On Sunday morning, Daughter and I went to a local diner where the food is always good, but the service is often iffy. Our waitress had been somewhat unhelpful in the past, so I studied her this time around to learn why. Here’s what I found, based on her interactions with us and the tables nearby.

Longtime customers greet her warmly, and she seems to mean well. She knows the menu. But she has a nervous, scattered demeanor, doesn’t focus particularly well, and forgets things frequently. When she gets second and third requests, she answers them with “Oops, can’t believe I didn’t…” in an increasingly frustrated, puzzled, worried way. Not a confidence builder for customers.

She tenses up and sounds overwhelmed whenever things get hectic, shaking her head and complaining to other staff members about how busy it is. On the flipside, whenever it isn’t crazy-busy, she runs outside for a smoke.

Lack of Anticipation is Keepin’ Me Waitin’

The underlying theme of the waitress’s lackluster performance was her head-down approach. It wasn’t the kind of “heads down!” that happens when you’re on deadline, working with tremendous focus, will, and persistence — and you know exactly what you need to accomplish.

No, in this case, keeping her head down meant that this waitress was never, ever ahead of the game. She wasn’t scanning the room for what customers needed or preparing for what was likely to happen next. She didn’t even look to see who wanted more coffee — as is standard diner practice — and if anyone with an empty cup happened to flag her down, she’d flag the busboy instead of topping off the cup herself.

She didn’t check her tables, so customers had to wait for her if something was missing. And since she didn’t come around to see if customers were satisfied and enjoying their food, she never knew when it was time to leave the bill — an especially ineffective practice on a crowded weekend morning.

There’s no possible way that this waitress understands how much more pleasant her customers’ meals could be, or how much more on top of things she could be — and therefore how much calmer she would actually feel — if only she learned to anticipate a little.

Avoiding Problems Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t There

Keeping her head down is a way of avoiding trouble: If someone catches the waitress’s eye, they’ll want something from her and she’ll be on the hook for one more thing and begin feeling overwhelmed again, all of which she dreads. But her work could be more manageable and less painful if she would stay just a step ahead instead of running a step behind, always playing catch-up.

How could you avoid trouble on the job? By looking carefully to make sure nothing’s wrong, and dispatching problems swiftly when they occur, you save yourself from the constant stress of hoping that trouble won’t find you. You may as well deal with problems right away, while they’re still small, because you’ll have to deal with them eventually anyway — in a bigger and more difficult form.