Time Management Under Extreme Pressure

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Let me guess. You’ve got 10 days to install 10 servers. Or two hours to get two copies of Exchange up and running. Or maybe you just have a thousand tasks on your “to do” list but only enough time for two of them.


I’ve been there—more than once. We all have. It’s the upshot of all the technology we use: Our lives move faster today than only a year ago. And they’ll move even faster tomorrow. With e-mails, pagers, cell phones, IM and all kinds of always-on toys, time has become the one thing that not even Google can find for you.


Sometimes, of course, it gets out of hand, and you’re forced to work under extreme pressure. Lucky for you, there are ways to cope with it and get things done fast.


The Two Cs
First, be calm. Nothing good ever happens to people who panic, and melting into a puddle won’t help you meet your deadline. Even worse, all the adrenaline that floods your bloodstream might give you health woes over time. So before you do anything else, breathe.


Next, see if you can cut a deal. Is your deadline really as tight as you think it is? Approach your boss, colleague or client and explain the problem. Explain the work that’s involved (use the Work Breakdown Structure described below) and how much time you really need. Ask for (or plead or beg or argue or demand) a new deadline. Sometimes a few days can make all the difference.


Work Breakdowns: The Magic Bullet
Many project managers write up a Work Breakdown Structure at the start of any project. It’s a kind of “to do” list with more detail—and thus more precision—than what you might be used to. And it can show you how much time you really need to get things done.


First, write out all the tasks that your project entails and be as detailed as you can. Next, group the tasks in logical order and estimate the time in man-hours that it takes to finish each task. (It might help to break tasks into sub-tasks and then estimate the time for each sub-task for precision.)


When you’re done, add up the time and divide the total by the number of man-hours you have in a given day. For instance, if you’re the only person assigned to a project and there’s nothing else on your plate, then you have eight hours to devote to the project per day. If there are five people assigned full-time to the project, then you have 40 hours, and so on. When you divide the project’s total time by the number of man-hours in a given day, the result is the number of days it will take to finish the job. It’s the kind of raw data you can use to convince your boss, colleague or client that your deadline request is based on precision, not opinion. (And speaking of precision, I should note that no Work Breakdown Structure, sadly, is ever as precise as we’d like it to be. Work always takes longer than planned, so be sure to add a cushion—10 percent to 30 percent, depending on the task—to each task that you list.)


The Wheat and the Chaff
Here’s a helpful tip: Get rid of half your work.


It’s a lot simpler than you think. Just ask yourself what’s really important, and be honest with the results. In truth, most of us pack our days with tasks that are merely helpful, useful or nice to see on paper, but do little to build the bottom line. Put another way, we often mistake motion for action, as Hemingway famously said, and we busy ourselves with movement that makes little progress.


If you’re in an extreme time pinch, first choose what’s vital—not what’s nice to have but what can’t be lived without—and focus all your efforts on it. In her best-seller “Never Check E-mail in the Morning,” time management guru Julie Morgenstern tells readers to do the tasks that are close to the cash line first. Do the work that makes money, saves money or moves your business forward, she says. All the rest is flotsam and can be saved for a day when there’s no one breathing down your neck.


Lock the Door
Sometimes the best way to finish your work is to get the rest of the world (or simply the rest of your office) out of your hair. If you have a laptop, take it to Starbucks and turn off your cell phone. You can finish reams of work between the first and last sip of a latté.
If, on the other hand, you’re office-bound with no way to escape, lock your door and let no one come in—on foot, by phone or by e-mail. If you’re a cubicle rat, find a quiet room (conference rooms do the trick) where no one will find you and use the time and silence to maximize output.


Of course, if you have a staff or simply a few extra people who can lend a hand, then you might want to become suddenly social. Delegate the work that you can, and enlist as many extra hands as possible. But don’t just assign tasks and expect your colleagues to finish them to your liking. Instead, give detailed instructions on your needs. Write out specs—even if they’re just back-of-an-envelope scribblings—and encourage people to ask questions. The time you invest up front is time you’ll save in the end by avoiding an ugly surprise or re-doing work that’s not what you need.


When Good Is Good Enough
The best, as the saying goes, is the enemy of the good.


How often do you spend extra minutes (or even days) perfecting a project in ways that only you will notice? How tightly do you tweak your code? Or fine-tune your hardware? If you’re like me, you take enough pride in your work to slave over it ad infinitum. Quality, after all, is more than a goal: It’s a habit, and among the best workers it’s even an ethic.


But it’s also a time pit, and as much as it pains the perfectionist to admit it, the highest levels of quality are not always needed. When the clock is ticking (and your boss is fuming), you need to finish what matters and leave the filigree and fine details for later. Or, to be blunt, you need to make things as good as they need to be, but no better.
Call it a dose of pragmatism. Call it working hard at working smart. Or call it a concept that’s more than a hundred years old: In the late 1800s, Vilfred Pareto, an Italian economist, argued that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of its people. Pareto was also a gardener and later noticed that 80 percent of his peas came from 20 percent of his garden’s pods.


Hence the 80/20 rule, also called Pareto’s Law. When applied to time management it reads as follows: 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your work, so focus on the big picture and leave the quest for perfection to people who have time for it.


Shaving With Occam’s Razor
From an Italian economist to an English monk: 600 years ago English logician and Franciscan theologian William of Occam put forth a notion that’s called, among other things, Occam’s Razor, the Principle of Parsimony and the Law of Economy. In a nutshell, it states that the simplest solution is often the best.


In business, most work is an attempt to solve a problem and Occam’s Razor is therefore used in all the business disciplines, from law to architecture to project management. How? Start by looking hard at your project plan. Does it call for the simplest, most direct route to a solution? Have you shaved off all the extras and pared your work down to its most essential form?


If you have, you’re well on your way to meeting your deadline, extreme as it is. You’re also finding solutions that are not only efficient, but also elegant. After all, it was Leonardo da Vinci—no slouch when it came to inventing some of the world’s best work—who said that simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication. It’s also the best way to get results.


David Garrett is a Web designer and former IT director, as well as the author of “Herding Chickens: Innovative Techniques in Project Management.” He can be reached at atdgarrett@certmag.com.

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