Wednesday, August 27, 2008

General Disarray and the mighty wave of moles

Last year, General Disarray read "Getting things done", subscribed to 43 folders and decided he would organize his professional life. He bought a label maker, in-and-out boxes, file holders, and lots of paraphernalia I did not understand but he swore the book told him to buy. He created elaborate to-do lists with color coding and converted emails to tasks so that his inbox was no longer his to-do list (I don't understand what your inbox is for if it's not your to-do list, but okay. To each their own).

I watched in amazement, because this level of organization boggles my mind. I have to admit that I am a chaos vortex. I don't know how it happens, but I turn around and there is a path of destruction behind me. I learned early on that the amount of time I had to put into restoring order to my universe vastly overwhelmed how quickly I could destroy that order - which meant that I could either spend my life ordering my life or I could live my life. (This decision was much to my mother's dismay who decided that the only way she could retain sanity in the face of my bedroom was to keep the door shut). So, my low-tech organization has consisted of important to-do things written on my whiteboard and less important things scrolling off the bottom of my email (I understand that this is a no-no in 'getting things done'). In contrast to my embodiment of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (I like to think of myself as more of a Second Law of Thermodynamics Superhero, actually), General Disarray has the ability to order things and things seem to stay...ordered. I obviously find this skill incomprehensible, so I watched his ordering of his life with files and labels with a mix of skepticism (how can anyone spend so much time ordering their lives and still get stuff done) and envy (man, I wish my office looked that nice).

Fast forward to last week...I walked into General Disarray's office and stopped short. He was slumped in his chair with his head thrown back staring at the ceiling, with a look of utter aghast dismay. "What is wrong with you?" I asked. The answer was immediately clear - he had been mobbed by moles, a vast unending tidal wave of moles. One of those waves of moles that no flood levy in the world is going to contain. As most of us would instinctively do, he started whacking moles as fast as humanly possible, wore himself out, and was beginning to realize that he had gotten nothing done on any of his research projects when I had walked through the door.

I had a nice heart-to-heart with General Disarray about moles (which I formalized in my blog post the other day). He seemed to respond positively to the analogy and went back to work with renewed vigor. Later that day, I went back to check on him. He was slumped in his chair with his head thrown back staring at the ceiling, with a look of utter aghast dismay. And this my dear readers, is the second part of the mole analogy that I have decided to share. Sometimes moles pop up at a continuous background rate, and sometimes they pop up all at effect creating a mighty wave. When this happens, it can be hard to know where to even start whacking...and since you are about to be smothered in moles, some people respond by just throwing themselves on all the moles. Which is what General Disarray had done. As he discovered, all this does is wound and terrify the moles, it does not smack them back in their holes. Not only do you not get points for this, they end up scurrying around your office with even more vigor, which makes you feel really bad that you haven't finished them off, which makes you flail around more (trust me, I've done this. It's a vicious cycle and it is not pretty). So I imparted one last piece of advice to General Disarray, when you feel overwhelmed and don't know what to do first, just remember: One mallet, one mole. Even in a mighty wave of moles, the goal is to smack the most important moles, not all the moles (why? because, silly, there are always more moles and trying to smack all the moles is like chasing the white whale, it only ends in insanity and self-destruction)

I am happy to report that General Disarray is recovering nicely from his unfortunate encounter with the moles. And to head off those who might think that I am belittling  "Getting Things Done" , the moral of this story is not that "Getting Things Done" is useless. (I actually think that General Disarray was able to emerge faster than I do from the wave of moles thanks to his organization). I just think that sometimes we can get so focused on accomplishing lists that we forget that the lists are meant to help us focus our decision making and that checking everything off on the list is not actually the goal. For some really odd reason I have yet to fathom, the River Tam Philosophy of Mole Whacking seems to help some people (okay N=2, me and General Disarray, but who knows, maybe this will make me rich some day!) to focus on the fact that you actually can never check everything off of the list. I think this simple fact puts the list back in perspective.

And, as a side note, after spending so much time in General Disarray's office, I have decided to try to implement some of those organizational tools because who knew how useful it could be to actually be able to find things? I mean damn, it really is a nice office.


Nat Blair said...

LOL, sounds like GD and I are simpatico on this one. I have read GTD and have a label maker (right here in fact, and I bought it with some training grant funds), subscribe to 43Folders RSS. Overall I'm not a total disciple, but I find much of what it talks about to be pretty useful. Still, one always has to guard against organizing for organizing's sake.

One thing I recently found which has been useful for organization is a site called There you can make a list of tasks you want to do, easily add notes related to them, but also time how much time you're spending on each task. That has helped me stop using time making lists and crossing off little items that aren't crucially important, while at the same time giving me the positive reinforcement of accomplishment by showing the amount of time I spent on some aspect of a project.

Using this site alos helped me realize I was spending too much time on a particular analysis, and that spurred me to write a little code that sped the process up 3 or 4 fold. Of course I had thought about writing the code earlier, but seeing how much time I was actually spending made it obvious how much time spent coding would pay for itself in saved analysis time. The motivation to bust out the code didn't need to be conjured up from the darkest depths.

Oh, and an inbox is for stuff you haven't yet decided where it goes on your to do list. ;)

Isis the Scientist said...

I hate to confess that I am more like GD than PC. Please pass my best wishes along to him. I hope he finds a way to make those moles his bitches.

yolio said...

For reasons that I assume are related to my mother, I have never had any trouble ignoring the moles. In fact, I excel at ignoring moles, even when they are scurrying across my lap. Time has taught me that this sort of behavior leads to routine but major and unpredictable crisis.

I do use the GTD system, it forces me to pay sufficient attention to the moles to prevent degeneration of the organizational infrastructure that holds are lives together. Yes, things fall off the list, but at least now certain small but ultimately important things usually managed to get crossed off the list first.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

checking everything off on the list is not actually the goal.

It's... it's not?

You just reduced my whole world to a pile of rubble. And, made me laugh. So that's OK.

River Tam said...

General Disarray says thanks to everyone for their support and advice on new ways to organize his life.

Honestly, Nat, I'm not sure if intrigues me or scares the crap out of me! The way time and effort reporting at my institution is morphing, I'm pretty sure they're going to be tracking how much time I spend doing everything anyway!