I am late filing my taxes for 2007, which explains why I’m awake at 5.00 this morning. I’m not entirely sure how many consecutive mornings I’ve been waking up earlier and earlier: maybe it’s six, maybe it’s seven. My fingers feel a little heavy, I’ve yawned three times since I opened my computer, and it’s too dark in here to scan paper, so I decided to write these words.

Let me tell you a little about my project: I have to file my taxes. Since I have been audited, I no longer trust myself to file my own corporate taxes, so I’m preparing paperwork for my accountant. My goal is to deliver a DVD of my data and let my accountant and her staff do a first draft of my taxes while we’re at XP 2008. When we return, I’ll be able to answer questions, then I hope to file before June 28 when we have to leave for the next trip. That is the goal, some context and a few constraints, and I think that’s enough for you to understand me.

Falling Into a Death March

This, dear friends, is a death march. Here is how I know: I have a pile of things to do long enough that I don’t know how much there is, I don’t know when I will finish, I don’t feel like measuring what I’ve done will help he know how much more time it will take, I have doing this essentially 12-14 hours per day, I have no system for choosing the next task, and I feel like I’m making up the tasks as I go. As a result of all this, I’m in here at 5.16 and I don’t think I’ll leave here until 22.00, and I need to do this until further notice, and until it’s done. And oh yes, I can’t really describe “done” precisely, but I’ll know it when I see it. That all sounds like a death march to me. It’s not a fun place, so how did I get here?

A big part of it is fear: I am at the tail end of an audit for the four preceding years, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much stress in my life. I dealt with my father’s alcoholic rages better than I’ve dealt with this audit. I have coped (if you can call it that) mostly by withdrawing from life in general and certainly avoiding anything that looks like financial record-keeping. Of course, I’ve also spent a lot of time blaming myself for being such a poor accountant, even though my last bit of real accounting training was 1991 in high school. I’ve been afraid to deal with the audit, and terrified to keep records carefully since about October 2007 or so, and my year end is October 2007. As a result of this fear I have delayed tackling my current taxes, wanting to focus my accountant and tax lawyer on the audit. Only now that the audit is mostly settled have I turned my attention back to the present.

Another part is incompetence: in 2002 I walked away from my first accountant because I started a full-time job and let my company hibernate indefinitely. On that basis I couldn’t justify the expense of an accountant. As a result, I hired myself as accountant by default, and while the job wasn’t very demanding in 2003, I left my full-time job that year to write JUnit Recipes, which led me to more of the work I’d wanted to do as an independent, then I started XP Day North America, which introduced me to my current business partner, … you can see where that’s headed: more money, more records to keep, more taxes to pay, and more financial information to get wrong. It’s that incompetence that directly led to the audit and ignorance of a good filing system that has led to the long string of files of paperwork I need to process here. If I were any good at this, not only could I file my taxes sooner, but I probably wouldn’t have been audited in the first place, and even if I had I would have been confident enough to handle it well.

As you can see, incompetence and fear play a big role, and not that my incompetence—at least as far as it has hurt me in this context—has mostly to do with something I was never trained properly to do! It’s worth arguing that if I’d hired someone to do it, I’d be in better shape, and that that is the truly incompetent part. I grant that, but part of the reason I didn’t hire anyone is that I was too ignorant to see that I needed to do it, then once I realized I needed someone, too ashamed of the mistakes I’d made to let anyone look at them. Fear, incompetence, shame… I’m doing really well so far.

Finally, there are the tangible effects of my fear, incompetence and shame. The audit has contributed to my sinking into a fairly deep depression (and no, not just sadness, believe me), the result of which has been many days spent in bed, rather than taking care of these matters. Every day I went to bed thinking, Tomorrow I’ll get up, start working on my financial records, and within a couple of weeks, I’ll have organized everything, and every morning the first big thought in my head was, Not today! As a result of this, not only were my 2007 records remaining disorganized, but my incoming paperwork began to create a serious backlog. Even more, I wasn’t separating the 2007 material from the 2008 material, which is one of the reasons my current work is going so slowly: I first have to figure out whether I need to handle a piece of paper before I handle it. Such waste!

The Consequences of a Death March

In addition, as you might expect, I am ignoring my other responsibilities in the name of Getting This Done, but when an urgent request comes up, it completely ruins my flow. My business partner needed me to pay him for some long-outstanding invoices. Nothing huge, but big enough to matter, and because the invoices were months old, I had to wade through old reports, old receipts, and so on, in order to help him. What should have taken 45 minutes took over 3.5 hours and knocked me completely off my rhythm. (I did manage to track down the cause of a $107 credit I had in my books, though: it turns out the credit was my mistake. Big surprise.) Yesterday, after paying him (but not for everything, because I’m just not that well organized) I had to stop working, even though it was only 17.30, because my mind simply folded up its tent and left. I couldn’t concentrate at all. I managed to go grocery shopping, but even that manifested this death march: we usually shop every 2-3 days and carry home 2-4 bags of groceries. Sometimes those bags are pretty heavy, but usually they aren’t. This time, even though we were leaving the country in 5 days, we carried 5 bags home—after buying another bag at the store—and just barely. I don’t know about Sarah’s, but my bags were heavy! I was struck by how my work problems were affecting my home life. About the only benefit of staying in my office is that I’ve mostly avoided working around the contractors finishing up the main floor in our house.

So it’s now 5.37 and the sky is brightening despite the rain. Pretty soon I’ll be able to see enough that I can’t justify not scanning papers and organizing them. I don’t know how much I’ll get done, nor how far along the project that represents, nor when it will be done, nor how to pace myself to finish it. I don’t yet know whether I’ll be late and delay my taxes an extra 1-2 weeks as a result, not to mention having this waiting for me when we return from Ireland. I don’t know much about this project, but I’m busting my ass on it, and that is what makes it a death march.


The foregoing is a true story. The names have not been changed. The events are real. I hope you feel a little compassion and even pity for me, even though this is a situation largely of my own creation. I have a question: do you think the causes of your last (or current!) death march are much different? Do you feel compassion and even pity for the people who landed you there?


Ed Yourdon, Death March. A wonderful story of a death march, which had a huge influence on me.