Most people are familiar with the game of Pac-Man where the player guides Pac-Man through a maze, eating dots. And when all the dots are eaten, Pac-Man is taken to the next stage of the game. What most people are not familiar with is that this is exactly how they work throughout the day, which is what I call pac-management.
What is Pac-Management?
Like in Pac-Man, if an email, phone call, or a person stopping by contacts the Pac-Manager, everything stops. Because of this “life or death” situation, everything is an emergency. These “contactees” are known variously as “ghosts” or “monsters” and all of their moves are deterministic: a red contactee chases the Pac-Manager, the orange contactee is seemingly random, and the pink and blue contactees try to position themselves in front of the Pac-Mananager’s mouth. Near the corners of the Pac Manager’s office are four larger, flashing dots known as power pellets that provide the Pac-Manager with the temporary ability to eat the contactees. This pent up rage can happen at any time and will cause contactees to turn deep blue, reverse direction, and usually move more slowly. When all lives have been lost, the game ends.
What can you do to avoid being a Pac-Manager?
Know what’s important so that you can weigh incoming request against this back-drop and stop knee-jerking to every email, phone, call, and office drop-in as if it has to be done RIGHT NOW – unless it does have to be done right then, of course. Imagine yourself as a train engine with lots of cars behind you. In the morning, your cars are loaded up with your big rocks and you start to take off down the track. Before you know it, a little bunny rabbit jumps in front of your tracks. Are you going to slam on your brakes to keep from hitting the bunny rabbit? No, of course not – and once you don’t you’ll realize that the bunny just jumps out of the way anyway.
There’s two takeaways here. The first is like what Stephen Covey says about putting ‘first things first’, “In an effort to respond to the urgent, the important is sometimes set aside.” This goes back to knowing what is important so that you can compare and contrast new information to determine the relevant importance of the new information. If you don’t have a good system for this, you probably need to read Getting Things Done by David Allen, which is one of the books I reccommend in my reading list. In that book David uses two key elements — control and perspective – and talks about working in “context” or channels. In other words, do the work when in batches when it’s most effective to do that particular work. Once you know you are going to work that way, you start to collect that way, and it becomes (hopefully) a productive cycle.
The second takeaway is that sometimes procrastination can be effective. Tim Ferriss, another author I mention in my reading list, talks in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, about how he just stopped answering emails for longer and longer periods of time until he found his responses were not necessary. Tim eventually empowered his employees more to answer most problems on their own and writes, “It’s amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate you trust them.” To take that conversely, by allowing your employees to constantly rely on your decisions to get things done, you have turned yourself into a bottleneck for productivity in your company. This may make you feel powerful and needed at first, but two things are going to happen: first, you’re going to get burnt out and second, the company will and should view you as a liability over time.
I’m starting to think I’m a Pac-Manager, what can I do?
Start slowly. Change gradually. Sudden change often meets sudden death – meaning quick changes tend to be unsustainable and don’t last, whereas gradual changes tend to stick. And this advice is not just for you, it’s for your employees who work for you. The first step is to start increasing the amount of time between when you receive an email, text, or voicemail and the time in which you reply. If you normally respond within 30 seconds, try waiting a minute. The next day, try waiting two, and so on. When people start to drop-in or call “to see if you got their email”, politely explain to them that you have and that you will read it “in context”. When they look at you funny, say, “When’s the last time you sharpened your saw?” which is the last habit Stephen Covey lists in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The stuff that matters is the stuff that matters – and you’re already doing that so anything else that comes up that doesn’t really matter, doesn’t really matter. That’s the “control and perspective” David Allen was talking about, the same principals you can have as part of your life – if you want them.
The Third Kind of Laziness
“The third kind [of laziness] is to waste your life on tasks of secondary importance, without ever getting down to what’s most essential. You spend all your time trying to resolve minor problems, one after another in an endless sequence, like ripples on the surface of a lake. You tell yourself that once you’ve finished this or that project you’ll start giving some meaning to your life…The antidote to the third kind—attending to details rather than to the essentials—is to realize that the only way to get to the end of our endless projects is to drop them, and then turn to what gives life its meaning without waiting any longer. Life is short, and if we want to develop our inner qualities it’s never too soon to start getting down to it.
—Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist Monk and Molecular Biology PhD, in his book of conversations with his philosopher father, The Monk and the Philosopher