When you agree to take an action, do you also give others a commitment of when you’ll do it by (the so-called “what-by-when”)? As much as this practice is generally recommended in today’s business world, allow me to offer a contrary view: This practice has big downsides, and obscures a better way that comes from an altogether different paradigm.

The alleged benefit of routinely asking for or offering a “what-by-when” upon agreeing to do an action is simple and straightforward: It increases others’ confidence that we’ll actually do it, encourages us to consciously own our commitments, and builds trust over time by showing others that we can manage to these commitments. Sounds great, and sometimes it is – it’s vastly better than an environment where no one can count on anything, because everyone just works on whatever happens to catch their attention in any moment. I’m not suggesting you throw out what-by-whens and move backwards to this kind of unconscious chaos.

Prioritizing in the dark

Yet there are times when reality simply dashes our best-laid plans to rubble anyway, despite all the conscious ownership of commitments we might otherwise hold. And even when we manage to temporarily control the wild whims of reality, there are still significant costs and risks to the what-by-when approach – and we can do better.

To illustrate my point about costs and risks, let’s say I’m in a meeting and agree to take an action. You ask me when I’ll have it done by. I think for a second and say “by Tuesday”, which satisfies you, and thus we have a makeshift social contract. Here’s the trouble with that: When I agreed to finish the action by Tuesday, I didn’t actually create any more hours in a day to do it, as nice as that would be. So that means I’ve now got to prioritize this action into a list of other possible things I could be doing with those hours, and thus de-prioritizing something else.

So when I gave you a by-when commitment, I made a prioritization decision that affected many other actions on my plate – and I did it without even looking at them, completely blind, and certainly without weighing the relative priorities of everything on my plate. My conscious commitment came with unconscious prioritization. Taking it one step further, I’ve also now introduced a new risk: That I will end up working on something to meet a commitment – often an artificial commitment – regardless of whether it’s the most important thing for me to be working on in the moment given the organization’s broader purpose.

With by-whens flying around, it’s easy to end up unconsciously chasing commitments rather than consciously selecting and working on the most important action in every moment. And just because you gave someone a by-when on an action doesn’t make it the most important thing to do; sometimes it even makes sense to drop a commitment in service of tackling a more important task that you hadn’t anticipated when you made the original commitment.

Sure, you can manage that by resetting expectations, but that’s another thing to manage and thus more cost to giving a by-when commitment – it adds rigidity and takes constant energy to hold. Yet another insidious cost is the weight of a looming by-when: it adds a psychic stressor, and tempts us to get stuck in our own “should’s”, which is really just fighting reality. Sometimes we try to magically conjure more hours in a day to deal with the stress of a by-when, often by pulling the hours from recharge time, which can be quite taxing and highly unsustainable.

All that said, I get it, I really do – the by-when approach helps us deceive ourselves that reality is more predictable and controllable than it actually is, and that’s among the most comforting deceptions we humans engage in. And it’s from this predict-and-control foundation that it builds trust – it lures others into the deception so they too can relax in a sense of certainty. And this works, at least to a point – it does build trust. Though it’s built on an awfully shaky foundation, it’s still better than unconscious chaos. Again, I’m not suggesting anyone throw out their what-by-when commitments, at least not until they have an effective replacement.

Ruthlessly facing reality

So what can replace the illusion of control we offer others with our by-when habit? First, we need a good way of organizing our lives and our work; one which allows us to reliably hold everything we could do, and always be confident that we are working on the most important thing we could be doing in every given moment, fully consciously and without losing anything. David Allen’s brilliant Getting Things Done® (GTD) method is by far the best approach I’ve found for this at an individual level, and methods exist for doing the same at a team-level, such as the agile project management methods that developed in the software industry.

Once you’ve got systems in place that support conscious flow, you can now build trust by offering others transparency, grounded projections (not commitments), and a way to influence your priorities. Instead of offering them the illusion of predictability (while you’re barely holding it all together), you engage them in your process of ruthlessly facing reality moment-to-moment, and always working on the most important thing first.

So what about by-when commitments to clients, or other external deadlines? Sometimes you do have to make a by-when commitment and manage to it, though there’s much to be gained by making that the exception, not the rule. And even when it feels normal and needed, there are often other options. As I’d say to my clients when I ran a software development contracting company: Do you want me to promise you a date that we both know is a lie, and surprise you shortly before that date with an unexpected change which you’re then at the mercy of? Or do you want me to give you so much day-to-day transparency and control that you don’t have to trust me, because you’ll see exactly where we are and where we’re headed at every moment, and be able to influence the project’s direction throughout? Most clients chose the latter, and we had the organizational processes in place to support it.

So what can you do to shift your own by-when habit? First adopt a good individual organizational system like GTD® that’s built on a dynamic steering foundation – this is a prerequisite to moving beyond the what-by-when without big costs in trust and capacity to deliver. Then be more aware of the cost whenever you do give a by-when commitment – you’re making a prioritization decision in the dark, tempting yourself to work on something that isn’t the most important thing first, and forcing yourself to use a stressful predict-and-control management process to honor the commitment. Give the by-when when it really feels important and worth that cost to do so, and whenever possible replace it by offering others more transparency and influence in your work and prioritization system. And finally, look for ways to embody this at a team and organizational level with practices like Holacracy and agile project management, to wean the whole company from its predict & control addiction to ruthlessly facing reality in a sense-and-respond flow.

This article was originally published on May 2, 2011 at http://holacracy.org/blog/the-insanity-of-the-what-by-when