How can you be strategic when you don’t have time to plan?

Driving toward a strategy

Driving to and from work has made me a strategic commuter. Leaving my office at 5:05 instead of 5:00 can add 5-10 minutes to my drive time. Pulling my car into the crosswalk triggers the traffic light to change slightly faster (and the pedestrians to swear). Whatever.

One particular road transitions from one lane to two and then adds a (too-short) left turn lane 30 yards before the intersection. Just before I reach the transition to two lanes, I survey the traffic ahead, basing my choice of lanes on what I see. Choosing the left lane means I don’t have to slow for those turning right and potentially miss the light. But if the left turn lane backs up and blocks the left lane, I could miss the light anyway.  The trick is guessing how many cars in front of me are turning right or left and choosing a lane accordingly.

This week, I managed to squeeze in between the right lane of cars and the cars encroaching on the left lane as they waited to turn left. Position secured. Despite that, I watched the ever-increasing line of cars waiting to turn left. Even though it wouldn’t affect my ability to make the next green light, I fumed.

That insufficient left turn lane represents a lack of planning by our city commission, or so my memory tells me. Years ago, this road had two lanes going in each direction (plus an adequate left turn lane). But commissioners decided the road needed lavishly large bike lanes and reconstructed the road to have one lane going in each direction.

This would encourage “green” behavior — more bike traffic, fewer cars. It was a lovely idea. Except that it didn’t work.

The public outcry was immediate. After a lot of negative feedback, the city hastily compromised. Instead of one lane or two lanes going in both directions, our city created one and a half lanes or maybe one-two and two-one lanes.

The result is that the left turn lane isn’t long enough to include all the vehicles that need to turn left. Which blocks the left lane of people who want to go straight. Which makes for angry commuters and venting bloggers.

“This demonstrates a lack of planning!” I fumed, as I watched the traffic in my mirror. “Did the city commission even ask the people what they wanted? Or count the numbers of cars using the roadway?”

(Yes, I said this aloud. To myself.)

Calling for a strategy

That afternoon, I’d had a conversation with a woman in my line of work. She’d called me to gather information about how we did things. I was one of many people she would call in her fact gathering, and as we talked, I felt I learned more from her than she had from me.

The most glaring thing I learned was this: She was gathering facts, interpreting those facts, and weighing them to determine what was most important for the goals of her office — all before she acted.

I think that’s what people call “strategic planning.”

Meanwhile, I spend my work days “putting out fires,” as I call them. The “tyranny of the urgent,” I’ve heard them called. Or the goal to “get s*** done,” as one of my colleagues so graciously puts it (a message imprinted on his coffee mug and a pair of socks).

I get a lot done. I get a lot done well actually. And while I’m aware that I need a strategic plan and feel envious of those who have the time to look at metrics and make phone calls to gather data before moving forward, I lament (and whine) that I’m just too busy to do those things.

Random thought: I was good with plants before I had children, but I lost that knack (and many a plant) after I became a mother. I failed so completely at growing houseplants that my husband accused me of having a “black thumb” rather than a “green” one.

“Children cry a lot louder than my plants do,” I retorted in my defense.

Apparently, I still attend to what is crying the loudest at any given moment. That’s what the city commission did, too, in “planning” the lanes on 8th Avenue. The plank in my eye only illuminated the speck in the city’s eye.

But the title of my blog, my question, still remains unanswered. How can you be strategic when you don’t have time to plan? My car might have the answer.

Stopping for a strategy

(Or learning from a fair-weather car)

A couple of weeks ago, my dear husband was scheduled to travel and, deeming my car the most road-worthy of our vehicles, started down the interstate with my Buick. Unfortunately, it stumbled and hesitated and stuttered as he drove. A few exits south of our own, he exited the interstate and headed back home.

He took it to the mechanic, who hooked it up to his computer, but the evil car refused to “throw a code” or display any problem at all.

So the following day, my husband attempted the drive again. And again returned home with a stuttering car.

“I think it’s weather-dependent,” my husband said of the problem. He suggested that the next time we had rain followed by a cold night the problem might present itself again — and allow him to take it to the mechanic while the car was performing that way.

However, since the weather was fair, I took the car and had a full week of driving with no problem.

Saturday had been beautiful and fair, but when I left church on Sunday morning, it was lightly raining.

And my fair-weather car showed me it didn’t need a cold night accumulating condensation to be unhappy. Warm and muggy with sprinkles of rain wasn’t “fair weather.” So it took a couple of turns of the key in the ignition to start the engine, the first sign that all was not fair. Then the car ran rough, stuttering, threatening to stall at traffic lights, and flashing the “service engine” light on my dashboard.


So instead of lunch with my son, spending some time with my daughter and her family, visiting a friend’s house and running an errand, I went through a drive-through for lunch, let the car run while my son ran his errand, skipped quality time with my family and the visit to a friend and went straight home.

My car stuttered, threatened to stall, flashed the “service engine” light, and made me too afraid to follow through with my plans — in case it wouldn’t start when I was ready to leave. I didn’t want to get stranded.

My husband worked all that day, but that evening he took the keys to give the car a test run.

He had no problem. (Blasted fair-weather car!)

“You know, when I had the problem on the interstate traveling south,” my husband said to me after his ride, “I got off the interstate, shut the car off when I got gas, and when I restarted it, it drove just fine.

“Shutting off the engine and then restarting it might have allowed it to run smoothly.”

Huh. Maybe it would have. Shutting off the engine fixes the errant car?

Stopping is the strategy

Since then, I’ve had a number of occasions on which my car started roughly. I’ve shut off the car, paused, and then restarted it. It seems my husband might be right.

Maybe my car, buffeted by weather or some other circumstance, simply needs to shut down, have a little time-out or R&R, and then restart. Of course, I wouldn’t shut down my car in the middle of a busy lane of traffic or an intersection. I’d wait until I could get out of the traffic and find a time and place where my stop-regroup-restart wouldn’t impact others.

Maybe my fair-weather self needs the same treatment.

What if I stopped my frenetic pace at work (and home) — and shut down long enough to plan strategically — before restarting my tasks? I’ve noticed that I can take a scheduled holiday or an hour or two for an appointment away from the office — without the world falling apart.

(And without fear that someone else might complete my work for me. Ha!)

Certainly, I should be able to schedule a strategic planning session — even regularly — in between massive deadlines without negatively impacting others.

Daily, I can sense myself stuttering, getting frustrated, the “check engine” light of my mind and heart flashing a warning as I push through a never-ending list of tasks.

Shut down? Take a time-out from tasks to strategize (or write down those strategies my brain has been mulling)? Then restart planned tasks? It’s worth a try.

[For the record, I think my car needs a more permanent shut-down and a restart in someone else’s driveway. But I’m glad I have this reminder to shut off the neverending task list — that’s what email is, right? — and get a better strategy.]

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