I suffer from cluster headaches. Every year and a half or so I live through a month or two of daily episodes of excruciating pain that calls for gobs of Excedrin, quite a lot of Sumatriptan, gratitude for the existence of automatic ice makers, and the inescapable sensation that I’m taking dumb pills.

No, I’m not looking for remedies, empathy, or sympathy. Let’s skip directly to pity.

Or skip it altogether. Now that I have your attention, let’s move on to pain’s relevance to your day-to-day working life.

Pain evolved to get our attention when something is wrong that needs fixing. Which is why migraines, cluster headaches and their kindred maladies are so annoying: The only thing that’s wrong is the headache itself.

Still don’t see the relevance?

Biologically speaking, pain is an indicator. It’s like a blinking light on a control panel that tells the brain something isn’t working the way it’s supposed to work. The brain needs this mechanism because the body is way too complicated for the brain to directly monitor all of its components.

So instead animal physiology includes receptors scattered throughout a critter’s anatomy. The brain doesn’t have to monitor. What requires attention calls for attention.

Only it’s easy to ignore a blinking light. Pain is designed to be hard to ignore. Pain says something isn’t working the way it’s supposed to work, so please do something about it RIGHT NOW!

KPIs (key performance indicators) and their metrics-based brethren are, for managers, what pain is for the brain. They’re a way for managers to know something needs attention without their having to directly monitor everything in their organization.

But (here’s the big tie-in! Drum roll please) … KPIs share both the blinking light’s and migraine’s limitations.

They’re blinking lights in the sense that when a KPI is out of bounds, it’s just a number on a report, easy to ignore in the press of making sure work gets out the door when it’s supposed to.

There’s nothing attention-getting about a KPI. It’s just a blinking light. Unless, that is, a manager’s boss decides to inflict some pain … perhaps “discomfort” would be in better taste … when a KPI is out of bounds.

KPIs can also be migraines, though, in the sense that it isn’t uncommon for a KPI to be out of spec without anything at all being actually wrong.

Migraine KPIs can happen for any number of reasons. Among the most important is the reason the first, and arguably best quality improvement methodology was called “statistical process control.”

Many KPIs are, that is, subject to stochastic variability, stochastic being a word every process manager should be able to use correctly in a sentence without first having to look it up on Wikipedia.

Sometimes a KPI is out of range because the effect it’s supposed to measure is the consequence of one or more causal factors that vary more or less randomly. Usually their variance is within a close enough range that the KPI is reasonably reliable.

But, stochasticism being what it is, not always. If the KPI looks bad because of simple random variation, the worst thing a process manager can do is try to fix the underlying problem.

The fixes can and often do push the KPI in question, or a different, causally connected KPI, out of range when process inputs return to normal.

As long as we’re on the subject of pain, you don’t have to have any for something to be wrong with you, which is why most of us have a medical check-up every so often, even when we feel just fine.

KPIs can be like this too. The IT trade is replete with managers who meet every service level they’ve agreed to and as a result think everything is fine when in fact it’s falling apart. Help desks are particularly prone to this phenomenon, because of a phenomenon the users to contact an offending Help Desk know about but the help desk manager doesn’t: Because they’re usually measured on ticket closures, help desk staff close tickets whether or not they’ve actually solved a user’s problem.

It’s the first rule of metrics: You get what you measure. That’s the risk you take.

Last Sunday wasn’t my own. I’m part of a pursuit team, and we had to rehearse face-to-face to prepare for Monday morning’s presentation.

For me, giving up a Sunday for my employer is an unusual event. For many present-day CIOs and IT managers it’s a way of life.

Does it have to be this way?

The answer is predictable: It depends.

Of course.

But even though it depends, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t depend all that much.

What’s out of your control is your company’s management culture. If weekend hours are a cultural compulsion you had better leave a trail of obvious I-was-paying-attention-to-business bread crumbs behind, complemented by regular in-person appearances. The alternative is to be told you just don’t have the work ethic (don’t get me started) to be part of the team.

That leaves the other side of the it-depends dividing line: When there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get all the work done that needs doing … not occasionally when a crunch hits, but because that’s the nature of the job.

In my experience, there are just a few reasons days don’t have enough hours, most of which are under a manager’s control. Some of the biggies:

Failing to delegate

When a manager has too much work, he/she probably hasn’t given enough of it away.

Don’t you wish you were paid to have brilliant insights like that?

The delegate-more advice does come with a few caveats (you’ll find them, and more, in Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World , yours truly, 2011):

> Delegation is collaboration: You get to define the desired outcome. If you’re smart you’ll allow for the possibility that there’s a better one than what you thought of.

> Delegation isn’t a paint-by-numbers exercise: The person you’re delegating to should be the one to come up with the plan. You do get to critique the plan and make suggestions (see previous bullet). You also meet regularly during the course of the work to monitor progress and, if appropriate, make suggestions (see previous bullet).

> Success isn’t what you would have done if you’d done the work: In most cases there’s more than one right answer. Be open to the possibility your sense of aesthetics is a matter of opinion.

> Who did you hire? If there’s nobody in your organization you can delegate something to, consider the possibility that you’re hiring the wrong people.

Comfort zones

All of us … and I’m no exception … like and are more comfortable with some kinds of work than others. It isn’t unknown for even the best managers and staff to unconsciously increase the priority of comfortable tasks and decrease the priority of uncomfortable ones.

And so, you end your day with the glow of satisfied accomplishment that comes from converting a few PowerPoint presentations to the company’s new standard template, attenuated by the nagging concern that maybe you should have worked fewer hours on this and more on getting performance appraisals done.

Yes, yes, yes, I know: Hard work and perseverance pay off in the long run, but procrastination pays off right now. This works just fine until you can’t procrastinate any longer. Then you work after work hours instead of during them.

During is better.

Master your tools

Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio, Project, and so on are the tools of your trade. Within each one of them there are features that can help you get work done faster. The missing piece: Most people aren’t willing to learn them. The result: Everything they do that makes use of these tools takes longer than it should. Much longer.

It’s like someone who hauls a big rug out back to hang over a clothesline so they can beat the dust out of it, because they refuse to learn how to run a vacuum cleaner. Sorta.

The infinite pile of work

The pile of work you have to do is finite. The pile of work you might do if you collect everything you might do and add each and every item to the stack is infinite, or, if not infinite, like Einstein’s explanation of the universe: finite but unbounded.

One way or another, there are people who see every pile of work as boundless. These folks always manage to find yet another task to fill out their 70-hour work week, because for them every un-undertaken task is an unscratched itch.

If you’re one of these unfortunate souls, I have no metaphors to offer by way of a solution. But don’t complain about your unreasonable workload.

It’s a self-inflicted wound.