Friday Five: Zen and the art of being productive (or not)

Q: What did the zen master say to the hot dog vendor?

A: Make me one with everything.

* * *

So we’ve come to the end of yet another harried work week.

A week filled with meetings and appointments, conference calls, deadlines hit, missed and extended, projects completed, projects started, projects revised, projects delayed, voicemails returned, emails volleyed, and tasks done, delegated, deferred or disposed of.

And that’s just the work stuff. No mention of dealing with the kids, the calls from school or day care, church or civic group obligations, remembering to DVR the shows to watch later, preparing meals, keeping on top of the laundry, the spouse, the leaky faucet, scheduling the overdue oil change, etc.

So we take a deep breath, declare TGIF, and look forward to the weekend, hopeful for a brief respite. Cue the Loverboy, baby, or better yet, the Cure. It’s Friday, I’m in love.

Wait. Not so fast. There’s something bugging us. We’re nagged by the thoughts that there’s still stuff on our lists that didn’t get done. We’re frustrated that others missed their deadlines, causing us to push back our own. Our inboxes (real and virtual) still runneth over, and we never did get around to clearing all that stuff off our desks. Or maybe it’s the feeling that, as Amber Naslund (AmberCadabra on Twitter) recently expressed it, “lurking beneath your inbox is something you were supposed to do and didnt.”

And the anxiety builds, and our visions of a tranquil weekend are shattered. Looks like we’ll be working to get caught up before Monday rears it head.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all of this stuff. The stresses of the workplace, the desire to be productive and to work the processes all the GTD gurus preach, while trying to stay on top of a crapflood of information, details and projects. It’s caused me to focus on five things that help me cope with the absurdities and anarchy of my chosen vocation.

These are no gnostic mysteries, revealed only to the chosen. Rather, they’re derived from a lot of reading, a lot of experience, and a zenlike approach to life and work. These are more or less reminders and aphorisms that tend work for me (when I remember to think on them). I hope they’ll help you, too.

1. Everything is a project. I mean everything — from the quarterly magazine your shop produces to the website redesign to the agenda for the weekly staff meeting to getting your hair cut, organizing your playlist, cutting your nails or baking cookies for the Cub Scouts meeting. Every email you receive today is either a project of its own or part of a larger project. Once you realize that everything in life is a project — and on a grander scale that your life is also a project, but we won’t get that metaphysical today — once you realize and accept this reality, then you can move on to the second reality.

2. Every project must be attended to. I almost wrote managed instead of attended to, but “managed” implies hands-on, attention to every minute detail. It also implies that you must manage it. Notice the passive structure of the statement. You aren’t necessarily the person to attend to the project. It’s OK to let others attend to some of the projects. You don’t cut your own hair, do you? You don’t perform surgery on yourself, do you? No, you delegate that stuff. It’s OK to delegate other stuff to people who can do it as well or better than you. You might find that some people in your organization actually enjoy doing the stuff you abhor.

3. Lists are good. One thing I learned from David Allen, the getting things done guru, is that capturing every thought or idea on paper is a good idea, because it gets that idea out of your head and you no longer have to worry about it. All you have to worry about is keeping track of your list of thoughts, ideas, tasks, projects.

4. Judge not. People, cultures, organizations and motivations are not necessarily right or wrong. They are merely different. Learn to accept things and people as they are.

5. You are not the work. Natalie Goldberg (funny, you don’t look Buddhist) makes a very good point in her book about writing, Writing Down the Bones. She begins one chapter, titled “We are not the poem,” by saying: “The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That’s not true. We write in the moment.” We also work in the moment. There is no future (as the Sex Pistols said). There is only now. But I digress. Goldberg concludes this chapter with advice to writers that applies to all of us. It is this: “Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words.They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.”

6. A bonus point: This too shall pass.

Enjoy your weekend.

* * *

The hot dog vendor hands the Zen master a hot dog with everything. The Zen master hands him a $20 bill and the vendor pockets it.

“What about my change?” asked the Zen master.

The hot dog vendor says, “Change comes only from within.”



Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

4 thoughts on “Friday Five: Zen and the art of being productive (or not)”

  1. Andrew,

    I’m particularly counting on #6. :)

    Truly, though, we’re all human. We have limited capacity, and we do the best we can. I try really hard to manage everything, but some things slip through the cracks and that’s okay. Usually it’s not major stuff (thankfully), but I’m content to be 90% perfect and have a bit of my sanity left than try to please everyone all of the time. That’s just impossible.

    I like your approach to things as projects, too. Makes them seem a little more manageable, and a little easier to set aside when the need arises. :)


  2. Sometimes, I wonder how we would do it without our great and wise master. No, I’m not kidding.

    To sort the important stuff from the rest, I’ve recently signed up for HighRise – I can manage a todo list, upload important docs I want to save for later (for work or even for reading), get all my contacts in 1 place. What I love about this little web app suggested by Matt Herzberger (thanks, Matt!) is that it plays well with email. I just cc HighRise on important email, things I want to keep and then I can forget it.

    I do have a gmail account that grab everything as well for archiving purposes, but HighRise has proven to work better for me.

  3. There’s a moment in every day when my “omg have I left undone that will turn into a ‘problem’ if ignored longer?” panic sets in. Then I remember that if it were *that* dire? That life & death? Someone would be poking me with a stick…

    Thanks for the reminder that no stick poking = still moving forward.


  4. Amber – Yep, we’re all human. Some of us are humaner than others. If you’re 90% perfect then I’d say you’re doing great. Being a baseball fan, I tend to think in terms of a .300 batting average (30%) as being great. Maybe I’m just an underachiever. ;)

    Karine – I need to check out HighRise. I’m always on the lookout for productivity enhancements. Thanks.

    Lucretia – Anything’s better than a sharp stick in the eye, I always say.

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