On Time Scarcity, 2: Strategic Choices In The Attention Economy

 In this case study let's consider the predicament of Sarah*, a software startup company CTO.

Sarah has five direct reports. A team of roughly one hundred and fifty staff under her leadership. Looming delivery deadlines.

The company is about to begin its next round of fundraising. Results and deliverables matter more than ever. Sarah is also stepmom to her husband’s kids from a previous marriage, who are teens and in the thick of after-school activities.

A typical day.

Sarah’s workday begins with a series of standup meetings all related to various aspects of the software delivery and maintenance. Issues that can’t be resolved during those standup meetings are scheduled for later discussion with the managers and teams involved.  Schedules fill up fast, so those meetings tend to be quick 30 minute brainstorming sessions to resolve issues and move on.

Sarah then moves on to email, which is incessant. Scanning through the messages she does her best to flag urgent issues that require attention. She blocks some time on her calendar so she can read through the accompanying documentation and get input from the team.  

Sarah knows she has to get her portion of the investment presentation put together this week, and adds that to her to do list as well. Knowing that she’s going to be on the road later in the week, Sarah schedules a debrief on an important client presentation that she heard didn’t go well, for later in the afternoon.

Just then, one of her direct reports stops by. He asks if she’s available to look over an idea one of the teams just floated, which could solve a thorny problem that’s holding up the current software release. Knowing that this is the release the investors are watching closely, Sarah agrees.

The solution that’s being proposed turns out to be innovative and could not only solve the particular problem on this release, but also be the foundation for an entirely new product.

Excited, Sarah dives into the details with the technical team, and finds herself enjoying the deep dive into the software — something she used to do all the time. She pushes her scheduled presentation review to the next day and asks her leads to come find her if they need help resolving any issues from the stand-ups that morning. She works with the team until late and, pleased with the progress on the problem, heads home.

Stepping through the front door she realizes the kids have had dinner and are heading to bed – both have tests early in the morning. She feels sad for missed time to interact with them and realizes with a jolt that she didn’t make a start on her investor presentation today either.

Resigned, she pours a glass of wine and opens her laptop. Two hours later, between Facebook and Instagram breaks she’s elbow deep in email and still hasn’t made a significant dent in her presentation.

It’s 2am and her first call is at 6am with clients in Japan. She heads to bed and promises herself that she’ll catch up tomorrow. Tossing and turning because her mind is buzzing with presentation ideas, she tries her best to fall asleep. Waking up groggy the next day she slugs down coffee and rallies.

Rinse and repeat, until exhausted.

Regardless of our title in the workplace we’ve all been Sarah at some point in our career: mounting job and staff responsibilities, incessant email, rampant social media distractions. Always more headlines and phone dings and notifications pulling at our attention.

We live in an attention economy and every company and app and widget we interact with is doing its absolute best to get our attention. The cacophony is deafening.

It’s also inducing a near-constant state of fight-or-flight. Once our brains and bodies are nudged into response by each red notification circle, the beep of a text message, the ding of an email landing the overwhelming feeling is one of There’s. Not. Enough. Time. “Everyone’s so busy.” “My schedule is insane.” We find ourselves uttering these phrases and we begin to believe them. We begin to wear not having time to take vacations as a badge of honor.

It’s easy to forget that a lot of time scarcity is, in fact, mostly optional.

While yes, you do need to know when the babysitter calls with a problem, it’s easy to forget that you don’t in fact need to know every time someone opens an email you sent.

And that you’re not in fact obligated to respond to a text message the instant it appears on your phone.

And that social media can be used in a surgical strike manner, avoiding all of the shiny baubles designed to suck you in for hours. 

And that email, like most news, is best digested “slow” - after it’s had time to do the “breaking news” cycle a few times and has all the details filled in.

And that it is, in fact, possible to schedule standup meetings later in the day so you and all of your team can have two uninterrupted hours first thing in the day to get your investor presentation deck, or software code, or whatever YOU are on the hook for, done.

The FOMO is real.

When I’ve had this particular conversation with clients I’ve heard all sorts of justifications and reasons why they are so busy and so important that they couldn’t possibly make such changes to their schedule and their use of technology.

And yet, every one of my clients who has tried these simple changes and adapted them to their unique situation has reported back that they are getting more done and feel less hurried.

And that in fact rather than missing out, they are building stronger relationships with colleagues and friends and family. And that they have time to think, and in doing so are better at work and at home.

So when you meet the over-scheduled, harried and sleep-deprived colleague at the office (or in the mirror), ask yourself – is this truly time scarcity, or is it a scarcity of strategic choices with regard to time.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with the attention economy. Send me a message.

*Names and some details have been changed to protect client privacy.

Related Articles:

On Time Scarcity, 1: Don't Panic, Work The Plan
On Time Scarcity, 3: Wresting Back What's Yours
On Time Scarcity, 4: Letting The Mud Settle


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