ASAP Is A Four-Letter Word

Want to get things done more smoothly and reduce the number of crossed wires in your life?

Then stop saying “As Soon As Possible” (ASAP). Today.

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On the surface, ASAP is useful in conveying urgency. It says I’m in a hurry, so do this fast. It also rolls off the lips easily. The two syllables convey that you are serious and need results now.

ASAP sign

Unfortunately, as my first boss taught me twenty years ago, ASAP is one of the greatest sources of organizational conflict and suffering. Every time you say it, you triple the odds of misunderstanding, dropped balls, and disappointment. The reason is simple: ASAP means different things to different people—not sometimes, but all of the time. For example:

  • An important work project you are managing takes a surprising twist. You have a decision to make quickly. So you text the project co-lead, “I need your help. Please meet me in my office ASAP.” Three hours later, she shows up. It’s too late. You already made the decision. Why didn’t she get here sooner, you think? Meanwhile, she skipped a meeting to come over. Why did I rush over here when he doesn’t need me?
  • Your boss asks you to quickly prepare a set of slides for a presentation he is giving soon. “When do you need it?” you ask. “ASAP” he replies. You interpret this to mean two hours from now. So you drop another important project to work on the slides. Two hours later, you send them to him. His admin writes back, “Tim left for the day. He asked me to block out time next Tuesday to review these.” WTF, you think to yourself? I just busted my butt to get this done today, and he doesn’t need it until Tuesday? You carry this resentment with you for the next six weeks.

ASAP creates a lot of messes. Some people like messes, but not you. So what’s an alternative?

Make clearer requests and ensure agreement. This involves the following five steps:

  1. Identify your desired completion time. When exactly do you need this finished? Be specific about the day and time. “By Friday” is too vague. “By Friday at 3pm” is specific.
  2. Include the timeframe in your request. Don’t fall into the trap of holding uncommunicated expectations. Instead, say, “I need those tweets scheduled by Friday at 3pm.”
  3. Describe why. When appropriate, explain why this specific time matters to you. “That will allow us to enter the weekend knowing we’re set for the next week.” Or, “This will give me time to finish the newsletter by Monday morning.”
  4. Ask for agreement. It takes two to make a promise, so this step is crucial. The question can be simple: “Would you be willing to do that?” or “Can you do that for me?”
  5. Listen and, if needed, negotiate. Listen to the other person’s response. If they say “yes” and seem sincere about it, great. If they say “no,” shrug their shoulders, or nod their head unconvincingly, consider negotiating. Ask about their concerns. If they seem willing but won’t commit to your proposed timeframe, find out what time would work for them—or propose one yourself. Negotiate until you reach agreement or it becomes clear that no agreement is possible.

Clear requests coupled with explicit agreement produces genuine commitment. This may take a bit longer than saying ASAP, it produces dramatically better results: more reliable handoffs, fewer crossed wires, and greater mutual trust.

Stop saying ASAP.

And start producing reliable commitments.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Steven Johnson

    I appreciated this article, especially given the parallels to “lean” thinking. Every “rush” creates variation in some process somewhere. As much as we hate to admit it, variation is cumulative and cannot be cancelled out no matter how hard we sometimes try. I’m going to send this to my team ASAP…just kidding.

    • Amiel Handelsman

      Steve,

      I really like your point about variability. Hadn’t considered that perspective. Now that you’ve raised it, I see how well it applies to many other pitfalls that occur in coordinating action. Thanks!