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Crunch Time, Time Management Crash Course

18 Apr 2011

The same situation presents itself to Calculus students before the monster final, data scientists before giving the company saving presentation, and yes even Olympic Curlers1. Crunch time is characterized by high stress, little time, limited opportunity and it demands the highest possible performance. It's times like these that folks find themselves in situations that sound impossible, yet it's precisely these moments where we can learn the most effective time and information management skills.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

When your boss offers working unpaid overtime versus a bear wrestling match, you invariably choose the OT. Yet to the mind, stress induced from crunch time is no different electro chemically than a bear attack, except in degree. The good news is that we have a million or so years of evolutionary experience dealing with stress2.

The human mind is hardwired to respond to imminent danger in one of a few ways, the obvious two being escaping a dangerous encounter or fighting for survival. There's a third response not nearly as celebrated as the options above, that I call deer in the headlights. Sadly it's all too common during crunch time, and it's tell tale sign is freezing up and taking no productive action3.

The response is not the crunch time characteristic I'm interested in, but freezing up will curtail any required action. We survive stressful situations for a number of reasons, only one of which is important to information filtering:

I'll wrap up this morning's post by concentrating on that last bullet.

Super Human Filter

On a number of occasions I've revisited super human filters (plural), but within those posts I focus on social information filters4. The ability I'm about to describe is available to each of us, even when completely isolated from the hive mind we call the Internet.

The silver bullet to decision making during peak stress is our uncanny ability to filter out all nonessential information. Ben Horowitz keyed me into this after reading his post on peacetime and wartime CEOs. He discusses the operating mode of wartime CEOs as laser focused on a single objective, micromanaging anything that is essential to company survival. This state sounds exactly like extended crunch time to me.

As long as we're stressed out we're able to tune out distractions with unmatched efficiency, a necessity for execution. The threshold for novel but nonessential information is elevated based on environmental stress5.

How long is too long

The drawback is that during crunch time we're far more likely to throw out the baby with the bathwater, allowing high quality information to fall to the floor and inhibiting future decision making and action. Crunch time is not the best tactic in all situations.

Experience teaches us when and how long to rely on crunch time's laser beam focus and when it's time to return to more creative modes of serendipitous attention. Experienced leaders know when to guide their team into creative growth phases or execution mode, providing an effective blend of tactics.

Notes:

  1. Have you heard Curlers shout and watched them sweep? That's a serious stress response
  2. The timeline for evolutionary training is longer if you consider fear responses from ancestor species
  3. Freezing up during stress: Been there, done that and lived to tell the tale. The remedy to the frozen death spiral is equal parts good friends and insane laughter
  4. I've reused the term super human filters or mortal portals if I don't mind flipping a nickel to Louis Gray. It has been an irresistible recurring theme on victus spiritus, explore past posts on social filtering if you're so inclined
  5. stress levels in order of severity:
    • boss yelling at you
    • psycho with a gun to your head
    • wife's eye twitching stare for saying something inappropriate