Everything I Need to Know to Work Effectively I Learned in Preschool


We can create fancy visions of the purposeful work we want to do, but if we can't execute on a day to day basis, our big scheme is worthless. Funny enough, we learned how to do our days right way back in preschool.

How do I know? Because my daughter, K, is there now, and her preschool parent-teacher conference occurred last week. As I read over her teacher's notes (presented in a a beautiful portfolio, no less - call it the annual review for the Lollaloopsie set), I noticed a ton of parallels to what I was reading in Alexandra Levit's book "A Twentysomething's Guide to the Business World:  They Don't Teach Corporate in College."

Levit might be correct that effective work skills are skipped in college...but they're not missed in preschool! Here's a refresher:

1. Express Yourself

In the fall, K's teacher wrote the following goal in her portfolio:  "asserting needs and wants and begin to negotiate conflicts with peers."

Who among us doesn't need that written in our "annual goals" sheet?!

Those of us who are terrific at negotiating conflicts tend to be awful at the other end of the spectrum. Just call us the doormats.

And many of us are excellent at making our needs and wants known, but conflicts boil everywhere we go. i.e., The steamrollers.

Apparently millennials have a reputation as more the latter:

"One of the most common complaints I hear about twenty-something employees is that they think they know everything and don't hesitate to convince others of this at every opportunity." - Alexandra Levit

How to curb that? As K's preschool teacher might say, listen first and then speak second. And when we speak, we should present our full and honest truth without accusing or judging someone else.

K is marked as "still practicing" that skill. How about you?

2. Know What Needs to Get Done

If there's anything K is good at, it's prioritizing.

Sorting plastic eggs into baskets repeatedly? Urgent and important. (Category 1)

Hanging out with her friend Clementine in the reading corner? Non-urgent and important. (Category 2)

Eating dinner because mom is on her back about it? Urgent and non-important. (Category 3)

Watching Thomas the Train? Non-urgent and non-important. (Category 4)

Levit suggests we get as clear as K about categorizing our daily tasks:

"If you're been spending your days running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you are probably spending 90 percent of your time in Categories 1 and 3, and you might have noticed totally irresponsible people who hang out permanently in Category 4. When you master effective time management, you stay out of Category 4 and decrease the time spent in Categories 1 and 3 to allow more time for Category 2." - Alexandra Levit

No wonder K would rather spend time with her little buds than do just about anything else. She's a time management extraordinaire. I could learn a thing or two....

3. Practice Your Manners

Of course we should say "please" and "thank you." That etiquette gets us ahead in any setting.

To take our manners to the next level, though, we need to practice making others feel good about themselves, according to Levit (and K's teachers...)

"Be generous with your compliments, but make sure they're sincere. Empty flattery is, in many ways, worse than criticism. Don't praise every move someone makes, and when you do give a compliment, put substance behind the statement so it's meaningful to the person. The most effective compliments focus on specific actions or facts rather than vague generalities or assumptions." - Alexandra Levit

When was the last time you complimented someone concretely and sincerely? K did it just last night ("Mommy, I like those doggies on your pajamas. They are so cute!").

Hear that? A preschooler is showing you up. Time to get your complimenting on!

4. Communicate Well

Levit encourages twentysomethings to embrace the "C&C rule" of communication:  clear and concise.

Having sat in K's circle time when a child decided to drone on about his trip to visit grandma four months earlier apropos of nothing, I can attest that K's teachers would approve of Levit's rule. ("That's a nice story," one of them said, gently interrupting the boy. "Can you tell it to me later?")

Stated in a way that's appropriate for us adults:

"Whether you're writing a routine email or a quarterly business plan, offer only the necessary information and be prepared to provide supplemental material." - Alexandra Levit

5. Control Your Frustration

We all know the preschool version of poor frustration control. It looks something like a kid screaming and bashing hands while his or her parent tries to melt into the floor. (If you were in the checkout line in a certain Wal-Mart in Maine last Thursday at 6pm and saw a dark-haired girl with her mom, then you know exactly what I mean.)

Alexandra Levit explains that "a key ingredient in frustration is the lack of control that a person perceives for the outcome of their work."  People who believe they control their fate (an internal locus of control) "are more persistent and work longer and harder to get what they need or want," than those who feels like victims of life (an external locus of control).

Put plainly, the internal loci folks effectively manage their frustration.

According to Levit, we can build our frustration tolerance just like we do in preschool:  by consistent exposure to irritating situations.

In other words, that long Wal-Mart checkout line was good for my daughter. And that painfully boring meeting you just sat through? That was good for you.

What did you learn in preschool that you now use (or should use...) in your workplace?

Want more tips? I highly recommend Levit's book. While I've had fun drawing parallels to what we learned WAY back when in preschool, the reality is that she includes information that is essential for workplace success - and that we all too often forget to use.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks