you only wish you’d used one of those responses – but guilt or timidity made you just say “yes” and pile one more thing onto your own shoulders – write down which one you wish you’d said.

Do this for a week or two. The goal is to start seeing patterns. Which things do you constantly get asked (incorrectly) to do, but aren’t really your job at all? Which things do you get asked to do far more frequently than you can handle? Which things do you want to do, but often don’t have the time or bandwidth?

Step 3: Direct the Traffic

If you’ve done Step 2 well, you should have noticed a lot of “batches.” Maybe you constantly get asked to handle customer escalations, even though you definitely don’t work in client success. Maybe you’re always being asked to join different meetings that should really be attended by other people, but the requesters don’t know the staff as well as you do. Or maybe you keep getting assigned new accounts but don’t have time because your other boss wants a bunch of stuff done, too.

At the start of the next work week, it’s time to get proactive. The goal is to stop having to respond to those requests at all because you’ve communicated in advance what you’ll be doing.

Monday morning (or whatever your “Monday” is), send out a message to your team. Let them know, in advance, the common answers to the questions you tend to get. The message could look something like:

“Happy Monday, hope everyone had a great weekend! Just to let everyone know, I’ll be in the office Today, Tuesday and Thursday this week. Wednesday and Friday I’ll be working remotely, and I’ll be doing a deep-dive into our accounts receivable. I’ll have that wrapped by Friday but that means I’ll be out of pocket those days. If you need me on a live meeting, please send me a request for the other days. If you have any client success tasks that need to be done, reminder that there’s a new client success ticket system, accessible in your dashboards. Any other urgent matters, send me an email and I’ll check each day from 12 to 1!”

One quick paragraph, maybe 5 minutes to write. Probably saves ten hours of time over the course of the week. And the best part is that you appear more professional and more like a team player for being proactive!

If you’re feeling absolutely buried, try this out. You’ll thank me – and your team will thank you.

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