Tuesday night I went to one of those meetings of the local computer counter culture. Another attempt to expose myself to another way of thinking, working, solving problems. Kind of like taking a calculus class (and, oh, I suck at math). I’m never very sure going in if I’m actually going to get anything useful out of these meetings, aside from satisfying my curiosity, and in truth I usually end up thinking, “well, that’s not something I can do” (or, at least not until I figure out wtf they were talking about).
The topic was productivity — although the title of the talk was “Scrumming things done.” Yeah, I have absolutely no idea where the term “scrumming” came from (although it sounds vaguely sports-related), or why it applies. But I was probably the oldest person there by a substantial margin, and one of only three women. So. Language barriers kind of go with the territory. [Update — here’s a link to a video that explains “scrumming”]
[Oh, and note to presenters. Acronyms. Not everybody knows what they all mean. If you're going to use them, have a slide with the words spelled out. If you don't want to do this, don't open your meetings to the "public."]
Now. Productivity is something everyone can use a little help with, so I figured I’d learn something. In fact, I had what might even pass for one of Havi Brooks‘s “hot-buttered epiphanies” [Okay, I couldn't find something to link this to, but, trust me, she talks about them.] Most of the guys that were there are software developers/web designers/programmers or closely related species. (Then there was me.)
They all spend a lot of time at their computers writing code, entering data, doing research, reading and writing e-mails, and Twittering. Hopefully not all at the same time. Setting boundaries around tasks, prioritizing, and deciding on time lines in advance is the only way to keep that kind of mess sorted out in a way that can make work flow toward a finished product of some sort. These people really have to manage their time, and there are all kinds of tools available that let them micromanage it if they want.
I realized that the reason I never felt like I was getting anything done when I was working for the Kentucky Division of Water was that I wasn’t doing those time management things very effectively. Why not? Well, nobody really told me I needed to or showed me how. So, why didn’t I already know how? I’d had other jobs…which I started to examine.
I worked at a zoo. Work flow = arrive at work, clean cages, feed animals. Next day — clean cages, feed animals. Next day — clean cages, feed animals. Next day — well, you get the picture.
Then I worked at a lab where we did parentage tests for the Jockey Club, the U.S. Trotting Association, and the American Saddlebred Horse Accociation. There the job was — run gels, read gels; or run gels, make gels, read gels; or run gels, make buffers, read gels; and sometimes run gels, read gels, run more gels, read those gels.
Not a whole lot of need for productivity management tools. That was my epiphany. Not really even so much “hot-buttered” as “oh, duh.”
Then I compared what I do now to the kinds of things they were talking about, and realized that, yeah, I let things distract me from writing articles for my blog, drawing and painting, etc. I check my e-mail, read other people’s blogs, read Twitter, do housework, fritter my time away. Not that doing those things is always bad. In fact it’s absolutely essential to do something else when I lose my focus on some tasks, or I run the risk of making a real mess.
When I’m drawing, especially when I’m working with my colored pencils, I get completely absorbed by what I’m doing. All the internal noise just goies away for a while. As soon as it starts trying to intrude, I have to walk away from what I’m working on. Sometimes I only need a minute or two — I check on the dogs, get something to drink, then I can get back into that zone. But if I dont’t get up, I’ll mess something up.
It’s a little different with writing. If I mess up a watercolor painting, I can sometimes pretend that I “meant for that to happen,” but if I make a big enough mistake on a drawing, it can’t always be erased away without damaging the paper. With writing I can always use some of what I’ve done, even if I chop out huge chunks before I’m finished. Writing is like drawing in that I get completely absorbed, especially when I work with pen and paper, like I often do for first drafts. But when I draw, I don’t hear words in my head. I don’t consciously hear anything. It’s very peaceful. But not something I can sustain all day.
Toward the end of the meeting one of the guys said he felt lucky on days when he got as much as six hours worth of work done. I think he probably gets more done than he realizes. I think we’ve all been programmed to see only certain things as qualifying for “getting things done,” and the rest is fluff. I think a lot of the fluff matters. When I get up from my work table and look out the kitchen window and see my dogs curled up asleep on their hay bails, it rassures me that everything is okay, and I can go back to work or on to the next task. And it may seem counterproductive to do housework to avoid studying for an exam, but there’s always the possibility that you’ll study more effectively in a clean environment. Or should I say cram?…or would that be “scrum?”