Urgency Addiction: Getting Things Done

I was reading an article yesterday about the management guru Stephen Covey and his book First Things First. In this he talks about “Urgency Addiction”.

According to the review of another of his books “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” on Amazon.com, “Urgency Addiction” relates to the daily problems of people who must struggle with the ever-increasing demands of work and home life.

In the book it talks about the psychopathology of “Urgency Addiction”, or a complete inability to get excited about anything until a deadline is looming!

In another book, Urgency Addiction: How to Slow Down Without Sacrificing Success, Dr Nina Tassi defines “Urgency Addiction” as an invisible, but real, feeling of constant time pressure that exudes seven traits:

* Monitoring time excessively;
* Going at too fast a pace;
* Accepting time demands at work;
* Giving up personal time;
* Losing the ability to enjoy the present moment;
* Possessing an inadequate sense of the future; and
* Believing time can be controlled by working faster.

I have experienced “Urgency “Addiction” prior to commencing this article! I intend to include this in next months’ newsletter for Aspergermanagement.com and not this month’s which I am currently putting to bed. However, I didn’t have to write this piece today but, as I had a free afternoon, I have forced myself to write it!

“Urgency Addiction”, therefore, is one of the most problematic and challenging issues that I have to face as a manager with Asperger syndrome, (AS).

Throughout my life – as well as my career – I have persistently struggled to start things until I have felt that there is a real need to do so. It is as though something has to become urgent, or really important to “me”, before I will buckle down, start and complete something. This has impacted negatively on my productivity at work.

Actually starting a task is the hardest thing for me to do. Sounds simple doesn’t it? There is no rush with most things; all one has to do is start and slowly work their way into something and steadily work at it until they have completed what is required. So, why has this proved such an issue for me as a person with Asperger syndrome?

I have given this a lot of thought. The reason being is that it has led to a number of difficulties for me at work and throughout my career. In one case, it even contributed to me actually losing my job.

In the case in question, the manager involved was, at best, what I could describe as a difficult person. Indeed, I devoted a whole chapter (“If You Meet “That” Person”) of my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome (http://aspergermanagement.com/managing-asperger-syndrome) to him and the problems I subsequently encountered.

The person – Tom – was a salesman. He was impatient and wanted everything done five minutes previously, even when it was unrealistic or unfeasible. Working with such a person as someone with Asperger syndrome was, at best, challenging, at worse, as I found, impossible.

One aspect of his management style was that he would never leave you alone and allow you to get on with things but, instead, would constantly be pressurizing people or be on their backs persistently. Needless to say, it was extremely anxiety provoking. What it also meant was that, though I was working in my own way and getting things done, he perceived that I was not working with any sense of urgency and achieving the opposite.

What he would then do is set people targets (with the clear inference that people would be sacked if they did not fulfill). Setting targets – as shall be seen later in this article – is something that I have also started instigating myself to ensure that I reach goals and complete objectives. However, the targets are set on my terms and to my personal agenda and working practices which means that I do not find them stressful.

If I was to be totally honest with myself, there are days when I am sure I come across as someone who is not working at full speed or overly productively. Having AS means that – at times – I am simply not in the frame of mind to work very hard or efficiently, even though, there are other times – when I am highly motivated – when I work very fast and get more done than I am required to.

The net result of this on many occasions is that I end up adopting a counterproductive stance. I don’t start things that are not, at the time, that important or urgent to me, which mean that they later become so – and anxiety provoking.

I find that by starting early and working when I am not under pressure, I can avoid anxiety which, as a person with AS, I very much need to do. However, what I often end up doing is inducing and experiencing pressure and anxiety by putting something off until it becomes urgent to me. In other words my actions are contrary to my own requirements!

Why then is it so hard to do such a simple thing like actually make a start on a task or project, even though I know it would advantageous and beneficial for me to do so?

I think that one reason is the mental exhaustion that I experience as a consequence of having to do a lot of work that is demanding cognitively. Another major, influential factor is the thought or pressure of actually getting something done – and all the other things that I am thinking about that I have to get done as well.

One of the things that having AS means is that my mind is constantly racing ahead. When I am working on one thing, I find that I am not fully focused on it: I am normally thinking about other things that I have also got to do.

The net effect is that I am not an effective “starter, finisher”: I tend to start one project and then, halfway through, switch to another! What this can sometimes mean is that I subsequently feel overwhelmed with information and, at times, gradually lose the ability to respond to anything comprehensively.

Part of the reason for this, and not completing tasks at one sitting, is my limited attention span (Attention Deficit Disorder?). This means that switching between projects enables me to retain my attention – and interest and motivation.

This is fine I think, providing I actually complete projects and deliver. Most of the time I do; however, there are also occasions when I have not and this is where, I believe, “urgency addiction” comes in. If the task is not urgent in my eyes, it gets put to one side and, on occasions, forgotten. In other words, I am working in a way that is unique as a result of having AS.

From a management perspective, I believe that working is this piecemeal fashion can have one major downside: it means that I am not as proactive as I could – and should – be! To be an effective manager (or for most people at work for that matter) completing things ahead of the game and doing that little bit extra is what gets noticed and pushes people to the fore.

I have been most successful at work when I have done this. However, I find that, as a person with Asperger syndrome, I, like most others on the spectrum, tend to stick to my routines.

Once these are established, and I know what is expected of me and what I am required to do, then I will effectively deliver. However, unless I am motivated to do something and force myself to go that extra mile, I drift back to doing just what is required. Doing so relieves the pressure.

Possibly related to “Urgency Addiction” also is perfectionism. I have always been surprised to read how people with AS tend to be perfectionists, and how this means that their productivity is less than it should be.

I have never felt that I am a “perfectionist”. However, when I think more closely about this area, what I feel may be an issue is the uncertainty I have felt personally about delivering work of sufficient quality – or, at least, my perceived/required quality. Often, I have found, this is higher than is actually needed.

This is based, at times I believe, on my lower sense of self-esteem/confidence as a result of my Asperger syndrome or, at least, certainly in a work context when I have been subject to scrutiny and, at times, criticism about what I have produced and delivered.

So, how can the problem of “Urgency Addiction” be overcome?

To try and locate the answer to this question, I Googled “Urgency Addiction” and came across some interesting articles.

The first talked about how fighting urgency addiction could improve both job productivity and satisfaction. It quoted a few people and described a few business scenarios that seemed to strike a chord:
“I never felt finished at work”. While I could maintain the status quo, I really couldn’t make it better. We worked up to 60 hours a week just to get the job done” and “Employees run from project to project with caffeine energy and buckets of sand. Sprinkling a little sand here, a little there, they feel exhausted at the end of the day, yet cannot point to any specific accomplishment or finished project”.

All this or how: “urgency addiction permeates today’s organizations and affects all who work there. It produces an adrenaline rush of feeling important, but soon leads to exhaustion and burn out”, sounded familiar to me and having AS.

Another article talks about procrastination which, as visitors to aspergermanagement.com will know, is a subject that I have touched on previously in a couple of articles http://aspergermanagement.com/overcoming-procrastination
“Why do today that which you can put off to one hour before the deadline?” Procrastination (which is usually rooted in some sort of fear) often results in people rushing around just as fast those rising stars giving 110 per cent.”

The texts then go on to suggest some techniques to fight urgency addiction which I thought were not only useful, but relevant from a perspective of having Asperger syndrome:

• Review your calendar at the beginning of the week. Highlight the priorities and goals for each day. This will help you to narrow your focus. While unexpected emergencies may occur, you will be much less likely to be in a reactive mode if you take time to plan.

• Avoid hop-scotching. Resist hopping from one project to another without finishing what you start. Finish one thing before you move on to something else.

• Do big projects first. You may have a tendency to gravitate to the projects or work that is easy to do. These often tend to be small projects that are “no-brainers.” What this means is that you possibly kid yourself that, if you just clean up these small projects, you can give your full attention to the big things. The problem is never getting around to the large projects. So start with the ones you really don’t want to do and the small ones will get done along the way.

(Source: Barbara Bernstein, Great Lakes Consulting Group, www.successmatters.org)

Another author suggests that life balance is crucial. This is an ongoing process whereby recognising one’s choices is vital. Suggestions here include keeping a journal, learning to laugh, investing in relationships and valuing yourself personally.

I think that there is real value in all of these suggestions. Planning, I believe, is essential. They key I have found, is to identify those work tasks I need to complete, what the attendant deadlines and then put together a schedule that enables me to get things done in my own time so as to avoid anxiety.

The latter involves working wherever possible whilst not under pressure. This, of course, is where avoiding “Urgency Addiction” comes in! If I can force myself to work on tasks and get ahead of the game before something becomes urgent, I can work at my pace and avoid pressure.

At the start of each week, I review my responsibilities, the attendant deadlines and identify the priorities and the timescales and requirements I need to satisfy them. The latter includes considering what other people or departments are involved so I can evaluate their position and ensure they have enough time to deliver what I need.

I try really hard to not “hop scotch”. As previously mentioned, I have practiced this assiduously because of the demands that having AS has placed on me: difficulty retaining concerted attention, motivation to remain with a task, easing cognitive demand etc. I have come to appreciate that not practising “hop scotching” can really improve my work output and productivity.

Doing big projects first? This, I have found, is less straightforward. Because I find it hard to maintain concentration for extended periods, and because if something is cognitively demanding/taxing, I need to make special dispensation for working on, and completing, larger projects that may take time.

What I have found is useful here is factoring in a longer timescale, and undertaking parts of the project gradually, by identifying the deadline up ahead and working towards completion in a piecemeal fashion. Breaking the project down into smaller pieces also makes it appear less onerous mentally.

The suggestion about life balance is also, I feel, important as it relates to breaks and downtime. I can only work for a certain length of time in a cognitively demanding way. If I do have to do so, then taking short breaks assists me greatly. If I can draw out the time I am required to work in a way that is mentally exerting, then so much the better.

Finally, I believe that it is important to find a way and means of working that is right for the individual. Each person works under different conditions and in different circumstances. These need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

What I have also tried hard to do is slow down! My AS has meant that a racing mind, thinking ahead about other things and working rapidly or aggressively on a task instead of slowly but surely can be incredibly draining. Even if it just taking longer to tap the letters into the keyboard of a PC whilst writing an e-mail, taking it more slowly reduces tension – and means I make less mistakes.

I have avoided “Urgency Attention” by writing this article. I have completed it way before my deadline for publication and so have avoided the prospect of creating future mental pressure by thinking “I must get something down in time for the deadline for next month’s newsletter”.

My productivity has increased and I am ahead of the game. Boy it feels good. Maybe I should start something else prematurely!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome