The busy unproductive consultant

She seemed very busy, one minute tweaking a 10-page memo, the next minute skipping through her inbox, scanning email, and moving messages into a labyrinth of folders to be dealt with later, then bouncing to a CNN headline alerting of a red state victory certain to unravel the fabric of civilization, then back to the memo.

I watched this performance of overwhelm, looking over her shoulder between the seats of a sardine packed flight. Then I scanned for the emergency exits preparing to intercept her charge for the door to jump to freedom, sucking the rest of us out with her.

The large number of tasks scared her into a statistical analysis of the time allowed to spend on each to ensure they all get completed. The clock raced, much faster than she’d anticipated. She knew the task couldn’t get done. So she skipped to the next, and the next. Finally, the outcome seemed dire, and for a moment of reprieve she escaped to the news, which only amplified the underlying fear (as news so effectively does). She shook herself free, remembered her objective and believed, again, that it was possible, and returned to the memo. The cycle repeated.

To avoid such mayhem, you must accept that it won’t all get done, or that some things have to wait. Then, rank tasks and complete them in order. And, never believe that a thing can take less time to complete than it needs—it will usually need multiples more than you anticipate.

Now she’s playing Farmville on her phone. She gave up on an impossible proposition, understandably so. She could have gotten one important thing done, but tried to get it all done and got nothing done instead.

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