Sunday, August 09, 2009

Getting 'To Do' Done

Many people - and not just readers of this poor, neglected blog - express confusion over what I actually do. "I know you work very hard," they offer carefully, "but I sort of don't see the point."

As my group works harder to be transparent to everyone in the business, our roles have become increasingly clear to us. That's a happy coincidence if there ever was one. We are - at a high level - tasked with strategic planning. It is, quite frankly, the Most Fun Ever. I talk to important people and define competitive objectives. I think about diseases and how they change and trends grow. We try to combine marketing goals with technical capabilities. It's all rather sexy and engaging. So I more or less exist to make long lists of Things to Do.

I've noticed that since starting this job, my patience with blogs that incorporate lists has shrunk to nothing. I found it an odd reaction, frankly, and was thinking it over as I yanked weeds from the flowerbed next to my driveway. I used to live from To Do lists. I had a special little notebook where I kept them! It has a little cartoon of a high heel on the front! I keep an Excel document open all week that is named "To Do.xls" where I add tasks as I think of them and migrate some items from week to week so I'm sure to close loops and follow up.

I then realized that excessive planning prevents execution. When there are too many thinkers and too few doers, we end up just wasting a hell of a lot of time. Therefore, at home, I could spend 5 minutes making a list of crap I have to do or I could just go do the crap. I mean it's pretty obvious. I have 2 coffee cups and 3 water bottles on my end table. I could declutter. I haven't gotten mail in about a week - I could write down the fact or just walk around the corner to my mailbox. On my way, I stopped to pull weeds - another obvious need - and bring in my recycling tubs. I then remembered I wanted to vacuum my car when I was putting away my gardening gloves. So, after putting on the new license plate sticker I'd fetched from the mail, I cleaned my interior.

I felt rather proud of myself, frankly, since this week found me making an appointment I've long avoided, canceling my personal mobile service and demanding an item from AutoVantage (Do not promise an iPod you can't deliver, you fiends! I don't even want the blasted device at this point but I can't tolerate you owing me one!) These three items have resided on a post-it on my iGoogle homepage for months. Months. Finally, annoyed with the items and myself for not doing them, I called and made the appointment. I then called and disconnected my phone. Then I sent another angry email and muttered to myself for a bit.

Attempting to share my new knowledge that we should, you know, actually do stuff instead of just talking about it incessantly, I shared my vision with my group.

Sibling nodded. "On my list," she said, "I estimate the time it will take to complete each item so that if I have 5 minutes, I pick one of those tasks and if I have 30 minutes, I take one of those." I frowned in response.

"I color code my emails," Pretty Hair offered. "Then I can see what mosts needs attention and can reply to all of the same type in the same hour or so." I raised my eyebrow, wondering if I should color code my emails and firmly shook my head.

"No!" I argued, frustrated. "We're just devising more ways to waste time! I can glance at my list - unordered and messy - and know what's quick and what will require hours of uninterrupted work. If I keep up with email and file appropriately, I don't need to learn to color code. We spend too much time pretending we're organized and it means that we end up not doing anything! I spent 2 hours in the labs this week! And 24 in meetings where we talked about how to execute a plan that we originally defined 5 months ago! If we had just fucking done it, we could be talking about something else now!"

I glanced around and ended up with my sheepish gaze on Adam. "I shouldn't have said 'fuck,'" I offered quietly. "But I am right about this. We're trying to draw lines and divide tasks and say no to requests that are fair and important. If we looked at root causes, we'd see we're just spending too much time thinking about how pretty we are and too little time helping the business."

"So what do you suggest?" Best asked, looking amused at me.

"We don't need a plan!" I replied. "I'm just saying 'do more - talk less,' 'down with lists, up with productivity.' Then I think we'll all feel good about being here - rather than working really hard to accomplish very little - and everything will cycle through and be delightful!"

I don't think they believed me. So I'm going to lead by example. And then I'll probably make a chart to demonstrate the change it has made - old habits die hard.


ScienceWoman said...

I love the last line.

What's even funnier is that I read this post while taking a break from working. Er, making a to-do list actually.

CharlieAmra said...

heh. . .I love this post. It reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, "When all is said and done; more will be said than done."

I keep a list of deliverables so I do not forget to do one or miss a deadline as I multi-task. Beyond that, I agree with you, "just do it!!"

JaneB said...

Colour-coding my emails, especially with colours I picked, makes me happy - it's not about efficiency, it's about squeezing some fun into my day.

Lists are still very useful for me, as an anxious person with multiple projects. My memory gets worse when I'm anxious and I get anxious about forgetting stuff and missing deadlines, so putting stuff on a list breaks that particular anxiety loop.

I guess one difference is that I'm a team of one! So I'm not having all these meetings to review and discuss stuff - I have to do that in my head, and there a list is the most efficient way of doing it.

I blog lists for the entirely self-indulgent reason that then I cannot lose them, leave my list notebook at home, or otherwise ignore them. I don't expect anyone to read them!

Psych Post Doc said...

Funny, I have given up my to do lists as well. I still manage to remember what I have to do and I do feel like more gets done.

Occasionally when I'm feeling overwhelmed I'll jot a few things down, but it's been a while since I've done that and I am surviving.

microbiologist xx said...

I think you are on to something. I make to do lists (1) when I am sitting in a boring seminar, lab meeting, etc. or (2) when I am avoiding work.

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