As much as the word “adulting” can prompt people to cringe, roll their eyes or have flashbacks from the year 2015 when things were simpler and young adults were still teaching themselves how to do laundry, there exist unwritten rules to the fabled practice that apply especially well in the corporate world. Many of these rules for professional adulting are learned the hard way.
In an attempt to spare anyone reading this a lesson from the school of hard knocks, we’ve adapted some of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned in life thus far into a list. Everybody loves lists.
Note: We’ve adapted this list based off of rules originally developed by the professionals at HawkPoint Technologies in their own blog post.
1. Ask questions when you’re stuck, not starting.
Most workplaces have at least one person who is prone to this bad habit. Don’t let that be you.
Questions are more valuable than gold in most cases, and you should always be prepared to ask them. There is a time and a place for them though. Asking questions when you hit a roadblock in your mission or project is just that time. After all, asking a barrage of questions may as well be delegating the work of finding the answer to someone else with equally little time on their hands.
2. Write things down.
Everyone has different tools or devices for keeping themselves organized as they work through their tasks for the week, but the secret to staying organized as an adult is to write down all the things you need to get done. Whether it’s at home with a couple of sticky notes on the refrigerator or an elaborate to-do list with categories and subcategories scrawled on a whiteboard in your office, write down things you know must be done. Whether you need to rank them by priority is up to you, but that certainly can’t hurt either. You’ll be far less likely to forget something and miss an important deadline or leave your team members in the lurch. After all, memory alone is not a reliable way to stay organized.
Not to mention, nobody likes to repeat themselves. Mistakes that are the product of forgetfulness because you failed to document them in some way are inexcusable.
3. Pay attention to the details.
Liddle mistookes liek typoes our Graham-matical eyrrors haev ah neeegatorve affect ein hao ur perseeved. Yes, it was excruciatingly painful to type that sentence; but you get the point.
Double-check all of your work before you send it, even if it’s just an email to one of the higher-ups in your company. That squiggly red line under your text is there for a reason—it’s there to keep you from embarrassing yourself. Silly or blatant mistakes look unprofessional, especially if it’s in an email you’re sending to a client or to the masses. Proofread everything you said before calling it complete, even if it means having one of your colleagues put a second pair of eyes on it for you first.
4. Understand what is asked of you.
There’s a fine line between doing what is asked and applying your own interpretation to what was requested of you. Granted, this situation is a two-way street: It’s equally up for you to listen to what specifically is being requested as it is for the requester to be clear about what needs to be done.
This is one of the few times where it’s acceptable to ask questions at the outset. If the request requires more details or clarification, communicate with the requester to ensure you know the specifics of what they need. Ideally, speak about it with them directly rather than through messaging or emails.
Making sure both parties understand the work that needs to be done will save both of you a lot of time, effort and embarrassment down the line.
5. Communicate on the same channel.
Not everyone has dealt with the coworker who hates phone calls and just comes to your office every time you try to call them from the other end of the building, even if it isn’t mission critical. But, those of us who have can’t help feeling a little bit annoyed with that coworker whenever they come by. Don’t be that coworker.
Always respond to communications with the same medium in which you received them. For example, if you receive a question via email, reply back with an email of your own. If you receive a voicemail, call back on the phone. It always feels dismissive to be on the receiving end of an email that was sent in response to a call, and it’s definitely not the way to establish rapport with an individual you’ve only recently met—or worse, never met before.
The exception to this rule is if there’s a complaint involved. No matter how you receive the complaint, speak to them in person if possible, or over the phone if all else fails.
6. Don’t over-communicate though, either.
If you’ve been assigned a task, especially a larger one that will take more time and energy, give updates when you’ve made significant progress or completed the job, but not at every single step of the way.
Otherwise, you may come off as self-gratifying, annoying or needy, plus it wastes the time of everyone involved if you’re sending it to multiple people. Just focus on getting the task done accurately and on time, and that will be its own reward.
If you find yourself plotting out your response while somebody is still speaking with you, you’re not engaging effectively. You might miss a few key details that could change the entire meaning of what they’re trying to tell you. The consequences are awkward at best and disastrous at worst.
Sure, your opinion is important in this conversation, but theirs is equally so. Bring effective communication to the table and listen actively, just like they taught you to do in school.
8. Be helpful, but don’t be pushy.
If a client or coworker asks for your help, help them in exactly the way they requested. Being asked to help cut some onions isn’t an open invitation for you to tell them how you would make their sandwich. Likewise, if someone asks you for suggestions on presenting a report, that isn’t your cue to start dictating to them exactly how you would write it down to the commas and periods.
Needless to say, there exists a fine line between offering much-needed help and offering unwarranted advice. Crossing it is a bad idea.
9. Be on time and present.
This applies to meetings even more than it does to every other part of your job. Don’t stroll in five minutes after the meeting starts with a coffee in hand, and don’t step out partway through to take a phone call or write an email. If you absolutely have to step out or arrive late, be sure to notify other attendees before the meeting begins.
It should go without saying that looking through emails or taking calls during a meeting is rude and dismissive to everyone in the meeting with you who probably also doesn’t want to be in a meeting. Needless to say, perusing social media during the meeting is also unacceptable. Even if you have your phone hidden from view, you won’t be fooling anyone. After all, when was the last time you saw someone stare down into their lap for no reason at a meeting?
10. Respect time and boundaries.
If a coworker or manager has the door closed and there isn’t an imminent disaster bearing down on the office that threatens life or limb, it can wait. If all else fails, email the person a request to meet about the subject. Don’t interrupt, don’t hang by the door and don’t assume whatever you need from them is so important that it can’t wait.
If it’s a work-related emergency, knock and wait to be addressed. At Sunset Hill Stoneware, failure to do so feels like a serious transgression, especially if someone is on the phone with a client or communicating important information to our pottery shop a mile away. After the third time in a day, it gets difficult to not tell the offending party to go away.
We’re all busy. Hence, “business.” Always knock and wait, whether the door is open, closed or nonexistent. Always ask if now is a good time before diving into your topic—the answer might be a resounding no.
Of course, the exception to this is if there’s a fire, a tornado, a critical nuclear excursion at the power plant next door, an angry bear rampaging through the office and breaking all your mugs or some other calamity.
11. Read the room.
Every person with whom you share a working relationship deserves respect and professionalism when you’re communicating with them, regardless of your perceived relationship with them. Avoid being informal when you’re communicating and avoid colloquialisms. Always choose your words carefully before communicating through any medium, especially if you’re communicating over email. Tone and inflection are easily lost through text.
Similarly, executives won’t have the patience or time for you to be quirky or cute when communicating with them. Any attempts at this may even come off as being disrespectful. Address your recipient appropriately, and be concise.
12. Leave your personal business at home.
Everyone you will ever meet in life has their own problems or personal issues, just like you. Whatever problem you have right now is yours and only yours. If it’s so serious that it requires you to leave, do so. If it warrants time off, take it. We’re all fighting our own battles, and in most cases your peers will understand.
This rule also applies to your beliefs, opinions and complaints. We all have issues—check yours at the door.
Furthermore, don’t share your problem with others in the office like you’re the only person who has one. From personal experience, this comes off as oversharing and has prompted many a response of, “Did you die though?” out of earshot to mock the histrionic griping.
13. It isn’t about what you do; it’s about what others see.
You may think your disinterest isn’t visible to your coworkers, but you’re only fooling yourself. Just like dogs smell fear from a mile away, others can detect the fact that you don’t care.
If you have someone waiting on a response, communicate with them early on so they know you’re helping them. No matter what the size of the task, genuinely care about what you’re doing. Sometimes, the situation will warrant extra effort—use it as needed.
14. Small actions leave a big impact.
Everyone wants to feel important and appreciated. Go the extra mile with a small act that will help someone else—call your client for that added personal touch, or help out by offering one final set of eyes on a proposal. Even though these take just a few extra minutes, they’ll help someone else in your life feel more appreciated and that you care about the job you’re doing.
Taking some time to be human in your work can change your entire trajectory. It’s the first step in getting loyal clients and developing a stronger relationship with your coworkers and partners, or even making them into lifelong friends.
15. You’re not the smartest person in the room.
As intelligent as you may be, assuming you’re the smartest person of everyone around you is inherently foolish. Potentially anyone could have another, better idea. Be patient and willing to hear other’s ideas. They may surprise you. Revisiting No. 13 on this list, others will eventually be able to tell you assume this of yourself.
Every manager has a slightly different management style, just as every employee has a different way of getting through their list of tasks. Though it may at times be difficult to break a habit you’ve developed over the course of years, having an open mind and ear for everyone around you will help you get further in the professional world than anything else.