The phrase “as soon as possible,” (ASAP) is a staple in office communications. Maybe it’s still an integral part of your corporate vernacular. It was a part of mine until I realized that at its core, ASAP really doesn’t mean or do anything.
Worse, it has the potential to mess with people’s priorities, bring down people’s morale, and make the sender look pushy and inefficient.
What Does ASAP Actually Do?
People use ASAP because it sounds straightforward. People who habitually use it might think that they are calling someone’s attention to a very important task by affixing a set of letters to it. They think the moment the receiver sees “ASAP”, they will drop everything that they’re doing and attend to the matter at hand. Some people use ASAP to express the idea that tasks should be accomplished whenever it’s convenient for the receiver. Some might even think that ASAP promotes a healthy sense of urgency, something that every good team should have.
Except it doesn’t. ASAP manages to do a lot of things, none of them positive.
In my experience, the word ASAP manages to accomplish one or all three things:
- Confuse, and throw off the receiver’s priorities
No one actually knows what ASAP means, except you. Unless you specify exactly which timeframe you’re talking about, ASAP could mean “right after you complete that task”, “by the end of the day”, “by the end of the week”, or “stop whatever you’re doing and attend to this.” Using a word as vague as ASAP can derail someone’s (or an entire team’s) priority list.
Serial ASAP users, by acting like every single task and every single concern should be attended to ASAP actually manages to achieve exactly the opposite of what they want: if all errands should be taken care of ASAP, then none of them actually becomes that urgent.
- Create unnecessary stress and anxiety
Communication is the pillar that holds any team together. The confusion that ASAP causes can be stress-inducing, especially to the people that you always want to have behind your back: people who take their deadlines seriously. When a diligent person sees ASAP, they might start multitasking and rushing, and that might lead to mistakes and oversights in a task that would’ve otherwise been perfect.
The word ASAP sounds pushy. It can make people feel like you don’t value their time and that you actually have no idea what they are doing. Using ASAP over and over again has the potential to annoy and demoralize the members of your talented and meticulous team.
- Portray you negatively.
When someone uses the word ASAP with abandon, it makes them seem disorganized. Here’s a little scenario: you’re in the thick of completing a time-sensitive and difficult project, and you keep on receiving extraneous tasks every hour or so from the same person who assigned you the difficult project. The extraneous tasks are piling up, one on top of the other, all marked as “ASAP”.
You’d probably think that the sender is so short-sighted they absolutely no idea about what they’re asking you to accomplish. That, or they simply don’t care about the deadlines that they previously agreed to (how pushy and inconsiderate). Maybe they’re too disorganized to maintain a working schedule, that they’re putting all the weight on your shoulders.
The thing is, in the context of business, things shouldn’t even get that dire. Most tasks should be clearly plotted and scheduled, with enough leeway for unexpected circumstances.
However, it’s understandable that unexpected things happen from time to time, and priorities get moved around. Surely there must be a way to indicate that a deliverable is time-sensitive?
The Best Way is to Ask
According to philosopher Francis Bacon, “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” As much as your team has a lot to learn from you, you might find that you also have a lot to learn from your team.
Instead of saying ASAP, try asking, “when can I expect [the deliverable] to be [completed]?” For example, instead of saying “Response needed ASAP”, maybe you can ask “when can I expect a response to this email?”
Generally, you can expect an answer that is along these lines:
- “Today/Working on It/Here You Go” – Depending on when you need the deliverable, this is the best-case scenario. If the deliverable is late, this is your chance to ask why.
- “Specific date” – This could come with an explanation as to why they cannot do it sooner, or they might have no explanation because they are assuming that you are okay with the deadline. If you and the receiver are not on the same page, it’s time to make sure that you are.
- “I don’t know/I’m not sure”-This is a chance for you to ask why, and if necessary, work with the receiver to re-prioritize tasks.
- Nothing – If you don’t receive a response at all, there’s work to be done. There should be a real-time way to communicate with you and let you know what’s up. A set-up where you or your team members feel like it’s okay to not respond to an inquiry is a set-up that needs to be fixed.
There is a prerequisite to this no-ASAP approach: you must have a free-flowing, good communication with your receiver. Asking a question opens up the opportunity for dialogue — which is integral to setting realistic expectations. It’s important for you to express when you need something, and to also understand (and apologize, if necessary) if you realize that your expectations are unrealistic.
This approach also gives you a chance to keep tabs on everyone’s organizational skills.
Case in Point: A Client
This general idea was born out of a situation I’m sure most of you are familiar with: a client asked whether they could have something done ASAP. I explained the idea above as succinctly as I could (of course ensuring that they received the deliverable in question when they needed it).
One week later, I got an email from them. It was positive.
They talked about how their team’s output and morale significantly improved by reducing the use of ASAP in their communication. Apologies were made between people in their team, misunderstandings were cleared out, and now their team’s commitment and synergy is better than ever.
What do you think? How often do you use ASAP in your emails/messages? I’m looking forward to your thoughts!