In praise of the last minute

I’m going to share some good news with you: The last minute is not always the worst time to do something.

A client once shared that there are times when he actually likes to wait to the last minute—his work is better then. It’s more focused, more creative, and more inspired, because of the time constraint he has allowed himself to get into.

I had to acknowledge that I think he’s right, and there are times that works for me as well.

The best example I have of that is packing for a trip. I have scrupulously timed myself over the years, and after thousands of business trips out of town, I can safely declare that I need exactly 30 minutes to pack. No less…and no more! I figure out when I need to be comfortably at the gate of the airport, back up to when I need to walk out the door of my house to comfortably get there then, and I wait to start packing exactly 30 minutes before then.

Why would a “guru of personal productivity” like me put myself under that pressure, you ask? It’s simple. If I gave myself more time to pack, I would take it, packing. Actually, not packing—deciding what to pack. Should I take a casual sweater? Two pairs of dress shoes, or one? Will I get time to jog on this trip, and how cold might it get? How about a swimsuit? Though I almost never actually get into the large chlorine-filled thimbles known as hotel pools, I always hate it when I can’t, because I didn’t bring my swimsuit. Etc., etc. ad nauseam. And if I give myself twice as long to pack, I don’t wind up packing twice as well. Maybe 3% better. But the double stress I put myself through is not worth it.

There are situations in business and political arenas, too, when the most strategic thing to do is to wait as absolutely long as possible before launching a product or a campaign. Whatever might happen in the world up until the “last minute” might be mission-critical to absorb into the plans and tactics.

So, the last minute has its place. But to move it from the category of sloth, indolence, and at least minor stupidity to one of elegantly planned and coordinated high-performance behavior requires two things:
(1) Know how many minutes the last minute takes
(2) Make it absolutely fine with yourself as a conscious choice, so some part of you on either end of it is not sucking your energy with the “yeah, but you know you really shouldn’t…”

[For the record: Over the years I have mastered indulging in sloth, indolence, and minor stupidity. That’s how I know this stuff!]

–David Allen

This essay appeared in David Allen’s Productive Living Newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this David… I think I need to start timing myself more. I am notoriously bad at knowing or estimating how long something will take me. (I’ve heard that this might be a disorder, that there are some people who don’t process the concept of time properly.)

    Consequently, I miss work deadlines, I’m chronically tardy, and I even end up depriving myself of enjoying personal activities.

    Perhaps timing myself will help me become more aware.

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