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VOL. 126 | NO. 26 | Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chris Crouch

The Lesson of Orange Barrels


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You are in your car, listening to good music, making good time as you head down the interstate toward the beach. The kids are behaving, your spouse is relaxing by your side and you are far enough down the road that the stress of work and your day-to-day routine are beginning to melt way. Life is good.

But then you see something that snaps you out of your reverie. You glance down the road and spy a seemingly unending line of orange barrels. Soon after, you spot a road sign with the message “Construction Ahead – Merge to One Lane.” Your stress-draining mentality quickly reverses itself!

I don’t know about you, but it has been my experience that very few people in this situation calmly merge into the single lane in a polite and orderly manner. People get crazy and begin aggressively jockeying for position. They pass you on the left, on the right; some even decide to make the shoulder another lane.

The result is chaos, jammed traffic, stress, anxiety and perhaps anger. Your forward progress grinds to a halt and then you begin slowly crawling toward the orange barrel that finally funnels you and all your fellow travelers into the single lane.

Between the time you first spot the barrels and the moment you finally merge into the single lane, your progress and your stress move in equal but opposite directions. In terms of achieving your vacation goals, this is not very productive time. That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news. The moment you pass the barrel that closes off all other lanes and funnels everyone into a single lane, some interesting things happen. You begin making steady progress. Maybe you are not going as fast as you’d like, but you are making progress. Once again, your progress and stress move in equal but opposite directions. But this time, things are moving in the right direction.

I believe we can learn a lesson from these orange barrels. When we try to jam too many activities into a workday, it is like trying to jockey for position as we approach a highway construction zone. Everything just gets chaotic, our workload gets jammed up, our progress diminishes and our stress increases.

Maybe you can’t do it all the time, but whenever possible, you are much better off tackling one thing at a time at work. It is much better to make steady progress than no progress. The next time you feel overloaded and stressed at work, think of the orange barrels. Direct the multitude of items in your backlog of work into a single lane in terms of your time and attention. Relax and enjoy the ride!

Chris Crouch, author of “Getting More Done” and other books on improving productivity, can be contacted at cc@dmetraining.com.

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