“I’m working on…” vs “I’ve finished…”

When you speak about the work you are doing, what language do you use?

Many of us describe what we’re doing using the language of activity: “Yesterday I worked on the presentation for the plan for the next quarter. Today I’ll continue working on the presentation. I don’t have any blockers standing in my way.”

This conversation might happen 1:1 with a colleague or manager. Often it happens as part of a daily or weekly sync meeting where a team gets together to communicate about their shared work.

Less frequently, people use the language of completion when describing their work: “Yesterday, I finished the slide showing the budget for the next quarter. Today, I’ll finish updating the list of unprioritized initiatives up for discussion.”

Do you hear the difference?

One approach, using the language of activity, describes effort. The other approach, using the language of completion, describes accomplishment. Said another way, one approach demonstrates you are busy, the other that you are effective.

If you use the language of effort, you can give the same update for 2 weeks straight. You can be ‘working on’ something and that update doesn’t help you or your team understand if you are 5% or 95% done.

And, all too often, I’ll hear 2 weeks of “I’m working on x” only to then hear, “I’m stuck and I won’t be able to finish when I thought I would.” When this happens, it causes an impact to the wider team, and often leaves people wondering if that person just discovered they were stuck or if they’ve been stuck for 2 weeks and felt embarrassed to speak up.

However, when the members of a team use the language of completion, it increases transparency. You will hear, “I’ve finished” or “I’ve completed” every day. You’ll hear people break their work into smaller pieces so that they can get to done on something every single day.

This is the secret for completing large initiatives. And, this is the secret for creating high performing teams. Work small, finish often, and share what you’ve done for feedback.

Between these two teams, which team will be more successful? In Team A, they complete small pieces of work quickly and get feedback frequently. 85% of the time, what they complete is perfect, but 15% of the time, they take in feedback and make some minor adjustments to get something 100% right.

In Team B, they focus on larger pieces of work and it takes them 3-4x as long to deliver something for feedback. 90% of the time, what they deliver is perfect, but it took 3-4x as long, and they still have to make adjustments for that remaining 10%.

Team A will outperform Team B over time because they have shorter feedback loops. Using the language of completion creates daily feedback loops.

When you observe yourself or your teammates using the language of activity, understand that we do this because it is easier. It is less challenging and feels safer to just be able to say, “working on it.”

But, taking the easy road rarely leads to high performance.

Use the language of completion and accomplishment when you share what you’re working on. Be specific on the progress you are making. Have courage and commit to your team when you will have the next phase of your work to share with them.

If you find it hard to speak about your work this way, it indicates a few opportunities. First, break your work into smaller pieces and work to complete a measurable portion of work each day. Second, consider that you may need help from your team. Ask for it.

Shifting your language and the language of your team from activity to completion won’t solve every challenge you have, but it will shine a spotlight on what is working well and what isn’t.

And you can’t improve what you can’t see.