How to Deal With Deadline Panic

Time urgency is the enemy of good work and good health. No matter how out of control you feel, you can tame the beast.
How to Deal With Deadline Panic
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the November 2010 issue of . Subscribe »

Time Out of Mind
Time urgency can be controlled, once you're aware of it. Here are the key steps to restoring your rational self.

The race is on, and you and your business are losing, to a foe so ingrained in the way you work you'd never even suspect it. The culprit is the very warp-factor speed so many entrepreneurs think is essential to success--time pressure, an obsession with scarcity of time that researchers call time urgency. It spawns a chronic state of hurry-worry that locks you into a perpetual rush hour, even if there's no reason for it. Constant clock-checking, zero tolerance for waiting longer than a nanosecond, the need to do everything ASAP or it's apocalypse now--these are just some of the telltale behaviors that come with this condition and the chronic impatience it brings.

Time urgency kills attention spans, rational decision-making skills and, at its most acute, the body itself by contributing to factors that lead to heart disease. People who feel chronic time pressure are twice as likely to have high blood pressure--even those in their 30s, a Northwestern University study found. Stephen Cole of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School linked people with an insistent sense of time urgency and impatience with a "significant" increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Research has long linked time urgency to Type-A personalities, a breed that includes many entrepreneurs. Time urgency was studied in industrial psychology as early as 1913 but came under scrutiny as a critical factor in job stress when it was identified as a component of Type-A behavior in the 1970s. Investigators discovered that time urgency heightens anxiety and sets off an escalating chain reaction of emotions--impatience to irritability to anger. In addition, when every second is focused on getting as much accomplished in as little time as possible, bad behaviors develop--getting too little exercise, eating fast food, blowing off downtime and stress buffers such as hobbies or vacations--that also eat away at physical health.

Renee Wood, president of The Comfort Co., knows the symptoms too well. "The first thing is that my left arm starts to tingle and go numb," Wood says. "I feel this heavy heartbeat, like I'm being put in a bag." It feels something like a suffocation by clock, as the time ticks down on all the things she needs to do but doesn't have time for. Others feel a churning stomach, a tightness in the chest or neck, or a sense of being about to explode from all the adrenalized energy pouring through them.

Wood has struggled with time urgency for the eight years she's been running her Geneva, Ill., online business, which designs and sells sympathy gifts. The morning before our chat, she decided to keep track of how many times the wave swept over her. The tally: 15 episodes in four hours. "I'm thinking 'I've got to answer that e-mail, fix that problem, send that order out,' " she says. "I feel like I'm at a stoplight, and I'm revving and revving. I've got to get somewhere."

Tech tools run amok and the instant gratification they train us to expect have amped up the time crunch, flooding us with more demands than we can possibly meet and making it seem as if they all need to be done instantaneously. It's a mechanical loop easy to get caught up in: Time urgency fuels stress, the panicky signals of the stress response create rushing, and that drives mistakes and further stress. The time urgency habit creates an illusion that busyness itself is the goal, and equates busyness with productivity--but it's actually keeping you running in place, stuck on mechanical momentum.

"Looking like you're doing something or doing something fast doesn't mean that you're actually doing it properly," says Srini Pillay, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and author of Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear. "Companies need to realize that it is velocity and not speed that matters. Being efficient matters. Velocity takes into consideration the direction of the work and not just frenzied, high-speed activity. Just moving fast in itself is not enough."

You need to be moving fast with the right direction," Pillay says.

Researchers at Missouri Western State University found that time urgency causes more mistakes and even makes you forget what you're supposed to be doing. Other findings, from Siegfried Streufert while a behaviorial sciences professor at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, have shown that complex decision-making and planning "distintegrated" with high levels of time urgency. The stress caused by time urgency constricts your brain, as all stress does, to the perceived crisis and doesn't let you focus clearly on much else.

"You lose sight of what you're really trying to accomplish," says Robert Trumble, management professor and director of Virginia Labor Studies Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. "There's a rush to judgment, in which the urgent is given priority over the important. These people are doers, but do they really know what they're doing?"

The baseline of time urgency is a need to control time, but time urgency winds up controlling you. You stress over the elevator that's taking forever or e-mails that don't have to be returned immediately, or you put life and limb at risk to get to FedEx before the last shipment of the day goes out. Rushing is, in fact, an altered state very similar to drunkenness. You do things in your rushing mind you never would do in your sane mind, like go ballistic at a 10-item-or-less checkout counter when someone goes over the quota.

That's anger, and anger is a well-documented link to heart disease. Men with higher "trait anger" have a 1.7 times greater chance of developing hypertension, with a 90 percent increased risk for coronary heart disease for pre-hypertensive men, according to a 2007 study at the University of South Carolina of 2,334 men and women.

In a review of 43 studies, researchers at University College in London found that anger and hostility increased the risk of coronary heart disease in healthy people by 19 percent.

Eduard Suarez, a behavioral sciences professor at Duke University, has shown that anger and hostility lead to the production of higher levels of coronary C-reactive protein (CRP), a substance that promotes and predicts cardiovascular disease in healthy people and is associated with inflammatory processes that lead to thickening of the arteries. He found that men who rated high in hostility and depression had two to three times the amount of CRP than mild-mannered men had. Hostility is such a red flag that a study by the Boston University School of Public Health in 2002 suggested that it's a better predictor of coronary disease than high cholesterol, smoking or drinking.

Time urgency is not a state that leads to sane business decisions. You are at the mercy of the raw, panicked emotions of the caveman brain--the amygdala--home of the stress response, which hijacks the rational parts of your mind in times of perceived danger.

The paradox is, as out of control as you might feel, the ability to control time urgency is completely in your hands. Watch for tip-offs that you are on the too-fast track--eating fast, talking fast, being in a general hurry and excessively aware of time, putting words in other people's mouths and feeling chronically impatient and irritable. And when you're racing, catch yourself. Take a deep breath. Ask, is it an emergency or is it a speed trap? You don't have to be in fifth gear every second of the day.

Kimberly Chiu, a Monterey Park, Calif., entrepreneur whose company, Papeterie, produces custom letterpress stationery, learned the hard way that she couldn't run a sustainable business if she let time urgency run her. She doesn't answer e-mail in five minutes anymore, nor does she do weekend and 2 a.m. e-mails, two things that gave customers the impression she was available every second. "It's very easy to want to please the customers," notes Chiu. "But we always try to underpromise and overdeliver."

The fastest runners in the world, from sprint legend Carl Lewis to Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix, have a habit of saying after winning races that they relaxed more than their competitors. They concentrated on their form, not the finish line of the clock, so they weren't tense or constricted, as we are when we're rushing. They didn't panic and stuck to their game plan. They focused on the content, not the clock. That's the ultimate answer to time urgency--full engagement in the moment. That's optimal performance.

Time Out of Mind

Time Out of Mind
Time urgency can be controlled, once you're aware of it. Here are the key steps to restoring your rational self:

  1. Reframe the panic. This is the most important factor in beating time urgency: Understand that it's not the clock or the deadline that's causing the stress but what you're telling yourself about the stress. University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman identified this as your "explanatory style"--and the story you get with time urgency is a distortion, a false emergency that your body responds to as if your life is in danger. You have to replace the bogus story with the real one: It's not life and death. Create a phrase you can say aloud to counter the caveman brain when time urgency goes off.
  2. Focus on the content, not the clock. Immerse yourself in the experience at hand, not in the stampede to the next item on the list.
  3. Do speed checks. Look for the signs when you're racing. Do you get a churning stomach? A pounding heart? Are you talking a mile a minute? When the symptoms go off, catch yourself. Take a deep breath and slow down. Unclench the muscles and release command of the universe.
  4. Cut clock-checking by 75 percent. Watching the clock wastes time and jacks up panic. Take off your watch, if you have to. Put a Post-It note over the clock on the computer monitor.
  5. Accept delayed gratification. Time urgency is aggravated by the need for instant results and zero tolerance for anything in the way of that. Stay calm in the face of delays and setbacks.
  6. Take time to get more time. Spend 15 minutes each morning to prioritize and organize your most important tasks. Obsessing about all the things you haven't handled is a prime driver of time urgency, but getting them down on paper lets you take back control. Prioritizing and list-making tells your brain you're handling things.
  7. Talk slower and eat slower. Time urgency doesn't just stop at your office door. It's with you all day and night. Every time you slow down to eat or speak, you're helping to reinforce new non-time urgent behavior.
  8. Be realistic. Time urgency breeds overoptimistic deadlines. You think you can get more done in a time frame than you can, because you pick the time you want it to be completed, not a realistic deadline. Start by adding 20 percent more time to every task.
  9. Still the mind. The engine of time urgency is a racing mind. Meditation or yoga can retrain your brain to retain focus amid anarchy. --J.R.
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