Elizabeth Knox Online

Did you brush your teeth this morning? I didn’t. I could give you the list of excuses – lack of time, misplaced toothbrush, variance from my routine, etc. But instead, let me just tell you what business principle it reminds me of: hygiene.

Poster promoting good oral hygiene from the Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress).

It’s a word a former associate used to describe all the seemingly insignificant little stuff that, if ignored, can become a big deal. It’s things like filling out your time sheets or leave requests, or sending a weekly update to your manager so they can inform the client, or approving documents that allows someone else to proceed with their job. In your personal life it’s things like paying bills, grocery shopping, or doing the dishes. Not exactly glamorous, but necessary.

What are the parallels between bad dental hygiene and bad business hygiene?

It distracts others. Once, when I was on jury duty, I sat next to a man who had severe halitosis and I couldn’t think about anything else. My focus was on not getting sick rather than on what was being presented in the courtroom.  If you neglect your dental hygiene, you’ll start to get bad breath, and if you neglect to do your business hygiene - your “smelly business practices” will become a distraction to your colleagues, your clients, or your manager.

You might say, “But I’m really good at my job. Why does this little stuff matter?” There are a few people I love well enough to overlook their bad breath, but there are only a very select few, and even then it’s still a distraction. It’s possible that you’re the one rock star at your organization who doesn’t have to worry about “administrivia,” or maybe you have a way to outsource the annoying little tasks, but for the rest of us this is a necessary part of our jobs.

It nags at you. Not only is this lapse a distraction to other people, it’s a distraction to me. All day I’ve been aware of the fact that my teeth feel mossy and I’m worried about standing too close to someone.

When I don’t approve documents that other people need, I know it. Even if I forget for a little while, it’s never far from my mind. I’ve spent more time being annoyed by or worried about the neglected task than it would take to actually do it.

If you don’t do it, your teeth will fall out. You can get away with not brushing your teeth once in a while, but if you stop doing it all together, you’ll have to spend the rest of your life eating meals through a straw. Likewise, if you don’t fill out your timesheet, eventually you won’t get paid.

So what should you do? Brush your teeth. And do all the little things you think are a hassle. How should you do it? Use bubble-gum flavored toothpaste - figure out ways to make it fun! Okay, these tasks may never be fun (and frankly, bubble-gum toothpaste really doesn’t taste that good), but you can figure out ways to make it more palatable:

  • Do all the “boring stuff” at one time so you get it out of the way. I usually brush, floss and wash my face all at the same time so I don’t have to keep going back to the bathroom. Similarly I keep a notepad by my desk where I write down tasks as soon as they come to my attention so I’m not distracted by them one-by-one or I don’t have to try to remember them; then I set aside a separate time to knock them all out at once.
  • Do your hygiene tasks as soon as possible to get them over with. I don’t like being left with a pile of dishes at the end of the night (or worse, facing them the next morning). If I do them immediately after dinner, I can legitimately relax later; if I leave them in the sink my mind keeps returning to them. Even when you’re working on a huge, strategic task it usually takes less mental energy to do things you love than things you dislike, so do your business hygiene tasks first and then move on to the work you enjoy more.
  • Keep these tasks in context – they may be small and tedious, but they enable the big things you want to

3 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “I forgot to brush my teeth”

  • Mary Johnson

    August 28, 2012 at 6:37 am

    Hey Elizabeth, I am in a women’s book club with Peggy. She told me about your blog. I like the teeth brushing analogy.

    • Elizabeth

      August 29, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      Hi Mary! I’m glad it resonated with you, and I know Peggy loves book club! Thanks for signing up for email updates as well, I look forward to you sharing your thoughts too!

  • Nicole

    May 31, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    Well done! This is an excellent analogy. I’m going to “brush my teeth” first thing Monday morning!

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