Life / Can Do

Helpful tips to living a better life

Dealing With Pressure : A Real Life Case Study

with 2 comments


Currently I’m under a lot of pressure to complete a project by a certain date. I have 2 weeks to do about 4 weeks of computer programming. How I got into this situation is another story but for now we’ll focus on techniques I’m using to handle it.

Stop taking on new work

The first step I took was to communicate to the rest of the team that I needed to focus all my attention on the current project. I made it clear that I would be unavailable to take on any new tasks until it is complete. That alone decreased my potential workload by about 30%. I let everyone know when I expected to be done and available.

Breakdown the work into manageable tasks

I then did an analysis of the work that needed to be done and broke it down into manageable tasks. This is something I would do under normal circumstances but it would be especially important when time is limited. I then estimated how long it would take to do each task in hours to get an idea of how many hours I would actually need. I compared that with how many hours I could reasonably work in the remaining days to see if it was even feasible.

Prioritize the tasks and determine the exit criteria

With the list of tasks in hand I then assigned a priority to each. I used a 1 to 4 prioritization but A,B,C,D could work just as well. In addition I labelled those tasks that absolutely must be done as “Exit Criteria”. Anything that was not labelled as an exit criteria would be done only if time allowed. You’d be surprised at how much work we take on that doesn’t really need to get done so determining the exit criteria is a way to separate the “must have”s from the “nice to have”s.

Trim as needed

Trimming work is an important part of any project. I looked at what needed to get done and looked for ways to reduce the amount of work needed to complete each task. I’d look at a task and try to see if there were a quicker way to accomplish what was needed than what I have originally intended. Often, I would find a task that needed 8 hours could be reduced to 2 or less by taking a different approach. I may even find ways to use work that I had done before rather than starting from scratch.

Delegate everything you can

There were a number of analysis tasks that I would have normally have taken on myself but with the time crunch I just let someone else on the team handle it. This may involve given another employee a chance to take on more responsibility than usual, which is a great way to contribute to their growth. I had a business analyst do tasks such as tracking down some crucial details that I needed for the project, meeting with users, updating documentation, hosting technical meetings. That was stretching his abilities a bit but he’s handling it better than I had hoped.

The business analyst said something I found quite wise and amusing related to working with people from another group.  He said, “Tim, let me talk to them. They should be more willing to help me because they will know I am in over my head.” Here a case where someone used their own limitations to our team’s advantage. It really is an awesome feeling when you work with good people.

Know your limitations

You would think being in a time crunch would mean working non-stop until the project got done. Actually it doesn’t work that way. There have been studies that has shown team that work excessive amounts of overtime take longer than teams that work a reasonable amount of hours. This may not apply to tedious, mindless work but it does for anything that requires focus, creativity and intelligence. When time is limited it is important to be focused when working.

Yesterday I had planned on putting in a long day, but after working for 9 hours I could tell my productivity was starting to slip so I stopped. It takes a lot of energy to think so once you start to get tired even relatively simple tasks can take much longer to do.

Even during those 9 hours I had to take little breaks. I would stop every hour to stretch, breathe and clear my head. At lunch time, I ran on my treadmill for 30 minutes before having a light lunch (big lunches are productivity killers).

Focus on one thing at a time

With all I have to do, it is tempting to try to do multiple things at once. I resist that temptation because, it is next to impossible to multitask. The brain is just not built that way. When people talk about the ability to multitask what they are really talking about it the ability to switch between tasks quickly, otherwise known as context switching. While building this skill is important it is important to recognize that context switching comes with a cost.

Try reading a newspaper article and when you get to the middle stop and switch to another article. When you get to the middle of the second article switch back to reading the first. You will notice that you need some time before you get your bearings on the first article, you may even have to re-read a sentence or two before you can continue. The time spent doing that is one cost of context switching but it is only one cost. As you continue reading the first article, you may notice your mind thinking about the content of the second. Lost focus is the other cost.

It is important to focus on one task as long as you can or until you finish that task. That is also why it is important to break work down into manageable tasks that can be completed in one sitting or less. You leave a task half done and it may stick in your mind until you get a chance to get back to it.

Keep your head clear

If you have anything on you mind, unrelated to the task, that is bugging you, you should schedule a time to address that issue later. If you start thinking about a birthday party that you need to plan, while working on an urgent task, stop for a moment and jot down an entry in the scheduler of your choice to work on that later. Once scheduled you know longer have to worry about forgetting it. It may not be completely off your mind but it won’t be as intrusive.

I have a few unrelated tasks that I need to work on later. They are important to me so I picked a day and time on my calendar and scheduled a meeting with someone else who is involved. Now I can put it out of my mind and just focus on what I need to get done for the urgent project. Even as I write this I had to think back to what it actually was because it is no longer something I’m worried about. I know I have a time set with a reminder that will let know when I have to focus on it. It is so far out of my mind I honestly don’t remember what date I picked. I just know it is going to be handled in the future.

Assess your progress

This morning when I got back to work I took a few minutes to assess the work I had completed the night before. I was pleasantly surprised to find I had done the same amount of work in one day that it would have usually taken me three days to complete, maybe more. With at least a 3 to 1 ratio I am confident I will complete the project on time.

If I was so productive, why not work that way all the time. I wish it were that easy. The problem with maintaining that level of productivity is that it isn’t sustainable, at least not by me and not at this point in my life. I had to block out my schedule and reduce time spent on other commitments. Life has a bit of flexibility when dealing with extreme situations but if you don’t let it bounce back, stuff can start to break.

Remember what’s important

If you work with good people and have a supportive family they will understand that when you need to commit to something for a period of time. However, if you do that too often or for too long you risk damage to relationships. Coworkers will start to resent your lack of teamwork and family will feel neglected.

The goal should be to complete the urgent project as soon as you can so that you can get back to meeting all your commitments. Even when working on the urgent project you still need to find some time for family and friends.

Today my daughter stopped me in the kitchen and wanted to sing a song that she learned at daycare. I had been going to my computer to finish something, but instead, I pushed that aside and put all my focus on hearing my little girl sing. The song was simply all the months in the year done to a tune ending in a few lines of verse. I was delighted that she could now recite all the months. It the grand scheme of things, I’ll remember Emma singing this song much longer than the project I’m working on. It is just more important to me than one work project out of the hundreds I’ll probably do in my career.

If I hadn’t taken the time with my daughter I would have had a nagging feeling in my heart when I got back to work. That feeling would have weighed me down and hurt my focus. Even if I were to still finish the project on time, how good would I feel knowing what it cost me. I’m not saying that I am always there for my family – I still need to make a living – but I will be there if they need me.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 21, 2012 at 9:31 am

2 Responses

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  1. Great ending.

    John Northcutt Young

    January 21, 2012 at 9:52 am

  2. Good Luck Tim. I think your planning has greatly increased your chances of being “lucky.”

    Manage Better Now

    January 21, 2012 at 10:02 am

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