life lesson

Time Hacks and Parkinson’s Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completionPatrol Base

I stood in the middle of the patrol base. It was completely dark, and I was giving orders to my team leaders. I told them to have the men pair up, and one at a time, pull off the line. One would clean his weapon while the other maintained security.

They dutifully nodded and made it happen, tired soldiers crawling a few meters back from their position to lazily wipe carbon and oil out of the guts of their rifles. They droned on.

I sat in the middle of the patrol base and worked on a sector sketch, feeling good about having given out orders.

The military trainer approached me and kneeled. I could barely see his face in the darkness.

He asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m working on my sector sketch” I responded.

“No, what are your guys doing?”

“Oh, they’re cleaning weapons,” I said, looking over my shoulder at dark figures, barely moving.

“How long have they been doing that for?”

“Uh, about thirty minutes,” I responded.

“Listen, when you give out orders you need to give a task, condition, standard, and a time hack. Otherwise, they’ll just go on doing whatever it is you told them to do forever.”

This small piece of advice would be forever etched in my mind. I was 19 years old in the the woods of Fort Bragg, North Carolina and it was right there that I learned the importance of giving clear orders with an associated time hack. In this case, instead of simply telling the guys to to “clean their weapons” I should have said something like “pull out the bolt, wipe off the oil and carbon, dump some oil on it, put the bolt back in and then swap out with your buddy. You have five minutes to have both rifles clean. Go.”

The “time hack” is a leadership technique used to great effect by both small unit military leaders and field grade officers. If you tell a soldier to do something – whatever it is – without giving specific guidance on how to do it and more importantly, when to do it (or when to have it completed), you are leaving the task to the individual leisure of that soldier. If he or she is motivated and a go-getter, they may tackle it immediately with fantastic results. If he or she is a shammer, it will always be the task that they are right about to get to, as soon as they finish this other thing.

Years later, after I left the Army, I became really interested in “lifehack” blogs and “GTD” articles. Somewhere along the way, I came across “Parkinson’s Law,” which states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” That is, if you give someone a big chunk of time in which to accomplish a task, it is likely that they will use that time to its fullest. This is related to procrastination, in the way a student can knock out a paper they were assigned a month ago on the night before it is due, simply out of necessity.

The original essay was meant to be humorous and a jab at the British Civil Service – specifically, the British Colonial Service, which incidentally I recently mentioned in another post. Funny as it is, Parkinson’s law makes sense, and can be applied to both organizations who duplicate jobs and create “busy” work as well as individuals, for whom, as Gretchen Rubin recently posted about – nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.

Parkinson’s article is worth reading in its entirety. The manner and style is outdated, which is why I think boiling down the law to assigning “time hacks” is more digestible. Schedule a task and limit the amount of time you give yourself (or someone else) for completion, and you are more likely to see it to completion. Leave it floating out there in the ether to be completed at leisure, and it will never get done, becoming an exhausting nag that stares at you for days and weeks and months on end.

 

 

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life lesson

Life Lesson: Have a “Capture Device”

During our initial inbrief at IBOLC, the battalion commander read off a list of ten things (I think it was ten) that would help us to be successful officers in the Army. Some of them were pretty basic, like be in good physical shape and try to get enough sleep. I dutifully copied down the notes, but became particularly interested when he said “Number 8, always have a ‘capture device.'”

I straightened up and craned my neck to listen.

Around the time I was getting out of the Army in 2006 and starting college, I became super-interested in all things “productivity.” I read all the blogs and articles and theories. I created my own monster of a “getting things done” system that I still follow and tweak today (a post for another time).

So when he mentioned something that sounded like it might fall into that realm, I found myself listening intently.

He went on to talk about how good ideas often present themselves at random and inopportune times, and without a “capture device” they will simply disappear.

A capture device can be anything, from a simple pen and pad to an App on your iPhone (I use Things, and to a lesser degree, Evernote).

It is some of the best advice I ever heard, and my feeling is that it was lost on most the young Lieutenants sitting in the room.

Did you ever notice that you’ll often have fantastic ideas while in the shower or during exercise? There’s a bunch of scientific reasons why that happens. When Don Draper is stumped on an idea, he goes to the movies and lets his brain rest. By the time he leaves, the idea is there waiting for him.

Only in real life, if you don’t have a place to “capture” that idea, you’ll find yourself stopping in your tracks hours later, staring at the floor with an outstretched index finger and scrunched face, trying to remember what it was you wanted to do.

When I get an idea for work, social life, a gift, this blog – anything – I will stop what I’m doing and go to my “capture device,” in this case, my iPhone, and capture it quickly, usually in just a couple of words, and then revisit it later. The idea for this blog post came after I got an idea for another blog post and went to my phone, realizing that it would also be interesting to write about that in the first place!

Those “good ideas” only last a few moments before I forget them, usually because I’m caught up in something I’m enjoying, like watching a movie or exercising. Without capturing them, I am essentially letting them pass, hoping they’ll return at a later time when I’m not so engaged – unlikely, says science.

Over time, I’ve collected lots of great ideas for ‘things,’ most of which amount to nothing, or sit on an ever-growing list of things that I may one day do. Others, though, have been fantastic and lead me down paths or allowed me to do things that I never thought I would do. That is why I almost always have my iPhone with me.

It is my capture device.

life lesson

Life Lesson: Treat the Body Strictly

No!As Seneca, the Roman Stoic who advised treating the body “somewhat strictly,” wrote in a letter: “Avoid whatever is approved by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance. Whenever circumstance brings some welcome thing your way, stop in suspicion and alarm… They are snares… we think these things are ours when in fact it is we who are caught. That track leads to precipices; life on the that giddy level ends in a fall.”

From the New York Times, October 12, 2008.

life lesson

T.E. Lawrence and my social media revolt

“Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be a chore to read. It’s massive, and Lawrence at times muses like Holden Caulfield to the annoyance of the reader.

But there are many gems found throughout that have stayed with me, like this, his thoughts on the military man, the veteran:

“Some of them had obeyed the instinct of lawlessness: some were hungry: others thirsted for glamour, the supposed colour of a military life: but, of them all, those only received satisfaction who had sought to degrade themselves, for to the peace-eye they were below humanity.”

Most of my favorites, though, have little to do with military matters, language, or his travels. The one that sticks with me most is the end of the quote I opened with. Lawrence, in pure orientalist fashion, expresses his thoughts on the Syrians:

“All these peoples of Syria were open to us by the master-key of their common Arabic language. Their distinctions were political and religious: morally they differed only in the steady gradation from neurotic sensibility on the sea coast to reserve inland. They were quick-minded; admirers, but not seekers of truth; self-satisfied; not (like the Egyptians) helpless before abstract ideas, but unpractical; and so lazy in mind as to be habitually superficial. Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

“…busy themselves in others’ affairs.”

It was 2006. I was still fresh out of the Army and I shot out like a rocket ship. I had a full time job and I went to community college full time, trying to catch up with my education while not sacrificing my livelihood. I exercised daily and had a healthy social life. I was busy and happy.

“You should start a Facebook account,” my fiancé said.

“Why? I have a MySpace,” I replied.

I held out for a year. I just wasn’t interested.

Eventually, I relented and created a Facebook account, my modest little garden on the internet. I started connecting with ‘friends.’ Old friends and new. I was in college and meeting lots of people. It was fun. I have always enjoyed socializing online. AOL chat rooms. Internet forums. Online video games. This was a natural evolution of that.

I’d meet someone and say before leaving “Are you on Facebook?”

I enjoyed it. Pictures and comments and the opportunity to display your best self in a steady parade of best selves.

But something changed. The whole experience is no longer fun. It’s exhausting and depressing and it’s making me nuts.

More and more I’m finding myself rotating through a digital cycle of Facebook and Twitter, clearing out my ‘reds,’ those cruelly painted notifications designed to excite my brain and grab my attention. I’ll sit down at my computer to do something and find myself some time later staring at three open tabs that each say ‘Facebook (1)’ and I wonder what the hell it was I meant to do in the first place.

Or I find myself staring at a Twitter avatar, a brilliant, tiny photograph next to a quip, some moral grandstand that dares me to respond. I click ‘reply’ and tap out a response and stare at it, cursor blinking, asking me, “done?”

I think, and delete it. I almost always delete it. I don’t want to get sucked into a whole thing.

Except sometimes I send it and get sucked into a whole thing. Then comes the reply, an electric torpedo from the dark. And I’ll send another one back. And then I have to go out and actually do something in life.

I’m at lunch, checking my phone. My wife rolls her eyes. I’m waiting for a reply. Pitifully, my phone allows for ‘push notifications,’ allowing someone to reach me like a vine growing out of my phone and wrapping around my neck.

My day can be ruined by what someone says on the Internet. And I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of writing little notes and pressing enter, sending it into the ‘stream’ and watching it get carried away, or rather, pushed away by other peoples’ notes. I hate waiting and wanting those other people to look at my note and think it is so great that they’ll pass it along to their people, all sending their own little notes.

I’m tired of the ridiculous conspiracy theories from people I respect, and trying to gently make the correction.

Mostly, I’m tired of the unending gazing. The incessant scrolling. The comparing and wondering. The constant tugging from the social media ether-space, beckoning me to check again, to see what’s going on.

I can no longer stand to have people I don’t know or with whom I share some limited, past experience, suck me into their world and all of their problems. It’s too much. I’m sorry, is it wrong to be interested chiefly with one’s own affairs?

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media. I wholeheartedly believe in it as a tool for fun and personal growth as well as a platform for mobilization. I’ve made some of my best friends through it and it allows me to maintain and develop relationships in a way not as readily available in the past. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of social media in an Egyptian social movement, using Facebook to reach out to and interview some of its leaders.

No, social media is great. Just not for me. I can’t survive in it. It’s quicksand. Others, I’m sure, walk along like it’s a gorgeous beach, waving and smiling and enjoying the sunset, in Instagram, of course. I take a few steps and sink.

That’s my problem.

So, I’m in rebellion. I declare war on social media. I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone and I’ve resolved to checking them both just once a day. From my computer.

Oh I’ll still post. To withdraw completely would be to lose. To win is to control this beast. To use the space and turn their weapons to my own use. To pillage the trains left smoldering on their tracks, as Lawrence did with the Arabs.

Take back your day. It’s a revolt.

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

life lesson

Life Lesson: Find your own way

This is how I land nav.

I’ve wasted a lot of time looking for the ‘right answer’ on the internet. It’s not always necessary to try to find the ‘right way’ of doing something, or looking to see how others did it before. Sometimes (and often) it is best to go with what you know.

As great as the internet is, it can pull us down rabbit holes of worthless information. The information you’re looking for isn’t always out there. Sometimes you need to be the trailblazer. But if you do, please post it on the internet somewhere to make it easier for the rest of us.

And if they have a phone number, call them. One phone call and you can be done.

life lesson

Life Lesson: Arguing with irreconcilables (or, posting in the comments)

This one took me a long time to learn. Everyone’s got an opinion, and lots of people like to share it. Reasonable people can be convinced by a good argument to think differently.

Then there’s what I call the “irreconcilables.” These are the folks who feel so strongly about something that they have decided they cannot be convinced otherwise – regardless of facts, statistics, new evidence, or anything else. I’ve wasted great amounts of time and energy arguing with irreconcilables only to find myself at the end having wasted my time and feeling exhausted.

Irreconcilables exist all over the place, but you can find them in their greatest numbers in the comments section of blogs. Don’t argue with them. It’s fruitless. You can post your thought in the comments, but know that attempting to convince an irreconcilable of anything they have declared they disagree with is futile. Better would be to state your thought and move on.

Don’t argue with irreconcilables. You’ll be much happier for it.

life lesson

Life Lesson – Don’t disappoint the stork

I get pretty sentimental at movies, and occasionally, while watching commercials. I found this one at wimp.com last year in London. It’s an advertisement for monster.com in which a stork goes through great trouble to deliver a baby to a family, only to visit him again years later to find him bored at a crappy job.

It’s a reminder that in this overly cynical world, it is a small miracle that any of us are here, and we should put our time to good use.

life lesson

Life Lesson – Fear Inertia

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” or so the saying goes. I’ve always found that when I’m working and get into a “flow,” I accomplish a lot. As soon as I stop to sit down or take a break, getting started again takes a massive effort, and I usually fail. I can accomplish most of what I need to get done in a short period of time if I simply DON’T STOP MOVING.

Thus, one of my life lesson’s is to “fear inertia.”

in•er•tia. noun.
1. a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged: the bureaucratic inertia of government.
2. Physics. A property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.

When I start getting tired and gravitate towards the couch, I try to remind myself of how much extra effort it is going to take to get going again. Sometimes this works and I’m able to keep going. Other times I give in and plop down, ending the work.

Developing a healthy fear of inertia can help to overcome the tendency to stop, and result in a more productive person.