Posts Tagged ‘Work’


Eating an Elephant (advice to a young engineer)

February 3, 2010

In a past work life, I headed the engineering department for a major U.S. food producer.  One day, a new engineer was having a hard time managing his work and emailed me to ask how I was able to manage so broad a range of projects.  Here is my response:

Have you ever heard the saying “how do you eat an elephant?”  There is great wisdom in this axiom.  If we remember it as life goes on, it will help us gain focus on the things we have to get done throughout our day.

Think of it like this, if we constantly jump from one problem to the next, problems are never fixed, much less fixing the underlying causes for them.  On the other hand, if we have two or three tasks in mind and work them until they are resolved, things get done.  No matter what you face, there is only so much you can accomplish at one time.  Of course, you will still have to run put out a fire now and then but that should be the exception.  Most problems are not as urgent as people would have us believe.  Give the issue the attention it needs and understand it, and then place the right priority on it.  If someone comes to you with an issue of their own creation, why should their lack of planning create for you a problem?

Another way to look at it, problems are distractions; they keep us from accomplishing work.  Always take time to understand the interruption and put it in its proper place.  Always address the most important things first.  The problem may or may not be the task you should be doing now; you make that choice.  Most importantly, if you do detour to address an issue, return to your line-up of work as soon as possible.  It is a sound engineering principle to make a plan and follow it.  In construction, an architect lays out a plan for the construction crew to follow.  Frequent meetings take place to adjust the workflow and deal with problems.  In the end, they follow a plan and work is completed.  After all, they have an elephant to eat.

This same approach works with any complex issue.  Others will not be happy with the choices you make, especially when you place their particular problem at a lower priority than they feel it warrants.  That is too bad for them, someone has to steer the boat and that requires making decisions.  By keeping the work (your elephant) before you and always knowing what comes next, you accomplish more than by trying to do everything at one time.  Sooner than later, you will see real progress as each task is completed.  You will come to understand there are damn few problems, only tasks of relative priority.

So, how do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.


Life’s Instant

January 27, 2010

Life is but an instant, yet we still seem to want it to go faster.  Quicker, easier and now are the catch-words that have come to own society over the last forty or fifty years.  It is understandable how we’ve been caught up with speed as it leaves time for more.  What do we do with that more?  That is the real question.

I was working in the yard one day clearing some trees.  I had to remove a few rather large ones that some kind of tree crud had taken over before it spread to the whole of the yard.  With chainsaw in hand I started in.  As I fell the first big one, I was really pleased with the new chain, remembering how the old one was struggling to make a clean cut.  Truth is it was plain easy – too easy.  After a mere three hours of work, I had reduced the water oaks to about two cords of firewood.

Now a chainsaw will wear you out and stacking wood still takes effort but when I look back on how the task was accomplished 150 years ago, I did have it easy.  It would have taken several days without my gas-powered assistant.  I do not wish to return to the type of manual labor like cutting trees with axes and handsaws, but it does illustrate the point, work was reduced by several fold.  We do this with everything, cooking, cleaning, the list goes on.  Even instant messaging is not fast and enough, we have to abbreviate everything.

Again, the real question, with what are we filling the extra time?  The idea was to give us more free time so how is it we seem to have less of it?  What people fail to grasp is technology does make things easier but all we do is increase the level of expectation.  About twenty years ago, the big buzz in business was the “paperless office.”  Computers were supposed to reduce the amount of paper we wasted because we could do things like proof-read on the screen and store documents electronically.  What ended up happening is it became easy to create even more piles of paper.  A manual that would take a month to produce, now takes a week.  That just gives us more weeks to make more manuals and generate more paper.

During the industrial revolution, people worked ten or twelve hours a day, six days a week.  The entire work force became exhausted.  It was easy to see something had to be done.  Over time, things like the forty-hour work week came to be.  As we have moved away from the manual labor of the past, it is our minds that now work the sixty or seventy hours a week.  We check email, talk business on the cell phone at dinner and so on.  The wireless age has become a yoke we bear.

I worked for a fellow one time that saw things differently.  He demanded your get your work done in an eight-hour day.  His favorite saying was “if you can’t get a day’s work done in a day, maybe I don’t have the right guy in the job.”  At five in the afternoon, he wanted you gone.  I asked him about it one time and his reply changed my life.  He told me “work is what you do to live.  When you live to work, you are a slave and I don’t believe in slavery.”  I think about that when I am doing things.  I ask myself just how much needs to be done today and work to that goal.  Truthfully, more ends up getting accomplished this way.  Maybe that was his true motive all along.  It really does not matter; the result is to have a life beyond work, satisfied with things taking the proper amount of time.  Try to slow life’s instant down and make every bit of it have value.

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