August 19, 2004 :: Coping in the Workplace: Throttling

I've decided to start a new series of posts here on my beleaguered blog. I will be featuring techniques for coping with the vicissitudes of the workplace and the inanities of coworkers and managers. Today's post will focus on a technique I call "throttling".

No, throttling doesn't mean choking the life out of the idiots who stir up the bees' nests in the peaceful corner of the meadow that you call your cubicle. Throttling is a method of pacing your productivity at work so as to maintain a sane level of expectation of your capability with your coworkers and managers. Most of my friends are far more capable than their jobs would suggest; in some sense, that's a consequence of the capitalist system. Sure, you could be writing brilliant travelogues of the Italian riviera, but right now all someone's willing to pay you to do is shuffle papers and try not to fall asleep on conference calls. But there's a bit more to it than that... you could shuffle those papers more efficiently, but as any good engineer (and lots of other sane, efficient people) knows, that just leads to more papers being piled upon your desk that require shuffling.

Let's examine a case study: Recently, uptownbrowngirl was tasked by a supervisor to perform an analysis in one day that her less talented coworker was unable to finish in three or four weeks. Being the bright mind that she is, she could see how it could possibly be done in one day, but could not guarantee it (and did not want to promise it or commit to a deadline), because there are always contingencies. So she agreed to do it, with no promises that it would get done. She did, of course, get it done, for which I'm sure all involved were grateful.

There is a flaw in this approach, though. By getting the analysis done even without promises, a halfway astute lazy coworker who's always looking for someone to share the burden might observe her capabilities anyway, and make a mental note of the result. Then, next time, someone will make the request and have the expectation anyway.

Throttling solves this problem by calibrating their observations of your performance down to a level that still gives you breathing room and down-time, without actually compromising your work. For example, if you have been given an assignment that will only take you 2 hours at your peak efficiency, don't give anyone the deliverable until 4 hours have passed. Sure, you still spent two hours on it, and you also had two hours to spare, and chances are those extra two hours on your TPS report didn't affect anyone's life, money or anything else. Of course, you can't do this when you have real deadlines, but when things are not so pressing at work, try spreading your work out. It will take some time, but if you do this consistently, your coworkers' expectations will eventually be calibrated to give you time to catch a breath, answer an IM, take lunch sometimes and still get your work done. You'll be surprised how little your coworkers care about the extra time, even if you work in an industry like my own where we bill the client for all time spent on work performed, down to 15 minute increments.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for poor performance assessments, demotions, terminations or stagnant career development due to over-throttling. You must find the throttle set-point that works for you!