Deer in Headlights

Have you ever been there?
You’re all alone, on a dark night’s street, somewhere in the countryside.
Light rain is falling.
It’s a little foggy.
No-one is around. (Apart from your two long-eared friends, perhaps.)

In the distance, you hear something.
You perk up your ears.

Suddenly: Noise! Noise and stench! Noise and stench and lights! Lights, brighter than the sun itself. Approaching fast.

You cannot move anymore.
And the lights are getting closer and closer and closer until…

Wake up.
You’re back in the room.

The Work-Ad-Nauseam Dilemma

What makes us fall into task bankruptcy?

  • Nagging bosses.
  • Tight deadlines.
  • Project overload.

To be honest, though, we’re all pretty good at getting there on our own: We fall into task bankruptcy because we overstrain ourselves until it’s too late.

Here’s a typical example from my own experience: The last few weeks had been incredibly productive. I got a whole lot of things done, while also having enough time to enjoy life, sleep in late, and have lots of coffee. Or cocktails. (In accordance with the day-time, generally.)

Increasing productivity, though, has some interesting side effects:

  • The more we get done, the more we initiate.
  • The more we get done, the more we communicate.
  • The more we get done, the more we ship; both internally and externally.

In an office context, increasing productivity leads to a promotion. This may happen either sooner or later; but if we’re extremely productive, it will happen at some point.

For the self-employed, increasing productivity simply leads to more gigs, clients, and ideas that get executed.

In short, growing productivity leads to more responsibility. And to even more work! As we manage to handle more, we get more things to do. And as long as we can still cope with it, we get even more stuff to handle – ad nauseam, if we don’t stop it.

Into Task Bankruptcy

It is well-known where this behavior leads in an office context: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” People get promoted so long until they are overextended. If things go really bad, that’s where they stay until retirement.

As for the self-employed, it probably leads to a “deer in headlights” situation. That’s at least what happens to me.

“Deer in headlights” is the moment when there’s not just a truck load, but a whole truck armada of work approaching. And we’re there, overwhelmed in the middle of the road, not knowing where to run. Or which task to tackle first.

Here’s what I tend to do in these occasions: Instead of getting my act together and working on at least some of that stuff, I freeze. I look at that approaching trucker convention with my eyes wide open – while inconveniently showing a total lack of motor reactions.

And that’s when I have to declare task bankruptcy.

The Downsides of (Extreme) Growth

Here’s the take-away: Even a successfully implemented GTD system won’t make us super-human. And as much as it hurts to realize that, we’re probably better off once we get it: Even if we improve ourselves and become more organized, more disciplined, and more smarter1, we still suck! At least now and then.2

Extreme growth can put whole countries in danger. And on a personal level, it can be perilous, too.

You might well be asking: “But isn’t success what we all want?”

The answer is: Probably, yes.3 But extreme short-term success can overstrain us. It can make it hard to build up on it. This is something we see with creatives from Hollywood child actors to early novelists to one-hit wonders. But it’s also something that I have heard from many successful bloggers: If growth explodes, it gets hard to hold up. It gets hard to deliver.

Getting a Haircut

So what can we do to prevent running into task bankruptcy?

I believe that the first countermeasure is getting a haircut. No worries, I’m not talking about getting a Mohawk.4

I’m talking about crossing things off the list!

And while nobody likes to admit it, purging our to do list is extremely powerful. This isn’t just because we reduce the amount of tasks on our plate. It’s also because we regain a sense of clearness and control about the actual magnitude of the catastrophe. And that magnitude will often be much smaller than suspected: “Hey, it’s NOT the trucker convention after all! It’s just a bunch of beatniks on a moped!”5

Getting a haircut may also mean reducing our expectations:

Externally, don’t go for rewards. When I see how everybody these days aims at having a six-figure income (by – what – selling ebooks on how to educate your dog?!), I’m pretty happy to know that I can live well on less. Everything else is just the icing on the cake.

Internally, don’t expect anything great, either. Just get out of the headlights, enjoy your life and put the work in. That’s the only way to do it. And – at least in the long run – it won’t be in vain.


Thanks to T. Hall for the wonderful deers in headlights photo (CC BY-NC-SA) used in this post!

  1. Pun intended. []
  2. That’s because we’re beautiful human beings and not boring machines. Whoever states that he has got the perfect solution to that is most probably a snake oil salesman rather than somebody worth talking to. []
  3. It depends a lot on your definition of success, though. I for one can live without hookers and SUVs. But then, I’m not a rap singer. []
  4. Even though that would be pretty cool. Send me a before-and-after photo and you’ll get a free copy of my e-guide, Productive Anywhere! []
  5. I suppose I’m not the only one who gets this creepy feeling whenever I haven’t reviewed my project and action lists for a while. The longer I ignore them, the harder it gets to give them a good look. This is why weekly reviews are a key recommendation for any productive worker, idler, and really anybody. []

Comments 6

  1. Pingback: Dem Aufgaben-Bankrott entgehen | Markus Freise | Illustration . Design . Poetry-Slam | Bielefeld

  2. Grace Breedlove February 29, 2012

    I’m getting my mohawk touched up on Friday. Does that count? :P

    Excellent post, as always. I imagine it will be very useful in practice for a lot of people.

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  4. Pingback: Out of the Headlights

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