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Urgency, Time and Other Barriers to Success

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick S. Malone
May 3, 2021

We always seem to be in such a hurry. It feels like everywhere we go and in everything we do, we’re always trying to do it quickly. Those in the public service are no exception. What other sector of work faces the challenges that our local, state and federal sector professionals do? It’s hard to imagine any workplace that deals with a consistent shortage of resources, political pressure, influence from citizens, media scrutiny and an unrelenting demand for services. This is the life of the public servant. It creates a need, imagined or real, for haste, for getting things done, for making decisions and for responding quickly.

The ramifications of feeling rushed in the delivery of public services can range from minor to extreme. A clerk working at the Motor Vehicle Administration who types in the wrong license plate onto a form because they feel a time crunch may create a situation where a citizen would have to take additional time off work for a needless follow-up appointment. A budget official, eager to complete work before the end of the fiscal year, could cost a state millions of dollars by miscalculating financial returns or placing a decimal point in the wrong place. Finally, those who deliver medical care or serve in law-enforcement know very well the serious risks of decisions made in haste.

We feel the need for urgency for many reasons. Sometimes we are simply avoiding difficult situations by rapidly moving from one task to another to keep us from having to deal with reality. Maybe we are competitive and feel the need to appear busier than our colleagues. Other times, the reasons are more personal. Maybe we find some sense of value by making ourselves believe that we are always short on time. We have so much to do, therefore we must be important! Perhaps we want to feel needed, so we get involved in too many initiatives which lead us to an artificially crowded day.

Our perception of time can also play a role in our internal sense of urgency. Time is one of the most commonly used words in the English language—54th used, to be precise. Think for a moment how often we use this word. “It’s about time!” “I just don’t have the time.” “Do you remember the time?” We don’t own time, but we share our time. We can waste the time of others, even though they don’t own it either. We can feel it passing by, but we can’t do anything about it. Puzzling. And when it comes to the workplace, there just never seems to be enough of it.

When we lose track of time and feel rushed, good things typically do not happen. We may find ourselves attempting to pile more on our plate in an effort to prove we can really manage a heavy workload. When we fail, we add more, creating a vicious cycle that can result in poor decisionmaking and weak management practices. We can also feel the impact on a personal and physiological level as well. It is easy to find ourselves overly sensitive to the comments of others. We become irritable and impatient as we try to manage our way through an insurmountable workload. We may also lose our ability to connect with others emotionally as we focus on the next task at hand.

Effectively managing our harried mindset is an easy thing to do, but it takes patience and resolve. We must first begin by doing a little data collection. For example, are there particular parts of our day where we seem to be rushing on a regular basis? Maybe in the morning as we prepare for the workday. Perhaps before meetings. At the end of the fiscal year? By clueing into when and where this is happening, we can begin to develop strategies for slowing time down and offering ourselves the gift of a more normal day.

Self-awareness plays a role here as well. What are your expectations for self? How often are we willing to say no to being involved in a new initiative? It is enticing to be invited to be part of a new project, but is it something we can truly manage or are we creating more work than we can actually handle? Are we able to prioritize the work we have on our plates now? Are there things that we are willing to leave undone at the end of the day? Answering these questions is no easy task. However, when we do, we are taking the first step toward admitting what we can and cannot accomplish given the limited time we all have.

John Maynard Keynes was one of the most influential economists of the 20th century and one of the main reasons I failed a course in economics as an undergrad (it’s true). He not only introduced the concept of Keynesian economics and argued for the existence of business cycles, but he also famously predicted a workday that we would all love to have. In 1930, Keynes forecasted that by the end of the century, we would work only around three hours a day. Had that come to pass, there would be no reason for this column, and I would have had more time in my day. Darn it.


Author: Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University. He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service. His new co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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