Getting things done: starting out

For me, the most exhilarating time in a project is the very beginning, right after I’ve decided to proceed. It’s a time for making more detailed plans, for gathering information, for choosing and purchasing tools, for learning the new skills you’ll need. There are some traps that need to be sidestepped, which I’ll address in a later post. But on the whole this phase presents the most fun, the least pressure, and the least risk, since there is lots of obvious groundwork to lay and you can hardly fail at any of it. The three examples I presented yesterday are also good examples of this.

Once it was decided that recordings of unrehearsed conversations would be of interest to people, I was asked to record and distribute them through Draught Horse Press. I tentatively agreed, provided that it was feasible for me to do it at a profit. I was vaguely aware that the equipment I would need was available—machines that could duplicate cassette tapes, computer drives that could record CDs, software that could be used to record and edit audio, packaging for the cassettes and CDs. I spent some time learning about how those things worked, and roughed out a design for a small, inexpensive recording and duplicating operation.

After concluding that the costs were manageable, I took a deep breath, started purchasing the equipment, and then figured out how to piece it all together in order to create Basement Tapes. I learned to operate unfamilar software and electronic equipment. I ran experiments to test my design, and made adjustments wherever things didn’t work properly. I figured out how to organize things so that in reasonable time I could pack up my equipment, drive across town, set it up in a basement, do a recording, break down the equipment, and bring it back home. I sorted through my options for labeling and packaging the cassettes and CDs we would be making. Eventually, we were ready to do the real work—record a conversation and see if anyone was interested in buying a copy.

Draught Horse Press went through a similar stage. At the beginning I knew that it was possible for a lone individual to create, publish, and sell a book—for one thing, I’d bought many such books—but I knew very little about the details. I learned about publishing software to lay out a book, about book design, about working with an author to edit his words into final form, about contracting with a printer to get a book printed, about creating a website that was capable of taking orders for the book online. Eventually, I had boxes and boxes of my book in hand, and I was ready to start the real work of offering it for sale.

In both these cases, you might think that what I’m calling the initial stage is in fact an entire project, since at the end we were able to produce a Basement Tape or a book. And at some level they were little projects of their own, exhibiting the same properties of the large project—fun in the beginning, grueling in the middle, requiring diligence to bring to completion. But both small projects were really preliminaries to larger, riskier projects; it’s much easier to produce a product than it is to sell it, and there’s no glory in producing a product that can’t be sold, so I didn’t think of producing a book or recording as a project in itself, but merely a step towards a larger goal.

In this respect I’m particularly pleased with how the Ridgewood Boys project has evolved. Because we never had any pressure to achieve a large goal—all we ever wanted to do was have some fun, challenge ourselves, and not leave any opportunities untested—it has turned out that our progress has come in the form of many modest but significant goals, goals which were quickly achieved and which also put new goals within our reach. This means that not very much time ever went by before we were once again in the exhilarating initial stages of a new project—attending a music camp, encouraging friends to dust off instruments and jam with us, playing onstage, making recordings at home, creating setlists, playing for dancers, learning a new instrument, writing an article for publication, exploring regional repertoires, attending a professional musicians’ convention, arranging for private lessons with world-class musicians, creating promotional materials, playing at local festivals. Each of these little projects has given us the chance to learn many new things. Completing them successfully has given us the courage to take on new and scary projects. And even without an overarching goal, we still have managed to make reasonable, tangible progress towards becoming better musicians.

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New weblog: The Deliberate Agrarian

I encourage you to spend some time reading Herrick Kimball’s new weblog, The Deliberate Agrarian. Herrick writes books, designs gizmos (such as the Whizbang Chicken Plucker), makes and sells excellent garlic powder, and now chronicles his agrarian experiences.

I admire the care with which Herrick writes, making sure all the details are included, not fussing up his prose with clever and showy phrasing. The word pictures he paints are full, rich, and deep. Read On Picking Strawberries in The Early Morning and Boys Working Together to see how evocative simple and unadorned writing can be.

Getting things done: acquire a taste for low-hanging fruit

Sometimes the thing you need to do is obvious—the wastebasket needs emptying. Sometimes it’s not obvious, but it’s easy to figure out—we don’t have the supplies we need to feed visitors this weekend, so a trip to the grocery store is in order. Sometimes it’s not all that easy to figure out, but you can take some good guesses at how to make forward progress—if you intend to be a musician, it would be helpful to learn an instrument, or to see if you enjoy playing music with other people, or to find out if you suffer from terminal stagefright.

And sometimes it’s not even possible to know what your goal should be until you do a little exploration. One good example is the origin of the Basement Tapes. In early 2001 Laurence Windham and R.C. Sproul Jr. had no idea that recordings of conversations between friends on substantial topics could be such an engaging and powerful method of communicating. What they did know was that a local church had inherited a tiny AM radio station and was in need of programming for it. They thought it would be interesting and enjoyable to have their own radio program, so each weekday for three months they showed up at the studio at 6am and went about the business of filling three hours of airtime with talk and music.

The experience taught them at least two things. One, they didn’t want the burden of a daily three-hour radio program; it took too much time away from other things. Two, during their time on the air they had been able to tackle some important topics in depth, by means of conversation rather than lecture—and the result was engaging and, better yet, unlike other audio programs. After a couple of months of thinking over those two things, they decided to experiment with creating and distributing something like the radio program, keeping some of its strengths and avoiding some of its weaknesses—a monthly unrehearsed conversation among friends, covering a single topic, made available on tape and CD.

A second good example is the birth of Draught Horse Press. When the opportunity came up to publish Eternity in Our Hearts, I was able to take advantage of it because I knew more or less how to publish a book. Which isn’t to say that I had ever published one, or even been involved in the publication of one. But in 1988 I had worked for a company that made desktop publishing software, and I spent a lot of my spare time going through tutorials that taught me how to lay out newsletters and magazines and such. And in 1993 I took a summer class in how to run a small printing press, because I was curious about how they worked. And I had kept up with the latest developments in book printing technology, partly out of curiosity and partly because I had vague notions that I might want to write and self-publish a book someday. And somewhere along the way I had learned the basics of double-entry bookkeeping, thinking it would be a useful skill if I ever started a small business of my own. Because of all this and a few other things I knew, I was able to decide to go ahead, and two months later I had printed copies of the book in hand, and the beginnings of an online bookstore where they would be sold.

A third example is the gradual professionalization of the Ridgewood Boys. When Chris and I came back from our first jam camp, we were excited about learning to play music together and with our friends, but we had hardly any desire to perform, and no desire at all to perform professionally—in fact, going professional was something we were very wary of. But even at that point I was buying and reading books about various aspects of the music business, including my favorite, Pete Wernick’s “How to Make a Band Work.” There was something faintly embarrassing about it; each time I’d buy one, a voice in my head would say, “Oh yeah, right, like you’re ever going to be in a band!” But the point wasn’t that I would somday be in a band and use that information, the point was that I wanted knowledge about the music business for its own sake—it was interesting to me, and different, and might teach me some things about how musicians think. So I proceeded to learn about the music business while having no intention of entering the music business—and, ironically, it was that knowledge that led us deeper and deeper into the music business.

We live in an age where such low-hanging fruit is abundant. There is hardly an activity imaginable where there isn’t a plethora of helpful books, videos, and websites that will teach you the fundamentals of that activity. I recommend that people cultivate a taste for such fruit, that they take the time to explore the basics of an activity for the sheer joy of learning about it. If you plan to have someone do some work on your home, take the time beforehand to learn something about how the work is done; it won’t take long to learn the basics, you’ll be more intelligent about hiring the worker and specifiying the work, you’ll be in a position to learn even more as you watch the work being done, you may be encouraged to do something similar someday, you may even be courageous enough to decide not to hire the work out at all.

Learn about what it takes to run a small business; it may prepare you for actually doing so in the future, or it may make you extremely grateful that you have a steady paycheck. Learn about how to grow and prepare food. Learn about how to operate some of the standard computer software packages. Learn about how people make things out of wood. Learn about how books are printed. Learn about how music is recorded. Learn how to write.

As you learn about these things, take the time and expense to try out the ones that interest you the most. Grow something and eat it. Make something out of wood and sell it. Write an article and submit it to magazines. Make your trial run modest enough that you can afford to lavish care and effort on it. Pick something simple, but still real.

When I learned how to run a printing press, I spent a good amount of time and money acquiring a skill that I have yet to use—but I enjoyed it, and I learned other things in the process that have been very helpful. When I decided that I needed to know more about growing food, I planned out a garden that in many ways was overkill—raised beds, custom-mixed soil, an assortment of plants that was chosen to keep the risk low rather than to constitute a large part of our diet. As far as the food goes, it would have been more effective to buy it all at a local farmer’s market; as far as the learning goes, the cost was minimal.

Getting things done: go find something to do

My father-in-law was an engineer at a large high-tech corporation, and part of his job was to supervise technical workers, some of whom weren’t all that motivated. Usually undermotivated employees are pretty creative in their goldbricking, but he told me of a time when one of his charges was practically an automaton. This fellow would do whatever work he was explicitly given to do, cheerfully and efficiently, but once the work was done he would put down his tools and stare blankly at his workbench—sometimes for hours.

My father-in-law had a strong work ethic, and this behavior baffled him. He tried many things to encourage the fellow to take some initiative; all of it was received cheerfully, but none of it had any effect. Finally, he confronted the man and told him that if he didn’t start looking for useful things to do without being told, my father-in-law would do everything in his power to have the man fired.

The man’s expression suddenly changed, as if a light bulb had gone on: I need to start looking for useful things to do. And he did, eventually becoming one of the better workers, even going on to earn a college degree.

An important part of growing up is the transition from being self-centered to being other-centered. Children start out expecting lots from us, while we don’t expect all that much from them; the household exists and operates for their sake, not vice versa. Modern thinking lets this attitude develop for way too long. Most of the chores that are within a young child’s ability have been hired out in one way or another—water that used to be carried is now brought in through a tap, chickens that used to be fed are now kept in confinement houses many states away, eggs that used to be gathered are picked up at the supermarket, floors that used to be swept are cleaned by a service. For the rest, we can do them more efficiently without involving them and so we tell the kids to go play while we fold the laundry, prepare the meals, or weed the garden.

If it does occur to us that our children need chores, we treat them as an educational exercise, akin to the math exercises that they do just because we tell them to, not because they see any benefit in them. Due to lack of early training they are incapable of doing truly useful work, and the work they are capable of is mildly demeaning for a child of that age, so we make up work that sounds important but really makes no contribution to the household.

All this encourages a self-centered attitude towards work. Work is something I have to do for my own reasons—because I want to, or because I must obey, or because I don’t want to get in trouble, or because I will derive some benefit from it. Absent is any notion that work should be done for the common good, for the sake of the household whose benefits we all enjoy. And so we shouldn’t be surprised when our children walk right by an overflowing wastebasket without a second glance—because it isn’t their chore, or if it is their chore it’s one they do on another night, or they forgot that this was the night for that chore, or any of a thousand other sophistic reasons they might offer when confronted about it.

We constantly battle this attitude in our household, and we have yet to discover the magic bullet that reliably puts it to death. Perhaps we aren’t yet modeling it properly; I know that it is a form of laziness that I have struggled with for many years. But we keep working at it, because one of our convictions is that for a godly man or woman duty trumps personal preference—when you see a job that needs to be done for the sake of the household, you don’t pass it by simply because it isn’t your assigned responsibility.

Getting things done: is this trip necessary?

I have a recurring nightmare that always blindsides me as it unfolds. Some sort of really exciting opportunity opens up for me, and all I need to do to get ready is run a small errand. Well, the errand slowly gets out of control, for every problem solved two more crop up, and soon enough I am scrambling frantically to get the errand done, while it becomes less and less likely that I’ll make it back in time to seize the exciting opportunity. The part that always blindsides me is this: as things are going wronger and wronger, I suddenly realize that the errand itself was totally unnecessary—but because I started on it, I have to complete it before going back.

I’ve lived out the nightmare as well, many times, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to have co-workers and bosses who were wise enough to see such problems developing and head them off. One time someone in another part of my organization came to me and said that a customer of his needed a specially modified version of a piece of software I was responsible for, and that he needed it ASAP. I took his word for it, and made plans to spend night and day getting the modifications done.

Before I did too much planning, though, I stopped in to see my supervisor to double-check that it was OK for me to do this work. He asked me, “Why would you want to do something like that?” I told him about the request, and he said “Hold on a minute.” He picked up the phone, called the customer (someone he worked with frequently) and asked if he really needed us to drop everything to get this work done. The customer said no, not at all, it would be convenient but it wasn’t really all that important. Then he called the fellow who had originally asked me to do the work, straightened him out, and I went back to the work I was being paid to do.

When we ask our kids to do something, we monitor them as closely as possible, even if it is something they are supposed to do on their own. Frequently we have to step in and ask, “Why are you doing that?”, or “Why are you doing it that way?” It doesn’t surprise us that they might choose a wrong path to the goal; often it’s an honest mistake, or because the project exceeds their ability to plan. The trouble is not the choice itself, but the fact that they never bothered to run it past us, out of pride or arrogance, before proceeding.

Too often we embark on a task whose cost in time, energy, and expense far outweighs any benefit we might gain from it. Sometimes it is because we fail to distinguish what is urgent from what is important. Sometimes it is because the more important tasks don’t interest us as much, or are beneath us, or have less glory associated with them, or don’t make us look busy enough. Sometimes it is because we don’t know how to do the task properly, but are too proud to ask for help. Sometimes it is because we wrongly assume that the task is important to someone, where a few simple questions would show otherwise.

What’s worse is that, even after we begin to suspect that the task costs more than it is worth, we continue to throw good effort after bad in order to complete it. Sometimes it really is the best choice to go ahead and finish the job—people have come to count on it being finished, or the remaining cost to complete the job is now small enough to make it worthwhile. But far more often it would be the better choice to abandon the task and write off the effort spent on it so far.

When we start to get that uneasy feeling that we’ve chosen the wrong path, we need to summon up as much humility as we can, and answer the following questions: Am I sure that someone wants this particular job done? Will completing this job actually help the overall effort? Is the cost of the job worth the result? Would things be going better if I asked for help?

Getting things done: don't get stuck in the foothills

I spent the formative years of my corporate life as a support programmer for computer science researchers, specifically for folks who were studying artificial intelligence. I never did such research myself, but I had to understand the field well enough to work effectively with the folks I was supporting, and so I ended up conducting an on-the-job version of a short course of study. Not much of it was worth remembering, but there were occasional observations about the nature of problem-solving that have stuck with me.

One of the most important is referred to as the hill-climbing problem. In searching for a solution to a problem, one possible strategy is to consider all our options and then choose the one that will improve the situation the most; once we reach a state where none of our options will improve the situation, we conclude that we are now in the best possible state. This is called the hill-climbing strategy.

The problem with the hill-climbing strategy is that you can get stuck in the foothills. That is, even though you are at the top of a hill, there may be much higher hilltops surrounding you—hilltops that can only reached by going down, then going up the new hill. If your strategy tells you that going down is to be avoided, once you reach a hilltop you are stuck there, even if you discover that it is not the highest hill.

Seeing a higher hill in the distance, why wouldn’t you simply abandon your current vantage point and strike out for the higher one? Well, there’s no assurance that you can reach the top of a hill just because you can see it, so it may not be prudent to give up the gains you’ve made in the hopes of greater gains that you may never achieve.

For an example close to home, imagine a father who over the years has established a regular and profitable practice of spending an hour in the morning in prayer and Bible study. However, since he began this practice his family has grown and his responsibilities have increased, to the point where it is hard to find the time to add a new practice to his schedule—say, daily family worship. As he considers ways to make the time, he will be reluctant to entertain the possibility of forgoing his daily private time; after all, the benefits of that practice are known and proven, while the benefits of family worship are unknown and untested.

What the father should consider, though, is whether the benefits of his daily private time could be obtained in some other way, one that didn’t require the hour that might be used instead for family worship. In fact, it might very well end up that the benefits of a robust and thoughtful family worship that emphasized Bible study and prayer would overlap with and even outweigh the benefits of his current private time. There’s no assurance that this will be true, of course; but it is a strong enough possibility that it is worth trying out.

And therein lies the secret of not getting stuck in the foothills: no such decision need be permanent. Just because we need to give up a successful practice in order to try out something new and more promising, doesn’t mean that we can’t admit defeat and return to our old successful practice if the new approach doesn’t deliver on its promises.

If you’re finding it hard to get something done because it interferes with some longstanding practice, consider setting aside the practice—temporarily. At worst, your experiment will lose you a little time and perhaps cause you a little embarrassment. At best, you’ll not only have gotten something done, you’ll have found new and better ways to gain the benefits of your former practice.

Getting things done: avoid busyness

I’ve written before about how busyness is an enemy of simple living. Busyness is also a major stumbling block to getting things done.

I’m often dismayed when I ask someone how things are going with them, and then end up listening to a long and detailed account of how swamped they are at work, how frazzled they are trying to get the kids to this or that activity, how little time they have to do everyday chores. What dismays me is not the damage that busyness has done to their lives, but the fact that they wear such busyness as a badge of honor. Why is it that when someone is putting in more effort than ever and still falling farther and farther behind, he views the situation with pride rather than shame?

These days we tend to value zeal, which is easily summoned up and within anyone’s reach, over competence, which is hard won over many years of experience and effort. We’ve been trained to do so by industrial society, which has worked long and hard to eliminate the need for competent labor. The ideal job, from industry’s point of view, is the one where a a completely untrained worker can show up and exert himself for a set period of time; the system takes care of turning the worker’s bare effort into something creative and useful.

Corporate life is the worst for this, and high-tech corporations are the worst of the worst. Workers are lauded not for their reliability, common sense, or even productivity, but for their willingness to exert themselves to the point of sacrifice and beyond. The worker who throws himself completely into useless and even counterproductive efforts is the hero; the worker who points out uselessness and counterproductivity and refuses to go along with it is the goat.

The work ethic at Microsoft is a legendary example of this. Workers are expected to spend long hours at their jobs, whether or not the extra hours are actually productive. One software manager at the company, Steve Maguire, took some time to closely study the habits of his employees, and came to the conclusion that no matter how many hours they spent at the office, he got no more than forty hours of work a week from them. Why? Because as they worked beyond those limits, they became less efficient at getting work done. People who worked sixteen-hour days would spend eight of those hours doing things other than work—eating, schmoozing, surfing the internet, playing ping-pong, making personal telephone calls, running errands they didn’t have time to run outside of their long working hours. He insisted that his own team change their habits to spend a fully-engaged eight hours a day at work, using the rest of the day to live the rest of their life. His team was successful and healthy, but their example was never emulated because people were realistic—the corporate culture rewarded superhuman levels of effort, not effectiveness.

Regardless of what industry rewards and punishes, busyness is a clear indication that something is wrong. It may be that you have chosen a very inefficient or ineffective path to reach your goal. It may be that your goal is unrealistically ambitious, one that is beyond your reach, and that you are trying to make up the difference through sheer effort. It may be that you made the mistake of not making room on your very full plate for a new task. It may be that you need help to complete the task but won’t ask for it. It may be that cultivating an air of busyness makes you feel important. It may be that you are using busyness as an excuse for never bringing a task to completion and thereby risking that others might judge your work. The solution in every case is not to exert yourself even more, but to identify what is wrong and fix it.

You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it would be career suicide to forego busyness for effectiveness at work. But certainly within the sphere of family life you should be able to shift the atmosphere from rewarding effort expended to rewarding goals achieved—particularly if the overarching goal is a good life. Other families may think of you as lazy or undercommitted or detached or even neglectful, but they will tend to keep such views to themselves, being in general too busy to pay much mind to you, and the fruit you will bear in your own household will far outweigh any baseless condescension or disapproval they may find the time to inflict on you.