personal productivity

Book review: Work the System

cogs and gears of a gigantic machine

I suppose there are small business owners and solopreneurs and plain old freelancers out there who never find themselves with too little time or too much stress, but I've met a lot more of the other kind.

Most of us seem to spend most of our time running from fire to fire, an all-too-recognizable analogy, along with Whac-A-Mole, that perennial favorite of arcade-dwelling masochists everywhere, that author and business owner Sam Carpenter evokes many, many times in the revised 2nd edition of his 2008 book Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less.

If we're lucky, we come to a moment of awakening, then follow it up with the kind of right work and right action that will get us out of the hole we're in; if we're not, we just work until we or our businesses drop dead. Carpenter was about as close to the breaking point both personally and financially with his telecommunications outsourcing business when he had, as he calls it, a kind of out of body experience: he rose up and was suddenly able to see his business differently; it was not a mass of fires but a working organism, a gigantic but self-contained mega-system made up of many smaller, self-contained mini-systems that all worked (or didn't) together. The picture worked for this engineer-minded businessman, and in that moment, he both vowed to right the system to its natural state of balance, and began the process of systematically (haha) doing so.

I've yet to describe my own epiphany in detail (saving it for my book!), nor have I fully internalized the idea that everything is a system that can be broken down into components, but I completely get how everything in Carpenter's world suddenly made a whole lot of sense, because he could actually see things differently.

And even without fully internalizing the Work the System concept, I can see instantly how I already have implemented orderly processes in many of my own life's systems, which gives me hope that I might be able to wrassle the bear that is my business to the ground with sound principles applied methodically. I point to my homemade, SCD-compliant yogurt as Exhibit A: if you'd told me 10 years ago that not only would I make my own yogurt, but that I would do it with the nonchalance and regularity of brushing and flossing my teeth, I'd have laughed...after I put down my leaded Coke and Chee-tos. And the more I scan for them, the more I can, as Carpenter suggests, start seeing them everywhere: my Photoshop workflow for creating presentation templates; my years making silver jewelry in metalsmithing; even the way I can come up with a cheese omelet and hot espresso in the morning on autopilot.

The Chief Atheist used to like saying (and, I imagine, still does), "Life is a series of techniques." This is the kernel of Carpenter's thesis, to which I might add, "...nestled together like a series of Russian dolls or CSS boxes." He says it rather overly, perhaps, section the first, which is all about the underlying theory, nudges hard up against being overly repetitive, something Carpenter cops to: it's too important not to flog at length.

On the other hand, parts 2 and 3 fly by, full as they are of actual examples from Carpenter's life and business: of the systems implemented, of the kinds of documentation he developed for them, of the crazy lessons he learned along the way. And he's funny! And earnest, and real, with diverse interests! The commie-pinko-liberal-hippie in me completely grooved on all the references to '60s and '70s musicians (anyone who brings up Zappa in a business book is my kinda guy), while the nerd in me nodded along to his invocations of Stephen Covey and his 7 habits, or Gerber and his E-Myth.

Obviously, I haven't "worked the system" for my business yet. The process begins, as I mentioned above, with a thorough internalizing of the concepts, followed by a crap-ton of paperwork (he walks you through that part, as well as sharing the documents that he developed for his company).

That's okay. First, I don't mind paperwork, and second, I understand first-hand that once you spend a little time up front thinking through and plotting out and implementing a system, the time saved on the other end is tremendous. Just ask someone who's lost cognitive faculties and is having to re-learn how to do everything with new neural pathways. Or hell, make yourself a PB&J with your feet: you'll see right quick.

Me? I'm already sold, and starting work on communicatrix 3.0: the well-oiled, smooth-running, mole-free version...


Through this evening (Tuesday, July 14, at 6pm PDT), you can get a free PDF version of Work the System by visiting the website and entering your email address. Click here now, dammit!


Image (top) by Elsie esq. via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Three things per day and a special outfit


Many years ago, in an uncharacteristic bit of self-indulgence prompted by a stranger's warning that if I didn't, I'd be in serious hot water down the line, I started going in for regular shiatsu bodywork therapy.

Many amazing things happened over the course of the several years we worked together. Crazy stuff like sudden photographic images of the past floating up in front of my eyes, a ton of aches and pains vanquished forever, and crying, lots and lots of crying.

Out of all the amazingness, though, two things have stuck with me.

The first is the almost shocking way that my practitioner, who was pretty much a spinning top like me in her civilian hours, became a loving, radiant center of calm as soon as she slipped into her shiatsu duds. It was incomprehensible to me that such a shift could take place so quickly and so dramatically, but every week, without fail, and for a while, I was going every week, there it was.

The second is her calendar. In her off-hours, my shiatsu lady was, like myself, a working actor. Which is to say she had a lot of places to be on any given day, most days, since that's the way things were back then, both in the business and in our category. In 1998 or '99, it wasn't unusual for me to go out on five calls per day, most days of the week; Molly's schedule was a little lighter, since I worked more commercially and she more theatrically, but still: it was a lot of activity.

My calendar back then (pre-iPhone, pre-Palm) was a fatty, six-ring DayTimer-type thing. I kept it to Filofax size for a while, but eventually gave in an bought a big, three-ring, half-sheet binder size. Horrifically ugly, but I needed the space.

Hers was a tiny, TINY, pocket-sized, week-at-a-glance style. By "pocket-sized", I mean a daintily-proportioned pocket, at that: I believe most years, her calendars were giveaways from banks or insurance companies; I know one year, I passed along one I'd gotten.

One day, I asked Molly how she could get all the stuff she needed to do into that little space.

Molly: "I only do three things per day."

Me: "?"

Molly: "I found I could fit about three things in any given day, so I have a calendar that only fits three things in a given day."

Me: "?"

Molly (smiling): "See you next week."

To be fair and balanced (ha!), I know for a fact that at times, my Yoda-in-a-Gi by day was often a white tornado at night, going on marathon unscheduled housecleaning or data entry or file organization tears. She also did a whole lot of non-scheduled stuff of a puttery nature during daylight hours, in her civilian gear. And since her non-Yoda work was acting, occasionally she'd fill up that teeny-tiny space with 3+ auditions, and then some other items. But the scheduled stuff included things like "dance class," which she loved and wanted to keep a priority, and other things of this nature.

In other words, she had kind of a handle on it. And given that, as Voltaire said (and Gretchen and I like to paraphrase), "Perfect is the enemy of the good," a handle is a beautiful thing.

I've been toying with ideas on building or co-opting a better handle. There seems to be huge power in an actual, written-down list of stuff on a piece of paper for me, so much so that I resent its effectiveness when I actually do it, but I do it nonetheless. Me stopping was me willfully throwing aside the Franklin-Covey weekly calendar I purchased, and the reasoning went something like "I didn't quit my job and its so-called security to turn myself into the boss I hated."

What if I could be a good boss, though? What if the part of me that understands we're trying to get Big Stuff Accomplished could listen patiently to the the small, wadded-up furball of fury, fear and sorrow and then gently but firmly lay down the law? As Emma commented in a recent thread, "we need gentleness from ourselves as often as we need the drill sergeant." Which reminded me of a discussion Elizabeth Gilbert had with her small, wadded-up furball of fury, fear and sorrow when she was trying to meditate, which made me think that maybe I was onto something. (It also made me grudgingly admit that I needed to put "take another crack at this meditation thing" back on the to-do list. Oh, well.)

I did a test conversation the other night, while in the car, running an errand. Sugar cravings hit me hard, and as any good SCD-er knows, sugar is enemy #1. It's also hell on fitting into one's pants properly, so I have double the reason to avoid it, and yet there was that 7-11, one e-z right turn away, and my Monkey Brain screaming for M&Ms. (Monkey Brain is pure class, I tell you.) So Monkey Brain and I had a little confab, we both got to state our cases, and finally agreed that as an experiment, we'd hold off for now, but if Monkey Brain still wanted sugar at the end of the week, he could have an entire package of Peeps. (See? Pure class.)

I think this is a step in the right direction. I think if I can combine List of a Reasonable Length, three things sounds like a good start, with some discussion and bargaining to keep Monkey Brain satisfied and The Resistor at bay, I might have a shot at nailing some of these opportunities that have been floated out to me in recent weeks.

Of course, as a former actor who totally gets the magical power of costumes (scroll through the photos on this page if you don't believe me), I'm also thinking "special outfit." Gi? 1980s power suit and tie? Or just FlyLady's recommended "dress to shoes"?

Now taking suggestions for the costume of the peacefully productive...


Image by Argenberg via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The Burger King® method* of Getting Things (Really) Done

moleskine pda supplies I spent yesterday getting coached into organization by one phenomenal couple of personal productivity experts.

It was everything I'd hoped for. And nothing I expected. (Or, shall I say, feared.)

What I feared, and you can see this coming, if you've thought it through, is that I didn't clean up enough for the cleaning lady. Or balance my checkbook properly for the bookkeeper. Or any other of a number of analogies that basically boil down to Oh, god...please don't let my complete inability to do things the Right Way reveal the Hopeless Failure of a Human Being that I truly am.

I was expecting a protracted walk-through of my lame computer file structure, my equally lame physical files, my overflowing in-basket, my scores of lists and calendars and other Helpful Toolsâ„¢ creating redundancy and general chaos. Instead, we started with a surprisingly quotidian question:

"What's a typical 'Colleen' day?"

And so I spun it out for them: the getting-up and getting tea. The booting-up-of-computer and making-of-bed. That first, fantastic blast of email & Twitter goodness: all the missives and blog comments and howdy-dos from my friends, real and virtual, that have popped up between bedtime and now, thanks to auto-mailers and insomniacs and my location on the West Coast. Eggs and coffee. And then...well, then a day that could be anything. All writing or a mix of writing and talking and design. A lot of, as I told everyone I met at SXSW, farting around on the Internet. A 2.3-mile walk around the Silver Lake reservoir at some point. Consistent inconsistency, from somewhere around 7am to somewhere around 10pm, seven days a week, 350-odd days a year.

They listened and smiled and nodded. Non-judgmentally. With genuine courtesy and curiosity.

Emboldened, I mentioned the soundtrack of "shoulds" that accompanied my tasks like a non-stop iTunes playlist. I should be doing something else. I should be doing this better. I should do this now, but let me deal with it later.

After taking in the entire sweep of me and my neuroses, we got to work. Which, as it turned out, meant getting all my stuff in front of me, where I could see it in one place. And learning a few simple ways to process new stuff so that as it came in, I could put it in a place where I could find it later.

Amazingly, there was no talk of best practices or Holy Grails or Right Ways of Doing Things. There was just me, and my process, and some gentle guidance towards self-discovery of the best way to support it.

On my own, I realized I was carrying around a paper calendar because I thought I should, because I had seen someone else's paper calendar working for him. Like gangbusters. So I had tried several times to implement this paper calendar system: to map out my day to the 10-minute pod the night or the week before, and sit down each morning and follow it word for word.

It worked, a couple of times. And it felt great, having a whole day full of getting all these things done.

It also felt like a nun standing over my shoulder, guilting me into being a good girl. Or a noose around my neck, loosely tied, perhaps, and pretty...the Hermes scarf of nooses. But a noose, still.

I do not do well, you see, with being told what to do: I do well with suggestions, and the breezier, the better. I like the feeling, illusion or not, that I'm choosing my actions moment to moment.

No doubt this tendency to suspect the walls are always closing in is why marriage felt more like a straight jacket than a security blanket. I remember distinctly proposing to my then-husband that we privately and quietly divorce, but continue to maintain the outside appearance of being married. That way, we'd catch no flak from pesky outsiders, and we would have a profound and glorious shared secret: we would be choosing to stay together every single day; we would co-create our relationship as we went along.

No wonder that scheduling thing didn't work out too well. Or the marriage, for that matter.

At some point toward the end of our day together, Jason and Jodi explained the faulty reasoning behind so many well-intentioned attempts to get organized: if I perform these this binder...sort according to this system, I will be free.

Instead, the way to look at it is more like this:

I am free.

I can employ my freedom in service of my unique goals and gifts. By getting very clear on what those goals are, whether by assiduous self-observation or third-party assessment or giving myself the space to let them bubble to the surface, or any combination. By any means that works for me.

I can also employ my freedom to unearth my natural working style. And then, again, to find the services and methods and structure to support it.

Like anything else, it takes a little more work and finesse to find your own way in the world. It's like the difference between couture and off-the-rack. Or styling things from the ground up vs. Garanimals. It takes a little work to find the unique sculpture locked in every slab of marble. But it's there. And, to paraphrase old Martha Graham in her famous confab with old Agnes de Mille, if you don't find it, you will seriously harsh on the planet's mellow.

I wish, oh, how I wish, that there was one answer in one book, and that all I had to do was find that book. Instead, the maps to your map are in the books. Look at that person's journey, and see what you can find in her struggles or his mishaps or their lightbulb moments that makes you tingly. The truth comes at us sideways, usually, and when we least expect it. Our job, I increasingly believe, is to prime ourselves for reception...and reflection...and synthesis.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with getting yourself a nice, new Moleskine notebook or a sexy MP3 recorder, if they'll make the journey sweeter. I'm down with the gadgetry.

But for me, for now, the road to enlightenment is paved with some calendars output from iCal shoved into a plain, old artist's sketchbook with a Uniball Micro shoved down the spiral.

Wave as you pass by on your way...

xxx c

*For those of you who have never subjected yourself to the media matrix, "Have It Your Wayâ„¢" is the trademarked tagline of the Burger King corporation, and a cornerstone of their operations, marketing and positioning. Because, as anyone who's ever tried to order a Filet-O-Fishâ„¢ with extra® tartar© sauce and No Cheeseâ„¢ has discovered, having it your way is not the way of certain other major quick-service establishments.

Image by walker clevelands via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

There's also a wealth of wonderful shots (for inspirational/idea-unsticking purposes) with the simple Flickr search of "moleskine" in the attribution/non-commercial/as-is section of Creative Commons licensing; one favorite is this one by Mike Rohde, which has a staggering comments section.