I have a confession to make. I am a recovering “last-second-ist.” What’s a last-second-ist? It’s someone who works up to the last second before mealtime or before leaving for an appointment. It’s important to be aware of this. In the search for maximum productivity, this is what I call the “almost done” lie.

This is a difficult recovery, because there are a lot of valid reasons for being a last-second-ist. These valid productivity justifications, however, don’t justify the consequences. Being a last-second-ist can result in sloppy work and mistrust from others AND from yourself. However, with the right strategy, recovery is possible.

Like more and more people these days, I work from home. I’m in the habit of doing admin work in the morning and project work in the afternoon. When I work on projects, I get “in the zone.” I’m at maximum productivity. I get immersed in the work, but I’m aware that between 7:30 and 9:00 Susan will yell “dinner’s ready!” So I am working up to a finishing point. I know there is a 3-5 minute margin between “dinner’s ready” and dinner actually on the table.

Then Susan starts singing “You’re dinner’s getting cold” to the tune of “the farmer in the dell.” 

In those 3-5 minutes, I am convinced I can find the perfect words to conclude a long email. I’m in denial about the extra time I need to proof-read. If I’m finishing a blog, there are a ton of final steps. I’m in denial about those too.

It’s the same when I have a meeting to get to. If the meeting is at 2:30 and Google Maps says it takes 30 minutes, I work until 2:00. This leaves no allowance for getting to my car, unexpected traffic, or getting lost.

We know all these things happen, so why are so many of us last-second-ists? There are some very valid reasons:

1. Cross it if off your list

We feel tremendous satisfaction and productivity when we can cross an item off of our lists. Yay, you’ve accomplished something! You can breath a sigh of relief that that task is behind you. Now you can give full focus to the next task.

2. Momentum

Particularly if you are working on a big task, you don’t want to break momentum. If you have brought yourself up to speed, you worry about taking the time to regenerate momentum. You may even be concerned that you won’t feel like coming back to it at all. You will want to move on to something else that needs attention, for optimum productivity.

3. Don’t want to kill time

In the case of getting to a meeting, you don’t want to run the risk of being too early. Time is precious. You don’t want to waste it sitting in a car in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Why would you quit your vital task prematurely for that? You feel your productivity dying.

Time limits can be good for bringing focus to your work. However, when time is up, you can get sloppy in the name of completion. By being late you can make a lot of people angry including you! You add stress that you just don’t need.

So what can you do?

The right strategy

I have recently discovered a strategy I call “Create a compelling point of re-entry.” What this involves is rethinking your last 5 minutes. If you have a meeting, make an allowance of at least an extra 20 minutes. That’s 15 for traffic and 5 for getting into your car. When you know you only have 5 minutes left and you are “almost” done, STOP! Odds are very good that are not almost done with your task, especially if it’s a big one.

Don’t look at this as surrender. Look at this as taking control. Acknowledge all the reasons you want to keep going and address them. Ask yourself, what it would take to make this task fun to return to? This is what I mean by creating a compelling point of reentry.

Let’s say you are working on the last paragraph of a long email when time run’s out. Stop and think. What it would take for you to jump back to this the second you come home? If you’ve read my blog, you probably know I like the mini Post It’s. I also like red Sharpies for writing bold compelling messages. For example “FINALIZE EMAIL, PROOF READ, 8.” The number is an estimate of how long you would like this to take, (8 minutes.) I always put these on my task collector clipboard. However, you might find the middle of your computer monitor more compelling. That’s the whole point.

And guess what? If you DO arrive 10 minutes early at a meeting, you can complete your email on your smartphone!

Here’s another example. Perhaps you are creating a graphic on your computer. It’s very easy to fall into the just-5-minutes-more trap. It’s not true! If you’ve got 5 minutes before dinner or before leaving, switch to a compelling point of reentry. Hit the print button immediately. Take that red Sharpie and add arrows to the parts you were working on. Hang this print-out somewhere prominent. When you have the time to return to work, you will be dying to complete that graphic!

You may have noticed that in both cases I don’t recommend digital reminders. Computer screens disappear with a screen saver. Notifications, besides being annoying, are time-dependent. You won’t have the time to estimate when exactly you will return to a task. A paper reminder won’t disappear. And as long as it is in the field of play, you won’t forget it. 

Compelling points of reentry are examples what I call “compelements.” Complements  are simply elements that compel you to action. You can learn more about the value of compelements in my book The Circulation Solution.