Motivation by Deadline

I used to have it bad. In university I pulled all nighters for my papers, and crammed for exams. I even tried cramming for my Chinese 101 exam – trying to memorise two hundred plus Chinese characters in one night is not something I would recommend to anyone. Let me just say, it didn’t end well.

This last minute frenzy approach to work followed me into professional life and meant that I was stressed out, fighting the clock, and left wondering if my good work product could have been great if I had a little more time to give it.

I see the same pattern playing out in many lawyers lives. So many tell me: “I just can’t focus unless I am facing a looming deadline.”

One lawyer I know is in a bind. Janice procrastinates and spins her wheels for days and then as the deadline looms she finds her focus and gets to work. The trouble is that in legal practice, whether corporate or litigation, sudden crises, and client demands crop up all the time. As a result, Janice often finds her plans broadsided as she is called to quickly work on unexpected emergencies. She ends up struggling to manage overwhelming numbers of competing deadlines. She has to break dates with friends, work late most nights, and is finding herself increasingly rundown and exhausted.

If you are like me, and motivated by deadlines, this article is for you. To help give my readers a quick guide to dealing with this deadline-chasing lifestyle, I reached out to Coach Jill Farmer, author of There’s Not Enough Time… and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, who learned “how to step off the hamster wheel and out of the frenzy into something far saner and more fulfilling and now helps others do the same.” I asked her what advice she had for motivated-by-deadline lawyers.

Farmer started her conversation with me by pointing out that lawyers facing this sort of time challenge are likely Quick Starts. What’s a quick start you ask? A Quick Start is one of four conative modes:

Ancient philosophers and modern psychologists share the concept of a three-part mind with separate domains for thinking, feeling, and doing. The conative, or doing, part contains the striving instincts that drive a person’s natural way of taking action, or modus operandi (M.O.). This is the unique set of innate strengths and talents every person has which remains unchanged from birth. Everyone has an equal amount of conative energy for engaging the thinking (cognitive) and feeling (affective) parts of the mind to produce purposeful action. (From the Kolbe Corp website)

The research and work in this area was developed by Kathy Kolbe. Kolbe is an acclaimed theorist, who discovered the four innate conative modalities, Fact Finder, Follow-Though, Quick-Start, and Implementor, which she named Action Modes. Everyone has a unique conative profile. Kolbe has developed a simple on-line assessment, for finding your conative make-up. The bottom line is that people who are dominant in the Quick-Start action mode, are deadline-driven and crisis -oriented. They thrive in work environments with an atmosphere of challenge and change. I took the Kolbe assessment and discovered I am primarily a Quick Start, which explains that I am hard-wired to work to a deadline.

(There is a huge amount I could write about Kolbe’s work and how it applies to our professional lives. I will return to Kolbe and her four conative action modes in a future article.)

Now the purpose of this brief foray into conative modalities is not to say, that’s the way you are, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Rather, the key is to find better ways of working in harmony with your natural inclinations. If you are Quick Start, deadlines and challenges are good for you. They do help you do your best work. The trick is managing your practice so that you can maximise the value of these challenges while minimising the stress they can cause.

Farmer likens the stress of deadline chasing to a roller coaster. Imagine your stress levels as a line on a graph. As the deadline approaches, you work fast and furiously. Your stress levels rise like the coaster climbing up to the peak of the track. The problem is when the peak soars high, like the California Screamin’ coaster at Disney, it is followed by a serious downwards spiral.

I am sure you know all the ugly statistics about what happens to your cognitive functioning, your health, and your emotions when you are stressed out, so I won’t repeat these here. Let’s just say it is very bad news, and you don’t want to spend any more time than necessary in the stressed-out zone.

As a Quick Start you are always going to be motivated by challenges and deadlines, so the goal is not to get you off the roller coaster, but to start with decreasing that gap between peak exertion and recovery by 20%. Or, as I like to think of it, transform your California Screamin’ into a kiddie coaster. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Start your work on projects a bit earlier. This article is due on Monday, and here I am Sunday morning typing away at the computer instead of lazing on the couch with the Sunday Times. And that is ok. I am not stressed, and the ideas are flowing because I started thinking about this article over a week ago. I interviewed Farmer on Friday and wrote some more on Saturday. So today, I am able to really put the polish on it. In true Quick Start fashion, I am working to deadline, but I am so much better prepared, and much farther along.
  2. Only schedule up to 50% of your time. Farmer emphasised that it is critical to protect time in your schedule for focused work on projects. You have to leave room in your calendar for the unexpected to happen, because you know emergencies are always going to crop up. Don’t leave yourself with just enough time to get something done because either you will find yourself with less time than planned, or it will take longer than you anticipated.
  3. Break your big projects down. Instead of waiting to tackle the project in one big block of time, break the project into turtle steps – smaller easy to accomplish bite-sized tasks. Use smaller blocks of time, anything from 15 minutes to an hour, to get parts of the project completed. That way, as you approach the deadline you are already well along.

What will also help you on dialing it down, are two tools and one a very simple habit. The tools are, first, a project list, and second, a to-do list.

The project list is an idea I got from David Allen’s classic book “Getting Things Done”. My project list holds all of my ongoing projects. In addition to client work, it includes billing, and other administrative tasks. I also keep a to-do list, with all my miscellaneous action items recorded. Keeping your to list in your head uses up valuable cognitive resources, and can trigger stress reactions, so it is best to keep it on paper or on your computer.

The habit I recommend is holding a meeting with yourself once a week. I like to start my week with a cup of tea, and my project and to-do lists. Monday morning I take a big picture look at my practice. What’s on the horizon? I set my priorities for the week, ensure my schedule is giving me the time I need to get things done, and also decide what administrative tasks are going to be handled during the week. I increasingly make sure that I am making a start on major projects well before deadline. It gives me great comfort to know that I have made progress and so that as I get down to the line I won’t have such a large push to completion.

One final tip: In situations when there are no deadlines looming, and the work is not challenging, find other ways to motivate yourself. Challenge yourself to complete a task within a certain time period. See how much you can get done in one hour. These sorts of games can help get a Quick Start like you motivated.

I like my kiddie coaster lifestyle and never miss the intense peaks and high stress levels I used to live with. Start today with taking small step after small step. Before long you will still be working to deadlines, but will be better at it, and will be out of the territory of endless overwhelm. Get off the hair-raising ride, and into a work-life that is challenging and satisfying.

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