Pushing Too Hard

May 24, 2010 by
Filed under: People, Quality, Teamwork 

We often make commitments to get things done within a given timeframe. Whether the time constraint was handed to you or you chose it is moot, as long as you have agreed to the commitment. If that time commitment is firm, and you find that it is not looking possible at some point, strange things start to happen.

Some commitments are indeed impossible to achieve. If you think about any estimate of how long it will take to get something done, you are really talking about an asymmetric probability curve. There is some finite time that is the absolute minimum time required to get the job done, then the curve sharply rises in to the area that is most likely for the task, then it slowly tapers off, long into the distance (some activities, for a variety of reasons, never do get finished). You may really be talking about that curve, but few people think about it in that way. Inevitably, what you are speaking comes out as a single date: that commitment.

It’s been shown that we tend to underestimate things by roughly 1/3, mostly because we don’t take into account everything we should consider, partially because of our optimistic nature. When we take into account the dance of trying to meet aggressive deadlines, it is easy to see that we can quickly be negotiated into a time that is shorter than the absolute minimum, even if historical data says that we’ve never done it this fast in the past. Sometimes the goal of avoiding a tough discussion about the practicality of a time commitment wins out, sometimes we really think that if we’re fast and efficient, we can actually do it.

Regardless of how you got to that point, and regardless of whether it truly is impossible or just appears that way, you can find yourself in that difficult situation. You may have met the first few deadlines, but at what cost? The hours invested in the project have gone way up, into an area that may not be sustainable over the long haul. You may have sacrificed other activities to meet those goals. Nerves have started to fray, and you can see other signs of stress as well. It can be a slippery slope at this point if you are not careful.

One of the things that can happen here is a significant drop in productivity. Often, though, this can be as much a perceived drop as an actual drop. It may be that you are not as productive as you would like to be, even if you are as productive as you reasonably can be. These are two very different things, common only in that there is a gap between desired and actual productivity. Recognize that we all have limits, and it is quite possible that the gap is a result of the expectation being inappropriately high. Don’t knock yourself for not being able to achieve the impossible.

Another thing that can happen is that the quality of the product you produce diminishes. As we push hard, we tend to cut corners (intentionally or not), and some of those short-cuts will be the wrong ones to cut. That quality suffers should not be a surprise: if this happens, it is clear evidence that the true priority for the effort is time, regardless of what other dimension might be implied.

There are steps you can take to help ensure that things don’t get worse. Break the bigger tasks down into smaller chunks that are more easily digestible, as a big list of relatively easy things is easier to face than a huge mountain that is less well defined. Celebrate those little victories as well.

Track your time, as historical data is your strongest weapon against expectations that truly are impossible. Knowing halfway through that the effort is going to be much more than expected is sobering, but it also allows us to have the right conversations. Discuss as a team how to get through the challenge, you may be surprised how much a team can pitch together to achieve difficult things, compared to simply buckling down and working more. Often, if nothing else, working through things with the team can help with your morale, as you find that you’re not alone in your assessment of the situation. That in itself can be better than the self-doubt that can creep in by going it alone.

Even if it doesn’t look like you have the time to take a break from the action periodically, take a break from the action periodically. Do something you like to do, something that takes your mind away from the problem. I don’t know of a single study that suggests that you’ll get twice as much done working 16 hours as you do when you work 8 hours – far from it. Even in those long days, a few real breaks here and there will allow you to come back to the table refreshed, and often unstuck from what you were struggling with before. Spend at least some time in your comfort zone, every day: the grounding is critical.

Most of all, be absolutely sure that you learn from this experience. Whether you seem to be in this state of overload constantly or only once every few years, step back and ask yourself if this is worth it. Think about the things that happened that allowed you to get to this point: things you did, things you didn’t do. Capture the data, and capture the feelings about the experience. Clearly identify what you need to do differently next time, so you don’t end up in the same spot again. This too shall pass. – JB

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One Response to “Pushing Too Hard”

  1. Peter Rawsthorne on May 25th, 2010 9:05 am

    As usual, Jim has provided a very mature look into deadlines and IMO managing expectations (our own and others). One passage I remember frequently comes from a Kent Beck book about extreme programming. The idea being if you work hard every day and genuinely do your best [this is a question you need to answer (with rigorous honesty) for yourself] then you can do no better. Then you need to look at the project and others expectations to deal with the deadlines… eliminating yourself as an uncertain variable can be helpful, and motivating.

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