Growth and the Panic Response

Having given presentations in the past on time management (for example, my recent talk at Freelance Camp TO), I started to wonder about people’s abilities to manage their time well. What I discovered, though, through watching specific companies and people struggle with time management, is that even people who are good at managing their time can hit a wall, and typically for a single reason.

People who are good at time management have learned how to allocate their time and attention to what they need to work on, and how to delegate the rest to people around them. As the number and the nature of the items demanding their attention changes, so does the nature of what they can delegate, and who the people are to whom they can delegate to.

However, when there is a sudden change in the sheer volume of items to be dealt with, even this system will break down, until a new equilibrium is established. Eventually, of course, the status quo becomes capable of handling a fairly large volume of fluctuation in demands on a person’s attention.

During the sudden increase, though, even people who are good at managing their time will struggle, since they will have more work in front of them than they can manage (there is a limit on the number of hours in the day) and will not yet have the infrastructure around them to handle the excess. Until they can get more people near them to whom they can delegate tasks, the volume of work can become daunting to the point of panic.

The good news is that this breakdown in effectiveness is caused by success – that is, more people want to give you the type of work you want to do.

The good news is that once you figure everything out, you will be positioned to grow your position even further.

The bad news is that you have to figure out how to handle your workload in the interim.

It was suggested to me by a colleague that the approach he has found useful is to first assign some time to panic, perhaps 15 minutes. He goes for a walk, or reads some news items, or does anything other than actually work. At the end of that time, he picks one item from his list of things to do and works on that. He then picks something else. He may not finish the first item, but he forces himself to be productive, and to focus on that item alone. The time for panic has passed.

This process may continue for hours, days, or weeks. But the panic itself has been allocated its own space, and has been given priority over other tasks, because it can hamper you until you deal with it.

So get the panic out of the way, and then just pick something from your list of things to do and finish it. When you’re done, you can move onto the next thing. But the panic has been dealt with.