Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cautionary Pearl: You never get caught up on life.

When I worked at Kodak, I carpooled for a few years with another research scientist. We typically arrived at work at 7:30 in the morning and left about 5:30 p.m. Near the end of the day, Sean would walk down to my office and read his newspaper until I was ready to leave. I was curious why he often arrived early in my office. “Don’t you have a lot of work to do?” I asked him once. “No,” he replied, “I’m all caught up.”

My career at Kodak lasted more than eighteen years, yet I can’t remember a time when I could say “I’m all caught up.” The concept of being caught up didn’t even exist for me. There was always a raft of work awaiting my attention. I might reach a convenient stopping point on a particular task, and of course projects did wrap up from time to time. But that just meant that I had some time available to work on other tasks in my backlog. If I waited to go home until I was truly all caught up, I’d still be in my office there today.

I learned some time ago that you never get caught up on life. I can remember times when I made mental plans to do something fun, take a vacation, or undertake a new activity when I was “caught up.” Eventually I realized that such a day would never come. Instead, I needed to adjust my priorities to spend time how I wanted to even while my to-do list remained unfinished.

A couple of experiences in my educational background brought home the reality that “catching up” on life is a rarity. Juggling, planning, and prioritization became watchwords to help me do my best to get caught up.

When I took an analytical chemistry laboratory class in college, I quickly realized that it would be impossible to finish all of the intended work in each week’s four-hour lab session if I did tasks sequentially. I had to learn to multitask. I planned my lab session so that I could begin one activity and let it run while I turned my attention to something else, interleaving the various tasks until they were all finished, with any luck by the end of the lab session. This was a valuable learning experience. Multitasking and interleaving of tasks is vital for cooking and many other kinds of projects that involve steps that aren’t necessarily performed strictly in sequence. This can help you get “caught up,” but it’s no guarantee.

When I began graduate school, one of the first things I learned was that there was absolutely no way I could do absolutely all the things I had to get done. Therefore, I had to learn how to prioritize and allocate appropriate chunks of time to the various responsibilities. Like multitasking, effective prioritization is also a useful skill to acquire. Sure enough, I never accomplished everything I hoped to, and often not even everything I had to. Assessing priorities before just diving in on the first task and working hard helped me focus my energies for the greatest benefit.

Maybe you’re never going to get all caught up on everything there is to do, but at least you can learn to allocate your energy in a sensible way to yield the maximum benefit and still leave yourself some time to enjoy life.

I had a friend who once felt overwhelmed because he could never get caught up with the huge backlog of work he had to do. Mark was a first-level manager. He told me that at the end of each day, he would stare at the growing heap of paper on his desk and feel depressed because he never seemed to make any headway on it.

I offered a radical suggestion. I suggested that Mark throw everything on the top of his desk away. If there was something really important there that he needed to follow up on or a phone call that he simply must return, someone would get back to him about it. Otherwise, likely no harm would be done by simply ignoring the backlog. This was pretty extreme advice.

Mark tried it. He flushed the backlog. To his surprise, no unpleasant repercussions arose from simply ignoring nearly everything in his mountain of unfinished work. I guess quite a bit of Mark’s backlog consisted of unessential items that no one would miss. He immediately felt much better about work, and his stress level plummeted. This isn’t necessarily the right strategy for every overwhelming work situation, but it worked out well in this case.

Since I retired a few years ago, I don’t have as many looming commitments that I need to address. I have more time to devote to activities for fun, even if they do involve considerable effort (like writing and promoting Pearls from Sand!). Even though there have been times when I’m a bit—dare I say it—bored, it’s not because I’m “all caught up.” There are always chores to do around the house and yard that I’ve been putting off. Those little repair and clean-up jobs don’t go away just because I don’t feel like doing them yet, and the car won’t wax itself. But now that I understand I’m never going to get fully caught up, it’s okay to start living. Put that item on the top of your to-do list.