How I Work: Only With A Gun To My Head

Be honest, dear monkeys...how many times have you said the following, or something else like it:

"I didn't start it until the last minute, because I work best under pressure. I need that pressure to motivate me to finish."

And then covered it up with the catch-all phrase that our generation uses to explain poor decisions: "I know, I know, it's terrible, but that's just how I roll."

I've been thinking a lot about time management and work ethic lately, since a good buddy of mine is doing the law school thing and still subscribes to that last-minute, midnight-oil burning approach to work. Doesn't matter if it's a five page paper or a fifty-page legal brief, whether there's actual research and reading involved or not, he simply refuses to start it until 6pm the night before it's due. Needless to say, the stress this produces likely leaves him with an ulcer by the time he's 30. And for a week leading up to the all-nighter, he won't go out or attend social functions: "Can't burn the midnight oil Flesh, I need it for the all-nighter I'm gonna pull on Sunday."

The bizarre thing--and this is the reason I bring this story to WSO today--is that he really thinks this is preparing him for work in the professional world. "Bosses are gonna ask for a lot of work on really tight deadlines, so I'm preparing myself for that," his logic goes.

No, you're not. You're preparing yourself to have a lot of bosses breathing down your neck about why you haven't started your project yet. As the entry-level guy you'll often be asked to "take the first crack" at a model (or a brief, in his case). At least, that's what I would argue if I'm interviewing this guy. To me, that says that you can't prioritize or be proactive unless you have a gun to your head.

It might work well for you when you're working alone (all nighters have gotten him an A on at least one occasion), but when you're on a team and lots of others have to review and edit your work, you can't make everyone else wait just because you don't feel like starting it until the 11th hour (your MD can do that to the rest of the team, but not you).

Once, my buddy was worried about a five-page paper that he could have written during a long lunch break if he wanted. "It's just all the research," he explained as he chugged down his double Starbucks espresso, "it's too easy to write too much. I have to keep it under five pages, or they won't accept it."

"Dude, you're making this too difficult," I told him. "Just prioritize what your main points are and find a couple of arguments for each one. Do one page for each, and one more page for your beginning and conclusion. Easy."

"I don't prioritize, I'm just too lazy," he says grandly. And he ends up pulling an all-nighter for something that he could have knocked out in a couple of hours.

My open question to the forum here is, what if I'm wrong and he's right? Do you think this would be good practice for a stressful professional life? Has this worked for any of you on the job?

I've already gotten the discussion started with my stance, but it's worth reiterating: this type of "time management" (or lack thereof), is a poor habit to take into work with you. When it's fire drill time, it's fire drill time--we've all been there. But dammit if I make my coworkers wait around for me. That's not how I roll.

Discuss.

Comments (39)

Dec 3, 2014

I think he's right. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is providing exceptional value to clients. In the "real world," producing excellence is not a simple formula. In most cases, surprises come up, deadlines are changed, and the battle plan is significantly revised. Many "structured" people are unable to adapt to these fluctuations successfully because they are incredible calculated and linear - unlike your friend. I would almost always reward my employee who sporadically produces A's much more than I would reward a "B" employee who follows the same methodical, planned approach to every situation.

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Dec 3, 2014
username777:

I think he's right. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is providing exceptional value to clients. In the "real world," producing excellence is not a simple formula. In most cases, surprises come up, deadlines are changed, and the battle plan is significantly revised. Many "structured" people are unable to adapt to these fluctuations successfully because they are incredible calculated and linear - unlike your friend. I would almost always reward my employee who sporadically produces A's much more than I would reward a "B" employee who follows the same methodical, planned approach to every situation.

That's great until you're waiting until the last minute to do X, they Y comes up with the same deadline as X and you only have time for one......then you're not providing anyone with exceptional value.

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Dec 3, 2014

Spoken like a true mechanical monkey bogged down in planning every last detail and "what if" of the day. An "A" employee is able to mitigate that risk by making reasonable progress on X - he knows the bare minimum he needs to get done on X to avoid facing the situation you describe. While your scenario is possible, it is improbable and would not be an issue for a true "A" employee who possesses reasonable foresight and risk assessment abilities.

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Dec 14, 2014

False dichotomy. You can produce exceptional value to your clients, and do things in a structured, organized way. It is a lot easier to adapt to changes if you have a structured approach, have done your homework, frontloaded your work, and are ready for when changes occur.

username777:

I think he's right. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is providing exceptional value to clients. In the "real world," producing excellence is not a simple formula. In most cases, surprises come up, deadlines are changed, and the battle plan is significantly revised. Many "structured" people are unable to adapt to these fluctuations successfully because they are incredible calculated and linear - unlike your friend. I would almost always reward my employee who sporadically produces A's much more than I would reward a "B" employee who follows the same methodical, planned approach to every situation.

Dec 3, 2014

completely unprofessional to have your work habits be detrimental to others, not cool. if he's by himself, whatever. if the work product is as good as it would be if he started early, so be it, let him reap the consequences this will have on his health.

however, I find it very hard to believe that the work product is as good as it could be if he were better at time management. not saying it's impossible, but it's not likely. and furthermore, when he gets older (like past 30), the level of energy he has now will be diminished and then the work product will likely suffer.

you're a good friend for being concerned, but I wouldn't worry about it too much, he'll figure it out sooner or later.

Dec 3, 2014

I have a similar thing where if I have an open ended and vague project it is really hard for me to get through it. If someone says "I need x by Friday" I know I have to produce SOMETHING by then so even if I'm not 100% sure of what it is I am doing I grind through it and turn in whatever I come up with. If it's a "when you get a chance try to put together y" I let perfect become enemy of the good and end up doing nothing as a result by psyching myself out of it worrying about how to produce something great.

I don't know if it's ADD or what but taking that first step in starting something is the hardest because I am overwhelmed by how to accomplish all the parts when really I could knock out just steps 1-4 today and worry about the rest tomorrow.

All of this is things I will not be saying in job interviews.

Dec 3, 2014
Cruncharoo:

I have a similar thing where if I have an open ended and vague project it is really hard for me to get through it. If someone says "I need x by Friday" I know I have to produce SOMETHING by then so even if I'm not 100% sure of what it is I am doing I grind through it and turn in whatever I come up with. If it's a "when you get a chance try to put together y" I let perfect become enemy of the good and end up doing nothing as a result by psyching myself out of it worrying about how to produce something great.

I don't know if it's ADD or what but taking that first step in starting something is the hardest because I am overwhelmed by how to accomplish all the parts when really I could knock out just steps 1-4 today and worry about the rest tomorrow.

All of this is things I will not be saying in job interviews.

Lol I concur with this. In economics they call this "overchoice" or something, where in this case having no deadline means you basically have infinite possibilities on what you can do and this hinders you from acting. Having a deadline means you don't have infinite possibilities because you're forced to make decisions and this lets you make more optimal decisions.

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Dec 3, 2014

The term you're looking for is 'paralysis by analysis'. Interestingly, a ton of correlation between this behavior and 'choking' in athletes.

Dec 3, 2014

You're right. It wont work in the real world and could be mistaken for incompetence. It will be useful when he is put in situations where he has tight deadlines but these may be few and far between. Putting things off like does could be due to a number of factors, most of which you've already mentioned. However, maybe he's just not interested in the material and needs to be in a 'do or die' situation to get himself to complete it?

Dec 3, 2014

i'm experiencing this from his point of view. difference is i'm not bullsh!tting anyone about it being some kind of premeditated training exercise for the next step. i just have some serious ADD and my regular work bores me to death, so i put it off until it can't be put off any longer, and then i put it off some more.

it's a bad work ethic and if ritaline had any effect on me i'd have considered taking it on occasion (only in extreme cases tho). tell him the better training is learning to put in the effort he makes during the all-nighter at the beginning and quit the horsesh!t.

"... then, lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it."

Dec 3, 2014

The one major flaw in his reasoning is that he's pretty much assuming that in his professional life he will only have one task to do at a time, and that one task will have a lot of time to be done.

Like one poster stated, what happens when deadline for x is the same as y, and y gets thrown on his desk the day of the all nighter for x?

Also, I don't think your work place is going to allow you to not work hard for a week because you're going to get everything done in one night a week from now.

Dec 3, 2014

I believed your friend was right at a point in my life as well. Mainly college. But in the real world OP is right. Your manager is not going to want things late, plus you will be making constant revisions to your work. Which means the earlier you get your first draft to your superior the more time you have to make corrections. If you turn everything in late and are not the most detail oriented person you will have plenty of sloppy work.

Dec 3, 2014
primetime36:

Your manager is not going to want things late, plus you will be making constant revisions to your work. Which means the earlier you get your first draft to your superior the more time you have to make corrections. If you turn everything in late and are not the most detail oriented person you will have plenty of sloppy work.

I actually have a different take on this. My direct SVP will always have comments and requests for revisions. He sometimes even revises his own revisions and corrects his own corrections (tho truth be told, that happens rarely). point is, the guys in my department already know that you never hand in something for his review more than one day before the deadline, otherwise you'll be revising your work every day anew.

This doesn't prevent you, of course, from finishing your work a week early, but just don't hand it in right then.

"... then, lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it."

Dec 3, 2014

My POV: it's a bad habit. I'm not a time management guru by any means, but he's simply justifying procrastination by saying it's practice for the real world. Everyone at multiple points in their lives, as students and as professionals, gets something that needs to be done at the last moment so everyone has practiced last minute deadline crunches. No one needs extra. And if he sets procrastination as a habit now, it will follow him into his legal career. As a young lawyer or banker, or probably any profession, you want to finish something as quickly as possible, obviously at the highest quality, turn it over and ask for the next thing. You have to play the game to a degree and not turn work product over too quickly because there's the chance you'll simply have that many more revisions from a superior (you get to know who those guys are pretty quickly), but finishing quickly at the highest quality and proactively asking for more is a good way to shine as a junior.

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Dec 3, 2014

@"da chief" : If he's not interested enough to get it started without a gun to his head, why go into this line of work?

Metal. Music. Life. www.headofmetal.com

Dec 3, 2014

@In The Flesh : Exactly! To often people choose professions which they think they have to do because of prestige or in measurement to their peers. I have tons of buddies planning to become lawyers or already are who hate themselves. Why not find something more rewarding?

Dec 3, 2014

@"Skinnayyy" : Exactly. There's the "deadline" and then "your boss' deadline." And your boss doesn't want to be babysitting you to make sure you're starting your work...because that's what it takes for him to get working!

Metal. Music. Life. www.headofmetal.com

Dec 3, 2014

@Cruncharoo : To me, there's a big difference between having trouble forcing yourself to take the first step and purposely waiting until the last minute so you have to rush through it. My buddy is definitely the latter.

Metal. Music. Life. www.headofmetal.com

Dec 3, 2014

@"In The Flesh" sometimes I wonder which it is I am doing but I understand the distinction.

Best Response
Dec 3, 2014

Obviously this is very dependent on the type of company and working environment you have but generally I think this is simply another way to add more stress to your life than you need. I fell into this trap all throughout college where, instead of gradually working on things and using a bit of time each day, I'd just pull forward those hours to do stupid crap and then kill myself finishing it at the last second.

This is romanticizing something that, after a few times, you'll quickly grow tired of. The difference is that you have to be at the office regardless all day whether you are pissing around on the internet or otherwise. When it gets to be later in the day you want to go and do something else that isn't whatever you were doing all day at the office generally. Bragging about long hours spent late at night in the office makes for poor conversation really quickly; and then becomes depressing when you realize everyone else has a life AND is doing quite well besides yourself. Sure, it happens. Successful people generally work long hours and any business will have fire drills. Putting out fires and creating them by choice are two vastly different things.

The issue I have with this is that I still struggle with time management. It just isn't my strong suit. Generally it is a situation that is heavily biased for those people who are smart/clever enough to get away with it. In my opinion the ability to do what you talk about, manage time and prioritize, truly separates those who are exceptional from people who are merely smart.

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Dec 3, 2014

Well put.

Metal. Music. Life. www.headofmetal.com

Dec 3, 2014

I'm like the OP and had a friend with a similar mindset. Like the OP, I told her to start studying early, etc. or else her grades would suffer. Instead, she pulled an all-nighter. She got an A+ on the exam. After that, I shut up.

I value time management and planning carefully, but others may value spending time with friends / family, etc. more than work. Nothing wrong with that.... As long as the job gets done (and done well) before the deadline and no one else is left hanging... Of course, decent time management is essential in a professional setting, but telling friends how to live their life based on your values is a good way to burn bridges.

Dec 3, 2014

We are all creatures of habit and it seems like this is his routine at the moment. However, a job is different than going to school. I was the same way when I was in school, but it was different once I started my career. Most people aren't going to go all out for things they don't give a shit about.

"Not me. Im in my prime"

Dec 3, 2014

He's the type of person that makes things more stressful than they need to be, there are probably more examples in other aspects of his life where he does this. I like to work with a leisurely but effective cadence, the whole "slow is smooth and smooth is fast" mantra applies, generally with scones within arms reach.

Dec 6, 2014

"Scones within arms reach." Or judging from your profile picture, a box of chocolates within arms reach.

Metal. Music. Life. www.headofmetal.com

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Dec 6, 2014

No doubt, and as @"Disjoint" pointed out chocolate is divine and craved throughout any office. It's that time of year for fudge, biscotti, pie, assorted baked goods and almond roca. Winter is coming.

Dec 4, 2014

I am no last minute guy, if that's the question. I could still do well under a lot of stress, but I don't like it. On the opposite, working according to a detailed plan turns me on.

(Maybe that's why I work at AM and not IB)

Dec 4, 2014

To me procrastination is a little bit of immaturity. We all have periods of high and low work flow. On the latter it's okay to take a little bit of a breather. I think he is somewhat right that it can teach you to perform under pressure. As Pacino would say preassure make some fold and others focus.
However, by doing so you are increasing the chances of making a mistake...especially over the long-run. As a mature working professional I would think it is a bad habit. I was working on 4 different projects and all of them were delayed so I got a little complacent. Low and behold they all fired back up at the same time and my deliverables were right on top of each other. I came through but the chances of me missing something were much much higher. Also, I can honestly say it wasn't my absolute best. This is the real point. I find it hard to believe that someone is putting out excellent work.....not just good work. Why gamble?

Corny quote to summarize :
To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift - Prefontaine

Dec 4, 2014

Another point against procrastination (or whatever you want to call it, forced time pressure?) is that as you progress upwards in businesses like IB, law, PE and really any business where you personally drive revenue or deals when you reach higher levels is that you are establishing a working habit of delaying things until the last minute and reacting to work demands rather than being proactive about them. I believe it was in @"mergersandacquisitions78" thread about how the great analysts are the ones who take control of the book and they are subsequently the people who set the deadlines. And they are the ones who get promoted or get the help of senior people with exits, not someone waiting around for work or those who are pretending to be busy but are actually procrastinating.

As you leave the entry level ranks of the above mentioned businesses, and especially when you get to the upper levels of them, rarely are deadlines imposed upon you by people you work with. You absolutely have deadlines but you tend to establish them or at least have a hand in establishing them, and no one says to an MD you need to finish that CIM by Friday at 8 am. Your main concerns are that you have revenue or billing targets, deal counts and size targets and high level goals (in a sense, you have quotas) and then you have to actually oversee the execution of that work. If you establish procrastination habits early in your career, you're going to have a hard time breaking those habits, and that's if you actually advance to the higher levels because you weren't proactive earlier in your career. No IB MD or law partner looks at a potential new source of revenue (new client, new deal, hell just having lunch with potential revenue that may not come for a year or more) on Tuesday and says to themselves, "well, I can wait until Friday to reach out to them" if they have time to call them on Tuesday. Personally I juggle dozens of things at a time, and they're almost all of my creation. I don't look at any one of them and, if I have the time, say to myself that it can wait until ____day. I just do it. Take it off the to-do list and move onto the next. If I don't have a next to-do, I create one. Try to get a new deal going. Reach out to people I haven't spoken to recently or new ones that I may be able to do business with between tomorrow and 2030.

Moral of the story: don't purposefully start a habit like procrastination early in your career. It will be one that's tough to break and it will hamper your career progression.

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Dec 14, 2014

Perfect.

Dingdong08:

Another point against procrastination (or whatever you want to call it, forced time pressure?) is that as you progress upwards in businesses like IB, law, PE and really any business where you personally drive revenue or deals when you reach higher levels is that you are establishing a working habit of delaying things until the last minute and reacting to work demands rather than being proactive about them. I believe it was in @mergersandacquisitions78 thread about how the great analysts are the ones who take control of the book and they are subsequently the people who set the deadlines. And they are the ones who get promoted or get the help of senior people with exits, not someone waiting around for work or those who are pretending to be busy but are actually procrastinating.

As you leave the entry level ranks of the above mentioned businesses, and especially when you get to the upper levels of them, rarely are deadlines imposed upon you by people you work with. You absolutely have deadlines but you tend to establish them or at least have a hand in establishing them, and no one says to an MD you need to finish that CIM by Friday at 8 am. Your main concerns are that you have revenue or billing targets, deal counts and size targets and high level goals (in a sense, you have quotas) and then you have to actually oversee the execution of that work. If you establish procrastination habits early in your career, you're going to have a hard time breaking those habits, and that's if you actually advance to the higher levels because you weren't proactive earlier in your career. No IB MD or law partner looks at a potential new source of revenue (new client, new deal, hell just having lunch with potential revenue that may not come for a year or more) on Tuesday and says to themselves, "well, I can wait until Friday to reach out to them" if they have time to call them on Tuesday. Personally I juggle dozens of things at a time, and they're almost all of my creation. I don't look at any one of them and, if I have the time, say to myself that it can wait until ____day. I just do it. Take it off the to-do list and move onto the next. If I don't have a next to-do, I create one. Try to get a new deal going. Reach out to people I haven't spoken to recently or new ones that I may be able to do business with between tomorrow and 2030.

Moral of the story: don't purposefully start a habit like procrastination early in your career. It will be one that's tough to break and it will hamper your career progression.

Dec 5, 2014

Procrastination in school is much, much different than procrastination at work. Procrastination at work has no benefit unless you value sitting at a desk staring at your computer all day. At school, however, there are little consequences if you can get your stuff done at the last minute. All that time you spent not doing schoolwork can be filled with fun, or relaxation, or whatever else. At work, all your time not working is just utterly wasted.

Dec 8, 2014
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