Friday, May 18, 2001

Interstitial tasks in the matrix of life

Computer programming teaches us to decompose any given task into "procedures," the smallest logical unit of action. There's a host of reasons why taking this approach to managing life's complexities make sense, but one of the least appreciated is its ability to run interstitial tasks in the matrix of life.

I don't know about you, but I often find myself with dead spots in my day. Perhaps I'm on hold while I'm waiting to speak with someone. Maybe I'm waiting to download a particularly long file. Or maybe I only have 5 minutes to kill before I hop into a meeting. These are the interstices of life: tiny, self-contained, pockets of life.

Too often, our response is to waste the time--to look at ESPN.com for the umpteenth time that day (at home, this is the same urge that fuels ESPN SportsCenter's viewership: millions of husbands who have finished washing the dishes, and want a 5 minute break before taking the garbage out.). If, on the other hand, you have decomposed your tasks into procedures, you can use that 5 minutes to accomplish a atomic (self-contained, not nuclear) task.

Those interstices really add up--a fact exploited by network television programmers. The average 30-minute sitcom represents only 17 minutes of programming--the rest are commercials. In other words, 57% content, 43% commercials. The same thing applies to your day. Of your 8 hours (or 10, or 12, or 16), as much as 43% might be wasted on coffee breaks, ESPN.com, and that porno site that you "accidentally" stumbled upon late at night.

Maybe you don't want to work that remaining 43%, but even if you don't, you'd be much better off focusing on being productive throughout the day, and then going home for a block of real leisure.

So stop wasting the interstices; find the procedures that will make you more productive, or get you home faster. If not, there's always SportsCenter....

Thursday, May 17, 2001

As you can see, getting a puppy really takes a lot out of a fellow. Nonetheless, I promise that this time I really am returning to the fray.

No rest for the wicked

One thing that I miss from my childhood is the concept of vacation. Yes, most of us still take vacations as adults, but it's really not the same. When you're a kid at the start of a long vacation, it's impossible for you to even conceive of the vacation ending. At the beginning of the summer, I'd get a funny feeling in the depths of my stomach, sort of like the feeling I get when I'm standing on a cliff and looking out over the Pacific Ocean. It's a feeling of endless reach and possibility that's both frightening and exhilarating. It's the feeling of countless days that I have no idea how I'll ever possibly fill.

But in the adult world, I never get the same sense. There's always something to be done, a call to be made, research to be read, publications to peruse, emails to write. The adult world (except for the idle rich) is based on capitalism, and capitalism is based on relentless progress. Everything is always changing, and you'd better keep moving, or someone with more hustle than you will push ahead of you on the ladder of success.

It's this compulsion that makes capitalism so powerful, and allows capitalists to accomplish so much. Under the feudal system, there wasn't much that you could do to progress in life. If you were a serf, you stayed a serf. If you were an earl, you stayed an earl. There wasn't much social mobility, and every year seemed to blend into the next with little change.

In the capitalist era, every year brings more changes, especially in your position in the hierarchy. These changes apply to individuals and to companies. Yesteryear's unemployed liberal arts major becomes yesterday's VP of Business Development, who in turn becomes today's unemployed liberal arts major. Ford creates the auto industry, is humbled by General Motors, surges back on top, is humbled by Japanese imports, surges back on top, and who knows what else from there. The only certainty is that you have to keep progressing, or you'll fall behind.

This creates progress, but destroys leisure. I have had a hard time relaxing ever since I started a company. There's always something else to be done. Even at home, I know that I can always wash the dishes, or tidy up the guest room, or work on filing the household documents. There's always progress to be made, and some of the time that makes me feel good and useful, and some of the time it makes me feel harried and hurried.

Ultimately, though, I'm willing to pay the price, both for myself, and for humanity as a whole. I don't believe that the noble savage was any better off than we are today. Parents work hard so that their children can have a better life, then become parents and work hard so that their children can have a better life.

Perhaps that's it then--all of human progress takes place so that children can experience that delicious sense of possibility on the first day of a long summer vacation, with blue skies overhead and a newly mown field of grass stretched out before them.