Managing Self

Turbulence ahead

Written by Steven Levy

I’m writing this article on a plane, belted securely as we trampoline around the sky over the Rockies.

Fifteen minutes ago, the pilot interrupted the movie (to audible groans from those around me), “There’s a report of turbulence ahead, so I’m going to put the seat belt sign on and ask everyone to return to their seats.” (more groans, louder this time).

After about five minutes, a few people got up anyway. A couple of minutes later, one of them fell down as we found the turbulence.

No one likes turbulence in their working lives. Just as pilots look ahead for turbulence, either via radar or reports from other aircraft, we need to look ahead to spot disturbances that can force us to sit down, buckle in, and work twice as hard to get half as much done.

With any plan – for a specific project or for the day-to-day grind – you need to ask three questions:

  1. What can go wrong?
  2. What can I do about it?
  3. Is the effort to avoid it costlier than simply plowing through it?
1. What Can Go Wrong?

Remain on the lookout for foreseeable, addressable problems. That sounds obvious, but it’s not. Too many of us spend time worrying about the highly unlikely or unforeseeable. If the sun goes out tomorrow, there’s nothing we can do about it, so don’t put it on the list. But I do know when I want to take a vacation. I can ask clients when they know they’ll be unavailable. I can back up my computers, and keep their security up to date. I can arrive at the airport early – and at my client’s workplace for meetings as well.

2. What Can I Do About It?

Here’s where you try to route around the turbulence. Work around vacations. Arrive early. Buy a laptop whose battery lasts cross-country, or carry a spare battery. Talk with clients proactively, to learn what’s coming up.

And then modify or make additional plans based on what you learn.

3. Is the Effort to Avoid It Costlier Than Plowing Through?

We can try to design our working lives, as much as we can, to fly through clear air, to route around turbulence. However, sometimes turbulence is unavoidable. (For example, I could have dodged the current disturbance by driving or taking the train, but neither is a terribly efficient way to go from Seattle to New York.)

Don’t spend a dollar’s worth of effort to avoid fifty cents’ worth of problems.

For example, I live part of the year a mile and a half down a gravel road on an island in the upper left hand corner of Washington State, where I have inconsistent Internet service – often awful, occasionally satisfactory, and sometimes simply unavailable. I could spend a few thousand dollars for a dedicated fiber connection (plus an extra hundred a month), or I can schedule online meetings for times when I’m back in Seattle. And if I can’t download something this instant, I’ll find another project to work on. Getting frustrated doesn’t help, because I’ve made the choices myself that have led me down a (gravel) road where occasional turbulence is unavoidable.

On the other hand, arriving late to a meeting is extremely costly in terms of perception. Thus I’ll spend considerable effort to avoid being late, even if that means I leave my office half an hour early or fly to my destination the day before a meeting. I can work from a hotel room in the target city and not lose significant efficiency, or I can catch up on mail and make notes on my smartphone (or use my laptop at a coffee shop) if I show up at the client site thirty minutes before the meeting.

Oops. We just hit some severe clear-air turbulences over Minneapolis. (Seriously. I guess the Twins are losing again.) That’s the stuff pilots can’t pick up on radar. There will be unpredictable troubles in whatever routes we take, despite our best planning. If you prepare for the forecast problems, the foreseeable issues, your life (and your work-life balance) will feel much more under control, and the clear-air turbulence will be much easier to take, a bump in the road rather than the last straw.

Footnote of sorts: I was seated many years ago between a man uncomfortable with flying and an off-duty pilot. We hit turbulence, and the man could barely suppress his moans. The pilot reached across me to touch the man’s arm and said, “Are you afraid we’re going to crash?” The man nodded.

“How far,” the pilot said, “do you think we drop when we hit these air pockets?”

“Fifty feet?”

“More like two or three feet, but let’s say we drop fifty feet. How far off the ground are we?”

The man thought a bit. “The announcement said, what, 35,000 feet?”

The pilot said, “So dropping fifty feet doesn’t put us a whole lot closer to the ground, does it?”

The man thought about it for a minute or so, then said, “Perspective matters, I guess.”

Avoid the turbulence when you can, but keep your perspective. It’s small potatoes, 50 feet out of 35,000. You’ll get through it.


About the author

Steven Levy

As the CEO of Lexician, I help lawyers around the world manage their projects, their time, their teams, and their clients. I am the author of four books for legal professionals, including the new edition of the groundbreaking Legal Project Management and the time-management guide, The Off Switch. Before founding Lexician, I was the former head of Microsoft’s Legal Operations / Technology department. You can contact me at or learn more at

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