“Are you that dreadful man with the circus, Fourmyle?”
“I am, madam. You may touch me.”
“Why, you actually seem proud. Are you proud of your bad taste?”
“The problem today is to have any taste at all. I think I’m lucky.” 1
One of my favorite books is The Stars My Destination, from which I borrowed the above lines. Over the last twelve years I’ve worked in an assortment of settings, mostly as a software developer, and seen various processes used for managing work with various degrees of success. What’s more, since I’m personally less than brilliant at organizing my life, I’ve tried (and, as a child, had imposed on me) various methods and tools for keeping track of important things. With most of those I didn’t find success. Watching the companies for which I worked over the years, there seemed to be no correlation between the sophistication of their chosen tools and processes and their effectiveness at getting things done. Some companies, and some individuals, just managed it somehow. You’ve probably seen the same thing, and if you’re like me, you’ve wondered what they were doing differently. If so, keep reading; maybe this is what you’re looking for.
For a long time I have subscribed to the idea that there is an ideal process, a set of best practices, for self-organization and group work organization in a given setting. While I still think that there are gains to be had by optimizing processes, I’ve come to the conclusion that other, more basic elements play a more prominent role in this. One is to follow any method rather than none. To paraphrase Foyle/Fourmyle from Stars, “the problem today is to have any process at all.”
Of course, there are philosophical questions to ask beforehand if you’re interested in such a discussion. They include things like whether we should work at all, or if so, on what we should spend our time. To at least some of us, and possibly many people, work has no intrinsic value per se. We don’t work because work is somehow good, or that it makes us good. It makes us busy, and then it makes us tired. But this is a long discussion that’s been written out by better authors elsewhere, some of them actual philosophers. So the shortcut answer, to avoid reinventing a philosophy of work, is that we work because we want the money and because it’s something to do to feel useful. Good enough. But how to work?
David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, in which he described the personal management method known commonly as “GTD”, has at least once pointed out the irony that the lofty, existential issues like “what is my purpose in life?” require only extremely simple tools other than our own minds to tackle them. The sophistication of the tool, it seems, is inversely proportional to the mundanity of the things for which we use it. So the most mundane things we keep track of, from taking out the garbage and mailing utility checks to keep the lights on, all the way to refactoring database code and writing unit tests for new software modules, require tools of rather immense sophistication unless we want to use our brains alone to keep track of all the moving parts at the office and at home.
You might subscribe to Allen’s system. I do, and I like using it. It’s flexible, it doesn’t have any trademarked catch-phrases delineating different parts (an “inbox” is a literal inbox, whether physical or email, for instance), and it provides a place for everything. You might be an email/calendar/scrap-paper-checklists person. Or you write things on your window using a dry erase marker. Doesn’t matter, as it turns out, and this was the hard part for me to accept, because as I have mentioned, I’ve tried dozens of high-tech and low-tech tools to keep track of all the (excuse me) crap that passes through my life in a given day. And I thought daily living was complicated when it was just me and my wife; imagine how my world view changed once we had kids at home.
My most recent forehead-slapping revelation was when it occurred to me that I had missed one crucial tool all along: training. I hadn’t trained myself to actually use the tools. So far as I know, I was the only 16-year-old in my entire town to bother owning a palm PC (but not a car, go figure). But the tremendous power of such a tool was completely wasted on me simply because I forgot to look at the calendar and tasks to see what I had agreed and planned to do and when.
Two decades hence, I am still as scatterbrained as I was then, but I have a lot more experience and learning under my belt, plus a good deal of armchair psychology and much improved self-knowledge that informs my decisions. One important piece? I thrive on routines, plain and simple. Routines and predictability are calming, reassuring, and far more functional than seat-of-your-pants living, at least for me. So I wrote myself one for the morning, and one of the first things on it is “check calendar”. Then, further down the list, past showering, dressing the kids, breakfast, etc., “check calendar again”. Then “check tickler”. Then “quick review of projects”, before writing a list of tasks for the day.
So what is the result of this kind of rigid routine? Well, for one, it’s the fact that I’m able to write this now. I have a place to write, thoughts gathered about which to write, and time to put them to words. My desk isn’t much less messy than it used to be, but the things on it are meaningful and not garbage. My tolerance for garbage and clutter has dropped. I rarely get through a task list for a day, but I regularly have productive, effective days where I feel my time and effort have yielded good results.
If the me of five years ago had to analyze the successes of me right now, I’d probably wonder the same thing I always did when watching other people who are effective and efficient at work and life: what is the secret that I’m not able to see here? Is there a special system, something about the tools he’s using? But I’ve ditched the high-tech tools for a lot of things. I still use a software calendar because it’s easier to track and move schedule items, but a lot of my project notes, next actions, and waiting-for items, plus most of my ad-hoc notes, are handwritten. And the routine I wrote was just a checklist of things I wanted to ensure I was covering every morning to ensure I didn’t miss any leaks for the day. The difference is that I trained myself to use the system I have. As I said at the beginning of this article, the problem today is to have any process at all. And in a very relevant sense, you only have a process if you use it.
- 1.Bester A. The Stars My Destination. Gollancz; 1999.