One of the things they don’t teach you in school is how to be a cubicle rat, aka “knowledge worker”, in the 21st century—how to cope with having four dotted-line bosses and three projects, all of which are top priority at the same time. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, both in order to help myself survive the blitzkrieg that is the modern workplace (email goes bing!) and also to help prepare my daughter for her future work life.
The way things are going with the world, she may very well end up scavenging for gasoline in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but unless that happens, her work life will no doubt be even more manic than mine is today. And thanks to the cancer on education that is No Child Left Behind, she won’t be prepared for it at all.
She’ll be an excellent test-taker, for what that’s worth. Which is nothing.1
So, I’ve been doing lots of reading and thinking about productivity and efficiency and how to stay sane in the onslaught.
As a quick Google search will tell you, the Internet is positively groaning under the weight of articles on productivity. The problem is that most of them are actually not about productivity: they are articles on managing ADD, thinly veiled as productivity tips.
This becomes tedious if you’re one of the three people on the Internet who don’t suffer from ADD. (I do have a mild case of OCD, sure, but that’s pretty much the anti-ADD.)
The knowledge worker today has two major problems. First: How do I figure out what to do next? There are a ton of things calling for my attention right now, so how do I know which one is the best one to take on right now?
The second problem is: How am I going to get people to leave me alone (email goes bing!) long enough for me to do the work?
Three books have been hugely influential for me as I try to figure this stuff out. One is well known; the two others deserve a wider audience.
(I’m also eagerly awaiting Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero book, which should be fantastic. No pressure, Merlin.)
The first lesser-known text is the Book of Five Rings. It was written by Miyamato Musashi, a practicing samurai who lived to ripe old age, thus proving he knew a lot about samurai-ing. It’s a thoughtful meditation on achieving your goals, packaged in a slim volume. The Kindle version linked above costs a measly $0.89, so grab it.
Yes, there’s stuff in there that’s not particularly useful for the non-samurai cubicle dweller, like in which hand you should hold which sword, etc., so feel free to skim those bits. But what Musashi really explains, in a very Japanese way, is an attitude to overcoming obstacles and focusing your energies.
The main thing that’s stuck with me is: Let your fighting stance be your everyday stance.
If you do things one way in training and another way when it’s real, you’re doing it wrong. For example, the kill rate for US Army soldiers in combat went way up when they switched from circles to human silhouettes for target practice. If you’re practicing on circles, but the real thing involves humans, the practice doesn’t transfer—basically, you’ve wasted your time.
In an office context, it means if you do things sloppy most of the time, you will have to struggle a lot more to do it correctly when it matters than if you’d maintained correct form while you practiced.
C.f., freaking email: Always write the same way. This makes the correct way easier—you’re always practicing it. No mental mode shift when you need to write something “for real.”
It’s worth thinking about—where do you practice one way and apply what you’ve trained another way? There’s waste to be culled in those incongruities.
The text you know, of course, is David Allen’s mighty Getting Things Done. (The link goes to the paperback, since for some insane reason it’s four dollars cheaper than the Kindle version. Grumble, grumble, idiot publishers….)
The huge breakthrough David Allen made in GTD was that our brains are terrible at dealing with the modern world. Your brain will wake you up at 2 a.m. to worry about remembering to add that slide to the PowerPoint deck for your presentation, but at 8 a.m. when you’re in your chair working, it sure has nothing to say about that slide. In a lot of ways your brain is like a crazy uncle—not there when you need him, but sure to annoy you at inopportune times.
Which is why you need to write stuff down. And then you must remember to look at the list where you wrote the things down. That way your brain stops worrying about it. If that PowerPoint slide issue is captured in your system and your brain knows it’s there, it’s not going to wake you up to worry. And it’s not going to remember it when you’re pumping gas or when you’re sitting down to watch a movie. And you’ll get a reminder when you’re sitting in your office wondering what to do next.
Now, some people really take GTD way, way too far and turn it into some kind of religion. Don’t be that guy. Seriously, it’s a methodology to help direct your attention—there’s no inquisition. So don’t sweat it; find what works for you, then do it and don’t worry about having the right type of moleskine.
If you’re one of the few people who haven’t already read GTD, please do. It’s very powerful. And then take from it what works for you. We’re all beautiful and unique snowflakes.
Then keep your system as simple as possible. This is where the ADD crew tends to go off the reservation with endless twiddling. It has to work when you’re under fire—if your system is so baroque it won’t hold up on your busiest day, it’s no good. (Email goes bing!) By definition, your busiest days are when you need the system the most. Do the simplest thing that works.
The third and final text is D. T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism. (The link goes to the paperback since the publisher apparently doesn’t believe in this new-fangled e-book thing which is no doubt only a fad and will go away soon.)
Turns out, the issues we struggle with today—how to find meaning, how to pick the next thing to do, how to survive the onslaught of tasks and interruptions—buddhist monks were thinking about while my ancestors were busy thinking up new ways to torture people who interpreted the Bible differently than they did. So that was a good use of my ancestors’ time.
In Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki provides a heartwarming introduction and history of Zen. If you believe in some other religion, don’t worry. Zen buddhism isn’t actually a religion, it’s a way of thinking. Much like the Enlightenment and the scientific method, it shows you why you don’t really need a religion, but it certainly isn’t anti-religious per se.
What Zen buddhism is, is a way to look at the world, a way to cut through the crap and focus on the things that are important. Like with GTD, and over a much longer time span, some people have managed to turn Zen buddhism into something very complicated and weird that only they truly understand.
Those people are assholes. As D. T. Suzuki shows, Zen is simple. It’s also frustratingly difficult, but it’s simple.
Take the time. Turn off notifications, turn off email, turn off the TV and spend some time in the company of you. Make friends with your brain. You keep fighting it, you both lose.
I don’t mean any kind of disrespect to teachers out there—we’ve been consistently impressed with my daughter’s teachers and school—but they’re fighting a losing battle against budget cuts and an insane focus on testing. How anybody can think the way to prepare our children for the future is to make them hate learning by turning them into answer-spewing robots is beyond me.↩
Posted Sunday, 05 June, 2011 by Nic Lindh