We all have those situations where the responsibility for action belongs to someone else, yet whether or not they follow through impacts us. Consider these situations:

  1. You are working on a project with other people and have delegated certain tasks to them. How do you make sure everyone comes through with the deliverables?
  2. Someone borrows books or other belongings from you. How do you keep up with what you have loaned? What sort of trigger will cause you to mention something when an item is not returned?
  3. You have placed an order with a company. How do you keep up with what you have ordered? At what point would you call to ask about the status of the order? What is the trigger that would cause you to make that call?

As long as we live in a world where our happiness, success, longevity, or whatever else is in part dependent on someone else, we need to have some system that will allow us to hold others accountable.

As a young teacher, my tools were a pocket memo pad and a set of tickler files. When someone borrowed my stuff, I immediately made a note in that memo pad…something like, “Expect to receive XYZ book from Steve. Loaned on Oct. 3.” After asking myself what would be a reasonable time frame in which to ask Steve if he was finished with the book, the little sheet from the memo pad would be thrown into the appropriate tickler file.

When I placed an order with a company, I would take a copy of the order and write “Expect to receive” on the top of the form, decide when it should arrive, and throw the form in the tickler file for around that time.

When someone was supposed to handle a task and then get back with me, a little note saying, “Expect to receive reply from John” went in the tickler file for around the time I wanted to check on progress.

Over time, “Expect to receive” was shortened to “ETR,” and although the tools have changed, that acronym has stuck. Instead of a slip of paper thrown into a tickler file, so many of those little “ETR” items become tasks in Outlook. When the ball is in the other person’s court, “ETR” is going to be in the task line. I select a due date, save, and forget about it. The system does my remembering.

When the due date arrives, I am looking at the “ETR” item, and there is my trigger to take action. What if I want to see at a glance all of the things that I am counting on from other people? In Outlook, I click the Task button and type the letters “ETR” in the search window. I am now looking at a complete list of every task with that configuration of letters. If I am doing the same thing on my BlackBerry, I go to the Taskpad (Outlook 2003) or To-Do Bar (Outlook 2007), enter “ETR,” and I am looking at a list of everything others owe me.

By the same token, I could enter the name of a person, “Bill” for example. I would see everything Bill owes me, every phone call I am supposed to make to him, everything I had borrowed from him, etc. all in order by due date.

Our lives are complex. We have a great deal to “keep up with.” Keeping up with those delegated items is among them. Three little letters keep me on top of it all.