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Business & Work ● January 2013

Create your own sense of urgency

In high school, I remember a few of my friends would consistently procrastinate. The night before a math test was the perfect night to begin studying for the math test.

Without exception, the final day before a deadline was the first day they’d start preparing for whatever was due. On the other hand, I never procrastinated. I have that sometimes-crippling gene where I have a complete fear of leaving things to the last minute. I spaced my work out steadily—I actually remember giving myself 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%, and 100% markers each night for something that was due in five days.

In college, I kept the same discipline of studying at a pace that would leave me with a digestible bite of work the night prior. It took me awhile to realize that cramming was so pervasive. Now that I was living with my classmates, I saw firsthand that, well, my deliberate and paced approach to studying was rather unique.

Up to that point, I remember feeling guilty for getting plenty of sleep the night prior, wondering why it was that I felt I had studied enough while everyone else was stocking up on Red Bulls, fearing that I forgot to prep for something that these late-night owls were preparing for.

While some of my friends clearly could’ve used another day, quite a few did well for themselves with the cramming approach. Despite the fact that I would pace myself for an upcoming mid-term over the course of a week, I had friends that could wait until the night prior, and be just as successful.

What I now realize is that, in both cases, we were creating our own sense of urgency. For me, the sense of urgency happened a week before a test. I needed to piecemeal my studying each night. Each night was its own deadline. For most others, the sense of urgency didn’t hit until the absolute last night. In both our cases, we got our work in when the sense of urgency hit us—it just hit us at different times.

Fast-forward to today. Sometimes it is your client giving you that sense of urgency. Sometimes it’s an internal deadline. Nailing those markers to the ground sometime in the near future keeps us motivated and focused on the task at hand. It sparks us to figure out what we can do in the time we have to get the work done.

Yet, not everything we work on has hard-defined deadlines. Sometimes, it’s R&D or simply some downtime where we get to experiment and explore. We say if we had more time we’d sit down and build X, Y, and Z. But, when we do have that extra time, how often do X, Y, or Z ever get done?

When there isn’t a whole lot of urgency behind future “if only we had time” projects, when that extra time shows up at the door, we’re not ready to know what to do with it. We can’t even do as well as procrastinate until the last minute, if we haven’t yet decided what must be done by when.

To that end, I’ve found it critical to force the urgency on yourself when no one else is doing it for you. When you finally have that week, or that day, or those four hours to build something, to write something, or to augment something—if no one is defining it for you, define it for yourself. What will you get done, and when will you get that done? Now, break it up into five smaller chunks. Now, you have five mini-deadlines all culminating in that final wonderful day where you’ve finished what you started.

Hold onto your own deadlines, to-do lists, and personal milestones for dear life. It’s that deference to time that will make you accomplish big things, even if you decide to end up cramming to get it all done the night before.

Originally published Jan 20, 2013 at We Are Mammoth. Go to the next essay in Business & Work, “Who is the new business programmer?”.