a coworker I’m helping with a project is wasting my time

A reader writes:

I’m helping a colleague, Lucinda, with a project – something we need to do, but it’s tedious and never urgent so it’s dragged on. Lucinda is bright and does great work, but we have different styles. She talks a lot without saying much, whereas I prefer a short, direct email. I’ve heard that Lucinda can be possessive of her work, and this is very much her project.

She’s very busy and I’m in a bit of a lull, so it would be easy for me to move this project forward except that she wants discussion and consensus on every little thing. I’m tempted to just figure that if it gets bogged down because she wants to be involved in every decision, that’s up to her, and if meetings occasionally run long because Lucinda’s chatty, well sometimes you make chitchat so your coworkers like you. But at the same time, Lucinda seems to be acting like she thinks she’s managing me, and she’s doing it really ineffectively.

The parts of the project she asks me to do are really basic. After I finish these simple tasks, she reviews my work and books hour-long meetings to discuss it – a week after our last hour-long meeting about the same simple task. She’s repeatedly suggested that we do the same work in parallel, then compare our results afterwards, despite me explaining that that’s not a great use of our time. She seems to have a strong preference for how we approach the work (there are a few ways and no right answer), but she won’t say what it is and I can’t tell. She wants us to work up a few different approaches and consult the rest of our team, who’ve already been consulted and aren’t affected at all by this. I just want someone to make a decision so we can start the actual work we need to do.

Really, it’s no skin off my back if she wants to keep the project and it never gets done. But it is skin off my back to have weekly hour-long meetings with a peer to discuss versions of the same work, or to be forced into endless consultations and meetings where nothing gets decided.

I tried to book a shorter slot for our next meeting but she re-booked it for an hour, and I’ve tried asking her directly if we need that long and explaining why I don’t think we do but she seems to have ignored that email. Help!

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

    I would like to know why OP is helping Lucinda with this project, and the terms of OP’s involvement. These things could strongly affect OP’s standing to both guide how they work on the project and to insist on their own boundaries.

    They also affect the ability of OP to get assistance from management.

  2. Nicosloanica*

    Ugh this is my life right now. What it comes from in the case of my coworker is insecurity. She doesn’t want to do anything herself, she wants everything to be an agreed-upon consensus that was exhaustively discussed. In part, this is because our boss is kind of harsh so she wants to make sure it’s at least as much my fault as hers if the boss isn’t happy. I’m willing to take my lumps but I’m not willing to waste all my time getting there.

    1. NotBatman*

      Yes! On the one hand, OP can be secure in knowing Lucinda really likes them as a person. On the other hand… at some point you gotta do your job. I soft-faded from a work project with a colleague who’d spend 1.75 hours of our 2-hour meetings complaining about her boss and various other coworkers. I tried being less of an open listener, I tried saying outright that I was short on time and needed to stick to business, and then I got myself transferred to a different project.

  3. Addison DeWitt*

    Sounds like there would be no particular repercussions if you simply find it impossible to agree on a meeting time with her, or cancel ten minutes before each one.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Or if OP booked a ten-minute meeting and Lucinda rebooked it for an hour, to just leave after 10 minutes. “I’m sorry; I scheduled this for 10 minutes because we’ve gone over this so many times that’s all the time we really need, and all the time I have to spare. I need to go work on other things now.”

      1. Ali + Nino*

        +1 for candor.
        I’m currently reading a book called Scarcity, and it mentions studies showing that most of the progress in a meeting happens in the second half – when attendees (and leaders) know the meeting is coming to an end. Insisting on much shorter meetings might help accustom Lucinda to getting to the point faster…maybe.

        1. Anony*

          Interesting, but I wonder if that’s also because some topics *do* need a lot of context setting, getting people “warmed up” before they start making meaningful connections or forming opinions? Would be curious how effective the 15 minute meeting actually is.

          1. Kay*

            I would think that it would vary wildly based on topic. A 5-year planning meeting, no matter how prepared everyone is coming into the meeting, will have a lot of lead up. A Monday morning weekly planning meeting, 15 minutes and jumping right in sounds amazing and efficient.

      2. NotBatman*

        I think that’s a better response than deliberately being dishonest or flaky. Lucinda sounds annoying, but doesn’t deserve to be lied to or manipulated.

  4. HonorBox*

    I’m all for taking a direct approach with a coworker…most of the time. I think I’d jump the line on this type of project and go to your boss. If I’m in their shoes, I’d like to know the following:
    a) you have the time and bandwidth to take on the project
    b) Lucinda is booking lengthy meetings to discuss small details that don’t need to be discussed
    c) suggesting that work be done by two different people in parallel

    B & C are both potentially huge wastes of time and resources. And if Lucinda is busy with other tasks, it would make perfect sense to move this project from her task list and assign it to someone who can get it done more quickly. I don’t think this is a matter of going to the boss to “tell on” Lucinda, but rather identifying reason(s) that the project seems to be dragging on. Maybe it isn’t something that is URGENT, but at some point the project needs to be buttoned up. You’re identifying a solution… and/or you’re providing cover for yourself because if you’re linked to the project with Lucinda and it is languishing, there’s an explanation. If your boss isn’t concerned about the timing, going back to Lucinda with a different solution – she can take the lead and make any changes without meeting – would be perfect.

  5. Peanut Hamper*

    Yeah, no. I work with some very conversational coworkers and we do not make mountains out of molehills. Why does Lucinda think that everything needs to be an hour-long meeting?

    If it’s the same simple task, and OP is doing it the same simple way each time, I would be probably say to Lucinda that there’s no need for a meeting; I did the work the same way that I did it last time, so we covered everything during our last meeting.

    “I don’t have time for a meeting. Can you just email me with any questions?” would be my go-to phrase here. Repeated as often as necessary.

    1. Unkempt Flatware*

      I had a Lucinda. I eventually just started declining with no explanation and responded to her in the way I was able. She wanted a meeting to review a doc together so I’d send the doc with my changes and say, “I’m not available to meet about things like this”

  6. irritable vowel*

    This needs to be a conversation first between OP and her boss and then between OP’s boss and Lucinda’s boss (assuming that they aren’t managed by the same person). If someone in a different unit was using up so much of my staff member’s time unnecessarily, I would absolutely want to know about it and would want to tell the other person’s manager to figure out something that didn’t use up so much of my person’s time. Even if OP and Lucinda are managed by the same person, OP needs to make the manager aware of this dynamic.

    1. Artemesia*

      Alison was spot on on this — the OP needs to preempt any whining from the co-worker about not being willing to cooperate. Get there first; tell the boss what is happening and how you are managing it, so they have context. And as always with a boss the focus is on being efficient and getting the job done, not on personal annoyance.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      There was. Lucinda basically ended up finishing the entire thing herself.

      So basically my problem took care of itself all on its own. I’ll still keep your scripts in my back pocket in case I have a similar experience with Lucinda in the future (or anyone else!), but for now we’re back to a much more comfortable working relationship. She’ll still talk my ear off, but I know that’s just how she is and it’s a lot easier to handle when it’s just idle chitchat rather than weekly meetings on a slow-moving project.

      1. Goldenrod*

        “She’ll still talk my ear off, but I know that’s just how she is and it’s a lot easier to handle when it’s just idle chitchat”

        Yet another argument in favor of hybrid/remote work.

  7. MigraineMonth*

    I find it interesting that the coworker wants to do the work in parallel. That’s considered best practice in my field, and I spent a while trying to do it professionally. Unfortunately, it *seems* like a waste of time even when it isn’t, so no one actually does it.

    1. Michelle Smith*

      Can you explain why duplicate efforts like this are best practice? I’m struggling to see how it wouldn’t be a massive waste of resources in any field and would like to understand.

      1. assessor*

        I’ve done it when auditing documentation for insurance requirements, if a group of us were working on a large audit. We’d start by all looking at the same documentation and auditing it independently, then come together to compare notes and make sure we all were basically using the same metric for scoring, and had the same understanding of the requirements. Then we’d finish the rest of our parts individually. It helps create inter-rater reliability for assessing things.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        Assessor has a good example of where two people work independently, but I’m specifically talking about “parallel programming” for writing computer code. Both programmers sit at the same computer and take turns at the keyboard while writing a single piece of code. The pair are both supposed to be engaged the entire time and are encouraged to ask each other questions.

        The reason this is far more efficient than it seems is that computer programmers actually spend most of their time fixing code, not writing it. In general, code is just too complicated and detailed for one brain to hold all the details, so having a second brain checking for dumb little mistakes catches a lot of bugs before testing. Standard practice is to have a second (or third) programmer read you code and try to determine if it does what it’s supposed to, but that either takes a lot of back-and-forth (“Why did you choose to do it this way?” “Could you choose a better variable name?” “Use the previously-existing and tested way of doing this.”) or turns into a rubber-stamp that doesn’t find many issues.

        Having a second brain watching in real-time saves a lot of the back-and-forth and results in higher quality code. Also, the process of explaining what you’re doing to another person helps you catch design issues before you waste time using the wrong data structure/algorithm. (It is a known coding strategy to talk to yourself/an inanimate object when you need to clarify something. It’s called “rubber duck debugging”.)

        Pair programming is also a good way to share knowledge and means there are at least twice as many people familiar with that piece of code for when it needs to be changed. Unfortunately, pair programming *feels* like a waste of time (and programmers aren’t always the most social bunch), so its used rarely outside of school or training new employees.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          Working together is not the same thing as working in parallel. What is described in the letter is when you each separately prepare the same work then you meet up and compare to see whether or not you did the same thing. It’s “in parallel” because your work never actually intersects as it does in what you described. They are the same but separate.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      Well I know why Lucinda is always really busy! Busy =/= productive

      I had to re-read the bit about work in parallel, because initially I thought the OP was referring to Lucinda does part A while OP does part B and then they meet up to discuss, which seemed totally normal to me. But OP says “the same work in parallel” which, why would they each individually work on part A and then compare notes? There are some activities* where it makes sense to have individuals working in parallel on the same stuff, but from OP’s description this is not one of them.

      * Activities like reviewing critical work documents – everyone has their areas of expertise, so it helps to get multiple brains on the same content to make sure it’s complete, correct, and clear. We do a lot of this at my work, but it still usually isn’t done in pure parallel unless there’s a big time crunch. Either we split up the sections or we review in serial so people aren’t just duplicating comments.

  8. But Not the Hippopotamus*

    In my area, it is pretty common to have work under different teams or groups… but it is also very common to have it spelled out about what portion of your time should be allocated to which projects. Sometimes that might vary, but should average out to something, other time it will be very strict like “No more than X hours per day/week/month on project Y.”. So my first thought was to go to OPs boss and say “how much time should I be giving to this project?”. and use that to push back. “Sorry, I can’t meet for an hour, I’m only supposed to be spending 10 percent of my time on this.”

    That might be industry specific, but I figured it’s worth mentioning.

  9. Other Alice*

    I have a Lucinda. Unfortunately she’s a customer and she pays for all the stupid 1hr meetings that could have been emails… Only to wonder at the end of the month why our bill is so high and yet we got so little actually done…

    1. Just a Person*

      Good thing your Lucinda gets billed! My husband’s company has a Lucinda as a customer and they are paid lump sum. The spineless CEO just gives more and more of the company time without renegotiating the contract and it is a bit of a nightmare.

  10. Beth*

    If this is really Lucinda’s project and OP is really just helping out, I’d be very tempted to say “I can spend 15 hours this week on this project since I’m in a lull right now, and can allot another 5 hours a week for the next 3 weeks. After that I need to bow out to focus on my other projects. My gut feeling is the best use of our resources would be for me to minimize meeting time and spend most of those hours working on [task A] and [task B], but it’s your project, so if you want to go a different route, I’ll let you take the lead.” And then stick to it.

    If OP has any ownership or real stake in the project’s success, that’s harder to do. But if this is just helping out a busy colleague, then it’s fine to state your availability and just bow out when you’ve reached the end of that, even if they’re dragging their feet and the project isn’t done.

  11. Artemesia*

    It is really important to get to the boss first and set the context. This is what is happening and how I am dealing with it, before he gets complains that someone the OP is not being cooperative.

    And as always focus interactions with the boss around getting the job done efficiently for the company NOT on the personal annoyance or inconvenience.

  12. Carlie*

    This is a long shot, but could Lucinda be a body-double co-worker? Some people work much better if they can physically “mirror” another person while they work. Lucinda might be that, but doesn’t quite realize it’s the physical presence that helps rather than the constant back-and-forth discussion. You could try suggesting that you both work on your parts together but in silence (so you get your work done!) and see if that does the trick, or suggest to her that she try relocating to be within line-of-sight of other people. There are even apps and online groups for that such as Flow Club.

    That might not be the issue at all, but her actions remind me of people who do that.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      That is a fascinating theory. I have seen people like that and thought, “oh, now you get it?”
      But it turns out, in an update, Lucinda had a come to cheeses moment all on her own. She worked on and finished up the project without OP. We don’t know what lit the fire under her, but suddenly she was completing things.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        –thought, “oh, now you get it?”–
        not trying to be snarky. I keep reading it and thinking what word or punctuation could I use to indicate that it was MY lightbulb moment, not criticizing moment.

    2. zuzu*

      Body doubling works great for me when I’m organizing, decluttering or cleaning (hello, ADHD!). But I don’t do it at work and I don’t drag my coworkers into it – I put on decluttering YouTube videos and get to work on the shame pile in my closet.

  13. Fancy Pants*

    I worked with a Lucinda and she simply loved to talk. It was maddening.

    Lucinda: “Which shade of purple do you think we should use for the background?” (Displays 10 choices)
    Me: “Choice #5.”
    Lucinda: “But what about ….”
    She wanted to discuss each option. It got to where I would repeat back verbatim my original choice.

    She was also very thin skinned. She’d give you something to review and get offended when you’d make suggestions/corrections. It got so bad that I resorted only to speaking to her if she asked me a direct question.

    And she was queen of scheduling a meeting to discuss a yet to be scheduled meeting.

  14. 123*

    This is another question where the writer just doesn’t want to say, “No.” Next time she schedules an hour-long meeting, just tell her, “No,” and don’t go to it. She wants to do something asinine, you tell her, “Have fun with that,” and refuse to participate.

  15. Jack Straw from Wichita*

    I have a Lucinda. A few hours ago she gave me feedback, which I took graciously (no sarcasm), that I am often too direct and decisive in our meetings. I don’t collaborate or make it “seem like” (her words) her input matters. That it feels like she reports to me sometimes. She’s not wrong. My attempts at redirection has lost its nuance and human element over the length of the project.

    I’m fed up because she talks and complains and gets off topic and an hour has passed with no work done when I try to be smooth and kind with the redirection. So I stopped being nice. Add to that a boss who wants to run every decision by the next two levels of leadership, and it’s like working in molasses.

    I should be nicer to my Lucinda, and I will be because it matters, but JEBUS, stay on topic.

  16. What is even happening*

    sooo… why is the OP even entertaining Lucinda’s shenanigans? I mean I get Lucinda is being obtuse and weird, but OP: You have POWER! exercise it! you don’t have to do something that is not a good use of your time! Flex them muscles :)
    Talk to your manager and say hey, this is not working, so I’m stopping these meetings, just fyi and if they are decent they will understand.
    It isn’t your fault Lucinda is this way, but you are giving her way too much slack and she is happy to use it. So, just change that dynamic, it will be ok.

  17. Big(Health)Law*

    I can see where LW is coming from, but one thing I’m curious about is whether there are circumstances that merit this approach. Depending on the nature of the project, whether there’s a lot of internal politics involved, if it’s high profile/high risk/heavily regulated, if something about it is novel or a new undertaking …maybe Lucinda’s approach is warranted, or even recommended, in this scenario? Obviously there’s a disconnect here that’s not good. However, while working in healthcare billing compliance, I was on dozens of projects where it’s done like this because it’s the way to get the best result. To be fair, it can be mind numbing, but our legal team definitely got complaints similar to LW’s and they almost always came from the same people that would ask about shortcuts and get annoyed when they didn’t like our answer.

  18. Raida*

    I’d tell her my manager has reviewed my workload and we are now allocating X hours per week to her project. (Get manager onside with this first :P )

    Then I’d push back on reviews, etc. You want to review? Go ahead and send me your feedback as comments on the document, I’m not required for this discussion.

    Worst case, then I’d end up with a couple hours a week where I can just focus on *not caring* and enjoy jumping back into my normal work. Best case, things actually get done.

    A firm grip on what I accept and do not accept, an insistence on three-minute catch ups for single questions, end times to meetings, agendas required, timekeeping, etc all help me manage frustration at time-wasters

  19. Autumn=Fall=Autumn=Fall*

    I used to have a boss who was a Lucinda, and she had a lot of yes-people around her who were also natural Lucindas. It was pure hell. They were all salaried while I was contract, so my time was, well, expanded unfairly. When I pushed back (oh, so nicely and professionally) I was accused of not being committed, and because we were working with immigrants I was cast as “not caring about helping immigrants”. It became very toxic, and I had to resign.

    Bottom line: I think that Lucindas (people who lengthily seek harmony and consensus in every matter) can be dangerous…

  20. Workfromhome*

    Lucinda: Here is an invite for an hour meeting.
    Me: I’ve rescheduled for 30 minutes.
    Lucinda: I’ve rescheduled for an hour.
    Me: I’ve declined the meeting.

Comments are closed.