Bad Habits, Inefficient Processes: You Just Gotta Ask

Two years in a row, I worked at a boarding school summer program teaching middle school kids creative writing and journalism. What does middle school journalism entail? Some hard hitting articles about foreign policy? An opinion piece about the laziness of modern art? In depth interviews with professional athletes? No. Mostly, the students wrote silly little articles about activities, profiled teachers, and took pictures. It was really fun.

As the teacher, I was in charge of readying their work for publication (i.e. – printing it out on one of the computer lab printers). One time, during this process, I opened a document to find one of the students had written her article in two columns. Seeing as the paper printed in a double-column format, she probably thought she was doing me a favor. But he wasn’t. Instead of setting the document up as a two column document, she had simply done it all with the space bar, so each line had words from each column. In other words I had to copy each line individually to paste it into the master doc instead of just selecting the whole thing.

Did she get in trouble for this? No. Of course not. But you might, if you made a similar mistake at your first job.

Now, this is just an illustrative example. I imagine if you’ve been through college, you have at least a vague understanding about how word processors work. But the danger of forming bad habits is still there.

What do I mean by “bad habit”? I mean a way of doing something that will later require undoing. Bad habits occur most often because of eagerness and pride. You get an assignment and you want to look competent so you go and do what you think you need to do, even though you’re not sure how. It’s the work equivalent of putting together exercise equipment based solely on the picture from the box, or guessing how to get somewhere because you see the building you’re trying to get to off in the distance. Does it feel good when you get it right? Sure. But it’s not worth the risk of getting it wrong.

Luckily there’s an easy way to avoid bad habits: asking questions. If someone gives you a project to work on, double-check to make sure you know how to do it. Don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you’re doing? That’s simple. Just be confident with your questions: no apologies, no vagueness, keep it specific. In other words, don’t say, “Wait, what? Sorry, how do I do that again?” Say instead, “Just so we’re clear, I do that by doing x, right?” You could also try and get your supervisor to show you how he or she does things, or better yet, have him or her to watch you do the first couple of steps yourself to make sure you’re on the right track.

This is the best way to do it: front-load your questions. You can also make a go at it and get your supervisor to check in somewhere along the way where it’s not to late to back-track a little if you’re doing something wrong. But while this might show more confidence, it presents a new danger: inefficient processes. Not as bad as a bad habit, an inefficient process gets the job done and gets it done right, but maybe isn’t the best, easiest way to do things. And to make matters worse, a supervisor who’s just looking at what you’ve done, not seeing how you’ve done, will have no idea, so you could end up doing things the “wrong” way for a while before you realize. Seeking feedback and advice when you’re just getting started on a project helps you avoid this.

So go ahead: ask questions. Ask them early, and ask them often. That might initially seem annoying, but trust me, it’s better than putting a lot of work into something that someone else needs to put a lot of work into fixing.

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