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.
After some thought today it occurs to me that I spend upwards of 60 hours a week doing things that by definition I don’t want to do. How do I know I don’t want to do them? Well, because someone has to pay me reasonably well to convince me that it’s how I should spend my time.
That thought leads to the corollary that I’m so completely resistant to doing things that I don’t want to do in the 44 or so waking hours that I haven’t sold off because I spend so much time doing shit that I really don’t want to do in the first place.
When you spend 60 hours a week doing that which you do not naturally want to do, the calls of “you should go to the gym,” or “you should stop eating red meat,” or “do you really need that second whiskey sour” tend to fall on deaf ears. Honest to God, I don’t even hear “you’re cutting years off your life” anymore because I just assuming a good portion of what I’m cutting off are the years at the end when you sit around a nursing home shitting yourself. That’s way up there on the list of things that I don’t want to do.
The 40 or so hours that I’m awake and not being paid, are for the things that I want to do. It’s a freedom that certain life decisions have afforded me and I intend to take advantage. I’m going to drink the good whiskey. I’m going to eat the steak. I’m going to sit in the comfy chair with a book. I’m not going to spend what is currently my most limited resource on the damned stair master or learning how to make tofu “taste good.”
I just don’t want to… and that’s not a statement I get to use nearly often enough.
1. Intellectual inconsistency. As recently as a few weeks ago, the popular narrative was of police brutality, cops shooting unarmed citizens, and the racist tendencies of police departments across the country. This week the news is full of those arguing that only the police should have semi-automatic weapons. It stands to reason that if you think the police are a bunch of trigger happy racist jerks, they’re precisely the group of people you don’t want to have armed with “sophisticated weapons of war.” Then again, intellectual inconsistency isn’t so much of a big deal when your argument stems largely from a place of emotion rather than from logic, so there’s that.
2. Any given day. On any given day there’s no real way to tell what might be considered a priority by echelons higher than reality. There’s no reliable to plan for it, no way to prepare in advance for all possible topics of interest, and really no gauge for whether that particular thing will continue to be important the next business day. It makes for some interesting conversations with people going on for minutes sometimes without realizing they’re discussing too different things, but what it doesn’t do is make a good platform for getting anything done.
3. Office space. If you’re going to want to hold meetings about every single thing every single day, it might have been a good idea to plan on having more than two or three conference rooms for the thousand plus people you’ve poured into this fancy new building. At a bare minimum you should at least make sure your meetings end on time so the people showing up for the one scheduled to start immediately after yours doesn’t end up playing Tetris on their phones for thirty minutes while they wait for you to wrap up “just one more thing.”
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.
1. Automatic shutoffs. For as long as I can remember, gasoline pumps have come equipped with an automatic switch that shuts off the flow of fuel from the pump when the vehicle’s tank is full. I’ve been pumping my own gas since 1994 and have never personally seen what happens when one of those switches fails to do its thing. As it turns out, the result is gallons of gasoline gushing back out of the filler tube until you can reach into the frothing mess and manually shut off the flow. If you manage not to catch on fire, the convenient side effect is a) the side of your vehicle being drenched in gasoline; b) the parking pad being drenched in gasoline; c) Your boots and pants being drenched in gasoline; and d) your arm being drenched in gasoline up to the elbow. In conclusion, whoever designed the “automatic” switch for gas pumps can see me in hell.
2. Bureaucracy. I sent off some paperwork that needed approval – literally one page of not very complex text, mind you. I sent it off way back in the first week of December, winging its way through the bureaucracy. This one page piece of paper, after 6 major revisions, and review by all manner of doctors, lawyers, and indian chiefs, was finally approved this week…. only 57 short days after the process got started. It’s hard to believe there are people around who wonder why it’s so hard to get anything done in something approaching a reasonable amount of time.
3. Natural consequences. The doctor insisted, during my last check up, that I start drinking more water. It’s a tall order given the volume of coffee that’s required to keep this machine running, but I’ve gotten fairly good at complying with easy instructions. So, drink more water I do. The only problem with this plan is that every morning at 1:30 on the nose I have to wake up to take what I affectionately refer to as an emergency piss – as in get yourself out of bed right now this is an emergency. Look, I know that water is supposed to be good for me, but I’m fairly sure that the doc is also the guy who told me I needed to get more sleep. Just now, I’m trying to sort out the priority of effort between these two obviously conflicting bits of guidance.
In a lot of ways my little part of Sam’s wide-ranging operation is one of the last true bastions of the command and control business model. High atop Olympus, decisions are made and the filter down through the organization like water through so many layers of sedimentary rock. Just like our notional water finding its way to the aquifer, along the way, the decision is filtered through each layer – it picks up things from one, the next strips something away, and by the time it drips down through the lower rock strata sometimes it’s barely recognizable as the thing that started the journey back on Olympus.
That’s a long way of saying that things don’t generally happen fast where I live. Slow and ponderous is the nature of the bureaucratic beast. That’s why it’s not surprising that it’s long been one of the great holdouts to working remotely. Anyone who can’t be seen at their desk, hoeing their row down on the cube farm, is suspect at best. That attitude is slowly changing among some of the first tier supervisors – usually though whose advance through the ranks started fairly recently.
Eventually though, if the anyone is paying attention and you’re more than a halfassed employee, they’ll start to realize that you really can get the work done despite your location far away from the hive. The down side of that is when it happens, the home office starts feeling less home and more office. On balance, though, wading through the daily mess in fuzzy slippers, in the company of your favorite members of the animal kingdom, and with a really stellar commute help offset that trouble reasonably well… in fact I’ll remain forever perplexed that the highly relaxed dress code and proximity to snoring dogs don’t make this the most sought after work arrangement known to man.
1. The cold. Whatever tolerance I built up for it during my formative years in the shadow if Savage Mountain has been worn away by too much of my adulthood spent in the south and along the flatter lands of eastern Maryland. This shows itself in my current situation of sitting inside with the furnace running flat out, wearing two shirts, a sweater, and wool socks, and wondering where one goes to order a nice set of long johns. I use to think the North Woods of Maine might make a nice place to end up… I’m afraid I’m going to have to reconsider this position.
2. Why aren’t we talking about “Topic X more?” I read an article online a few days ago complaining that we were no longer laser focused on whatever happened to be the Issue of the Month a couple of months ago. I’m sure all the previous Most Important Things are still important. Personally it’s that I have limited RAM to allocate to the whole universe if things there are to give a damn about. It’s allocated to work stuff, stuff to keep the house up and running, getting from here to retirement, a few things I’m passionate about, and then one or two crises of the moment. That’s it. The world has always been full of problems that need solving. 100 years ago we only saw the ones we happened to walk past. I really don’t think the world is any more in the shitter than it was back then. The only thing different is now we can find out just how jacked up things are in every corner of the world instead of only our little part of it.
3. Shipping Address. There’s an agency in the federal government that I order products from every year. The products are billed automatically and shipped out as soon as they are released. Easy peasy. Except no. This year, the first of these was scheduled to ship out to an address where I haven’t lived in three years. I have no idea. Fortunately I caught it before processing was complete. They couldn’t manage to change the address of an order “in progress” but at least I got it cancelled before it arrived safely to whoever is living at my old address. As turns out, their ordering system was picking up the old address because you have to change the shipping address in at least two places on their website. Instead of just clicking the button that says “change address” under your profile, you also have to go in and change your address under each individual product. I ended up entering the address in three separate locations in addition to the correct address that was already built into my online profile. That seems incredibly counterintuitive, but then again it’s a federal website so perhaps it’s not at all surprising… although that doesn’t explain how the shipping world out ok last year. Sometimes it’s best not to ask.