The Perils of Time Pressure

We live in a society that values being busy. A typical response to “How are you?” is either “Busy,” “Swamped,” or “Things are so crazy right now.” The less time you have, the more important you seem.

by Craig Dowden

Illustration by Goñi Montes, Decatur, USA

This mentality is particularly evident in workplaces, where the number of hours worked is often assumed to signify one’s value as an employee. In these cases, employees often sacrifice work-life balance to prove their dedication to their organization. However, research shows that lacking free time or feeling consistent time pressure can significantly impact how we interact with other people – and how we perform at work. When we are too busy, we pay less attention to the world around us and we are less likely to fully engage in our tasks at the office.

A classic study highlights the impact of time pressure on helping behavior. The results are fascinating – time pressure was the only factor that affected the helping responses of the participants. Of those who were told they were late for their talk, only 10 percent stopped to help, compared to 63 percent of participants who were given more time. In fact, some of the “late” participants literally stepped over the “victim” to continue on their way to deliver their talk on the Good Samaritan. Researchers concluded that “ethics become a luxury” as the pace of our lives speeds up. Simply, we believe we can sacrifice ethics because we do not have the time to think of others. Although this study is almost 40 years old, it remains relevant as we continue to race through our days at ever-increasing speeds. Similarly, a 2013 study in the British Medical Journal demonstrates the impact of time pressure on our work quality. In this case, researchers presented a group of general practitioners with two different clinical scenarios. In the first instance there was no time pressure, while in the second a sense of urgency was introduced. Interestingly, there were significant differences in the quality of care provided to the patients. Leaders may do well to consult with their teams about how much time is reasonably required to complete their various projects. Facilitating an open dialogue about the issue can bring clarity and a sense of calm. Clarify project timelines and ensure employees are able to meet them. These discussions can also allow team members to focus on the work at hand instead of being distracted and haunted by looming unreasonable deadlines. Inevitably, some projects will emerge with urgent and immovable timelines. In these cases, sit with your team and talk about how to optimize the time available. Discuss strategies to be more efficient. Think about ways to share the load. This can help reduce the anxiety associated with elevated pressure. If additional work is required to complete a time-sensitive project, ensure that people know this situation is temporary. Employees may feel overwhelmed if they believe that high-pressure situations will continue for long periods of time or have become standard practice within the organization. This type of pace is not sustainable. We need to reassure people that this too shall pass. Operating within a time-pressured environment has become the norm, and we need to identify ways to control our time rather than letting our time control us. Our engagement and performance will benefit from time management practices, particularly initiating conversations to reframe time constraints as well as openly discussing ways to manage exceptional circumstances. Make time your friend rather than your enemy. Getting caught up in the race of the world around us can interfere with the core values and passions that drive us. Our professional behavior should reflect our personal principles, and time pressure should not be allowed to change that. Maintaining your values and principles in the face of imminent deadlines can be a challenge, but it is worth it – every time

Run, Run, Run!

by Ronald Riggio

The world in which we work today is fast paced. Improved technology allows us to communicate at lightning speed and to be more efficient and productive. As a result, the demands on our time are great and there never seems to be enough time in the day, or days in the week, to get everything done.

A fast-paced work environment can be overwhelming. Change is constant. New products come and go. In many organizations and in many jobs there is great uncertainty and a lack of structure. Entrepreneurial start-ups and creative jobs and organizations (advertising, marketing, research and development, etc.) all require workers who can deal with ambiguity and the changing nature of the work environment. The result is a very complex, ever-changing environment. There is a psychological construct – a personality dimension – known as “tolerance (intolerance) for ambiguity.” This means that people vary along this continuum according to how comfortable they are with unstructured environments. Some people adapt well to ambiguity and thrive, others have a more difficult time. Regardless of our ability to handle ambiguity, what can we do in order to adapt to our complex work environments and allow us to do more in less time (or what we perceive as less time)?

Here are some strategies:

1. Have a work plan. In the same way that a company has a business plan, a worker needs to have a work plan to help guide and direct work activities. Schedule tasks throughout the days, weeks and months. However, you need to build in flexibility. You can’t let setbacks get you down. Build in some extra time to take care of emergencies or issues that come up that might need your immediate attention.

2. Set goals. Part of your work plan should be the setting of concrete, measurable goals. Goals should specify which tasks are to be completed and a time frame for completion. Rather than setting firm deadlines, which can lead to pressure and stress, allow a period of time to reach goals. For example, you might have an “ideal” date/time for completing a project, a “realistic” completion date, and an “absolute” deadline.

3. Reward and celebrate small wins. Research suggests that we work best and are best motivated when we have smaller, achievable outcomes. Take a break after reaching a goal or completing a part of a project. Pause and reflect and recognize your accomplishment. Then, move forward with renewed energy.

4. Organize your work day. Develop a consistent daily work schedule and stick to it. If a typical work day consists of some writing tasks (e-mails, reports), some one-on-one meetings and some data processing/record keeping, set aside specific times each day to complete each category of task. The regularity of a consistent schedule ensures that each category of work will be completed and makes it less likely that certain tasks will be overlooked.

5. Learn to delegate effectively. Learn which tasks can be delegated and which need your personal attention. The worker who tries to do everything alone is not only overloaded and overstressed but is doing a disservice to subordinates by not allowing them to be challenged and to grow by taking on important work duties. It is also important to supervise when delegating so that your subordinate doesn’t get lost or frustrated. Guidance is important.

6. Don’t make work harder than it actually is. Much time pressure is self-induced. We set unrealistically high goals or standards for ourselves and feel that we should be doing more. Remember that tasks typically get completed in a step-by-step manner. Focusing on each step, rather than on the entire project, can cut down on feelings that there isn’t enough time in the day and keep us from feeling overwhelmed.


Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Fall 2014