I’ll let you in on a secret: 95% of what I do on a daily basis isn’t particularly difficult, challenging, or hard to do. Mostly it involves reading for understanding and synthasizing separate ideas into a coherent thread so that someone slightly further up the food chain can use and/or ignore at his or her convenience. Just about everything else is really a supporting requirement.
In a world that operates on basic logic, it should all be mind numbingly easy to do. Of course no one has ever accused Uncle of running his universe based on any kind of rational system. As often as not it’s living in a state of just barely organized chaos in which that slim thread of organization is threatening to split apart without warning at any time.
Nothing I do should be particularly hard to do. And yet somehow it is. Today for instances I revised a bit of written work so that version eight bears a striking resemblance to version one – that I put together more than two weeks and six versions ago.
Now if I were doing something like drafting whole sections of the State of the Union Address I could almost understand the fine tuning of happy to glad. In this instance, you’ll just have to imagine that what I’m working on is more than several rungs lower on the scale of importance than that. Many, many, many rungs lower.
This shouldn’t be so goddamned hard to do. And yet you’ll have to excuse me because I’m off to punch up version nine with a few more “recommended changes.”
1. The closest gator. It’s just human nature to try killing the alligator that’s closest to your boat. Just by virtue of its proximity it’s the one that should pose the most danger. Most of the time your natural assumption is probably right. Every now and then, though, that gator that just happens to be closest is just swimming past… and while you’re focused on him the big, ugly sonofabitch swimming up behind you is the one that’s going to take a bite out of your ass.
2. Not being elsewhere. It’s a rare day when I don’t want to be home above all other places. Just this once, though, I wish circumstances would have allowed a bit of leeway so I could have found myself, for a few hours, in Rock Island, Illinois. Today was a live demonstration that that a certain big government agency can manage not to trip all over itself in pursuit of elevating someone eminently qualified into the ranks of senior leadership. I just wish I could have seen that shit in person, you know, just to prove in front of my own two little eyes that such a thing is actually possible.
3. Bordering on exhaustion. It’s not lack of sleep. Thank God my brain disengages as soon as I turn the lights off and lets me drift off to sleep on demand. The problem comes in those 19 intervening hours, when it’s busy jumping from point to point. I usually have a pretty good capacity for leaving the work over on the other side of the river, but for these past few weeks and another few to come, it seems to be following me. Even when I’m not thinking about it, a few ideas are churning in the back of my mind. It’s probably a necessary evil for the time being, but lord it’s wearing my ass out.
My inbox is a war zone. It’s a maelstrom of electronic strife sorting itself daily between the dozens of easy to do things that each take 1-2 minutes or the majestically hard to do ones that command hours and days of constant attention just to sort out. I find if I focus too long on clearing the deck of the easy to do, hard stuff becomes a raging hairy beast. If I focus on the growing beast, however, the easy multiplies until I find myself as Gulliver – surrounded, cut off, and overrun by Lilliputians.
Time management “experts” will tell you to only respond to email at certain times of the day and give you tips and tricks on how to run triage and only engage the “really important” bits. I don’t know who these lunatic experts work for, but every SOB that lobs an email at my box expects an answer. Yes, some are more timely than others, but it’s the rare gem that gets flat out ignored.
To me, it feels like nothing so much as a grand opportunity to pick your poison. On any given day you’re entitled to a death by 1000 cuts or by a enormous rock falling on your head from a great height. Maybe some days, if you really foul things up right and proper you can have both simultaneously, but don’t get greedy because you’ll have to rise again tomorrow and fight the battle all over again.
1. Throughput. I’ve said it before, but it bears saying again: When you have X amount of time and Y amount of work, unless you’re managing things pretty closely the sum is almost never going to be zero. There will always be more work than time. The best most of us can manage is to prioritize the effort and try to get to the important stuff. If there’s important stuff that’s not being tended, it’s probably a good idea to tell someone it’s important rather than relying on them to read you bloody mind.
2. Scheduling. It’s Thursday night. The list of things to get done between now and Sunday evening is already twice what I should reasonably expect to get done. I shouldn’t complain since I make my own list, but still, I’d love to at some point have one of these nice restful weekends I hear people talking about. At least there’s a hard stop at about 8:30 Sunday night. The Dead are back and a man has to know where his limits are.
3. Election. Oh dear god how is this election not over yet? Please make it stop.
I like to think that I’ve got a fairly reasonable sense of proportion when it comes to telling what things are important and what things aren’t. That’s true at least in my day-to-day existence where I’m responsible for things like paying the mortgage and keeping myself and three other living creatures from becoming formerly living creatures. By contrast, when I show up at the office, my sense of where things should be on the sliding scale of relative importance seems to be consistently and remarkably out of touch.
The things we choose to take issue with seem, largely, to be those things that I’d brush off as approaching insignificant – things like who sits where (not whether there are enough seats) or whether the slide background is the right shade of gray (not whether the slide conveys the appropriate information). I hope you can forgive me if I seem to have a permanent eye strain from all the rolling they do. I suppose in some universe things like that are important, but I’m not able to wrap my head around why anyone would give a damn about them. Despite years of being beaten about the head and next with this issue, I’m just not wired that way.
Believe me, I wish I could glamour myself into believing that stupid shit somehow matters. It would make being an alleged professional that much easier. As it is, I’ve just grown weary and annoyed of pretending that it does when it doesn’t. Weary an annoyed is almost always a troublesome combination because it often leaves my mouth free to engage and spew words better left as thoughts… and that rarely ends well for anyone involved.
I know my sense of how the universe works is probably a little off by “normal” standards, but I find something deeply gratifying about telling Outlook to turn on my out-of-office message. It’s one of those rare bits of the day that feel like I really got something accomplished, namely that I’ve officially told anyone trying to track me down that I won’t be checking voice messages or email for the next seven days.
That’s not strictly true, of course. I’ll still be tethered as tightly as ever to my own electronics, but for these next few days anyone looking for me at my desk or eagerly awaiting a response is going to have to cool their jets while I go do other, more interesting things.
Because there are no free lunches in this life, I know all this means is the pile of things on my desk, jammed into my inbox, and waiting on me to “push three to hear your messages now” will be immense by the time I get back next week. That’s just going to have to be next week’s problem. I’ve only got the RAM onboard to be concerned with so many things at one time and frankly none of the issues on or around my 50 square feet of cubicle are even close to making the cut.
The week of Thanksgiving heralds the arrival of that most magical and wondrous time of year… and I’m not talking about Christmas with its faux joy, peace and goodwill towards people you otherwise can’t stand. I’m talking about the four weeks between the holidays when nothing gets done and everyone is busy burning off what’s left of their annual leave. In short: Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the long march towards the end of the year when there are fewer colleagues around asking reports, wanting to see slides, and generally pretending to be productive. It’s the time of year when the pretense of being productive falls away. Sure, that’s only because there are barely enough people around to keep the lights on, but beggars shouldn’t be choosers.
There are going to be plenty of people running around for the next month trying to put together pick up meetings or cram on one more “special project” before 2014 rolls in, but mostly even they know they’re putting on a show for the sake of appearances. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who really thinks they’re going to be able to get anything significant accomplished at this time of year. That makes for a low key environment… and low key makes me exceptionally happy.
If I haven’t learned anything else from being a drone these last 11 years it’s that this time is fleeting. Before you know it, and well before you’re ready for it, we’ll be back to the full-on grind. So the advice from your kindly Uncle Jeff? Take some time. Slow your roll and remember that no one ever saved the universe with their PowerPoint slides. Even when you think what you’re doing is important, there are well over seven billion people on the plant who don’t care if you live or die.
Perspective, my friends, is everything.