Deadlines can bring out two of our most distinctly human characteristics. Sometimes deadlines unleash in us a flurry of creativity, prompting us to operate outside the box, to find a project wormhole in the space-time continuum. As a deadline approaches, our bodies release chemicals to keep our minds crisp and focused. Passion fueled by the ticking of the clock, we are capable of finding new connections and accomplishing the impossible.
Other times, we look for ways to avoid the task for as long as possible, our minds drawn by any particle of dust that might float across our line of sight as its spotlighted by a beam of sunlight.
Last Wednesday night, I had a deadline approaching. Any neurochemicals designed to help me reach my goal were wasted while I watched outside the window, much more interested in the fireflies than my status on the firing line.
Then something weird happened. I had that sense that someone or something stared back at me, peering into my lamp lit world from the dusk. It was creepy, and it spurred in me some new chemical releases, one liquid and one solid. Both in my pants. I had momentary focus.
Turns out, a raccoon was spying me from a tree directly outside my office window. The cute little masked bandit wanted to play peekaboo with me. When I bent my head lower to get a better look at him, he did the same. When I leaned to one side, he followed. When I tilted my head like a terrier, he copied me again. We continued this for 20 minutes.
Then I did the only rational thing I could think to do: I killed him. No, I didn’t go outside with a kitchen knife or a BB gun. I got up and closed the curtains, shutting off the playful distraction.
The bandit that steals from us almost every day is not an actual raccoon after our scraps of food. Our masked bandit comes in the form of a phone call, an email, instant messaging, a coworker’s story, a snack break, or a blowing leaf. These harmless, even pleasant distractions, rob us of our time. By following the “demands” that call out for our attention, we weaken our ability to remain focused, to achieve the true deadlines we face.
If you are under a time crunch, approach your work with single-mindedness. Make sure that you begin when you are well-rested and have eaten some brain food. Do not log onto IM. Put your cell phone on quiet. Let any phone call that comes through go to voice mail. Stay away from email. Do not send out vibes to anyone around you that says, “Please come and talk to me now.” And finish your work.
As a reward once you’ve finished, you can check your messages, go have a piece of stale birthday cake that’s been sitting in the break room, find out about the weekend plans of your coworkers, or play peekaboo with any mammal who’s willing to play along. After all, if you don’t control your time, you will find yourself controlled by the lack of your time.