Time Urgency Problems in Teams

Like a bad cold making the rounds in an open-concept office, the phenomenon of “rushing” is catching up with professional teams, and it’s putting productivity under the weather.

Time urgency is the official term for the habit of speeding through tasks and experiences caused by an obsession with the scarcity of time. When experiencing anxiety about the pressure of deadlines and there never being “enough time,” you enter a chronic state of worry that seeps into your sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

At its worst manifestation, a state called “hurry sickness,” is a behavior pattern that can erode your ability to think clearly, make appropriate decisions, and lead to job burnout or chronic underperformance.

The urge to rush isn’t solely personal. The anxiety that comes with running around to meet demand after demand has been proven contagious in group settings—and secondhand stress is a serious factor in breaking down meaningful communication and producing effective work. The more your team participates in time urgency, the worse the symptoms will get.

There are some very manageable ways, however, to stop hurry-worry habits in their tracks and put time urgency into quarantine once and for all (if you can sit and read through them, that is).

Too Busy To Think

Stress from time urgency is contagious.

The phrase “feel the rush” is eerily accurate in describing the confusion that most people have about the proper ways to prioritize and manage tasks. Have you ever felt an infusion of energy when bouncing from meeting to meeting, blasting off email replies and checking off to-do’s in between?

The sensation of feeling needed by others, thus profusely filling your calendar, may make you feel  secure in your job (even if you’re stressed about the size of the workload itself).

It’s natural to want to push for more of these good feelings. If output is a measure of productivity, wouldn’t that mean that the more you do, the more productive you are? The fine line between busy and frenzied is where time urgency creeps into that logic and, consequently, team dynamics.

According to the Wall Street Journal, people categorized as “rushers” tend to destabilize social norms with certain behaviors such as:

  • Cutting off people speaking
  • Shifting attention to their devices before the communication is over
  • Promoting stress by over-emphasizing their need to speed up
  • Making others question their own value because they don’t output the same appearance of busyness.

They may even demonstrate distracting physical manifestations of their behavior, like walking overly fast or demanding interruptions at inopportune times. Over chat or email, they may not wait long enough for responses or push past concerns irresponsibly.

Managers who rush might prioritize poorly, set unrealistic deadlines or workloads (causing employees to become reactive instead of proactive), or come across as insensitive and arrogant in one-on-one interactions.

But, as pointed out by various individuals interviewed by WSJ, time urgency is often caused by a lack of awareness about the true effects of a rusher’s actions. After all, their intention is to be as productive as possible. Instead, they agitate. And the result of that agitation is the inability to make good decisions  and produce the best work.

For people operating with hurry sickness, a lack of consideration for the big picture can lead to dizzying group tunnel vision on deadlines.

Why Is Secondhand Stress Spreading?

Secondhand stress from time urgency.

There are both biological and cultural leads on why humans are so easily able to stress each other out, particularly when it comes to time urgency anxiety.

A recently discovered type of brain cells called mirror neurons have been found to fire when a person observes a behavior in a similar way to when the brain is experiencing the action itself. Mirror neurons explain, for example, the sensation of cringing when watching a video of another person getting hurt. Human neuroimaging studies have shown a similar brain pattern when we feel pain and when we observe someone else experiencing that same pain.

This is an important reaction for demonstrating empathy, but it unfortunately also means experiencing mirror stress is possible, too. Other studies even suggest that the smell of stress-induced sweat triggers anxiety in the observer.

All of this is to say, it’s easier than you think to trigger stress and spread it without even realizing it.

Compound biology with common social expressions about our well-being as “slammed,” “buried,” or “trying to keep our heads above water,” says HBR, and a competitive culture emerges to establish your status as busier than your peers. Mental health takes a toll when we operate in a reality where we can’t meaningfully connect with others about stress, or feel that anything less than an 80-work week simply won’t do.

The irony about the contagion of hurry worry is that it isn’t coming from an external pressure of the lack of time—it’s coming from habit, and habits can be changed.

Until companies establish positive group norms that constant rushing and an above-average accelerated pace are not requirements for being deemed a good performer, hurry sickness will continue to spread.

Tips For Setting A Productive Pace

Team productivity and better time management.

Professional EQ, or emotional intelligence, might be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to moving teams from reactive to proactive time management habits. As covered in this look at group EQ, three conditions are needed to build an optimal team: “trust among members, a sense of group identity, and a sense of group efficacy.”

Specifically related to the issue of rushing anxiety, promoting positive group norms might include:

  • Ensuring each team member takes all different perspectives into account when setting project pace or making decisions about schedules
  • Establishing boundaries around communication habits, work time and workloads, and confronting members who break this set of “OK, not OK” rules
  • Creating monthly team time to discuss work stress and adjust workloads and schedules accordingly
  • Promoting the understanding that success is tied to results, not the amount of work accomplished

More practically, make prioritization and cadence part of both the larger planning process and everyday task management. Each decision of what to add to the pile should tie back to big-picture goals, as well as answer a day-to-day responsibility for which you’re responsible.

Adding structure to team goal setting, such as using the quarterly OKR (Objective and Key Results) method creates agreed-upon boundaries around what people can reasonably commit to in that period of time.

On a project-by-project basis, defining all the required tasks up front and assessing them by t-shirt sizes (S, M, L, XL), or in amount of hours/days needed, will lay out a reasonable pace and delivery date that works for everyone.

And even though requests that are urgent(!) to someone else aren’t necessarily urgent to you, it can be easy to get swept up in the daily tide of fire drills and last-minute items. This is where the rule of five can come in handy.

A concept brought into Trello by co-founder Joel Spolsky, the “5 things” rule asks each team member to limit their focus and status reports to:

  • Two tasks they are currently working on
  • Two tasks they plan to work on next
  • One that they won’t be getting to (even if people expect them to be working on it)

Forcing focus on just a handful of items helps managers keep perspective on the overall direction of their team’s efforts, and gives employees the room to truly accomplish something by creating their own boundaries.

Letting time urgency creep into your company’s groupthink is as easy as spreading the common cold. Everyone gets busy, and there is relief in commiserating with peers about stress and anxiety. Being aware that “hurry worry” is most often a habit (rather than a real deadline crunch) can go a long way in stopping persistent time-related anxiety from putting your team’s productivity health at risk.

Next: Why Taking Breaks Is The Key To Productivity

Can’t stop the rush? Why hurry worry is plaguing team productivity