A sense of urgency

No doubt about it: a sense of urgency helps us make get things happen and get stuff done.

The problems come when we’re urgent about the wrong things:

  • We’re urgent as we approach big deadlines, but not about early thinking, or doing each of the little pieces that together make up the job;
  • We’re urgent about handling the problems in front of us, but far less about fixing root causes;
  • We’re urgent about about new projects or ‘initiatives’ (urgh), but not about running and maintaining the systems we’ve already got;
  • We’re urgent about the crises other people bring to us – and so create crises of our own;
  • We’re urgent about about one-off meetings and launch events, but not about the unglamorous rhythms of feedback and accountability;
  • We’re urgent about financial targets and metrics for our impact (lag measures), but not about the day-to-day activities (lead measures) that make achieving them possible;
  • We’re urgent about big events, birthday parties and anniversaries, but less about making sure that we spend enough good time with the people they’re about;
  • We’re urgent about scribbling last minute notes a before a presentation, but not about connecting with the people we’re there to serve;
  • We’re urgent about controlling our own workload, but not about helping our teams with theirs;
  • We’re urgent about getting jobs ticked off, but not about improving communication and building skills;
  • We’re urgent about work, and sometimes about exercise or leisure, but not about regular rest and reflection, and seeking peace.

Time on our hands: la durée

The idea is really just this: time on a watch is not the same as time in your head. An hour can fly by or seemingly drag for eternity. Time as we actually experience it, rather than as we measure it, is subjective.

We all know this intuitively, and our culture has idioms for it (“time flies when…”) but it’s helpful to remember that this phenomena occurs on both sides of a many of our interaction at the same time, and in opposite directions.

The rule seem to be that the more urgent, important, personal something is to us, the less comfortable waiting becomes, and the more slowly time seems to pass (i.e. the longer a given amount of time seems). Conversely, time goes faster and a given amount of time seems shorter when the opposite conditions are true. Quality of relationship – levels of trust, how positive our disposition towards the other, the history of the current “waiting” – plays into things, and cultural norms will shape our feelings too.

Note that none of this is “reasonable” – it’s just how we seem to work.

Conclusions and applications

  1. A reply to a message probably needs to go a bit earlier than you think to seem courteous and pronpt. In my case this means that the extra day’s delay in replying to messages that “can wait” is less okay than I think it is.
  2. The flip side of 1: you should take longer to assume you’ve been disregarded or snubbed.
  3. Remember that people reading novels exist in different time zones. “Reasonable response time” is twice as long as is usual… which will stretch to at least four times as long as seems reasonable to you if you’re looking after children and waiting for relief.
  4. Get off the phone / out of the bathroom faster than seems reasonable – especially if someone is waiting to use it.

This is all a long way of saying that it probably behooves us (and will almost certainly benefit us) a to be a little more attentive to others and respond a little faster, and to be a little more patient and forgiving.

Crunch time

… isn’t the push to meet a tight deadline, or what you do under pressure.

Crunch time is when you have a bit of time, space and discretion about what to do, and you don’t really feel like showing up.

  • It’s paying attention to people and processes when they’re doing well, long before they break down
  • It’s committing a bit of time every week to work on the important, non-urgent tasks that will bear fruit (or suddenly overwhelm you) down the road
  • It’s going to the gym and doing something when you feel a bit off-colour
  • It’s about being a pro – about showing up and shipping the work – rather than being ‘authentic‘ or following your feelings in the moment

Crunch time about is what you commit to, under what conditions, and how you set things up and get the work done long before the crisis, so that crunch time in traditional sense rarely happens.

If you can keep your momentum when you’re not feeling great, when your motivation wanes, when there’s an interesting distraction… then you’ve done most of the hard work. The easy days will take care of themselves.

The time and the energy

As in, “I don’t know where you get them.”

I can’t make more time*, and you almost certainly know more than I do about managing your energy. But here are a couple of thoughts about doing stuff – and having fun – that relate to both.

Diminishing costs

You can (and should) ‘create’ time and energy by saving them through eliminating things from your life.

But you can also save time and energy by doing more, or at least by doing the things you already do more often, because doing them often makes them easier. For lots of things this is simply because you get better at them, so they cost you less time, and often less energy. For other things, the habit of doing them reduces the emotional energy needed to get going, or even to decide to get going.

Some examples:

  • If you exercise regularly, it gets easier
  • If you travel all the time, packing bags and getting to the airport becomes automatic
  • If you blog every day, a blog post can take ten minutes to write instead of two hours.
  • If you make films regularly – if, say, it’s your job – you’re probably an order of magnitude faster than an amateur
  • Giving feedback – and having difficult conversations with people about their work – becomes much easier if you do it relatively frequently
  • Cooking is easier if you do it a lot – you think and look for stuff less and spend more time actually cooking

This is partly about having things set up (you know where your tools are and they’re ready to use when you want them), partly about skill and experience (you’re better at the things you do often, so you’re faster), and partly about decisions (you’ve decided more things in advance and can get straight into the work, rather than sitting around and wondering about what font to use or shoes to wear).

Increasing Returns

For many things things, doing them more also increases their value:

  • Sport and exercise is way more fun when you’re fit. All types of exercise – not just the one you do – become more fun. And as you get fitter you discover more energy and fun in the rest of the day.
  • The more you write about something, the more you have to say about it – the quality of your thinking and ability to express it increases too
  • Cooking is more pleasurable when you’re good at it… people compliment you on your cooking, so you enjoy it more, so you do it more…
  • Reading is more interesting, richer, funnier, more useful the more you’ve read
  • The more you contribute to an area of work (or play), the more rewarding your conversations and relationships become, and the more new people, ideas and opportunities come your way

Some of these are just side-effects of things getting easier, but many things benefit from positive feedback loops and network effects: doing things and making stuff leads you to new ideas, techniques and people, and new things become possible… leading to more new possibilities.

Outcome

If doing something becomes easier, relatively cheaper, faster and more convenient to do at the same time that it becomes more enjoyable and more productive, you’re a lot more likely to feel like doing it… so you’ll find ways to do it, and you’ll do it even when tiredness might have stopped you in the past. And then you’ve got momentum, so you’re less likely to stop… so you’re more likely to enjoy the rewards and do it more.

Voila: time and energy.

*Send me a private message if you do

Double time

There is never enough time.

There are theories about why we’re so bad at predicting how long things will take: the planning fallacy, Brooke’s law (admittedly a variation on the theme), and my personal favourite, Hofstadter’s law:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Others have written helpful things about how to mitigate this problem.* I propose a simple experiment: allow double the time you think you’ll need for all of your tasks in the coming week.**

Let me know how it goes.

*One of the more helpful approaches is to ask how long similar tasks have taken in the past.

**Not including tasks where you know how long they’ll take – in those cases, you’re not estimating.***

***If in doubt, though, you don’t know.

Matt Mullenweg on distributed work

Here’s a short video with Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic*. He talks a bit about lessons he’s learned in running a distributed company, and why he calls his workforce distributed rather than remote.

These are his tips for physical companies interested in transitioning to distributed work:

  1. Document everything – so that key information like the reasons for decisions are clear to those who weren’t in the room.
  2. Move communications online – “when everything’s shared and public, it allows new people to read through and catch up quickly.”
  3. Find the right tools – “If you look around the office, the things that change how you work probably aren’t objects anymore – they’re things you access through your computer. So test out and experiment with different tools for collaboration – see what works.”
  4. Create productive face-to-face time -Automattic holds an annual get together “half-work, half-play” to create the empathy and connection that helps the distributed team work together productively for the rest of the year.
  5. Give people the flexibility to create their own work environment – “Every person in Automattic has a co-working stipend… and a home-office stipend… so that they can have the most productive environment for them.

I feel wary of losing the connection and accountability that in-person work allows, but there’s a long list of potential upsides here – including a wider talent pool, greater diversity of perspectives, more time and flexibility for employees, huge savings on office space and other overheads that can be spent on other things – that make it worth thinking more deeply about this.

Today there are just a few companies that are distributed first, but if you fast-forward a decade or two I predict that 90% of the companies that are going to changing the course of the world are going to function this way. I think that companies will evolve to be distributed first, or they’re going to replace those that are.

Matt Mullenweg

See also: easier tomorrow

*the company which, among other things, makes WordPress.

Just in time (2): “I’ll just…”

There’s another kind of just in time. This is the kind when you lie to yourself: “I’ll just squeeze this extra thing in, and I’ll get there just in time.”

Pro tip: things that start with “I’ll just…” cost more than you think.

“I’ll just…” jobs usually end up taking longer, or they leave you dissatisfied because you didn’t do them well, or mean that you have to rush the next thing (like getting out the door), that you forget something, that you arrive late or flustered and on the back foot, that your thoughts and emotions are busy with something else. That you miss possibilities.

Next time you find yourself with ten minutes before you have to go and think “I’ll just write one more email” or “I’ll just check my messages”, count first what it’s actually going to cost in terms of time and emotional energy:

  • Is this a job that you can finish well and feel good about in two minutes (which probably means five to ten)?
  • Is it a job that you can leave – and feel happy about leaving – half done?
  • Is it worth the cost of energy and concentration and the likely rush later to squeeze it in?
  • Who is it going to cost? It will always cost you, and will usually also cost whoever you’re showing up for next.

Try this instead, for yourself and for them:

“I’ll just… leave ten minutes early, and enjoy the walk.”

Just in time (1)

There’s a good sort of just in time. We plan something, know what needs to happen and how, know what we need to do it well, when, where and with whom.

This kind of just in time feels great, with the right amount of tension for whatever it is we’re doing. Good training events feel tight like the skin of a drum – focused and snappy and free from clutter. There is time to share the material clearly, time to apply and discuss. There’s time and concentration to spare to tweak the way we present, double-check misunderstandings or discuss special cases. Time to focus and engage properly. The training starts and runs and finished – just in time.

Family events, trips to the market, airport departures, and collecting children from school all have their own ‘just in time’ feeling that comes from getting timings right, including time for traffic and coffee breaks along the way.

The thing about this kind of just in time is, you usually get it by allowing plenty of time – what feels like more than enough time – both to prepare and to deliver. You get it by allowing extra time for journeys and contingencies, and by allowing mental, emotional, social slack to compose yourself so that you arrive ready to participate, to perform or enjoy.