Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Positivity, Time, and Work

Last week turned into an empirical study in my own personal goal for the year (being kind to myself). I had written most of last week’s post at the beginning of the month. I only needed to dump it from the temporary file into blogger, but I couldn’t find the five minutes. Sure, there were five minutes somewhere. But, mentally, I just couldn’t. And, I could have beaten myself up. I could have thought of the scores of loyal readers, most of whom predate my authorship. I could have worried that people might be waiting for my post. Or I could do what I said in January. I could let it go. I could give myself a break. 

So, instead of stressing, I’m going to combine the last post for January and the first one of February. The topic for February will be about work and positivity. How do we harness positivity to make our own work better? 

For me, one huge step is to be confident in my own abilities, and honest in my weaknesses. Last week reminded me of a weakness. I can ignore work as easily as I can do it. In ignoring work, or procrastinating, I add new labor to my docket. I add the labor of worrying about the work I haven’t done. The worry becomes a shadow looming over me as I do whatever other actions I’m doing with my time. Now, last week, I forced myself not to worry. And, I did a pretty good job. But, it took real effort to stop worrying about undone work. There are times when doing the small task, like just finishing up this post, would be far preferable to the ghost labors of procrastination. 

Positivity in work is about making choices. Which tasks do I have to do to be less stressed? Which issues can I ignore because they don’t need my attention? Which elements of work are out of my control? What elements of this task can I control? When can I enjoy the fruits of my failures, compost for successes? 

Making good choices requires knowing yourself. For January, I was originally going to write about a practical goal I’ve set myself for this year. I’ve been trying to improve my work processes. You’re often the best person to improve yourself. As part of that task, I’m trying what I accomplish each week, and marking down how much of my time is spent doing each type of task (meetings, email, etc). 

I also tried to think critically about how long it takes me to accomplish something. I decided to do an experiment recently. In my early career, time was vast and free, or at least it felt like it. My energy was equally easily replenishable. I’d finish things right. No shortcuts were taken! Extra effort gains extra merit. But as it turns out, there isn’t really extra credit in the workplace. 

For example, two curators can be asked to write the same number of labels. One gets finished in ten hours and the other in twenty. Neither gets more credit than the other (if they’ve co-curated the show). Furthermore, lavishing ten extra hours on labels doesn’t ensure having labels that are twice as good. 

Why? Museum work includes many intellectual labors that draw on deep reserves of knowledge and years of experience. The person putting in ten hours from the example above might actually be putting in 10 hours plus 30 years of reading in the field. The person putting in 20 hours might have only 10 years of reading in the field. So, with 3 times of background, the first writer becomes twice as efficient. That said, experience doesn’t necessarily help. Some people are so mired in their process, and with years of using the same system, frozen in their ways, they can’t get faster at a task. Time, therefore, is not an indicator of quality. There are those people who say but I spent 20 hours on those labels—they can’t be half as good. There is no simple metric to understand how to consider efficiency and effectiveness in intellectual work. A good label is insanely hard to quantify. Just as porn was famously hard to define, good writing is easy to enjoy and hard to measure. 

Good writers are hard to manufacture. I’ve long asked applicants to write a short label based on a catalog entry. (In case you’re wondering, I shred the output after the job is hired. Their intellectual output should not be used for my org’s gain.) I did this because credentials often inveigle hiring managers. Your old prejudices and hang-ups, your own beliefs about credentials, are hanging out in your mind, no matter how you try to avoid it. Then, when you look through resumes, your unconscious brain might move you to a certain candidate. It’s hard then to say you’ve looked at apples and apples. You’re looking at a Harvard apple vs a Community College apple, say. Over the years, I found good writers didn’t come from a single background or training. They weren’t similar in temperament or attitude. Some people can just write. Some can’t. 

So, what does this aside about writing have to do with my experiment? Understanding work, time, and efficiency in museums aren’t easy or universal. Everyone’s process is different, and if you want to understand work in your organization, you should start with you. 

Over the holidays, as it was my first at my new job, I didn’t take a vacation. My boss was away, and I needed to be around. In this quiet period, I did three wildly different types of tasks. I performed an analysis of my organization’s attendance at programs for the last five years, I created the decorations for our new music series, and I worked on labels for an exhibition in our interpretation laboratory.

Data analysis isn’t strictly my job, but I’ve been asking everyone to start using data to help inform decision-making. (Notice I didn’t say drive). I work with a couple of data-obsessed folks, so my analysis was somewhat easy. Everything was at my fingertips, and I’m a bit obsessed with using excel as it was meant to be employed. 45 minutes later, I had some solid graphs and a couple of zip code maps to pour over. I made some quick conclusions and walked away. Later, as I was sending my findings to a colleague, I told them the exercise took me 1 hour. The active time was one hour, but there was that percolating time. It was as critical as my active time. In the workplace, we often don’t allot for these interstitial moments. Putting in the time to ruminate can be challenging, but in the end, essential. Smart workers often chunk rote tasks and/ or various types of tasks in order to allow space for deep thought. Also, it’s important to remember in organizations, work is often accrued time. I wouldn’t have been able to have that time, or data if a couple people hadn’t put in the initial labor to compile my source numbers. So, my 1 hour of work was also someone else’s 20 hours of work. Was all this time worth it? More on that later. 

After the data crunching, and before my analysis, I spent time preparing decorations for an event. It has been a long time since I made things. In an old job, I used to make all sorts of things. I’ve probably made more coasters than I’ll ever need. Most of the jewelry I wear are old samples. And I feel like if everything I’ve screenprinted in my life were lined up, it’d stretch coast to coast. In other words, I’ve got pretty good muscle memory and a great facility with scissors. It took me 20 hours to decorate 20 giant lanterns, make 20 T-shirts, print 4 large rolls of paper, print 80 tote bags, and make 12 banners. Now, I’m excluding the time in bed when I dreamed up the image, the hour to make the image for the screens (done by a colleague), the two hours to burn the screens (done by a dear friend), the half-hour of driving to get the screens and back. Experience not only helped me be efficient but in some ways, it helped me be effective. I chose an evergreen image we can use for years. I focused on big decorations so my efforts were maximized.

But experience also led me down some less smart paths. Work is often about patterns. Imagine you date a crummy person. Rationally, in the end, you say, no more bad people. Two decades later, you might find yourself recalling dozens of crummy people in your past. Museums have a lot of tasks that are terrible dates. For events, for example, you might decide you must have this particular set up. Sure it will mean you lose a weekend, and your porch will stink of indigo dye, but it’s worth it. The mission is worth it, you think. Well, friend, like that bad date, the mission doesn’t care about you. And your choice (I’m looking at you, Seema) was a bad one. I’d gotten into the bad habit of excusing the overage of hours for events and fell back into that pattern. (Though at a particular moment in December, a wiser me stepped in. We ended up with some indigo blue bags but more white ones.) I chose to spend time with my kids over wasting time getting the right blue. 

That’s the thing about work. Every single element is a choice. You might say I need to spend a good deal of time reading and searching before I write that label. You might feel you do your best writing twenty minutes before the deadline. You might think you have to write something out longhand first. Those are all choices. None of those choices are inherently wrong.

As to the last task, the labels, I’ve spent countless hours and none. At first assessment, I’m like the person who took 10 hours to write my labels. (I certainly feel twice as old as many). I’m a fast and slow writer. When I finally get to writing, I’m fast with the keys. But there are hours, weeks even, of time falling into every rabbit hole of research I find. I probably could change this method, but I’m old and I’ve never been good with tricks. Instead, I’ve chosen to set up systems to accommodate my process. I do things that are fast for me, like data crunching and silkscreening, by rote. I choose to sandwich rote tasks with deep tasks to give me time for both. I choose to allot a specific, very short, amount of time for tasks that don’t give me a high yield. 

In the end, I think the prepping data was a good use of my time particularly given that did the deep thinking part while silkscreening. My decorations were a mixed bag. The production was a good effort, but the batch dying wasn’t. While the products are a lovely blue, the products will not appreciably improve the event and as such it’s a poor allocation of my time. 

Finally, the hours I spend thinking about writing are an imperative use of my time. Ideas can be self-propagating but slippery. Their trajectory is hard to track; their path tortuous but exhilarating. In a knowledge field, ideas are our ore. We need them to fuel every part of our organizations and to propel our visitor-engagement. Does my scanning Blaire’s Moskovitz’s regular feature on museum collection connections to award attire look like goofing off? Sure. But then, hours later as I wait for a meeting when her thread sends me down a rabbit hole of colors, design and the science of looking, and then I find myself reenergized to write labels, I know that I wasn’t a detour. It was the scenic route—the richer, more enjoyable path. 

For me, time has an eggs/ basket quality. With these three tasks as my baskets, I decided the labels would take the most time, and that’s where I spent my time. 

Work processes aren’t a given or immutable. Reflecting on the time a task takes and if that is the right amount of time can appreciably improve the way you work and therefore how you feel about work. In the end, you might need to work longer. You might need to do things a certain way you perceive as right. And that is your choice. I made the choices that made me feel the most positive about my work and my output. 

What are some choices you make at work to help you feel good about your labors? Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB. 
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