That Ever Growing “Someday” List

So you might remember a previous post where I lamented my lack of a “Someday” list. Well, since then, things seem to have swung around to the opposite extreme. I’ve now got a healthy selection of projects-in-waiting, both for work and personal. Partly it’s been because I’ve been better at cleansing my action and project lists on a weekly basis; anything that has laid static for more than a few weeks gets archived and tagged “Someday”. But I’d say with confidence that the growth is largely attributable to a shear lack of time.

Ever since the birth of my son Taylor, things at home have been, well, busy to say the least. It’s been a struggle just to keep up with the day to day work, such as keeping the house clean, the laundry done, and the trash empty. With such little time and energy left over for personal projects, strict adherence to priorities and ruthless cutting of scope has been the rule of thumb. So much for things like learning Perl (though I’m sneaking this in at the gym on the treadmill), building a new Snort server, or even non-geeky work like painting the exterior windows on the house.

Work, while slightly less crazy, has been quite a whirlwind as well. After some purging of wartime troop levels, the remaining force has been tasked with a “lights on” mantra. That’s all fine and good, except you’d be ludicrous to call what we do “keeping the lights on”. Software still needs to be updated, security maintained, systems administered. Yes, some of the excess fluff has been removed: no more long troubleshooting of user issues (is it replicated on a clean system? If not, guess what, you get to re-image your computer) or extra out-of-scope work. But still, there is no shortage of necessary tasks to be had. Combine that with taking on a new product and expanding my role to include some levels of data-guru, and you’ve got a packed agenda.

On the one hand, it is more than a little frustrating to see the mounting list of “not yets” and “maybe somedays”. But at least I can be secure that everything is safely tucked away, waiting for the day when changing diapers isn’t an hourly occurence, or treading water at work less the norm.

The Power of Having Everything In Front Of You

Today was my first day back from work after nearly a week off.  Surprisingly, I had only around 300 e-mails to process in my inbox; I usually receive that amount each day, not counting automated alerts and the like.  After reviewing everything and making sure all my lists were up to date, I began working on what was the most important, urgent matter at the time.

By about 9:30AM, several fires had appeared on the horizon.  Each demanded much attention from my team, and it quickly became obvious that my day would not be very productive, at least from the perspective of crossing off a lot of items.

In the past situations such as this would cause my blood pressure to rise almost instantly.  Not because of any physical danger (“When Servers Attack” anyone?), but because subconsciously, I immediately began worrying about what I was not doing.  That is, if I was spending all my effort to correct some immediate problem, what was getting implicitly pushed off?

So what happened today?  Certainly at first, I felt a slight twinge and a brief rise in my pulse.  But after taking a breath and calmly reviewing everything in my “Next Actions” list, I was able to definitely know that I was indeed directing my time appropriately.  The feeling was one I am certainly not used to!

This state of being was possible only because of the following pre-existing conditions:

  1. I have been incredibly good in terms of making sure that each and every possible “open loop” is in my trusted system, no matter how small or how insignificant it may seem.
  2. I have developed the habit that whenever one of those “it needs to be done now” (usually stated by whomever reports the problem) type of problems hits my plate, I do the following:
    1. Use soothing words and a little empathic listening to get the person to remain calm.
    2. Ask pointed questions about the true severity of the issue. How many, what’s the workaround, etc.
    3. Take note of all the information for future reference. Moleskins are great for this.
    4. Politely let the person know that I am going to review the problem with my team and get back to them when more information is available, and as soon as time permits.
    5. If I believe the problem is truly urgent, I’ll immediately decide on a next action and put it in my list. Otherwise, I’ll throw some reminder into my “in bin” for later perusal.
  3. I review my lists with near religious regularity, constantly reminding myself to not lose sight of the larger picture.

All of these combine to enable me to do my daily work with agility and perspective, such that at any given point, I feel very confident that I am doing exactly what  I should be.

The most difficult part?  Maintaining an even keel and and objective frame of reference in the face of perpetual problems.  That is a skill that I am still very much honing, and one that can only be developed through daily practice and a strong sense of your emotions.

How do you maintain a broad view of your responsibilities, while still responding to the fires that fall on you unexpectedly?