I’m historically a guy with a long… fuse. Most of the day to day trauma rolls past little noticed and I drive along on the same trajectory doing whatever it is that needs doing. Sure I comment on it here because it makes for somewhat interesting reading, but beyond the notes I jot down in the moment, I don’t internalize much. A quick spike in blood pressure and then I can smile, nod, and keep on going.
That’s most days. Then there are the ones that aren’t most days – the ones where you can feel your blood pressure rising continuously, until you’ve ended up with a screaming headache. They’re the days when every batshit crazy idea comes out of the woodwork and you end up wondering what the actual fuck you’re even doing. Days like that aren’t the worst ones, though.
The worst moments are reserved for the days when you have meetings stacked like cordwood at 9:00, 10:00, 11:00. 12:30, and 2:30. They’re the days when inevitably someone is going to ask why some actual work didn’t get accomplished while you were busy enduring your laundry list of meetings.
I might roll my eyes and mutter under my breath, but I’m not the kind of guy given to violent outbursts. I know from hard experience, though, that I’m a guy with limits beyond which it is unwise to push. And while that outburst may not come in the form of flipping over desks and beating someone with a three hole punch, it often comes with the loosening of the tongue and the saying of things that discretion and common sense would tell a clear thinking person are better left unsaid.
Opening my mouth and letting what’s usually my internal dialog flow out as actual spoken words isn’t the kind of thing that ends well. Mostly because what I really think is, in most cases, considered “not helpful,” “unprofessional,” or in some cases “wildly inappropriate.” I can’t quite shake the feeling that tomorrow is going to be one of those days where we’ve crossed well into the danger zone and every ounce of available restraint will be needed just to keep my mouth shut and my face from doing that thing it does when I’m abjectly annoyed.
When serving the staff there’s something that you need to remember always. Everyone is always going to think that whatever they happen to have you working on is the most important thing that anyone is working on. They will have a tendency to want their project to take up all available oxygen in the room, every moment of discussion time, and every bit of available manpower. That leads to the typical day being a maelstrom of competing priorities and people who want something done right-the-hell-now.
The reality is, good as I may be, I am but one man with one keyboard and a finite amount of time to allocate in pursuit of whatever harebrained scheme has priority at the moment. As often as not, I determine the priority of effort among the universe of possible projects that need action with minimal outside input. I like it better that way, really.
From time to time, though, something comes along that someone wants and yet it still never bubbles to the top of the list of things to do. Eventually, though, someone high enough in the food chain gets it in their teeth and starts gently nudging you towards whatever this favored need may be. When they nudge hard enough, no matter what else is churning, it gets some attention.
That’s all my long way of saying that it’s remarkable what can get done in two hours when you lock yourself in a room, turn off Outlook, don’t answer the phone and just start writing. It’s remarkable and might even get you off the naughty list of the person who’s been asking for that bit of information for three or four weeks… but of course it lands you squarely in hot water with the 37 other people who think their projects also deserve special attention.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this place is marginally easier to contend with once you realize that falling behind is the norm and the best possible day is one where you manage to break even because with the time and resources authorized there is literally no way to ever get ahead of the volume of things that need doing. Trying to have a little bit of perspective is awfully important.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: There are only a set number of hours in any week that are designated for “work stuff”. This week, that number happens to be 32. When you deduct the hours designated for meetings (7), at least one hour of prep time to build/update slides for each meeting (7), and thirty minutes following each meeting to field questions (3.5) that leaves a total of 14 and one half hours to do the actual work – write the memos, hammer out details, do the planning, and apply the academic rigor to the job. Those same 14 and one half hours are also sliced down by people stopping by the desk for random conversations, being called on the phone, being sucked into random small meetings that aren’t on the calendar, and occasionally getting up to grab a cup of coffee or take a leak.
Fourteen and one half hours isn’t a lot of time when you’re dealing with plans and projects that tend to be complex by their very nature. It often means you’re forced into devil’s bargains about what gets worked and what has to sit and wait. What it doesn’t mean, of course, is that you’re going to somehow defy the laws of time and space and be able to do 32 hours of actual work in the fourteen and one half hours that are available.
This reality of ours has certain limits. At some point you just have to settle for doing less with less.
Given a sufficient amount of planning time, support from key personnel, funding, and leadership with some passable facsimile of vision, just about anything is possible. With a long enough lever you can move the world. By contrast if you want to operate on a shoestring, fail to assign sufficient people to do the work, and do it all without any clear idea of how you want things to turn out, all signs point towards presiding over a cluster fuck of notable proportions. I resist the notion of “historic” proportions only because in a hundred years, there won’t be one living soul who will give a good damn what jackassery was caused here today.
Most of us never bother to learn to see past the edge of what we can reach with outstretched hands. I like to think, in some small way I manage to see more clearly than others from time to time – though certainly not always. Still, I know the difference between a rush job when the situation calls for one and a rush job when it’s what we’re doing because someone forgot to think more than thirty five minutes in advance.
I’ve got 40 hours in any given week – minus mandatory training, holidays, the occasional sick day, and whatever other priority efforts my time and attention is directed towards on any given day. I’ll do everything I can for you in the amount of time allotted, but I damned well can’t miracle something into existence by force of will or personality. I’ve tried and since my job description isn’t currently Powerball Jackpot Winner, it’s safe to assume miracles lie beyond my purview…. But like the saying goes, if you want it bad, you’ll get bad.
Don’t say you weren’t warned.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I was as close to coming unglued today as I’ve been in at least four years. At one point around 2:30 this afternoon, email was hitting my inbox and I was taking on so much verbal guidance that I’m pretty sure I could see the code in the matrix. I wish I was joking. There was a minute there this afternoon when I’m almost positive that I could hear the synapses firing in my brain.
In the middle of my boss talking to me I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed my temples, muttering something to the effect of “I think I’m losing my mind back here.” At least I think that’s what I said. Whatever it was that came out of my mouth in that moment must have been a doozy because the boss’ face was a decided mixture of curiosity and concern when I opened my eyes. It wasn’t my finest moment. Then again, it wasn’t anything close to a good day, so I don’t know why it would be.
I don’t mind hard work – physical, mental, it makes no difference to me. I’m the guy who comes home from his day job and spends another four hours at the keyboard chasing the dream of making a living and a life from the written word. I’m the guy who spends hours on the yard until it looks “just so” and order has been restored from the chaos. With that being said, I need to note that there’s only one of me. I can’t change one thing sixteen times and have any hope of keeping up with the two dozen other things people want. I wish I could tell you that I could. Hell, I wish I actually could do it all but there are limits… and I’m old enough to know better than to spend all day every day working beyond those limits. Nothing good comes from that.
So tomorrow I’m going into the day knowing that I’m already running close to max RPM. Some people are happy enough to rev the engine until it blows apart. I’m not one of them and will make decisions accordingly.
Today was another one of those days. You know, the kind you spend dashing from Very Important Thing to Very Important Thing without ever slowing down to do any kind of analysis about what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. Those days are becoming more and more common lately. My read of the future is that they’ll probably become the norm rather than the exception and that it’ll happen sooner rather than later.
I’m not saying I want to be one of those occasional government employees I ran across in DC who unfolded the Post when they got in and proceeded to spend the day reading it from cover to cover, but it would be nice to be able to do more than race from one meeting to the next until they all start bleeding together into one great endless timesuck. I’m a little envious of the people who seem to be able to sit through meetings and digest all the information on the fly, compiling it into some intra-cranial database with perfect recall of how it fits in with all the other information from all the other meetings they’ve sat in. My brain, of course, doesn’t work like that. I process information best when I have time to think on it, write things out, and then aggregate it into a comprehensive whole. That’s why given the choice I’d be better served sticking with PowerPoints and information papers and distilling big ideas down into their essential elements. Needing to do it on the wing quite literally makes my head hurt.
Based on the way the last couple of weeks have gone, I’m projecting the need to lay on a bulk supply of aspirin. As “those days” become the new normal, I’m going to need them. There are a number of management philosophies that apply here – some say do more with less, some say do less with less, the one that seems to be in play at the moment is “do more and quit your bitching.”
Rest assured as long as I have a blog and an internet connection they may be able to make me do more, but I will never, ever quit my bitching.
It’s been a while since I’ve opened up the request lines around here. With July rolling to a close, the summer doldrums well in place, and realizing that I can’t write about sequester and furlough every day and expect 99% of you to keep reading, it seems like as good a time as any to let someone else do a bit of the heavy lifting involved in topic selection.
The rules are simple and straightforward:
1. You pose a question or identify a topic of your choice. Be ruthless, I’m looking for a challenge. Just don’t ask about math. I don’t do math.
2. I carefully hand craft a response and post it on jeffreytharp.com for your amusement.
I’m tempted to say that nothing is off limits, but there’s not a chance in hell that I’m giving you jerks passwords or account information just because you were froggy enough to ask for it. With a very few limitations, though, the gloves are off so feel free to pick your topics and ask your questions with reckless abandon.
I’ll keep the request line open for the entire month of August (or until I get tired of it), so the sooner you leave me a comment, the sooner I can get on with the serious work of writing a sarcastic response.