“I work better under pressure.”
I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard this. Many people seem to think they work best under pressure. Of course, they always seem to say it just before they’re about to work all night to finish (or start) a project that’s due the next morning.
As a manager, if I knew my staff was working on important projects, proposals, or reports in the middle of the night, rushing to meet a deadline, I’d likely be very impressed with their dedication – and scared to death of what they were going to deliver. I know that I never get anyone’s best work when they’ve been up 24+ hours. I also don’t deliver my best work with little sleep either.
Of course, there are always situations that will call for herculean efforts at the last minute. But I’m not talking about those exceptions. I’m talking about the increasingly common putting-off of everyday activities until the last possible moment.
For years, I’ve wondered why people keep doing this to themselves. I don’t know if it’s reality or just my perception, but the “Panic Scramble” seems to be more prevalent than ever before in my client organizations.
The Time-Honored Wasters
Of course, it isn’t “new” behavior for folks to wait until the last minute. I’m sure we all knew people in school who waited until 2 days before a paper was due to even begin, or who began studying the night before a big test. It was likely us! Although I’m not a social scientist, it seems reasonable that it’s human nature to put off disagreeable tasks as long as possible.
The other motivator at work here is our tendency to accept more than we can handle; perhaps as a result of peer pressure or as a result of our need for inclusion. When someone includes you on more projects – especially if that someone is your boss – it might be difficult to say no. Being “included” is an indication of respect, competency, acceptance, and approval of your worth. It’s also flattering and soothing to your ego. But being included also means more work. More meetings. More projects. More tasks. More reports. More staff. More, More, More.
Many people don’t know when or how to say “no”.
The New Intruders
If those old-time intruders weren’t enough, electronic communications overload has exploded in the last 20 years. With the advent of phone, video, Internet, email, text, tweets, posts, chat, etc. our work and personal lives have become blended like never before.
How many of you have been in a room where people are using their smart phones or tablets to text or check email during a meeting? I see it almost every day – and it’s becoming an acceptable distraction.
It’s now possible to have multiple active conversations going at the same time. You can be texting 3 different people, Skyp-ing 3 others, checking your email, and having a phone conversation. In addition, those can be a mix of work conversations as well as personal. You could be visiting with your sister or best friend right in the middle of a meeting. You couldn’t do all of that 20 years ago in the workplace.
While I often hear people say, “I’m a good multi-tasker” research has proven that people can concentrate on only one thing at a time. When you’re focused on emails or a text, you’re not focused on your meeting. When you are bombarded with time intruders, your ability to stay focused and your productivity both decrease.
Awhile back, I was visiting with an executive about a project – he had asked for the meeting and I was available for only a 30-minute time slot. Just as we were discussing his most critical issue, his phone rang. He looked at it and said, “Let me see who this is real quick.” LET ME SEE WHO THIS IS??? Are you kidding me? If the VP will interrupt his own critical-issue meeting because he can’t ignore an unknown distraction, what’s his attention span going to be for a meeting that you call?
The Results Influence the Behavior
In school, if you waited until the last minute to write your paper or study for a test, the results probably influenced your behavior moving forward:
- If you received a good grade, your behavior was reinforced and it’s likely that you would wait until the last minute in the future
- If you received an unacceptable grade, you either stopped waiting until the last minute, or you adjusted when the “last minute” starts – maybe panicking and starting the project 4 hours earlier
Here’s what really happens when you wait until the last minute: you remove all of the time intruders. You turn off your phone, shut your door, cancel meetings, don’t eat dinner, etc. You stop communicating with the outside world – even telling your co-workers, friends, and family to leave you alone so that you can get this task done.
You focus on the task at hand – and nothing else. Your productivity seems to soar as you tear through the project; writing the newsletter articles, finishing the report, creating the graphics – and you finish with only minutes before the deadline.
What distractions did you have during your all-nighter? None. Who called you? No one. What emails did you reply to? None; because you turned off your email when you started.
Imagine how much less anxious you could be if you could apply that focus to a project well before its deadline. Imagine how productive you could be if your time and work was that focused all the time. It can be, but only if you really work at making it so.
Manage the Intruders; Don’t Let Them Manage You
Is it possible to eliminate the intruders and find more focused quality time? Of course it is – but it might be difficult. The two biggest challenges are:
- Finding ways to ignore the intruders
- Having the discipline to keep them out
By far, I believe the more difficult is the discipline to keeping out the intruders. You are constantly bombarded by emails that pop up on your phone, text messages, people stopping by your office, more status meetings, etc. In many organizations, it’s perfectly acceptable for someone to walk into any office with an open door – even if the occupants are in the middle of a meeting.
Here are some suggestions:
- Block out time on your calendar for your own work – and keep these appointments
- Don’t send/read text messages during work hours
- Put your smart phone in the desk drawer
- Allocate 2 daily 30-minute blocks to reviewing emails
- Establish a rule that there are no walk-ins on meetings, even if your door is open
- Instruct everyone to turn off phones/email for the duration of meetings
Are these difficult? They are; especially if you’re used to having your nose in your smart phone all day. When I make these suggestions to clients, I often hear these remarks:
- What if I get an email that needs an immediate reply?
- What if they need to talk to me right away?
- But I’m waiting for something critical.
- I don’t want to be rude by not replying.
- The team can’t move forward without my decision.
- It just takes a couple of minutes to read and reply to an email.
Here’s the reality:
What if you were on an airplane for five hours and people couldn’t get in touch with you? Could the world possibly go on? It could and it would. If something is so critical that it requires your immediate attention no matter what else you’re doing, someone will call you, find you, hunt you down, or wait for you.
If you don’t take control of the time intruders they will control you. You will find yourself working harder and longer to keep up. Think about the distractions you have and ways to take control of your time. If you can eliminate the intruders, you’ll find yourself more focused, accomplishing more, and eliminating the last-minute panic.