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Status updates are an assurance to your boss that you are being productive. So you want them to be clear, crisp and effective. And you also don’t want to waste time producing them.

Entrepreneur Khe Hy developed a system where every Friday afternoon he would send his boss a short email with three categories:

  • The work he had completed that week.
  • What he was working on, including any deadlines that may have shifted or obstacles he had encountered.
  • What he was waiting on - tasks he had completed that required sign-off from his boss or contributions from someone else.

You might, as he did, develop a simple template so you can just drop in the required information. He even used a timer to ensure the update wouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes to write.

“If you’d like to adopt a similar approach, I’d recommend running it by your manager to ensure that it doesn’t conflict with their preferred method of communication. And every couple months, check-in with them to see if the e-mail is still helpful and how its contents could be improved,” he wrote on Government Executive.

Product design consultant Julie Zhuo believes status updates should be beautiful. In her fast-paced field, updates also should be daily – consistent, so colleagues expect it and don’t have to ask. “Pick a consistent time to do it every night, and stick to it. If some new information comes out in an hour or two, you can always amend your status,” she writes on her Substack newsletter.

She says the point of a status update is to keep everyone’s expectations aligned. That means leading with the launch estimate of when the project will be shipped. If you can’t give an exact completion time, as is common early in a project, she suggests a date range or some specific date with a confidence percentage. Also, break down sub-tasks and give the estimated completion date for them.

Because people may not need to read all the details daily, in your email subject line boil it down. If things are fine, say “on track to launch on X date.” If there’s a hitch, you may write “Delayed one day; now expected to launch Y date.” In the email, provide a bullet point explanation.

The status update also should indicate obstacles that have arisen. Because those are critical, use the word “Blocked” in the subject line. In the email itself indicate what the snag is and the decision-makers or other team members who can help unblock.

Blogger Mark Forster has experimented with another element of organization that we take for granted: The To-do list. He was consistently looking at it during the frenzy of the day and wondered if there was a way to mobilize his unconscious better to keep him on track. So he tried writing out the list and putting it in a virtual drawer, only checking at the end of the day to see how he had fared.

“The only trouble with that idea was that it didn’t work,” he noted on his blog. He gave up when he didn’t accomplish anything on his list. But if at first you don’t succeed, you try again – in this case he tried predicting what he would accomplish in the day and putting that in the virtual drawer. It was more effective.

Another way to help you remember your to-do list is to draw it – or at least part of it. Melbourne writer Belle B. Cooper says studies have found drawing helps ideas stick in our memories more than writing, probably because more skills are involved. “So try adding a doodle here and there to your to-do list if you need a memory boost,” she writes on the Rescue Time blog.

Quick hits

  • Winnipeg writer David Cain argues it’s a human impulse to assign culprits to things that go wrong. That means somebody else is responsible, not you. It reassures us that bad things shouldn’t happen (at least to us). And it makes solutions seem straightforward: Replace the bad person. He suggests that monitoring this impulse within yourself can be revealing.
  • Marketing consultant Robert Glazer says we fail all the time at work. But that doesn’t make us failures. Failure comes when we stop trying after we fail.
  • When asked for your strengths in a job interview, communications executive Joel Schwartzberg advises focusing on a strength that is listed in the job description, but making it more specific – communications skills might be narrowed to your public speaking abilities. Include a real-life example of that strength and its impact.
  • “It’s hard to grow beyond something if you won’t let go of it,” says Atomic Habits author James Clear.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.