Harvard Business Online

Training Your Pet Peeve


Posted on I Quit—Now What?: October 5, 2009 11:21 AM

Whether you work full-time, part-time, or for yourself, you probably have a nagging little Chihuahua that lies under your desk, behind your computer monitor, or maybe right in your lap. He's not a real dog, but he sits up to bark pretty often and has the potential to reduce your productivity or even ruin your whole day.

I'm talking about your #1 Pet Peeve—the thing that, despite your normally measured approach to all things professional, just irks you to the core. Considerate person that you are, you suffer privately with the little guy and clean up his mess all over your brain before your colleagues can catch a whiff.

Of course, others are to blame for inciting your pet, making him nag you just when that's the last thing you need. So you don't bother to train him, because it's really someone else's problem, not yours. Right? Well, that kind of rationalization only worsens his annoying habits. Believe me, I've been there.

My #1 Pet Peeve is a fairly common one: receiving something late when you haven't been warned in advance. It's usually a pet peeve that neat-and-tidy lovers of planning have, which is where I differ from the norm. My workspace is downright messy, and spontaneity stimulates me much more than meticulous preparation. Still, I've got this "lateness without warning" thing, and it can drive me crazy.

What have I done about it? Well, I decided long ago that a crusade against unannounced lateness would be just plain ineffective. So I picked up my little Chihuahua, took him out of my messy workspace, and gave him (well, me) some training. Here's where I am now:

1. I anticipate when my pet peeve will nag me. I usually get warning signs, often as simple as a colleague's failure to acknowledge an e-mail reminder as a deadline approaches. Willfully ignoring such signs, and hoping that people will reform their ways before my pet gets riled up, would be foolish. Instead, I exert whatever polite influence I can on folks in advance, accepting the limits. Then I envision what a late delivery will require of me, make a quick mental sketch of how to face that when the time comes, and move on. If my pet knows he can't blindside me, he often doesn't bother to nag at all.

2. I laugh at my pet peeve. Sometimes prevention doesn't work, and your pet is just the yappy little dog he is. If you give him the space to nag you briefly but step back to observe yourself in the moment, you'll see the comedy in it. The key is not to be irked by the fact that you're getting irked, for that makes it harder to be an observer. Don't be that guy on the street yelling at his unruly mutt as both man and beast get hopelessly tangled in the leash.

3. I reward my pet peeve for good behavior. When I succeed in not allowing my pet peeve to get to me, I throw myself a bone, usually in the form of a more rewarding, though still work-like, task that I've been saving up for the occasion. Writing this blog often does nicely.

4. I honor others' pet peeves. With a bit of reflection, it's usually possible to identify the little things that matter most to your colleagues and, by respecting those things, help your fellows to manage their own nagging demons. In the best of situations, you can even joke about it together as you walk your dogs.

What do you do to manage your #1 Pet Peeve? Training tips for all breeds are welcome.
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math to adults at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Mass., and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Mass.

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