Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Too busy to get things done

Posted by boakley59 on January 30, 2008

“Copy and paste, you fool!” I wanted to scream, as I was torn between crying and doing a murder.

On election night some years back, I had just watched a reporter as he:

  • Surfed on his computer to a results Web site
  • Saved and printed the page
  • Walked across the newsroom to pick up the printout
  • Walked back to his computer
  • Opened a new file in the editing system
  • Typed in the results from the printout!

Breathing slowly and deeply to keep my head from exploding, I asked why in the world he didn’t just copy and paste the results from one computer window to another. He said with a straight face that he didn’t trust the procedure. Sadly, the truth is that even if he couldn’t copy and paste flawlessly, he still would have had more time to find and correct errors than he had with his walk-and-type foolishness.

That reporter is the extreme example, but most of us find if we step back that much of our effort is wasted in sloppy ways. Illness has given me a lot of time to think about the work I’m (at least temporarily) no longer doing. So often we end up rushed because we’re mindlessly working just to continue working.

One thing about being sick: Life suddenly gets a lot less busy. Illness may just be the stepmother of efficiency.

Whenever I have been quite ill, usually with some complication of my Crohn’s disease, my slowdown comes in three stages. First, pain, weakness and stress cut the basic capacity to do much beyond observe and plan. I don’t do much because I can’t do much. Second, as strength slowly returns, the need to proceed cautiously prompts the setting of priorities. Time and effort are expended only on the essentials. Third, time off from the usual bustle is time for reflection and reorganization.

All of these steps back help me figure out better ways to go forward. It’s easier to learn how to do things when you don’t spend all of your time just doing them. You can get ahead if you aren’t trying so hard just to keep up.

My first time home on sick leave, I was hooked up for a month to an intravenous line. I convalesced for another month after getting off the IV. I couldn’t move around or handle much, but I could sit at my computer and write programs. I was a web editor and also had remote access to the office site, so I spent much of those two months telecommuting. My sick leave may well have been my most productive stretch in my nine years in that job. I didn’t have to do all of the direct day-to-day work, so I figured out how to automate as much of that as possible, and we were soon able to process 10 to 100 times more material. (Look, ma, no hands, but 10 times the work!)

Of course, the more you figure out how to get machines to do things, the more things you want to try to keep up with. That automation success eventually buried me under such production demands that again I was running as hard as I could to stay in place. Eventually, when you have machinery carrying the load, you and your bosses start believing you really can juggle it all. You forget the lesson of the convalescent.

My latest bout with Crohn’s has been more resistant to recovery, and I have lost my job to my disability. Suzy has become the family breadwinner, and I have become a technical support desk for her in her new job. Until I am healed, I can only sit for a little while at a time, though, so I have to be efficient. I’m writing scripts for Suzy, but I have to have them pretty well worked out before sitting down at my computer to enter them.

I am also advising her on general newsroom efficiency, listening to tales of disorganization and suggesting procedures to develop a smoother production flow. As seems standard in the news industry, the staff is just the right size to struggle mightily to get out each edition barely in time. Anything that goes wrong practically guarantees a missed deadline.

The answer is to spell out standard procedure and make sure everyone knows and follows it, but when does a short-handed staff have time for training or organizing? It’s a terrible trap, but I’ve been suggesting bits and pieces and trying to keep her believing that it can be done. Every ounce of organization brings pounds of productivity.

So, if you find yourself working hard just to work hard, try thinking a little more like a sick man:

First, know your limits. What does it mean to be a professional in whatever your line is and just how much is one such person realistically capable of doing? Think of the big picture that includes your profession and your health.

Second, set priorities. Take time at the start of every day (every hour?) to figure out what must be done next. The regular pause to think about what you are doing will rejuvenate you; the planning will make the work go more smoothly.

Third, learn how things work. Focus on becoming the consummate professional. Learn procedures; learn to make tools. If you’re convinced you don’t have enough hands, think about how coworkers and machines can help. Can I copy and paste? What do I do repetitively that can be automated? Do I know someone who can create such automation, or do I have to “roll my own”?

Suzy’s dad always said, “If you don’t have time to do something right the first time, when are you going to have time to fix it?” The principle applies, no matter how busy we become.

Always, always, always take the time to figure out just what you’re doing before you start. “Copy and paste, you fool!” Never retype.

Make the time to save time.


2 Responses to “Too busy to get things done”

  1. Suzy said

    ooh, baby, i love it when you talk efficiency.

  2. Really late commenting on this one – but what great advice!

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