My work involves going out into "the field" - into the world, to meet with people, and ask them about their behavior and the motivations. One of the side effects of doing this type of user research is that what I learn ultimately informs my own choices. I've reflected on how I'm saving for retirement, reconsidered how I plan and prepare meals, adopted new routines for bargain hunting online, changed how I maximize my credit card rewards, tried out new local restaurants, checked out new bands, and more.
I interviewed a young couple who were both working in corporate sales (for different companies) out of their shared home office. The goal of this research project was to understand how people worked, outside of traditional offices. I had my own assumptions about what we'd learn, expecting stories about people folding laundry while they were on the call with a colleague (In fact, we met one woman who described being on a web-based teleconference from her laptop while she drove her child to after-school activities). But this couple had a particular approach: they went into the home office at 9 am and focused only on their work, until 5 pm (with a break for lunch). They deliberately maintained a firewall between their work environment (and the associated tasks) and the rest of their lives. This took intentionality and focus.
In this interview, the husband explained to us that he begins every day by making a list of what he wants to accomplish. Beyond managing his productivity, having this list meant he could tell if he had a good day!
I was struck by this idea - one must continually define the criteria for one's success, not just to manage what one achieves, but to inform one's feelings about what is (or isn't) achieved. Without knowing the goals, how can someone feel that they are succeeding?
This would be such a great piece of inspirational column writing if I were to explain that since then, I've kept a daily list and I feel in control and successful about what I'm accomplishing. But uhhh no, not exactly.
At the time of this project, I had a small number of employees working with me. I was inspired by the list-that-tells-you-if-you've-had-a-good day, and so we began a weekly meeting where we'd go through several categories, update the status of tasks in those categories, and set specific goals for the week. It worked well for facilitating discussion, but pushed up against other management challenges. I never saw my role as extracting commitments and then assessing if those had been met or not. When people refused (in a challenging bit of passive-aggression) to work to the list, then we didn't have a shared sense of a "good week" and I ended up powerless, and the list became a weekly piece of theater. Side note: I have no employees at this point.
Eventually I began keeping my own list, but I've drifted far from the ideal of a list of daily goals. My list has no daily cadence, or even a weekly cadence. It's really just a list of everything in a .txt file, with no visceral triumph in crossing off an item, no ritual of success in completing a task. The document is open all week, and I use it intermittently to add or update a task (to relieve me from having to keep it in my memory) or to read over and decide what I should be doing now.
I want to "blame" my approach on my context; I'm self-employed and it feels often that much of my ability to complete a task is determined externally. But that's just an excuse and many different working contexts face the same challenges (our research participants worked in sales, after all). My reluctance to adopt a more fixed system - even as its benefits seem obvious - may more likely be my discomfort with systems that constrain me. Indeed, the struggle to be productive and to assess my own successes (and failures) on an ongoing basis, is a significant determinant of my own mood and happiness.
The truth is, I enjoy the improvisation of work, the reactiveness to what comes across the digital transom. I like when work feels like jamming, when an errant thought, or a tweet will trigger my excitement - and action - about something else. I am reluctant to commit to specific outcomes; it even hurts my brain to try and think through my independent work time with that much specificity. I can't realistically see making any significant changes in my approach, even if might make me happier.