Deadlines and Crises


There is nothing like a crisis, or a deadline, to focus one's attention. Tonight is the absolute latest opportunity to generate a column for this particular issue of ID Magazine. For the past week, I have been traveling on a consulting assignment and planning for an upcoming SID Board of Directors meeting, and scouting for my next paying job – free time has been scarce! Nevertheless, it's either tonight or not at all for the column, and my muse has decided to return just in time to help save the day.

Deadlines and crises do have a way of focusing attention. When a deadline is several weeks or even days away, there is always the comfort of that hypothetical period in the next day or two when the work will get done. In general, I am pretty good at finally getting things accomplished well before deadline. But sometimes, particularly when life gets busy and commitments get juggled, things come down to the wire. I find it interesting that I almost always find it easier to think clearly with a looming deadline.

Perhaps this clarity is simply related to focus. When the deadline is far away, there are many demands on my time. Work, family, volunteer duties (including SID-related activities such as this column), recreational and exercise opportunities, and sometimes simply being lazy all compete for scarce hours. Which particular demand wins depends on where I am, what I was doing before, whether I am alert or tired, and how creative I am feeling.

All those choices go out the window at deadline. When something is due, or a crisis is at hand, and failure won't do, then it does not matter if you are tired, distracted, or have other pressing matters. You need what you need to do to get the job done. So, for tonight other work is being pushed off to tomorrow, and this column is getting my full attention.

I do not think it is much of a stretch to draw an analogy between deadlines and economic cycles. At the time of this writing, the global economy is still reeling, and companies and investors are scaling back waiting for the situation to settle. For people working in the private sector, times are hard, and resources are scarce. The status quo may no longer be acceptable and changes may be needed to ensure survival. The harm caused by poor decisions can be magnified, though, as there is less room for error in overall bad times. Crises and deadlines call for strong and effective action, and the ability to focus and analyze accurately may be the difference between avoiding disaster or rushing towards it.

This imperative to focus is not so important in good times. When things are good, it is less important to maintain high efficiencies or to ensure that all decisions pass a high degree of scrutiny. If a wrong decision is made, it may not matter so much if company sales and profits are growing. It is easier to let difficult decisions slide or to act quickly without all the facts, as the outcome is probably going to work out in any case.

Does this mean that bad times are good? To the degree that a crisis forces a closer examination of actions, maybe bad times provide an opportunity to clean up past mistakes or move in bold but necessary directions. Of course, a deadline and crisis can induce hasty, stupid decisions as well, and bad decisions in bad times can sink a company.

So, crises and deadline offer an opportunity to make decisions that might be difficult to make in good times. Sometimes this works out, and sometimes it doesn't. What is certainly true is that economic cycles (and deadlines) change behavior – it is up to each of us to determine how we respond. Focus, and think, before acting.

In my case, it's worked out OK. This column is done, and I can get back to my other urgent issues. I hope everyone else's crises turns out well.

Paul Drzaic
Society for Information Display