Better time management: Don’t wait for permission

Why do you keep waiting for permission?

This attitude will probably mess with a lot of people’s heads, because waiting for permission is often seen as a crucial part of hierarchy, and when hierarchy collapses, a team/department/organization can collapse too, right? (Right, and that may never change.) But think about it in a slightly different way. I’ll start with a story.

I used to work with this girl at ESPN The Magazine. I was very infrequently busy when I worked there. She seemed to be busy a lot. We would often drink on Fridays together, so one time I asked her, “Hey, are you really busy?” (I, at the time, couldn’t see anyone being super busy in this job.) She was like, “No, I’m actually not. It’s all hurry up and wait.” You’ve probably had a few jobs/roles where you feel that way too. You rush to get something done, then send it along to someone for review/approval, and they sit on days. That’s the intersection point of hierarchy and professionalism, right there.

So anyway, this girl and I get into this philosophical discussion about “being busy” — which clearly I’m still thinking about years later — and “hurry up and wait” and a bunch of various things. We were not sober. At one point, we got to this central question:

Is it better to shoot first and apologize later, or wait for permission?

I actually feel like that’s a central question of how work is done in the first world. As long as hierarchy factors in, you typically need approval from others on things you work on/your “deliverables.” But as you rise up a hierarchy, people have more to do — as such, it can take longer to get back to people on projects that need to advance. (In short, middle managers can tie up progress, which I don’t think surprises anyone.) At the same time, work moves faster than ever — or so we think — so if you were to shoot-first-and-apologize-later, people would probably kind of forget about whatever the issue was 15 minutes later (they’d probably scream at you then forget).

(The other tangle here is that most managers have 1-2 areas they actually care about — typically those that drive revenue — and mostly lip-service everything else. Soooo…)

So … do we really need to wait for permission?

According to Fast Company in one of their myriad articles about being more productive, maybe not:

Most didn’t have formal flexible schedules; they worked how they wished and figured if they delivered results, the particulars are irrelevant. A recent study of a major consulting firm found that high-performing men with kids often used these same strategies. You can go years waiting for someone to give you permission to build the life you want, or you can simply choose to work as you wish and see what happens. Life is a risk. Be bold.

So that pull-quote is a little bit about “building the life you want,” which is a macro-level issue. But you can make this a micro-level issue too: on every single project, you don’t necessarily need to wait for permission. You could shoot-first, which might get you in trouble — but there are other ways:

  • Follow-up e-mails asking if you can do anything to help advance whatever is sitting there
  • Proposing new workflows that will reduce the work of a middle/senior manager (this can get territorial, but still)
  • Shoot first and chase the apology later

If you spend the entirety of a job sitting around waiting for assignments or waiting for work to be approved, that’s going to put you a long way from purpose. But … if you don’t wait, that might put you in the unemployment line. Where’s the line, in your opinion?


Ted Bauer

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