You work late most days. Always burning the “midnight oil,” as my dad used to say.
Written by Darren A. Smith for Forbes.
Stressed and always up against a deadline. Yet, you manage to pull a masterstroke each time. A rabbit out of the hat. A last-minute rabbit, but nailed all the same. And when people ask you about it, you say, “I do my best work under pressure.”
Sorry to say, you don’t.
Deadlines are a part of working life. A big customer presentation on Thursday, a report to be filed by Monday, or a meeting to prepare for. Deadlines. We wouldn’t be without them. Companies could not function without them. Yet there we are again and again and again, working right up to the wire, supposedly doing our best work.
But it’s not.
In fact, when we’re overwhelmed or filled with anxiety, we may experience brain freeze, making decision-making more difficult.
It’s possible we work this way because of learned behavior. We may learn how to manage stress from our parents, or how to manage deadlines from our colleagues. Plus, let’s remember that working last minute can be exciting, with our heart beating fast, struggling to get it all done, followed by the euphoria of skidding past the finish line and high-fiving everyone in sight. But it comes at a cost. The cost is stress. The furthest thing from well-being, mindfulness, and contentment.
So, Why do We do it?
I believe it’s often because we don’t trust ourselves. The alternative way of doing things means that we have to trust ourselves.
At some point in the past, we have all likely worked on something ahead of time. For some reason that we cannot fathom, but we managed it nevertheless. Let’s say it was a PowerPoint presentation for a client. We had two weeks until the big important pitch. Maybe we found ourselves working on the slides one week before the deadline. Then the inevitable happened. We started tinkering: “That font could be bigger,” “I’ll just adjust those images,” “Maybe we should have a better theme.” And then it really happens: “Hold on, wouldn’t it be great to include a piece of research to really drive home the messages about shoppers’ needs? Can we get a big piece of research completed with 200 customers by next Thursday?”
This was the point we said, “never again.”
The trouble is that for something important, like a big pitch to a customer, we want to do our very best. Our very best means that, given all the time in the world, we have a lot of great ideas we could make happen. Things we want to include to make it even more compelling. This is why we often work under pressure up to the deadline. We might not trust ourselves not to do this. If we have the time, we’ll use it.
Once we hear the presentation date, our subconscious is busy calculating now until the deadline. Calculating and working out the time to do our current workload, the time we have available until the deadline, meetings to attend, emails to write and reply to, stuff at home, etc., etc. The final result is that, if we start on Tuesday at 6 p.m. and pull an all-nighter, that gives us 13.5 hours to screech home to the deadline at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday!
Not ideal, but true.
Changing this behavior is hard. Why should we? It works, sort of. The way I see it, the first step is recognition. We need to know that we are doing this. The second step is accepting the consequences: stress, and lots of it, on top of an already demanding job. The third step is knowing that if we want to lead, then by being last minute, there is a ripple effect across our team and the business. Our last minute becomes their last minute, which becomes the junior staff member’s last minute, and so on. This may begin to create a culture where last-minute work is the only way. It’s not.
We need to lead by example, and there are three habits I’ve found to help in doing so:
1. Get the hare running. When you have a deadline, begin with the first simple and practical action. Email Bob asking for the data. Alan Lakein, the grandfather of time management, described this as poking a single hole in Swiss cheese.
2. Resist the urge to tinker. Tinkering has its consequences. Stop doing it.
3. Write a simple objective. Check back against that objective and accept “good enough.” When it is good enough, leave it.