Getting ahead of the game

Many, maybe most managers will tell you that their particular job is stressful, that they are often under more pressure than they enjoy, that they spend their time playing catch up. Activity-time analysis will often show that they are captured by the urgent, and the urgent is so insistent in barging to the front of the queue, that it crowds out the important. It is one of the great traps for managers, and for that matter, for everyone else too. However important a consideration is, unless at some point it also becomes urgent, there may be no guarantee it will actually be considered. Presumably, this is why most people who die in this country do so without having made a will.

The problem is too much pressure. One consequence is a feeling of inadequate time available, which results in poor prioritisation, and inadequately considered decisions. Those are solely the urgent decisions of course – the important ones might never get addressed at all, leaving the ship to be steered with great application towards who knows where?

Pressure also brings stress, which, above certain levels, will cause unhappiness and even ill-health. It is distracting, and saps valuable energy and motivation.

I have found only one way to crack this conundrum. It consists of firstly making sure that your work-load, and that of your subordinates is challenging but do-able, and no more. There is just no way around this need for a courageous conversation about what it is sensible to expect from anyone. The good news is that “courageous conversing” can be taught. Once a sensible work program has been agreed, the trick for me is how you approach the work.

There are three major aspects to it – optimising stress, and gaining thinking opportunities, by creating time in hand.

In any challenging but do-able program there is a more or less quantified amount of work. As far as the timing of delivery is concerned it is possible to work behind the game, or to get ahead of the game, or sit somewhere in between. Many people argue that being behind the game suits them best because the perceived shortness of time available to complete it concentrates their mind to the task. If you are one of such, do not complain about stress, because the level is that chosen by yourself, and it will be relatively high. If you don’t welcome such a high level of stress, I believe it is sensible to move towards the “Ahead of the Game” position, and here is my experience of why.

In the past I had become vaguely aware that there had been brief periods when I had achieved an exceptional satisfaction at work. I first experienced it in the familiar form of the deliberately-induced overload that starts a couple of weeks out from a holiday. I always wanted to ensure that my desk was cleared, or the work delegated properly, before heading for ski slopes or the beach. On the occasions I achieved this, I loved the feeling, which I thought was all down to excitement about the holiday. It wasn’t.

This pattern repeated itself on another occasion when my family went away on a trip. To pass the time there was little to do except work. So I worked, and kept on working, into the evenings, over the week-end, until (it had to happen eventually) I actually ran out of stuff to do. So I walked the job, and said hello to everyone, which took a lot of people by surprise, and continued to pounce on every piece of work as it came in. The holiday feeling came back! I liked this way of working, even when there was no holiday in prospect. I realised that somehow, once you had worked yourself onto the right side of the drag curve, it seemed possible to get the work done more effectively.

For the last few years, I have tried to keep to this principle of flying on the right side of the drag curve – getting ahead of the game. I have also spent time trying to understand how it works. There is no time to go into it in detail here, but getting ahead of the game creates time in hand, which delivers reduction in stress, along with valuable thinking time. Thinking time delivers further ways to work smarter, not harder. Thinking time also evolves choices; no-one is ever truly in control, but having choices is the next best thing. It morphs into a virtuous circle, the exact opposite of the worst aspects of being on the wrong side of the drag curve.

One word of warning though – when you’re ahead of the game and enjoying your time in hand thinking of smarter ways to work, be careful who you tell and how you put it. Not everyone is as enlightened as you, and giving them the impression you don’t have enough to do is not a smarter way to work!

© Peter Saxton

June 2012.