A question I frequently ask during my courses: Who thinks s/he works better under pressure?
On average about eight in ten raises their hands. They work better when the pressure’s on. When there’s a deadline to meet.
That quotation needs to be out the door by the end of today! Finish that presentation by noon! This project has to be completed by the end of the month! The flight has to be booked by 11am!
And with that familiar cocktail of blood, sweat and tears you manage to pull ahead just before the finish line. Under pressure, anything goes. You’re happy. Your boss is happy. The customer is happy. Everyone’s happy!
Well, except that your body and mind don’t like the stress and adrenalin rollercoaster you’re putting it through.
Some people are even addicted to certain levels of adrenalin. In order to get their fix, they tend to loaf about until the pressure has mounted up sufficiently to get their behind in gear. It’s called ‘procrastination.’
But how is it possible that work gets done faster when there’s you’re working against the clock? Which ingredient does a deadline add that wasn’t there before?
It isn’t quality. Most of my students agree that if you manage to do something in half the normal time, part of the gain comes from concessions to quality. Attention to detail, careful consideration, quality control and exercising due caution: it all takes time and the benefits aren’t directly evident. So we skip it. For now.
Oh yes, most everyone agrees that, in the long term, skimming on the quality of work doesn’t work, but it can be difficult (and time consuming!) to make this readily apparent. So, yes, but not now…
So what does having a deadline add?
We think we’re well-versed multi-taskers, so we tend to want to keep more and more plates spinning. In reality, though, we’re not multi-tasking but task switching. And task switching is pretty expensive, both in time and energy. But we don’t like (or dare) to say no, keep all options open, and try, for better or for worse, to keep all the plates up in the air.
But if you’re trying to meet a deadline,you have to fix your attention on that one glass platter. Implicitly you allow yourself to drop some of the less important ones, as long as this one keeps spinning. In other words, you allow yourself to concentrate all of your attention, all of your mental horse power, on finishing that one task.
No distractions. No task switching. No wonder you’re faster!
The only question I have is: why do you do this only when you’re under pressure? Especially if you know it improves neither the quality of your work nor the quality of your life? Doesn’t that mean you’re being led by someone else’s priorities?
If all goes well, technically, your mailbox be receiving this e-mail newsletter at about 5.30 am. [This weblog was born as one of my e-mail newsletters. If it helps, just act as if you’re reading this while still in bed. – Bert] A bit early in the morning, don’t you agree? But your mailbox won’t mind. The question, rather, is: when you do actually read this?
Start of day
Are you reading this message before breakfast? Is your smartphone or tablet the first thing you grab when you wake up?
More and more people use their smartphone as an alarm clock – apparently the friendlier wake up sounds make up for the risks – but does that automatically mean you need to look at your e-mail first thing in the morning? What’s the benefit of doing so? Is there anything you can do with and/or about it, while still in your pyjama’s? So what’re you doing with this here e-mail newsletter? Unsubscribe right away, because that dude is asking annoying questions?
Oh, so you’re just looking what has come in during the night. How is that knowledge going to help you, this early in the morning? Is that your idea of a great way to start the day, knowing what crises you’re going to face at work? Does that give you peace of mind during breakfast? Or are you going to skip breakfast now?
Start of work day
Or maybe you’re seeing this for the first time at the office. Is that how you start your day too, by diving straight into your e-mail? Come in, switch on computer, take off coat, grab some coffee, now let’s see what’s new in my e-mail?
You’re not the only one. Most people start their working day by checking e-mail. As if reading and answering e-mail is the most important thing there is! And so maybe there are two or three e-mails that need urgent attention; or maybe there are a few questions you can readily answer. Oh, but while answering those mails you recall that you have a few issues of your own that need someone’s attention, so let’s do those mails, now, too.
And before you know the morning’s mostly gone, and the rest of your day is taken up by meetings…
E-mail is seductive. Ding goes the computer, and the Pavlovian response is to go and check it out. We’re biologically programmed to take note of things that are new, or at least changing. But that doesn’t mean it’s wise to yield to that temptation. If you want to remain in control of your own work, you’d better learn to resist Outlook’s siren call.
The easiest yet most effective way is to not start your work day with your e-mail. Rather, use the first 30-60 minutes of your day to work on your own priorities instead of someone else’s. The two or three most important things you’d really like to have worked on today. If possible, determine and write down what those things are just before you leave at the end of the day.
You’ll notice that you can get a lot more done in these 30-60 minutes that during the rest of the day. Part of that has to do with still being fresh in the morning, but more importantly: your attention hasn’t yet been hijacked by whatever’s in your e-mail. Which means you can truly focus on the task that’s in front of you, and that means you’ll be way more efficient and effective.
Added bonus: once you’ve done those two or three things, whatever else happens: your day is made. After all, you’ve already done the two (or three) most important things for today.
A small change, but just try it. It’ll give a tremendous boost to your working day.
E-mail in the morning: it stinks!
Getting Things Done is a productivity methodology developed by David Allen of the David Allen company, and explained in a book from 2002 with the same title. Since that year, the GTD method has enjoyed an explosive growth. There are now thousands of weblogs dedicated to GTD, hundreds of books and articles and several spin-offs.