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How much of what you talk about actually happens?
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One of the most common concepts in productivity is the “Say/Do Ratio”. Simply put, how much of what you say you’ll do actually gets done?
Someone with a high Say/Do Ratio is reliable, since you know if they say they’ll do something it’ll happen. Someone with a low Say/Do Ratio commits to a lot of things but flakes out constantly. Suffice to say, make sure your Say/Do Ratio is high.
It’s a relatively simple concept, but there are a lot of interesting lessons about productivity hiding inside! Let’s dive in…
Promising & Delivering
There are a few ways to have a high Say/Do Ratio:
You can commit to a ton of things and then work really hard to get them all done.
You can commit to almost nothing and do almost nothing.
Surprisingly, both kinds of people are considered extremely reliable. Reliability isn’t everything! People in category #2 might be considered reliable but also unproductive since they are not getting much done. Likewise, people in category #1 might be at high risk of burnout. There is a range in between and most of us fall there somewhere.
You often hear the advice that you should under-promise and over-deliver. That means you create a high Say/Do Ratio by planning to do more than you say. Considering how important it is to have a high Say/Do Ratio, it is good advice!
However, in under-promising you need to be careful not to get too close to #2. That is called “sand-bagging” where it’s clear you aren’t committing to things specifically because you want to over-deliver. While that can lead to a high Say/Do Ratio, you will still be considered unreliable because everyone knows you aren’t telling the truth about what you will do.
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Dealing with Uncertainty
Many of us work in industries or jobs where there is a lot of uncertainty. For example, in sales the difference between closing a deal and losing it might not have anything to do with our personal performance. Maybe the customer is having a bad day, or maybe their needs have shifted and they don’t need our product anymore. There are a lot of reasons we might not close a deal we thought we’d close, and fail to do something we said we would.
In these kinds of roles, what does a Say/Do Ratio really mean?
When dealing with uncertainty, committing to any specific task or deal is meaningless. What you care about is the commitment to overall performance, and whether we can predict that performance effectively.
Going back to our sales example, we might have 10 deals in progress. While we can’t predict which specific deals will close, we can estimate the likelihood that specific deals will close (one might be 80% likely and another 40% likely). In aggregate, we might predict that of the 10 deals, we might close 6 of them even if we don’t know which 6. Our Say/Do Ratio is whether we do, in fact, close 6 out of the 10 deals, not whether we close any specific deal.
This is true of any task where there is uncertainty, including software engineering and fundraising.
Perception & Reality
One of the problems with the Say/Do ratio is that no one is really keeping track of what you say and what you do. There is no scoreboard at your job where they measure the ratio and tell you how you’ve done at the end of the month. The Say/Do Ratio is an impression people have based on their perception of what you’ve done.
That means that even if you do the things you say, if people’s perception is different they might think your Say/Do Ratio is low! This happens in highly political offices where someone else takes credit for the work you do, leaving everyone else wondering why you didn’t do something. Having a high Say/Do Ratio means both doing the work and managing the perception of your work.
There are some basic ways to ensure that everyone perceives that you have a high Say/Do Ratio:
Consistency. Being early to every meeting, or sending out your weekly updates at the same time every week is a consistency that everyone will see. The more consistent you are, the higher your perceived reliability.
Emergencies. When emergencies happen, everyone remembers who stepped up to help. If you are reliable in an emergency you will be perceived as reliable all the time.
Say No. There are always impossible tasks that no one can possibly complete. If you always accept the tasks given to you, regardless of how possible they might be, it’ll be clear you are saying you’ll do them without being sure. Saying no to things that you know cannot be done is something people will respect.
While it’s still a good idea to have a high Say/Do Ratio, these things will ensure that everyone’s perception is that your ratio is high even if it’s not. On a related note, beware of people that do these things to create a mirage that they are reliable when they are not. It happens more often than you’d think.
Like all productivity tools, the Say/Do ratio is only a good tool if you use it to be more productive. There are plenty of offices where everyone sandbags, and others where no one commits to anything, all in search of a high Say/Do ratio but resulting in low productivity. In these cases, productivity is a theatrical performance and no tools, including the Say/Do ratio, really matter.
If you want to be truly productive, do what you say. It’s really that simple.
For more on Productivity, see: